My Experience in Zimbabwe (14th in a series on critical thinking)

Zimbabwe

So far in this series, I’ve been trying to trace my personal development from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. The tracing has had me recalling leaving home for the seminary at the age of 14, then traveling to Rome for 5 years following my ordination in 1966. From there I spent a year working for the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky, and then decided to leave the priesthood. I subsequently began my 40 year career of teaching at Berea College. My first sabbatical in 1984 took me to Brazil; that was followed by language study in Nicaragua, some teaching in Costa Rica,  where I also worked in a liberation theology think tank, and then several trips to Cuba. In this posting I tell of a mind-expanding six months in Zimbabwe — my first time in Africa. 

Fresh from my first trip to Cuba, my family and I spent 1997-’98 in Zimbabwe – this time accompanying my wife, Peggy, who had received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in the capital city at the university in Harare. In terms of critical thinking, our experience in Zimbabwe helped me further reflect on the importance of Franz Hinkelammert’s observation about the centrality of utopian concepts in critical thinking. Zimbabwe embodied a problem that must be faced by any critical thinker in the mold of what this series intends to explore: Which utopia is a better guideline for structuring a just society – a world with room for everyone, or a market free of government regulation?

That is, if Cuba demonstrated utopian commitment to Hinkelammert’s capacious world, Zimbabwe revealed what typically happens when socialism’s goals are dropped in favor of capitalism’s utopia. Let me share with you my personal experience in the former Rhodesia, for it provides a case study in systemic critical thinking about the way social problems can implicate us all.

To begin with, the Zimbabwe my family discovered in 1997, had experienced the triumph of its bloody socialist revolution in 1980 under the leadership of ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). After its triumph, and unlike Cuba, ZANU was very cautious in the socio-economic reforms it implemented. True, ZANU established as its goal economic “growth with equity.” And towards that end, its policies followed the Cuban model through programs of modest land redistribution, as well as emphasizing education, health care, higher wages, and food subsidies. This required large government programs and expenditures. In those early days, ZANU devoted approximately 50% of its annual budget to such endeavors. These reforms succeeded in significantly raising living standards for the country’s overwhelmingly black and poor majority. After years of apartheid, they were finally experiencing living room.

However, from the outset, ZANU chose not to institute truly comprehensive land reform to aggressively redistribute white-owned acreage to poor black farmers. Instead, it left 70% of the country’s productive capacity in the hands of the former Rhodesia’s white settler class and under the control of foreign corporations.

Then in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had supported socialist revolutions everywhere, Zimbabwe, like Cuba, lost a role model as well as a major source of foreign aid. Socialism seemed entirely discredited. So like other socialist countries, Zimbabwe found itself at a crossroads. Its question was that of every socialist country at the time: Should we continue on the socialist path or admit defeat and surrender to the apparent inevitability of capitalism?

Whereas Cuba, despite overwhelming pressure from its virulently hostile North American neighbor, chose to remain with socialism, Zimbabwe decided otherwise. Acceding to the recommendations of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, the country embraced capitalism and drastically restructured its economy. It lowered taxes on local (usually white) commercial famers as well on foreign investors. It cut back on social programs, lowered wages, and devalued its currency. The idea was to create in Zimbabwe an investment climate attractive to multi-national corporations, whose wealth would finance jobs and trickle down to the country’s poor masses.

When our family arrived in Zimbabwe in 1997, the effects of such counter-revolutionary reforms were visible everywhere. On the one hand, Harare seemed to exude prosperity. Downtown streets were broad, clean, jammed with traffic during rush hours, and largely absent of the beggars, homeless, prostitutes and street children we had encountered elsewhere in our travels.

The apparent prosperity was commercial too. Stores in Zimbabwe’s capital were modern, clean and well-stocked with items from all over the world. The East Gate Shopping Center was a monument to it all.  Standing at the corner of Second Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue, it was a block square mall five stories high. Entering this darkened underworld from the sun-drenched pavement outside, patrons were suddenly transported from steaming Third World Africa to very cool and exotic locations resembling Paris, São Paulo, or New York.  The transition was a day to night experience. In the mall the hour was always post meridian, brightened by shop lights, garish neon signs or by commercial manifestos with the same light-bulbed borders otherwise reserved for backstage Hollywood dressing rooms.  Four sets of glass-enclosed, stainless steel elevators whisked shoppers and office workers to their respective destinations. The layers of overhead walkways were constructed of dark green girders, pipes, tubes and mesh floors all made of hard, cold steel.  The appearance of complex, unending scaffolding and catwalks gave reluctant testimony to the unfinished impermanence of the New World Order congealed in the mall’s defiantly postmodern architecture.  At the same time, though, the formation trumpeted the fact that Zimbabwe was part of it all. East Gate housed thoroughly up-to-date clothing shops, shoe boutiques, candy and liquor stores, pharmacies, beauty parlors, sporting goods outlets, and food courts.

It all stood in sharp contrast to Cuba. During this same historical period, after losing overnight 70% of its (Soviet) trading partners, the island found itself plunged into a decade-long depression far worse than anything Americans had experienced after the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Survivors of the “special period” recalled that the average Cuban adult probably lost about 20 pounds. A sociologist told me “We all looked like those pictures of World War II concentration camp internees.” Yet astoundingly in Cuba, not a single school or hospital closed, and unlike European countries after socialism’s demise, there were no riots in the street, much less any   counter-revolution.

Yes, Cuba was apparently miserable under socialism, while Zimbabwe prospered under its new allegiance to capitalism. But was the difference merely apparent? My personal observation and experience with Zimbabwe’s working class and maid system made me wonder. Both showed the country’s underbelly where the vast majority lived in distressing poverty that (in contrast to Cuba) remains to this day.

Anyone could see the distress each morning. Beginning at sunup, around 5:30, a long procession of tan mini-buses transported to the city center waves of black workers from their shacks in the “populous suburbs” that had little to do with East Gate prosperity. Life there was like living in the favelas we experienced in Sao Paolo and Recife. As the vehicles arrived one after another, the waves crashed together to form a turbulent sea of humanity walking, jogging, running, frowning and chattering along streets like Alexandra Park’s Barrowdale Road.

Dressed in heavy wool sweaters and toboggan watch caps of navy, sky blue, red or black, machine operators, plant janitors, maids, gardeners and factotums hurried to assume duties in the industrial centers, or in the homes of well-off whites who meanwhile breakfasted securely behind well-locked gates invariably patrolled by huge fierce dogs. The wealth disparity between blacks and whites was there for all to see.

Each morning innumerable underpaid and overworked maids bravely made their ways from the Chitungwiza slum to Alexandra Park and other white sections of Harare.  It was the same “maid systems” we had encountered in Brazil and throughout Central America.  Actually, I realized, it’s a step below slavery.  At least in the slave system, owners had to provide food, shelter, clothing and health care for their workers and offspring.  With capitalism and the “maid system,” the master class could wash its hands of such concerns, pay a pittance, and leave the maids to figure out how to take care of their children and make ends meets.

Yet I have to admit that in Zimbabwe, we found ourselves cooperating with that very system. And using maids made us complicit in the exploitation of workers throughout the Third World.  The wage we paid our maid was the same Nike workers received in Taiwan — $1.50 a day.  The hours she worked were as long as theirs — twelve. The ideological justification for not providing higher pay was identical as well. “We know the wages are terribly low,” employers everywhere in the world have said from time immemorial. “But if forced to pay more, we’d have to go without employing these people at all; we simply couldn’t afford them.  As a result, they’d be laid off and have no income.  At least under the current arrangement, they have some money coming in.  Moreover, if as an individual, I could afford to pay more, it wouldn’t be fair to other employers who might not be able to do so.  It would just create tension between them and the maids they’ve hired.  We’re trapped in a system without a just alternative.”

This is the sort of contradiction Zimbabwe revealed to me – including in our own lives. So who was better off, Zimbabweans or Cubans? Which country made the better choice? Whose utopia is preferable? And should our family have cooperated with the one Zimbabwe’s governing elite chose? Answering questions like those reveal the essence of the critical thinking recommended here. What do you think?

My Experience in Cuba (13th in a series on critical thinking)

Cuba

My first trip to Cuba took place in 1997. Berea College sent me there as a delegate with The Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a Cuban specialist from our college spent a month on the island teaching a January Short Term course for Berea students. It focused on “The African Diaspora in Cuba.” Years later, I attended a two-week Conference of Radical Philosophers in Havana. Then there were those trips I earlier referenced with students from the Latin American Studies Program I taught with in Costa Rica. My wife and I also co-taught a summer semester course in Cuba three years ago – just before President Obama began lifting travel restrictions for Americans.

To repeat, those experiences gave me the chance to examine a culture and system of political economy attempting mightily to implement Marx’s critical theory. The efforts have continued for more than 50 years, even in the face of fierce and often terroristic opposition from the most powerful country in the world, located not 90 miles from Cuba’s shores.  Despite those impediments, and since 1959 Cuba has largely succeeded in providing for itself what human beings care most about.

(And here, I’m sorry to say, my time on the island has made evident the real “fake news” and analysis into which Americans have been indoctrinated for more than 50 years. For I am about to present a series of “alternative facts” that illustrate the need for critical thinking beyond the Propaganda Model Noam Chomsky exposed in Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions.)

So what do human beings really care about? Most would probably say that they care about their health and that of their families. Education would also be important. They want safety in the streets. They even desire some years of retirement toward the end of their lives. Most also care about the well-being of the planet they’d like to leave to their grandchildren.

In all of those terms – addressing what most humans truly care about – my trips to Cuba show that Marx’s critical theory has guided Cuba to provide a way of life that far outstrips even the United States. That’s right. Consider the following:

* Education in Cuba is free through the university and graduate degree levels.

* Health care and medicine are free.

* Cuban agriculture is largely organic.
* 80% of Cubans are home-owners.
* Cuban elections are free of money and negative campaigning. (Yes, there are elections in Cuba – at all levels!)
* Nearly half of government officials are women in what some have called “the most feminist country in Latin America.”
* Drug dealing in Cuba has been eliminated.
* Homelessness is absent from Cuban streets.
* Streets are generally safe in Cuba
* Gun violence is virtually non-existent.

But what about Cuba’s notoriously low incomes for professional classes? They have doctors and teachers earning significantly less than hotel maids and taxi drivers who have access to tourist dollars. Professionals, it is often said, earn between $20 and $60 per month. Taxi drivers can earn as much in a single day.

Of course, there’s no denying, the growing income gap is a problem. It’s one of the most vexing issues currently under discussion by the Renewal Commission that is now shaping Cuba’s future after years of consultation with ordinary Cubans nation-wide.

And yet the income gap has to be put into perspective. That’s supplied by noting that Cubans do not live in a dollar economy, but in a peso arrangement where prices are much lower than they are for tourists. One also attains perspective by taking the usually cited $20 monthly wage and adding to it the “social wage” all Cubans routinely receive. And here I’m not just talking about the basket of goods insured by the country’s (inadequate) ration system. I’m referring to the expenses for which “Americans” must budget, but which Cubans don’t have. That is, if we insist on gaging Cuban income by U.S. dollar standards, add to the $20 Cubans receive each month the costs “Americans” incur monthly for such items as:

* Health insurance
* Medicines
* Home mortgages or rent
* Electricity and water
* School supplies and uniforms
* College tuition and debt
* Credit card interest
* Insurances: home, auto, life
* Taxes: federal, state, sales
* Unsubsidized food costs

The point is that those and other charges obviated by Cuba’s socialist system significantly raise the wages Cubans receive far above the level normally decried by Cuba’s critics – far above, I would say, most Global South countries.

None of this, however, is to say that Cuba (like our own country) does not have serious problems. Its wealth-gap though infinitely less severe than in the United States holds potential for social unrest. And hunger (as in the U.S.) is still a problem for many.

To address such challenges and to responsibly integrate itself into today’s globalized economy, Cuba is embracing reforms that include:

* A reduction of the government bureaucracy.
* Changing the state’s role from that of owner of the means of production to manager of the same.
* Increasing the role of cooperatives in all sectors of the economy (see below).
* Connecting wages with productivity.
* Expanding the private sector in an economy based on the general principle, “As much market as possible, and as much planning as necessary” (to insure a dignified life for all Cubans).
* Elimination of subsidies to those who don’t actually need them.
* Establishing income “floors” and “ceilings” rendering it impossible for Cubans to become excessively rich or poor.
* Introducing an income tax system in a country that has no culture of taxation – itself a tremendous challenge. (So tremendous, a Cuban friend told me, that a tax system is “impossible” for Cubans even to contemplate.)
* Perhaps even more difficult: establishing some kind of “wealth tax.”
* Incentives to repopulate the countryside with a view to ensuring Cuba’s food sovereignty.

And don’t think that after the implementation of Obama’s new strategy for overthrowing Cuba’s government, that the island is about to descend to the levels of other countries in the former colonial world. Yes, the island has opened itself to capitalist investment, but it’s been doing that with European countries at least since 1989. But the opening is taking place on Cuba’s own terms – tightly controlled by government regulation. At the same time, Cuba is vastly expanding its already strong cooperative sector, while reducing its state-run monopolies. Fostering cooperatives means that workers collectively own the enterprises that employ them. They receive the same kind of aid from the Cuban government as that extended to capitalist enterprises in the United States and elsewhere in the Neo-liberal world. In Cuba, the aid takes the form, for instance, of tax breaks, subsidies, holidays for workers, vacations, etc. The idea is to have co-ops enter into competition not only with other cooperatives, but with private sector concerns on a level playing field.

The hoped-for response from workers isn’t hard to imagine. All of us prefer being our own bosses and controlling our own workdays, rather than taking orders from Starbucks in Seattle.

As I write, my wife, Peggy is in Cuba for three weeks with another class of Berea College students. It will be interesting to hear her report when she returns.

(Next week: Zimbabwe)

Peggy & I Study with Franz Hinkelammert in Costa Rica (12th in Series on Critical Thinking)

Franz & Peggy

The next stop on the critical thinking odyssey I’m outlining here was Costa Rica. There I finally met Franz Hinkelammert, whose Global South approach to critical thinking provided the theory I sought to make everything I had learned in Brazil come together. Recall that I had encountered his latest work while in Brazil. (Franz is pictured above with Peggy and me in 1992.)

Franz Hinkelammert is a German economist and theologian. After coming to Latin America in 1976, he lived and worked mostly in Chile. But then the 1973 U.S.-sponsored coup removed the democratically-elected Socialist president of the country (Salvador Allende). The subsequent installation of a brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, made Chile extremely dangerous for people like Hinkelammert. So he fled to Costa Rica, where he, liberation theologian giant, Hugo Assmann and biblical scholar, Pablo Richard founded the Department of Ecumenical Research (DEI), a liberation theology think tank. The DEI specialized in preparing grassroots organizers to work for social change throughout Latin America. However, its emphasis was not on “training” for activism, but specifically on analysis and critical thought.

My opportunity to study with Franz came with my second sabbatical in 1992. Peggy and I applied and were accepted as the first North American participants in the DEI’s annual Workshop for Invited Researchers. The eight-week course hosted about 20 scholars from across Latin America. Each of us had a research project whose goal was publication in the DEI’s quarterly, Pasos. Not surprisingly, mine was on critical thinking.

During the workshop, Franz, Pablo Richard, and fellow Chilean, Helio Gallardo were the principal presenters and discussion leaders. In his own lectures, Franz emphasized what is for him an enduring key idea about critical thinking. It is expressed most clearly in his Critique of Utopic Reason and also in his Critique of Mythic Reason. In both, he highlighted the essentially utopian nature of critical thought. Its point, he says, is not simply to analyze arguments for logical fallacies. Instead, it is political. It is essentially utopian – to create a better world by imagining the best possible world. Hinkelammert’s argument runs as follows:

  1. If politics is the art of the possible,
  2. Then a utopian idea of the impossible, but at the same time desirable, is required
  3. Not necessarily as a goal to be implemented
  4. But as a “North Star”
  5. Guiding critical thought and action towards what indeed can be practically accomplished.
  6. No such goal can be arrived at without utopian ideas towards which critical thinking gestures.
  7. Utopian thought comes naturally to human beings.
  8. In fact, critical thought without utopian concepts is itself unconsciously utopian.

Franz illustrates his idea by pointing out that utopias are not at all merely the province of starry-eyed idealists. They are essential for any critical thought intent on beneficial social change. In that sense, Franz’s own North Star for critical thought is the simple idea later articulated by the Zapatista rebels in Mexico as a world with room for everyone. Meanwhile, the capitalist utopian ideal is of a completely free market governed only by Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” That is the guiding constellation under whose direction all mainstream economic theory is fabricated.

Hinkelammert’s argument highlights the difference I’ve been trying to describe between critical thinking as taught in the United States and what I discovered in the Global South. In the Global South, critical thinking is concerned with the big picture – with entire systems, with social analysis of economic and political structures. As explained by Franz and others, it is by no means a matter ferreting out what is now called “alternative facts” or “fake news.” Such concern glosses over the lies embedded in the very parameters of perception which act as blinders for both students and their teachers. In that sense, the critical thinking I had become used to had been literally partial in its ignorance and denial of the experience of the world’s majority who live in the former colonies. From that viewpoint concentrating on logical inconsistencies or falsehoods in arguments divorced from the unexamined socio-economic matrix of capitalism only serves to normalize what should be completely unacceptable to human beings.

For Hinkelammert, that was the insight of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx. Marx in particular was a humanist who saw critical thought as focusing on human emancipation from the chains imposed by capitalism and the colonialism on which it depended. Critical thinking, in Marx’s estimation, involved identifying those chains and the steps necessary to humanize all relationships between persons and with nature itself. In theological terms, the mandate is: “Do what God did; become a human being!” That is the project of the type of critical thinking I was now encountering.

That, in fact, became what I subsequently attempted to communicate my students. And I began right there in San Jose. There, by mere coincidence and chance, I began teaching in a Latin American Studies Program (LASP). It was a term abroad for Evangelical students from the United States whose institutions were affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Teaching fundamentalist Evangelicals about colonialism, U.S. intervention in the Third World, and the history of capitalism was a wonderful challenge. Even more so was helping them understand liberation theology.

We clashed, especially at the beginning of our semester-long encounters. And (in terms of the topic at hand) that was because I was coming from the world-centric perspective of liberation theology, while their standpoint was almost exclusively ethnocentric. For them, the United States could do no wrong, and the Bible was to be taken at face value. To criticize the U.S. or to interpret parts of the Bible as myth, legend, or poetry was simply unacceptable.

I, on the other hand, owned the world-centric approach I’m describing here. I took to heart international polls that consistently identified the United States as the greatest threat to world peace.[1] Moreover, my approach to the Bible was informed by the historical critical methodology of modern scripture scholarship.[2]

Such challenges however were mitigated by the reality check the LASP program provided each semester’s cadre of students. I’m referring to four days among the descendants of African slaves in Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, as well as two weeks each in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In each of those cases, we more or less followed the practice I had experienced in Nicaragua. In the midst of their studies, students lived with local families and received on-site presentations from indigenous tribal leaders, union organizers, politicians, historians, and church officials – most of whom were not ethno-centrists. Students uniformly described it all as life-transforming. And I’m sure that direct contact with the victims of what bell hooks calls “white-supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy” made them more thoughtful about their reactions to world-centric perspectives.

Additionally, at least for me, those LASP trips – especially to Cuba – provided opportunities to observe and judge attempts to implement what Hinkelammert would call critical utopian theory.

(Next week: My learnings in Cuba)

[1] Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “Womp! This Country Was Named the Greatest Threat to World Peace.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 02 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

[2] “What Is the Historical-Critical Method?” The Historical-Critical Method. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

My Experience in Nicaragua (11th in a Series on Critical Thinking)

Ortega

Nicaragua taught me so much about the world and critical thinking. All during the 1980s it was the center of news reports every day. President Reagan was obsessed with the country and its president, Daniel Ortega (pictured above). Reagan continually referred to the Sandinista government there as a “Marxist, Leninist, repressive totalitarian regime.” However, he neglected to apply his lofty standards to what preceded it, viz. the Somoza dynasty of three dictators who governed the country brutally with the full support of the United States.

Reagan’s obsession took the form of support for an equally brutal counter-revolutionary force of terrorists called “the Contras” – whose base was the exiled National Guard of the Somoza regime. Reagan famously referred to those killers and drug runners as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”

My experience in Brazil along with careful reading of the press and some history had convinced me that the Reagan administration was disseminating what a Great Man would later term “fake news.”  But I wanted to find out for myself.

So in 1985 I found myself in Managua for six weeks. My specific purpose in going was twofold. The first was fact-finding; I wanted to experience life in a revolutionary situation. I also needed to learn Spanish, which was increasingly necessary for my work in liberation theology. That was my second aim. Languages, by the way, are nearly universally recognized as powerful aids to critical thinking. They expand awareness of other cultures, different points of view and ways of expression.

Along those lines, one of the strengths of my training for the priesthood had been language study. In high school it began with Latin my freshman year. Then came French and Greek. All of those studies continued through my sophomore year in college. Next, of course, I had to learn Italian for my years in Rome. Just before that I needed a semester of Hebrew to qualify for theological studies there; so I took a summer course at Harvard. Once in Rome, it became apparent that German would be essential for my doctoral thesis on Jurgen Moltmann and his Theology of Hope. That led to two summers’ study at the University of Vienna. Then I needed Portuguese for my sabbatical in Brazil. And finally, in ’85 it was Spanish in Managua.

For two summers, I studied at Casa Nicaraguense de Español. It had students living with Nicaraguan families, leaving for Spanish class every morning and then studying the Revolution every afternoon. We visited prisons, farming co-ops, and offices of both the Sandinistas and their political opponents. We attended political rallies and demonstrations. The experience was difficult, but invaluable in terms of expanding my horizons and acquainting me with revolutionary thought and practice. Over the next 20 years I would return to the country a dozen or more times. In 1990 I would do so as an Official Observer of the election that defeated the Sandinistas, replacing them with a U.S.-supported party. I edited a book on the topic.

On that first visit, however, I was amazed by the range of books available in Managua that I would never have otherwise encountered. They covered all aspects of Marxism, socialism, history, education, liberation theology – and critical thinking. It was a treasure trove for me. Reading those books acquainted me with a line of thinking “forbidden” to most Americans.

As I said, this first experience in Central America made an extremely important contribution to my political education. It brought me into further contact with the living conditions of working-class people on the receiving end of extremely destructive US Third World policy. The contrast between what I observed in Nicaragua and what our government said about the country was astounding. It pointed to the fundamentally dishonest character of our national leadership. In addition, those books I mentioned underscored the one-sided bias of our mainstream press, scholarship and teaching.

What I learned from all this, along with the other experiences I’ve outlined here so far, has made me terribly suspicious of our government. Revelations connected with the Iran-Contra scandal heightened the suspicion exponentially. I saw clearly that the lies told about the Sandinistas were only the latest in a long string of misleading stories, cover-ups, and paper-overs foisted upon the North American public. Contra-gate, Vietnam and Watergate were the rule, not the exception. Sad to say, they represent the way our government does business.

In the end, I concluded that the burden of proof will always rest with our officials, rather than with our country’s designated Third enemies, including those currently identified as “terrorists.”

(Next Week: Costa Rica and Franz Hinkelammert)

My Journey towards World-Centric Consciousness Continues (9th in a series on critical thinking)

Berea College

 (In this series, I’ve been trying to explain my approach to “critical thinking” in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” I addressed the fake news first, showing how it’s really an old problem well-addressed by Chomsky in the mid-80s in his “Necessary Illusions.” The question of alternative facts was suggested even longer ago by Plato in his “Allegory of the Cave.” Currently, I’m tracing my own experience with alternative facts, showing how my own set of convictions has changed from childhood, through my education in preparation for entry into the priesthood, and later during my graduate studies in Rome. This week, let me tell you about changes in consciousness that took place after I left the priesthood, working first for the Christian Appalachian Project, then teaching my first few years at Berea College, and via my first sabbatical in Brazil in 1984.The changes, I’m alleging, brought me through development stages identified by Ken Wilber as egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism. This week I continue my description of my evolving world-centric understanding. The hope is that my story might help you reflect on your own similar development as a critical thinker.)

After returning to the United States, with my doctoral degree in hand, I spent a “year of discernment” to decide whether or not to remain a Columban priest. Working as a priest for The Christian Appalachian Project in the foothills of Kentucky’s Cumberland mountains gave me first-hand experience of the poverty I had read about in Michael Harrington’s The Other America. It also introduced me to Berea College, where I would eventually spend the next 40 years teaching. Berea had been founded by Christian abolitionists in 1855. It retained its commitment to inter-racial justice, to the Appalachian region, and gradually accepted a revised and remarkably open understanding of Christian faith.

Those commitments required me to teach a first-year General Studies course called “Issues and Values.” And that meant learning about black history, women’s liberation, world religions, the environmental crisis, and the issue of world hunger. Faculty development seminars helped prepare us to teach texts including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “The Seneca Falls Resolutions,” the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and Food First by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins. The course was life-changing for my students – and for me.

Even more so was a two semester Great Books course, “Religious and Historical Perspectives” (RH&P) which I began teaching my third year at Berea. Required of all sophomores, the course had a dozen or so sections staffed by professors recruited from across the curriculum. The unspoken rule among them seemed to be “Never admit that you don’t know everything.” This put me at a considerable disadvantage. For the truth is, though I had taken innumerable courses in (mostly Church) history, I still didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t see the pattern. To me, history was quite boring; it seemed like one damn thing after another – most of which I couldn’t remember.

All of that changed with RH&P. Like “Issues and Values,” the course centralized faculty development seminars in which colleagues from the fields of history, English, sociology, economics, biology, physics, religion, and political science spent the first three weeks of our summer vacations reading, studying, and discussing topics like the medieval period, the scientific revolution, Marxism, apocalyptic literature, and evolution. That prepared us to teach our students primary sources including the Bible and authors like Hesiod, Homer, Tacitus, Cicero, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, Kant, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Swift, Mary Shelly, Einstein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was the best educational experience of my life. For the first time, I found myself understanding history and its patterns. In particular, my study of Marx and “The Communist Manifesto” made even clearer to me the ethnocentrism of my previous education. I began to realize that I had spent my life studying the rationalizers and defenders of the elite capitalist establishment. I had been taught to despise the philosophers and historians of the working class like Marx himself. My long years in the classroom had given me an understanding of the world alien to my own class roots.

I was gaining distance from my ethnocentrism. As I later would put it in my Ten Rules of Critical Thinking, I finally saw the value of respecting history. I was already nearly 30.

Brazil

My insights from R&HP were deepened when in 1983-84 (at the age of 43) I took my first sabbatical and traveled to Brazil. My studies there did wonders for my personal growth and unfolding understanding of facts, truth and critical thinking as essentially relative to one’s stage of personal development.

My chosen task in Brazil had been to pursue post-doctoral studies in the field of liberation theology, which had become a central interest of mine. In Rome I had been introduced to the topic. It was part of what had begun broadening my horizons there.  I discovered it to be a strain of discourse about God as imagined by impoverished Christians in the former European colonies especially in Latin America, but also in Africa and South Asia. Liberation theology emerged from peasants, factory workers, students and housewives who found in the Bible a reflection of their own lives and an inspiration to work for social change. In the stories of the ancient Hebrews they saw people enslaved and colonized as they had been. They discovered in the Book of Exodus a God whose concern was to liberate such slaves and install them in a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

Similarly, in Jesus the exploited found a champion who promised them a place in this-worldly Kingdom of God, where everything would be turned upside-down. The poor would become solvent, while the rich would be dethroned; the first would be last, while the last would be first. For liberation theologians, the Kingdom of God is what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Moreover, in Jesus Latin America’s beggars, street people, women, peasants, factory workers, and students recognized a kindred spirit. Like them, he was poor and born under a cruel colonizing power. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, brown-skinned and a friend of prostitutes and sinners. He was homeless at birth and an immigrant in Egypt in his early years. Later he became an enemy of the state. He experienced constant surveillance, and was considered a terrorist. Jesus finished, like so many of Brazil’s poor during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a victim of torture and capital punishment.

As we’ll see next week, liberation theology profoundly changed the “facts” of my spirituality. Joined with what I had learned about Appalachia and western history, it readied for even more profound transformations in consciousness that yet awaited me. My Third World travels had just begun. They would provide the catalyst.

(Next week: I sit at the feet of the liberation theologians I had been reading for years.)

My Personal Journey from Ethnocentrism towards World Centrism (8th in series on critical thinking)

 

worldcentrism

[In this series, I’ve been describing my personal development as a critical thinker. I’ve been using the matrix supplied by Ken Wilber who understands human growth as advance through the stages of egocentrism to ethnocentrism and (for some) to world centrism and even cosmic centrism. Each one of these stages, I’ve been arguing, recognizes its own set of “alternative facts.”]

My ethnocentrism grew alongside the first stage in personal development described here last week as “egocentrism.” Ethnocentrism meant that I was fiercely Catholic. For me, that was my primary group identification, my tribe. At this stage, in terms of critical thinking, no other denomination, and certainly no other religion had anything to do with truth that really mattered. All Protestants were simply wrong and destined for hell. For me, that was a fact.

Such conviction stuck with me and grew after I entered St. Columban’s Minor Seminary in Silver Creek, New York (40 miles west of Buffalo) at the age of 14. The seminary belonged to the Society of St. Columban – a missionary group founded in Ireland in 1918 as the Maynooth Mission to China. Its calling involved converting Chinese “pagans” who without our ministries, we all believed, would themselves be bound for hell – another fact.

At this stage, my second ethnocentric form of allegiance was to my country. I remember being confused during a “day of recollection” that our entire seminary (about 100 students) attended at a corresponding institution run by the Passionist Fathers in nearby Dunkirk, New York. That was around 1955, only 10 years after the conclusion of World War II. A rather elderly priest from the host seminary gave some kind of keynote talk. In its course, he described the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “the most immoral acts in history.” I was shocked and entirely confused. Was this man a communist or what?

My suspicions were aroused by the fact that missionaries on leave from assignments in the “Far East” often regaled us with stories of the evil communists who had by then driven our men and other foreigners from China following Mao Tse-Tung’s revolution in 1949. Communist Marxists hated the Blessed Virgin, we were told. That was enough for me. Communists were evil incarnate.

Similarly, those who opposed them at home were correspondingly virtuous. One evening in 1957 during study hall, one of my most admired professors who was proctoring the session, passed by my desk and whispered, “A great man died today.” He was referring to Senator Joseph McCarthy who died on May 2nd of that year.

In 1964, at the age of 24 I cast my first ballot for president. I voted for Barry Goldwater. That shows how ethnocentric I was. In terms of critical thinking, my proud and sincere guideline was “My country right or wrong.” My facts were those of Mr. Goldwater, the Catholic Church, Joseph McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover.

World Centrism Emerges

My horizons started broadening in 1962. It was then that I began accepting “alternative facts” soon after Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).  

That represented the thin end of a wedge that would gradually change forever what I considered true. The Second Vatican Council seemed to call my most cherished beliefs into question. It recognized that Protestants were “Separated Brethren” rather than enemies surely destined for hell. The notion of priesthood was widened to include their notion of priesthood of the faithful. Council theologians also problematized conceptions of church as the “perfect society” as well as papal infallibility. That in turn led to conclusions about an “ecclesia semper reformanda” (i.e. a church in need of continual reformation). Mandatory celibacy was criticized as an impediment to personal growth among the clergy. Seminary curricula like the one I was following in St. Columban’s Major Seminary were disparaged for their narrowness and tendencies to indoctrinate rather than educate.

Initially I resisted all of that in the name of my faith and tradition. But my ethnocentrism was under assault.

Rome

My resistance though couldn’t last. Following ordination, I was sent to Rome to secure my doctoral degree in moral theology. So I left the seminary hot house, where I had spent my formative teen age and early adult years. Suddenly, I found myself in an international atmosphere that in every dimension was so much more sophisticated than anything I had previously experienced. Rome’s context was still electric in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. And the Council’s spirit was reflected in the courses I took at the Athenaeum Anselmianum and Academia Alfonsiana. In their light, my secure notions of theological truth underwent continual challenge.

Gradually I found it all quite liberating.

However, on the political front, it was shocking and embarrassing. Remember, these were the late ‘60s. The anti-war movement was in full swing, along with the struggle for Civil Rights and women’s liberation. It was the era of “Troubles” in Ireland. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968. My last year in Rome (1972), George Wallace was shot, and the Palestinian group, Black September, terrorized the Olympic games in Munich.

Meanwhile, I was living in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste with about 15 other young priests all pursuing graduate work. Two of us were American. The others came from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Australia. Our conversations over meals revealed to me my narrowness of perspective. All my colleagues were better informed than me. They even had a superior grasp of U.S. history.

I resolved to remedy that and gave myself a crash course in current events courtesy of Time Magazine. I even ended up winning our small community’s annual political literacy contest. However, that sort of knowledge turned out to be quite superficial.

Gradually, especially because of my theological studies, I was drifting more and more leftward.  In the field of theology, I frequently challenged my colleagues about the humanity of Jesus, the faults of the church, and the whole idea of trying to convert “pagans” from Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam to Christianity.

None of that sat well with superiors in the Society of St. Columban. Towards the end of my stay in Rome, I was informed that plans had changed. Whereas the whole purpose of sending me to Rome had been to prepare me to teach in our major seminary, I was now considered too “dangerous” for that. I would be sent to Mindanao in the Philippines instead.

For the first time, I considered leaving the priesthood.

Politically, I became similarly alienated. It stemmed from my thought that if what I had been taught about God, the Church and even Jesus were untrue, if I could question the pope, whom I had always considered infallible, why not the U.S. government? Daniel Ellsberg’s publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 sealed the deal. Now I strongly opposed the War in Vietnam. I became a McGovern Democrat.

My journey towards world-centrism advanced. In terms of my evolving criteria for critical thought, I could already see that leaving ethnocentrism behind would mean expecting challenge.

Step One in My Own Escape from Plato’s Cave (7th in a series on critical thinking)

altar boys

Let me put some flesh on the abstractions I’ve shared so far in this series on critical thinking. I include this autobiographical material to explain the origins of the conclusions and principles I intend to share later on. They all came to me quite gradually and despite my sometimes fierce resistance.

I also present this segment to raise questions for the reader about issues connected with the Global South and its relationship to the United States and its policies. Questions similar to your own, I’m guessing, arose for me in the course of my travels. Hopefully, the rules for critical thinking to be elaborated later on will suggest answers about colonialism, capitalism and socialism, poverty, U.S. policy itself, violence, terrorism, and war. In the contemporary world, those, after all, constitute the topics worthiest of critical thought.

The odyssey I’ll describe has taken me across five continents – from Chicago to Delhi. My journeys had me gathering wisdom from my earliest school teachers, and later from world-renowned philosophers and theologians, as well as from revolutionary fighters, community organizers, gurus, teachers of meditation, and as-yet-to-be-canonized saints. As the story unfolds, I hope you can witness my horizons expand. There is nothing like language study, travel, and challenges from outside one’s cultural cave to stimulate critical thinking. Watching my process may make you aware of your own.

Like everyone else’s, my horizons were highly constricted at first. To be perfectly honest, I did not start thinking in truly critical ways till perhaps the age of 25. Yet before then, I was extremely concerned with thinking and truth. As a candidate for the Catholic priesthood from the age of 14, I studied Catholic “apologetics” and took it all quite seriously. Apologetics meant rational, logical “defense of the faith.” Later as a philosophy major in the Catholic seminary, my whole academic orientation dealt with rational approaches to subjects such as metaphysics, cosmology, and logic itself.

Yet despite such emphasis on rationality, I was not really thinking critically. Instead, my thought processes remained limited by what philosopher, Ken Wilber and others describe as those early stages of consciousness through which every human being must pass. As previously noted, they begin with ego-centrism, pass through ethnocentrism, and finally (for some) arrive at global and possibly even cosmic-centrism.[1]

Reflection has shown me how each stage of my own growth along those lines suggested to me one or more of the ten rules for critical thinking that I mentioned in previous postings.

Egocentrism

I was always a very religious boy. Living on Chicago’s northwest side, my working class parents (my father was a truck driver) had sent me to St. Viator’s Catholic Grammar School from kindergarten through 8th grade. Every grade there was taught by a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. I have nothing but fond memories of them. They enhanced my spiritual sensitivities. Under their tutelage, I attended Mass every day, went to confession each Saturday, and became a “Knight of the Altar” (altar boy) advancing to the rank of “Vice Supreme Grand Knight.” I prided myself in learning the associated and complex Latin prayers perfectly. I loved all of that and wanted to be like Father Burke, the young but strict disciplinarian who was in charge St. Viator’s School.

With that sort of background, it comes as no surprise that my first worries in life were about the salvation of my eternal soul. That’s the form my egocentrism took. I needed to secure heaven and avoid hell at all costs. Nothing else mattered.

So seriously did I take the task that I found myself afflicted early on with a case of scruples that recurred for me periodically till my early 20s. Scruples meant that I worried about and feared as sinful what other saner people would not – especially anything that might be associated with sex.

So I became obsessed with confessing my “sins,” lest I die in mortal sin and lose my eternal soul forever. That form of obsessive-compulsive behavior was very painful for me. But with help from various spiritual directors, I gradually gained the courage to think for myself (even about God and sin). I remember thinking: “I can’t go on like this. If I’m going to hell, I’m going to hell. But I’m trusting that God is not that fearful Being “up there” looking for the least excuse to condemn me. I’ll take my chances.”

That in itself was a step away from ego-centrism and a nascent expression of critical thinking, at least in the religious sphere. I was somehow unconsciously employing the principle, “Connect with your deepest self.”

(Next week: Ethnocentrism expands my egocentric concerns)

[1] It should be noted that I am about to describe my development of intellectual, spiritual, and political awareness. Wilber refers to such dimensions as “lines” of development. Other lines include physical=kinetic, psychological, artistic, emotional, etc. One might be well-developed in some of these lines, and less advanced in others. For example, a person might be quite advanced intellectually, but less so emotionally and artistically.