Feminists as Our Natural Leaders: Reflections on the 40th Annual Meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association

 

Angie

Last weekend I attended the 40th annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) in Baltimore, Maryland. I accompanied my wife, Peggy, who directs the Women and Gender Studies Program (WGS) at Berea College, where I taught for 40 years (1974-2014). Peggy was there with a colleague and seven of her WGS students. The gathering’s theme was “Feminist scholars and activists engage the movement for Black Lives.”

Given the theme of the conference, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the diversity of attendees. Nonetheless, I was astounded by what I saw. It seemed to me that 50% or more of the attendees were women of color (WOC).

From the opening plenary, the atmosphere was absolutely electric and energizing.

Even more, I was pleasantly surprised by the radical nature of everything I observed there. It put me to shame in terms of revealing my own timidity that restrains me from being more outspoken and calling things by their real names in this time of unprecedented crisis. By comparison with what I heard and observed in Baltimore, my own writing, speaking, and teaching are far too understated. As one of the presenters I heard put it, “civility is overrated.” The times cry out for thoughtful radicalism.

“Radical” in this case means discourse attempting to uncover the roots of our world’s problems identified by NWSA speakers as the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy. On feminist analysis, that’s what’s behind today’s resurgent fascism with its racism, misogyny, cult of denial, massive incarceration, voter suppression, police violence, gun worship, daily mass shootings, universal surveillance, union-busting, climate-change reversals, threats of nuclear war, pay disparities between men and women, and overriding fear of immigrants, Muslims, and the heterogendered. In the language of NWSA presenters, the problems are “intersectional” – the results of inter-related elements of a multi-faceted oppressive system with patriarchy as its taproot.

Put otherwise, women aren’t merely victims of some monolithic patriarchy; they are oppressed by misogyny, racism, ageism, and prejudice against queers, immigrants, the aged, and the differently abled. Resistance to such oppression is signaled today by coalescing movements that include black queer feminists, domestic workers, home health care providers, restaurant employees, and agricultural laborers.

With such inclusivity, the discourse I heard at the NWSA was far from the blah, blah spouted by the overwhelmingly conservative, white, elderly and protofascist males who continue to run our country. Unlike the self-described “bad ass organizers” in Baltimore, the academic representatives of the predominantly male political class typically cultivate silence and equivocation in the service of their own professional advancement disguised as intellectual respectability.

For their parts, the NWSA women were far more incisive. That’s because their scholarship is rooted in their insurgent activism. Embracing the role of “outsiders within” (the academic establishment), the goal of feminist hell-raising and scholarship is a just distribution of society’s benefits determined not by what humans can work for or achieve, but by what everybody needs. Their focus is not so much piercing the infamous glass ceiling that prevents the well-educated and wealthy from advancing within corporate hierarchies, but protecting and repairing the floor boards splintering and eroding beneath the very feet of women at the bottom of neoliberal constructions.

Take, for instance, the opening plenary presentation. It centralized a conversation between Angela Davis and Alicia Garza.  Davis, of course, is the iconic and by now septuagenarian Black Panther scholar and activist who once led the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Her current efforts are directed towards abolitionism – the uprooting of prisons, policing, and education as we know them.  Alicia Garza is one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM). A widely published activist, she currently directs special projects for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. (When, at the beginning of her remarks, Garza asked for any who had participated in BLM demonstrations to stand, a third of the audience, it seemed, got to its feet and received a warmly appreciative ovation.)

Here are some of the (paraphrased) key thoughts Davis (AD) and Garza (AG) shared with us on opening night:

  • AD: At this otherwise depressing moment in history, I’m encouraged by the activism evoked by the ongoing right-wing revolution. Left-wing revolution is once again in the air. With the Boycott, Divest & Sanction Movement (BDS), Palestinian liberation is now openly part of the agenda. Together we stand on the left, but on the right side of history.
  • AG: Revolution is a process, not a destination. It is the transformation of how power operates – a passage from punitive, predatory, power-over models to cooperative, interdependent ways of operating. Revolution in this sense expands the notion of “our loved ones.”
  • AD: The world does not revolve around the United States. The struggle is global. We must learn some humility and be willing to sit at the feet of liberation movements in the Global South – for instance, from the black feminist movements of Brazil.
  • AG: Black Lives Matter is not an instance of “identity politics,” as the FBI alleges by inventing the category “black identity extremists.” The FBI category represents just one more official attempt to dismantle BLM. The underlying assumption of its phrasing is that we’re not all in relationship with each other and with over-arching institutions. On the contrary, identity is shaped by capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. It’s not that BLM cares only about its particular group. It’s that BLM realizes that when black people get free, everyone gets free.
  • AG: Feminism is about challenging normativities.
  • AD: We need art, because we can’t say it all.

Women like Angela Davis and Alicia Garza are inspiring. They evince much more courage than most males I know – or, let me say it clearly, much more than me! Once they enter the realm of critical consciousness, feminists become our natural leaders. Somehow they seem less attached to the cult of personality. They know how to cooperate. This isn’t the movement of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or John Lewis. Its leadership is more collective than that – more empowering and inclusive. Their range of issues are more, well, “intersectional.”

That’s the hope I found at the 40th anniversary meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association meeting. I’m glad I went.

A Diana Ross Concert Sparks Memories of the African-American Rebellion of 1967

Diana Ross Pic

Last week, my wife, Peggy, and I attended a Diana Ross concert at the Interlochen Music Camp here in Michigan, where we’re spending our summer. The sold-out performance was spectacular as the 73 year-old Ms. Ross reprised hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Baby Love,” and “Stop, in the Name of Love.”

The nearly all-white crowd of Baby Boomers spent most of the 90-minute show on its feet applauding, dancing and singing along with the still-beautiful diva who was supported by a remarkable band and a quartet of dynamic back-up singers.

It all took us back to the ‘60s and ‘70s before our hair turned white.

It also made some of us recall an era before Ms. Ross’ hometown, Detroit, became a byword for urban decay reminiscent of the Third World. Back then, it was a vital industrial and cultural center, the birthplace not only of The Supremes’ Motown Sound, but of the Black Panthers, and the focus of the northern phase of the Civil Rights Movement that changed our nation forever.

That phase had protestors responding to poverty and police brutality more violently than our domesticated history would have us recall. Exactly 50 years ago in 1967, it turned Detroit into a flashpoint of the Great Uprising of the African American working class, whose effects are still being felt today.

The rebellion (portrayed in the mainstream press as “riots”) began in Newark, but quickly spread to the Motor City and almost 400 U.S. urban centers. In fact, between 1960 and 1971 there were nearly 1000 such uprisings across the country.

In response the government called out the National Guard. While cities burned, troops with bayonets fixed marched on protestors; tanks rumbled down ghetto streets.

That sort of response to such widespread unrest indicates a nascent civil rights revolution, not mere riots.

The bi-partisan Kerner Commission underscored that point, when it examined the rebellion’s causes. Its Report blamed the uprisings not on the protestors, but on white racism.  It called for the equivalent of a huge Marshall Plan to counter the effects of the police brutality and deep poverty that, it said, had sparked the violence.

However, instead of massive investment in public schools, housing, and social programs, the “riots” in Detroit and elsewhere evoked a counter-revolution that we experience still today.

The reaction began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. His Southern Strategy took advantage of the very racism denounced by the Kerner Report. Ironically, Nixon’s approach used religion to appeal to the anti-black sentiments of white Christian Evangelicals especially in the nation’s South. It transformed the Republican Party into the out-of-control reactionary force it now represents under Donald Trump. It eventually gave rise to stop-and-frisk policing, to the massive incarceration of blacks and Latinos, and to the widespread execution of unarmed black men and women at the hands of increasingly militarized urban police forces.

Additionally, the counter revolution saw defunding of public schools, public housing, and social programs. It witnessed the transformation of the War on Poverty into the War on Crime. It entailed capitalism’s abandonment of the working class, as it off-shored jobs vital to the economies of cities like Detroit, Newark, and Camden.

Finally, the right wing reaction to black rebellion suspended democracy itself in Detroit, as an unelected Emergency Manager overrode community welfare in favor of austerity measures that further penalized the poor. And as economist, Richard Wolff has indicated, the resultant and much ballyhooed “Detroit Renaissance” amounted to nothing more than gentrification on steroids, where billionaires are subsidized to build glitzy high-rises and restaurants.  Meanwhile on the periphery of apparent renewal, 40% of the population remains mired in poverty in a state where 48% of African-American children are poor.

What a contrast: the splendor and betrayed promise of Miss Ross and the Civil Rights Movement, on the one hand, and the disintegration of the counter-revolutionary Detroit (and America) on the other!

It’s time to reject the latter in all its brutality and to re-embrace the former with all the enthusiasm of those Boomers at Interlochen last week.

Without uttering a word about politics, Ms. Ross reminds us that we can do better. The Kerner Report tells us how.

Aging Miraculously: Life’s too Short to Give Up on Faith & Activism!

Aging

I’m currently enrolled in an extremely thoughtful on-line course about aging led by the great spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson. The course is called “Aging Miraculously.”

As I approach my 77th birthday, Marianne is stimulating me to rethink this Third Act of my life. Her course is making me less willing to “retire” from it all as one mistakenly identified with this rapidly changing body. I’m more anxious to “re-fire” the spirit I truly am – the Self that never ages. I’m realizing that the time I have left on earth is far too short for me to surrender to the life of an elderly spectator.

Such awareness was reinforced last night during a conversation with five dear friends of mine. The youngest pair among us were in their mid-60s; the rest of us were in our late 70s and early 80s. (Even writing those words frightens me!)

In any case, there we were reviewing the ills of the world:

  • Trump
  • The gradual disappearance of democracy
  • Its replacement with plutocracy and authoritarianism
  • Class warfare: the unending wars of the world’s richest (the U.S. the E.U., Israel, Saudi Arabia) against the planet’s most impoverished (e.g. in Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. . .)
  • Terrorism

The question of faith came up and its power to change all of that.

Now, mind you, all of us in the conversation identified ourselves as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Nevertheless, my friends (none of them taking Marianne’s course) seemed convinced that faith has no power to alter the problems we were busy rehearsing.

Selfish human nature reigns supreme, one friend insisted. It’s unredeemable. So nothing can ever really change – except for the worse. What we do in church is meaningless as far as engagement with the world is concerned. No one really understands any of it anyway. But that’s the best we can do. It’s naïve and a waste of time and energy to think otherwise. We must settle for the mediocre.

And, in any case, we’re all old! So all that’s left for us is to finish out the few years we have left with our low expectations intact – just enjoying the moment and (cocktails in hand) being happy. Our work is over. God expects no more from us. The world’s problems are no longer ours. They belong to our children. And good luck to them with that!

With Marianne’s instruction in mind, I wanted to shout: “Stop, stop! Cancel! I don’t want to hear that! Precisely because I’m a community elder, I have no time left for such small-time thinking and pessimism.

“In fact, it’s all an insult to God. We’re talking about faith here. – about the power of God and of God’s Word to change the world and its consciousness that condemns us, our children, our grandchildren, and the very planet to destruction. Don’t you see that despite the faith we claim, we’re denying that power? We’re arrogantly claiming that we and the world’s thinking and technology somehow have more clout than God himself – that the Almighty stands impotent before the likes of The Donald, Mad Dog Mattis, our computers, robots – and desperate fears!

“I refuse to believe that. Please stop! Cancel!

“And besides: the power of faith to change the world has been undeniably demonstrated. It’s just that as successfully propagandized, relatively comfortable white “Americans” we’ve bought into the “official story” as narrated on Fox News.  It wants us to believe that it’s all hopeless.

“We’ve fallen into their trap!

“However, the fact is that the world has already been changed dramatically by faith-in-action. And for more than 60 years, it’s scared the hell out of the fearful little people at the top. Since the Civil Rights Movement (beginning with Brown in 1954), they’ve been desperate to cram that genie of faith-inspired human liberation back into its bottle. But it simply won’t fit.

“Since Vatican II (1962-’65) and the emergence of liberation theology at Medellin (1968), backward church authorities (like Paul II and Benedict XVI) have been doing the same thing – with the same result. The genie is loose forever. Thank God.

“I’m referring to the undeniable fact that the Civil Rights Movement and liberation theology have changed the world. Without them, you can’t explain Black Lives Matter or the pink tide that has swept Latin America in the past 20 years. You can’t explain the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez, Standing Rock in the Dakotas, the revival of the women’s liberation movement, or LGBTQ activism.

“Without recognizing the power of faith to change the world, you can’t explain movements for independence in Palestine and throughout the Islamic world. Face it: what’s happening there is intimately involved with faith!

“And it is precisely those movements that have given birth to a counter-revolution waged by the fearful little people who pretend to lead us. Don’t be misled: the right wing co-optation of faith has not arisen spontaneously from selfish human nature. Instead, it was part of the well-funded Nixon Southern Strategy to distort Christian faith to counter a growing black power that faith itself had inspired among African Americans everywhere. All of that eventually resulted in the Tea Party and the control of the GOP by Christian conservatives.

“Moreover, fostering and bankrolling evangelicals throughout Latin America (and here at home) was part of Reagan’s response to liberation theology. Already in 1969, Nelson Rockefeller had identified it as a danger to national security. Similarly, the rise of ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism has been nourished by counter-revolutionary forces in Saudi Arabia and the United States. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski who originally assured fighters in Afghanistan that their resistance to Russia had Allah on their side.

“As community elders, we should know all of that. We’ve lived through it. We are products of the hope-filled ‘60s. More importantly, the Catholics among us are products of Vatican II and liberation theology and of the unlimited horizons of faith those movements opened. As a result, we have experience, knowledge, and (hopefully) wisdom unavailable to our children, grandchildren, and to the young in general.

“Keeping those memories and hopes alive represent our specific contributions to saving the world. But time is running out.  To retire now without passionately sharing what we’ve learned is not just irresponsible. It deprives us of the joy that comes from fulfilling our very life’s purpose.

“What’s left of this particular incarnation is too short for wasting it on despair and surrender. It’s too short to live as though we are primarily aged bodies rather than the ever-youthful, experienced, informed, and wise Selves that God has created.

“It’s time to get on with Act Three and to finish the performance with a flourish and deep bow.”

Cosmic-Centrism: South Africa’s a Good Place to Start (15th in a series on critical thinking)

 

Easwaran

In this series, I’ve been tracing my own growth in terms of Ken Wilber’s stages of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, world-centrism, and cosmic-centrism. I’ve been arguing that each stage has its own “alternative facts.” What I believed to be factual as a child, I no longer accept — in any field, faith included. The highest stages of critical thinking are achieved, I believe, by those who accept the alternative facts of mystics and sages across the globe. Their facts receive virtually no recognition from the world at large. Yet, they are truest of all.

The studies and travel I’ve recalled so far in this series had taken me from Chicago and various places in the United States to Europe where I spent five years traveling widely. Then I moved to Appalachia, and from there journeyed to Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.  Each step of the way, my awareness expanded. By my 50s, I had pretty much gone beyond ethnocentrism.

Then by 1997 (at the age of 57), I gingerly entered the next phase of Wilber’s growth hierarchy, cosmic-centrism. The door opened that Christmas, when my wife, Peggy, gave me the gift of three books by an Indian teacher of meditation, Eknath Easwaran.

The most important of the three was simply entitled Meditation. The book explained how to meditate and outlined Easwaran’s “Eight Point Program” for spiritual transformation. The points included (1) meditation, (2) spiritual reading, (3) repetition of a mantram, (4) slowing down, (5) one-pointed attention, (6) training of the senses, (7) putting the needs of others first, and (8) association with others on the same path.

As a former priest, I was familiar with such spirituality. After being introduced to meditation during my “spiritual year” in 1960, I meditated every day for the next dozen years or so. Then I stopped. I thought I would never go back.

But after reading Meditation, I decided to perform the experiment Easwaran recommends there. He challenged his readers to try the eight-point program for a month. He said, if no important changes occur in your life as a result, drop the practice. But if significant personal transformation happens, that’s another story.

Suffice it to say that I tried for a month, and now nearly 20 years later, I’m able to report that I’ve never missed a day of meditation. Soon I was meditating twice a day. In short, I had been re-introduced into spiritual practice, but this time under the guidance of a Hindu. However, Easwaran insisted that his recommended practices had nothing to do with switching one’s religion or even with adopting any religion at all.

In other words, meditation had introduced me into the realm of mysticism common to Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslim Sufis, and subscribers to other faiths.

Easwaran described mysticism, wherever it appears, as founded on the following convictions: (1) there is a divine spark resident in the heart of every human being, (2) that spark can be realized, i.e. made real in one’s life, (3) in fact it is the purpose of life to do so, (4) those who recognize the divine spark within them inevitably see it in every other human being and in all of creation, and (5) they act accordingly.

Those are the principles of cosmic-centrism.

South Africa

In 2012, during my wife’s sabbatical in Cape Town, South Africa, my eyes started opening to the divine in nature – especially in the ancient rock formations in the southern Cape. As Dean Perini points out in his Pathways of the Sun, many of them have been “enhanced” by the Koi-Koi and San people indigenous to this area. The enhancements (for instance, sharpening features in rocks which resemble human faces) serve the same purpose as the completely human fabrications in places like Tikal, Stonehenge, and (perhaps) Easter Island.  They position the movement of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to keep track of equinoxes and solstices. All of those heavenly bodies and seasons influence our own bodies (70% water) as surely as they do the ocean tides and the seasons. So it was important to the Koi-Koi and San to mark the precise moments of the annual celestial events for purposes of celebrations, rituals, and feasts.

Near Cape Town, we lived in Llandudno near the location’s great “Mother Rock.” Like so many other mountains, rocks, sacred wells and springs in that area, it exuded extraordinary cleansing energy. My wife and I often made our evening meditation before that Rock, and on occasion in a nearby sacred cave.

They say that the human story began in South Africa 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. So in the presence of ocean, sacred caves, and holy rocks, we attempted to reconnect with the roots of it all and with the animals and ancient peoples who in their harmony with nature’s processes seem much wiser than we post-moderns are proving to be.

We were entering cosmic space, where the principle of the unity of all creation shapes critical thinking.

(Next week: Learning from spiritual masters in India)

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 Study of Liberation Theology in Brazil (10th in a series on critical thinking)

Dom Helder

My study in Brazil initiated a profound change in my understanding of critical thinking. It led me to see that liberation theology itself amounted to a Global South version of that discipline. However, the critical thinking I encountered in Brazil didn’t concern itself with abstract dilemmas and logical fallacies. Instead the Brazilian version addressed problems confronted in the very lives of its protagonists – hunger, poverty, dictatorships, imprisonment, torture, police raids, and the reasons for widespread hunger in an extremely rich and rather thinly populated country.

Neither did critical thinking in Brazil worry about neutrality and balance or with giving equal time to capitalists and their working class opponents. In the minds of its teachers, those problems had long since been settled. After all, in 1964, defenders of capitalism had overthrown Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1960s that had been the case throughout the region. In Brazil it meant that by 1984 the country had completed its second decade of a military dictatorship fully supported by the United States. Over those years, vast numbers of priests and nuns, union organizers, university professors, social workers, lawyers, and simple peasants had been routinely imprisoned, tortured and often murdered. Their crimes?  They had demanded land reform, higher wages, health care, education, freedom of speech, and ability to speak freely and organize. No, capitalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had clearly shown itself to be the enemy of the people.

All of that became very clear for me when, to begin with, I connected with the legendary Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s methodology for teaching literacy had exercised strong influence on liberation theology, and especially on “Base Christian Communities” (BCCs) which following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) proliferated throughout the country. My intention was to research those communities as part of my sabbatical assignment.

At the same time, my wife, Peggy was working on her doctoral dissertation on Freire’s work. So she worked in his center every day and every week with literacy teachers implementing his method in Sao Paulo’s favelas. On our fifth wedding anniversary, we had supper with Paulo and his wife, Elsa, in their apartment. Afterwards, he read aloud Peggy’s latest dissertation chapter. I remember him pausing at one point after reading a quotation from his own Education for Critical Consciousness; he said, “Right now I am loving these words!” He was wonderful.

While in Recife, our whole family twice visited Dom Helder Camara, the famous “Red Archbishop” of that huge city in the northern part of the country. I phoned his office to set up the appointment. He answered the phone himself!

Considered a saint even before his death in 1999, Dom Helder was also called the “Archbishop of the Poor.” He once famously observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” With those words, this patron of liberation theology expressed the central question of critical thinking in the Global South: Why are people so poor in the midst of so much abundance?

I informed Dom Helder of my intention to experience liberation theology’s BCCs in Recife. That was during our first visit in his office, while he held our four-year-old daughter, Maggie, in his lap. (I later told her she had been embraced by a saint!) I asked the archbishop to share his thoughts about those communities. He told me, “It would be better for me not to say anything at this point. Why don’t you do your research first? Experience those communities, and then at the end of your visit come back and tell me what you found. Then I might tell you what I think.”

So I followed the saint’s advice. During our family’s weeks in Recife, I participated in several BCC meetings. There I witnessed the kind of critical thinking referenced above. It was the same process that had been prescribed for teaching literacy years earlier by Paulo Freire in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I had read while still in Rome.

I consistently found all of that inspiring. Here were absolute giants in the field of critical thought, centralizing their fundamental identities as spiritual beings in order to address in practical terms genuine problems of politics, economy, and personal life. I found such embrace of human political spirituality absent not only in the standard approach to critical thinking familiar to me, but even in the churches of my own experience.

I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of that approach to critical thinking.

To that end, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar taught by liberation theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars I had been reading for years – figures like Argentina’s Enrique Dussel, Chile’s Pablo Richard, Belgium’s Francois Houtart and Brazil’s own Frei Gilberto Gorgulho and Ana Flora Anderson. In the course of the experience, I was also introduced to the work of Chilean economist and theologian, Franz Hinkelammert, who would become for me an extremely important mentor. Significantly, Franz was to later found the international Grupo de Pensamiento Critico (the Critical Thinking Group).

As I listened to these scholars describe history in ways I never had confidence enough to seriously entertain, I found myself wondering, “What is the key to all of this?” I mean, Enrique Dussel described World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.” What is he talking about? I wondered. Was Hitler really a capitalist? It was a completely foreign thought.

Meanwhile, Frei Gorgulho spoke of Cuba as “the envy of the Third World.” Pablo Richard had just returned from a trip to revolutionary Nicaragua and was full of stories about Anastasio Somoza, the history of U.S. oppression in the country, the Sandinistas, land reform, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionary Contras. The positive evaluation of Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution stood contrary to everything reported in the U.S.

Even more disturbingly, everyone constantly and negatively referenced highly destructive American military interventions in its “backyard” and throughout the world to defend colonialism and what was termed “neo-colonialism.” The whole seminar was scandalized by a picture in the Folha do Sao Paulo of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II sitting together in Rome – both of them smiling broadly. “That photo,” all agreed “will cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” (It was because it implied that the pope endorsed Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America.)

None of these thoughts would ever be expressed in the United States. But here they were bandied about by these teachers of pensamiento critical as though they were perfectly obvious. And there was no objection from my classmates – most of them priests, nuns and lay theologians.

Again, I wondered, what is the analytic key to this sort of thought.

I later found it was the dependency theory of the German-American sociologist and historian, Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder Frank traced everything back to the history and structures of colonialism and neo-colonialism. I resolved to find out more about that; it seemed essential to this kind of critical thought. I asked for sources. Other than Gunder Frank’s works themselves, my seminar colleagues told me to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For perspective on Africa, they recommended Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I immediately purchased the books and my education in critical thinking took another giant step forward.

To repeat: this was not the type of critical thinking I had become used to. Unlike its U.S. version, what I found in Brazil was politically committed, historically grounded, and deeply spiritual. In the United States, everything familiar to me was apolitical, historically uninformed, and entirely secular. That caused me to reflect once again on my own historical ignorance. I also wondered about neutrality and the stories about Nicaragua routinely disseminated back home. I could already see that those tales amounted to one-sided propaganda. As one of my Ten Rules would later express it, I was beginning to suspect that truly critical thought involved rejecting pretense of neutrality.

I resolved to visit Nicaragua as soon as possible. I did the following year.

(Next week: Nicaragua!)

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.)