Scott Anderson’s “How the Arab World Came Apart:” It’s Not Islam; It’s the Economy, Genius!


Last Sunday, the New York Times (NYT) devoted its entire Sunday Magazine to a five-part article by Scott Anderson. It was called “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart.” The epic piece traced the lives of six Arabs from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iraqi Kurdistan as each struggled to live through and make sense of the disintegration of the Arab World since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In so doing, Anderson attempted to put compelling faces on a longer historical narrative that begs for clarification, order and humanization.

The author succeeds admirably in the human interest portion of his project. More importantly, he supplies invaluable detail about a 100 year-long history of political decisions and processes responsible for the crumbling of the Arab world.

But perhaps his most stunning insight is that “Arabia” has been fractured not principally by internecine religious radicalism, but by a long-standing anti-socialist policy on the part of the United States and its allies. Ever since the conclusion of World War II, that policy has blocked economic reform not only in the Arab world and the Middle East, but also in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia – in other words in the former colonies. In the Middle East, the resulting conflict has only recently taken on heavy religious overtones.

Specifically, in that troubled region, the result of U.S. policy has been warfare and economic sanctions imposed on socialist movements involving both Arab and non-Arab countries – on peoples most of whom happen to be Muslims. As a result, those Muslims have experienced extreme poverty, joblessness, and loss of hope. Consequently, many have gravitated towards a brutal gang of reactive terrorists (ISIS) offering employment, a sense of identity, pride, short-lived hope – and the power that comes from a uniform and a gun. The grunts in this gang know very little about Islam.

In an August 12th interview with Scott Anderson on “Democracy Now,” Juan Gonzalez led the Times correspondent to make that very point. He asked Anderson what he had learned from his 18 months of research that included interviews with 20 ISIS fighters all of whom are now imprisoned in Iraq or in Kurdistan. Anderson responded:

“There was an amazing pattern. . . (T)hey were all young men, kind of with very bleak futures, either unemployed or underemployed, from working-class families, and not religious at all. . . (T)hey were not from religious families. They did not know the Qur’an very well. In a couple of cases, I knew the Qur’an better than they did. . . And I think it was this kind of decision that young men make, that better to live large for a couple of years, and, you know, the power and the so-called glamour. . . that comes of carrying a gun . . . they had more akin to why somebody might join like an inner-city gang or why in Mexico they might join a narco gang. It’s this kind of despair at seeing any sort of future. But it’s not political, it’s not religious. It’s just this impulse to—you know, to have some sort of—I mean, it’s awful to say, in terms of ISIS, but adventure.”

Juan Gonzales then observes, “But that’s a quite different perspective from what we get here . . .  that these are religious zealots who are willing to die for Islam.”

“Yes,” Anderson agrees.

With that astounding exchange in mind, it’s informative to reread the NYT article and the long-term history it reviews to detect the pattern underlying what Anderson uncovers as an economic rebellion with a recent and thick religious overlay that obscures what’s really behind ISIS and the fracturing of the Arab world. For as Anderson implies, the rebellion there is not about religion, but about economy. It is about the conflict between capitalism and socialism that has been raging at least since the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto. Far from ending with the fall of the USSR in 1990, the conflict has only intensified, when the West took the Soviet demise as a signal that it could subsequently increase pressure and even overthrow socialist governments everywhere – from Cuba and Venezuela to Yugoslavia and Iraq –  without fear of reprisal.

 To understand, we need to examine the underlying historical pattern responsible not only for the fracturing of the Arab world, but for relations between the developed world (principally the United States) and impoverished nations generally.

That pattern (identified specifically by J.W. Smith and implicitly by John Perkins) runs as follows:

  • Any Western colony that attempts to “break for freedom” (from capitalism and colonial control)
  • By instituting a “socialist” economy prioritizing the needs of its own people, especially its majority poor
  • Will have its leaders accused of being undemocratic dictators – communist, totalitarian, or terrorist.
  • Those countries will find themselves undermined (with Western support) by local dissidents – usually drawn from those privileged under the old colonial order or from those marginalized by the new socialist order.
  • This will cause the governments in question to institute severe national security measures that Western enemies will vilify as dictatorial, thus justifying further measures to overthrow the “repressive” regime.
  • If such methods do not result in the desired regime change, the country in question will ultimately be subjected to direct invasion or other military action on the parts of its former colonial masters.
  • Interventionist military action will be met with resistance and retaliation on the part of imperialism’s victims. (This explains the origins of ISIS.)

To reiterate, this pattern lays the blame for Middle East conflict at the feet of colonialism.  It suggests that since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, capitalism’s real enemy in Arab countries and throughout the Middle East has been anti-imperialist socialism not primarily Islam. More precisely, the conflicts in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan have been spawned not by religion, but by resistance to colonialism and by economic policies resistant to free market capitalism.

To grasp that point, let’s think first of all about imperialism or colonialism. Then connect resistance to such foreign adventurism with socialism and the birth of ISIS.

In essence, colonialism is a system of robbery. It has foreign armies invading, conquering militarily weak, resource-rich countries, and then controlling them either through occupying armies or through local militaries armed by the invaders and headed by indigenous collaborators working hand in glove with the colonists. The chief goal of such invasion is resource extraction – wealth transfers for purposes of enriching the colonizers.

Western colonization of Arabia began in earnest after World War I. Up until then (and from the end of the 13th century), what Westerners called the “Middle East” was the center of the Ottoman (i.e. the Turkish) Empire controlled by Muslim sultans.

The Ottoman Empire was the Islamic State of its day and at its height comprised central Hungary, the Balkan Peninsula, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine, Egypt, the Caucasus and western Iran. As the Anderson essay shows, the Sultans did not impose their religion or Sharia Law on those they colonized. Instead, they allowed Christians, Jews and others to practice their faiths with no interference. As long as they paid their taxes, tribes and clans throughout the region were allowed a great deal of freedom and self-determination.

After the Ottoman Empire broke down in 1920, the British, French, Italians, and the United States stepped in to fill the void. To control their newly annexed territories (and their oil), they instituted a divide and conquer strategy. This entailed creating small client states that never existed before. These new “nations” included entities such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen. Each was run by local collaborators (royal monarchs and their families) who could be counted on to transfer Arabia’s patrimony at confiscatory prices.

Such divisions were immediately resisted by tribes and clans throughout the region. Their loyalty was (and remains) to local chiefs, not to prime ministers or presidents. Together tribal leaders and their people wanted foreigners out. Many wished to unite all Arabs in a “Pan Arab” movement to restore the unity of the Arab world that had existed under the Islamic State and Caliphate for more than 600 years. The operative sentiment was “Arabia for Arabs.”

Pan Arabism took two main forms, one secular and socialist, the other (much later) religious and Muslim.

It helps to keep Smith’s historical pattern in mind: (1) break for socialist freedom, (2) vilification of socialism’s leaders, (3) empowerment of their natural enemies (secular or religious), (4) repressive measures by the threatened government, (5) (as a last resort) U.S. military action, and (6) insurgent response.

To verify the pattern, let’s begin with Egypt as Anderson does. Then let’s join him in considering the cases of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Add in the non-Arab examples of Iran and Afghanistan to complete the regional picture. All the while, note the elements of the six-point historical pattern. To repeat, they illustrate that capitalism’s enemy has not changed since 9/11. It remains socialism, not Islam.

The most prominent secular and socialist anti-colonial movement began emerging in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser led a revolution that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy that had cooperated closely with the West. Nasser was an outspoken socialist. His first act as Prime Minister was to institute a wide-ranging land reform program benefitting peasant farmers.

In addition, Nasser was critical of the West in general. He was also anti-imperial and hostile to Israel, which he and his constituents saw as another Western colonial beachhead in the Arab world. Nasser and his supporters saw Jews returning to their “homeland” as opportunistic European invaders whose ancestors hadn’t thought about living in Palestine for well over a millennium.

Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat in 1970. As Anderson shows, Sadat alienated Pan-Arabs by moving closer to a client-patron relationship with the United States. He cooperated with the Carter administration in negotiating a separate Peace Treaty with Israel in 1979, without prior consultation with the other Arab states. For such betrayal, Sadat was assassinated. He was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, an even more compliant client of the United States who remained in power till he was driven from office by the Arab Spring movement in 2011.

Nasser’s vision was shared by Hafez al-Assad, who came to power in Syria in 1970. Like Nasser, Assad had participated in a revolution against a Western-compliant monarchy. That revolution brought his Pan-Arab Ba’athist Party to power in 1963. The Ba’ath Party derived its name from the Arabic word for “renaissance” or “resurrection.” It envisioned the eventual restoration of a single Arab state. It espoused Arab nationalism and Pan-Arabism – again, Arabia for the Arabs. Besides being anti-imperial and anti-West, Ba’athism was also socialist. Since 2011, the United States and Syria’s former colonial master, France, have taken both indirect and direct action for regime change in Syria.

In 1969 Ba’athism spread to Iraq, where revolutionary forces led by Saddam Hussein toppled the monarchy established and supported by the West. Of course, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990, Desert Storm (1991) and the invasion of Iraq (2003) involved elaborate military measures by the United States to remove Saddam from office.

The same year Saddam Hussein came to power (1969), the Pan Arab socialist movement spread to Libya under Muammar Gaddafi who also led a revolution against a monarchy supported by the Western colonial powers. Gaddafi gradually moved away from the Ba’athist Pan Arab ideal and embraced Pan Africanism instead. His Third International Theory (published in his Green Book) championed socialism and anti-colonialism for the entire African continent. U.S. military action deposed Gaddafi in 2011.

Besides its links to the six-point pattern indicated above, what socialism in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya had in common was the fact that it worked. It lifted masses of people from poverty and modernized the relevant countries in a relatively short time. For example, before the 1991 invasion, Iraq boasted the highest standard of living in the Arab world. Similar statements can be made about Nasser’s Egypt, Assad’s Syria, and Gaddafi’s Libya.

Regional resistance to control by Western capitalists also emerged prominently in non-Arab Iran and in Afghanistan – two other artificial countries which came into being at the end of the 19th century. It was in these countries that (with major U.S. implication) opposition to Western imperialism eventually took on the decidedly religious turn that most mistakenly identify today as the root cause of conflict in the Middle East.

However, to begin with (as was the case in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya), post-World War II Iran experienced a highly secular grassroots rebellion against foreign control of their region following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The rebellion caused the democratic election of Mohammad Mossaddegh to displace the U.S. client, Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran.

Upon his succession to office, the enormously popular Mossaddegh instituted social and economic reforms of the type championed by socialists all over the world: social security, land reform, abolition of forced labor, rent control, agricultural regulation, compensation for workers injured on the job, public housing, and public works – all with the intent (as he said) to “combat disease, poverty, and backwardness.”

Above all, Mossaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry. This outraged Great Britain (who controlled Iran’s oil) the United States. So the CIA instituted a coup that removed Mossaddegh from office and replaced him, restoring to office Reza Pahlavi who returned from exile to administer an extremely repressive Western-friendly regime for the next quarter century.

In 1979, the Shah was overthrown in a rebellion. However, this time the uprising was not inspired by socialism, but by an anti-Western, anti-imperial movement organized “in the name of God.” It is here that Islam begins to take over as the face of the perennial regional resistance to Western imperialism that had roiled above and below the surface since 1920.

Something similar happened in Afghanistan. There too a secular socialist movement against the West morphed into a rebellion in the name of God.

In Afghanistan, the secular People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took control of the country in 1973 under Nur Muhammad Taraki. It offered equal rights for women, universal education, and land reform. To oppose such reforms and the intervention of the Soviet Union to uphold them, the CIA identified and supported internal opposition, the Mujahedeen – Islamic jihadists who from their founding had adopted as their goal the expulsion of foreigner rulers (viz. the British) from the Middle East. The CIA now empowered them to expel the Soviet invaders and establish an Islamic State to replace socialism.

But Mujahedeen goals were not reached with the expulsion of the Soviets. The jihadists wanted all foreigners out of the region. That meant the expulsion of U.S. troops from Islamic holy centers in Medina and Mecca. The troops had taken up residence there following the 1991 defeat of Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm. That defeat was followed by 12 years of economic sanctions that ended up taking the lives of half a million Iraqi children. Osama bin Laden would later identify those murders, along with the previous 80 years of European control of Arabia, and the stationing of troops in Mecca and Medina as the specific motives for the infamous attacks of 9/11. His rationale was hardly reported in the U.S. mainstream media (MSM).

Since 9/11those media and Western politicians have shifted blame for the dissolution of the Arab world away from neo-colonial capitalist depredations and the interventionist pattern Scott Anderson implicitly reviews. Instead of blaming a failed capitalist system and its related foreign policy, they locate the cause of Middle Eastern chaos in Islam and in Hitler-like tactics of egregiously evil dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad. The problems thus become personalized, cultural and religious. Thankfully for those responsible, they also become largely insoluble thus necessitating permanent war. Thus the grateful include Israel, Saudi Arabia and other “American” client states. They include as well the oil and arms industries, and the corporate-controlled MSM all of whom profit from a chaotic Middle East and from misidentifying the true culprit in the region.

If all of this is true, what then must be done about Anderson’s “Fractured Arab World?”  If the cause of the fissures there is not religion nor Hitler Redivivus, but capitalism itself, its 150-year war against socialism and its six-point pattern of colonial intervention, what policies might replace the failed, counter-productive measures of war, incessant bombing, and drone attacks? If the foot soldiers in the war are not religious zealots, but unemployed and underemployed young people without prospect or hope, what will give them hope and meaning beyond a black uniform, ski mask and gun?

Here’s where we might start:

  • Abandon imperial pretensions and allow nations everywhere to experiment with alternatives to a capitalist system that clearly does not serve them.
  • Stop all vilification of Islam and Muslims.
  • Completely transform the U.S. economy from its fossil fuel dependency, thus removing the major reason for “American” interest in the Middle East.
  • Nationalize the U.S. arms industry, thus severing the connection between war and profit.
  • Cut off all aid to Israel until it complies with repeated U.N. mandates to withdraw from the Palestinian territories it has illegally occupied. This would take seriously bin Laden’s claim that solving the Palestinian problem would also solve the problem of terrorism.
  • As a good-will measure and for the sake of justice, indict, try, and punish George Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others responsible for the Iraq War that gave rise to ISIS.
  • Divert the billions now invested in failed wars against terrorism into reconstruction of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and other countries devastated by Western wars.
  • Similarly use those billions to provide constructive employment not only for ISIS fighters, but for U.S. soldiers who find themselves armed and in uniform for reasons similar to the young militants referenced in Scott Anderson’s essay.
  • With good will demonstrated in these ways, summon a Peace and Reconciliation Conference to include all stake holders in Middle East conflicts including ISIS..
  • Comply with the decisions of the conference.

That such common sense measures probably seem impossible and completely off the table for most of our diplomats (and readers of this essay!) represents a sad comment on our limits of perception. It exhibits a lack of genuine will on the parts of our “leaders” to solve the problem of global terrorism. It also demonstrates the need for a revolution of our own.







How to Be Pro-Life and Not Just Pro-Birth

Joan Chittister

Recently, Benedictine Sister, Joan Chittister, grabbed some headlines when she took on the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” crowd.

She wrote,

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Sister Chittister’s point is well-taken. Being truly pro-life means joining reluctant mothers in the sacrifices they routinely make to see that their children are fed, properly housed and educated. So claiming to be pro-life while campaigning against food stamps, universal health care, Head Start, and subsidized housing is disingenuous to say the least. It also seems incompatible with defunding Planned Parenthood, our nation’s largest provider of sex education – probably the most effective, non-intrusive birth control measure of all.

And it’s significant that such reminders come from a woman. Women after all are the ones who primarily bear the burden imposed by the narrow pro-birth demands made mostly by men. Women alone are capable of bringing unwanted pregnancies to term. They are the ones who usually end up raising children as single parents.

Meanwhile, it is primarily men who insist that women fulfill responsibilities men themselves cannot fulfill on the one hand, and can easily evade on the other. The men include most prominently celibate Catholic clergy and an overwhelmingly male U.S. Congress. In biblical terms they are (to use Jesus’ words) “experts in the law” who “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry” and which the “experts” themselves “will not lift one finger” to lighten (LK 11:46). It’s no wonder so many women see pro-birthers as militants in a war against women.

But it’s even worse than that. If abortion is the crime they allege, pro-birthers are criminal accessories. They are co-abortionists. This is because their anti-life policies which deny reluctant mothers sex education, good jobs, decent wages, maternity leave, free child care, programs like Head Start, and subsidized food and housing create an anti-life culture. And that in turn drives desperate women to terminate unwanted pregnancies that will effectively impoverish them.

If lawmakers and religious leaders really care about life and want fewer abortions, they need to create a pro-life culture that invites bringing pregnancies to term. Most obviously, this means that it’s unjust for women to be left holding the bag. In particular it means:

  • Recognizing that the absolute prohibition of abortion endorsed by many Christians is not universally accepted.
  • Realizing that abortion as already restricted (to the first two trimesters) by the Roe v. Wade decision is about as much restriction as possible in such a pluralistic context.
  • In that light, having Christians adopt a prophetic, persuasive approach to limiting abortions rather than a legal coercive one.
  • This means that committed Christians would themselves refuse to abort unwanted fetuses, that they would support others in following suit, and (above all) that they’d promote pro-life measures across the board including anti-poverty legislation, but also advocating war resistance, elimination of capital punishment, and strict environmental protection legislation.
  • Supporting sex education programs like those offered by Planned Parenthood.
  • Changing the patriarchal teaching of the Catholic Church about birth control.

What Ordinary People Can Do for World Peace


This morning I watched “Democracy Now” as I do each day. All this week, the best news program on air will be broadcast from the Netherlands. There the show’s host, Amy Goodman, will be at the Hague, where she’s attending a World Forum celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom.

Today’s program featured interviews with three women peace activists and Nobel Peace laureates: Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Jody Williams of the U.S.  Mairead Maguire received her prize for her actions to end the conflict in her country. Leymah Gbowee was given the Nobel award for her leadership in a women’s movement that brought down dictator, Charles Taylor in Liberia, and saw him sentenced to 50 years in prison. Jody Williams’ prize resulted from her work in an international campaign to ban landmines.

All three women were entirely inspiring as they showed how ordinary people like you and me can change the world if we organize and stay for the long haul  in the struggle for peace.

Their interviews led me to think:

What is Peace?

I recently heard repeated

(In a sermon)

The bromide that

Peace is “not just absence of war.”

That’s right (I suppose) as far as it goes,

But peace is more than that.

It is indeed “not just the absence of war.”

But absence of war without its causes,

Injustice and inequality.

Peace is absence of war

With obscene poverty and income gaps



That’s the goal.

The question is

What will I do

For peace, justice, and equality


Lexington’s New Bishop Channels Pope Francis


“A Jesuit pope by the name of Francis sends you a Franciscan bishop trained by the Jesuits.”

Those were the words of Lexington, Kentucky’s new bishop, John Stowe, as he introduced himself at his first press conference last week.

The words came as a breath of fresh air to progressive Catholics in the Lexington Diocese. As a resident of that diocese, they came as a refreshing breeze to me.

In his opening statement, there was not a word about abortion, contraception, or gay marriage – the dreary, unvarying drum beat of doctrinal rigidity that has (in the pope’s words) turned the lives of Catholics into an endless “Lent without Easter.”

Instead, bishop-elect Stowe follows the lead of his boss who emphasizes the “Good News” of the Christian faith, and not right-wing doom and gloom. While not ignoring those other matters, Pope Francis (and, it seems, bishop-elect Stowe) would have Catholics engage the big issues such as the failure of corporate capitalism and its resulting wealth inequalities, wars, climate chaos, and particularly exclusion of those conservatives consider “outsiders.”

In his progressive stances, however, Lexington’s new appointee is not merely a disciple of Pope Francis. He also has a long personal history social activism, community organization, and inter-faith cooperation.

In his earlier posts in Ohio and Texas, the bishop-elect has been a consistent peace and social justice leader, and a critic of reactionary politics – especially as they affect immigrants.

Father Stowe recognizes, for instance, the parallels between the experience of today’s undocumented workers and that of his Italian grandmother who along with her compatriots were routinely called “WOPS,” or immigrants without papers.

More specifically, in 2006, when Fr. Stowe addressed the Mayor’s Congress on Immigration Reform in El Paso, Texas, he rejected the “Minuteman” and vigilante approach to border security. He criticized the U.S. Congress saying, “We shudder to imagine what the inscription on the Statue of Liberty might read if it had been erected by the current U.S. Congress.”

The bishop-elect is fluent in Spanish. His introductory conference featured a long paragraph in perfectly delivered in that language. I’m sure that gladdened the hearts of the growing Hispanic community in the Lexington diocese. Hispanics, Stowe says, (along with his Franciscan emphasis on service to the poor) have formed him as a priest and pastor.

In summarizing his priorities and agenda, Rev. Stowe said he will focus on worship and the service that inevitably flows, he said, out of meaningful liturgy. But like his papal mentor, he would do lots of listening before acting.

In all things, he would take Pope Francis as his inspiration and guide, and would follow his example. “I love Pope Francis,” he said, and will do whatever he asks.“

That augurs well for progressive Catholics, for the Lexington diocese, and for the Commonwealth in general.

On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton


Last week I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. It was Don Nugent, a University of Kentucky historian who once taught Peggy during her graduate years. Don told me that his “Thomas Merton Group” would be meeting on Sunday. It would be the once-a-year special gathering in Merton’s hermitage. Would we like to come? What a question! What a privilege! Wild horses couldn’t keep us away (although a severe cold did prevent Peggy from accompanying me). In any case, here are the thoughts the visit provoked:

“On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”

I entered a saint’s house today,

Thomas Merton’s hermitage

In Gethsemane, Kentucky,

A stark cinder-block hut

With walls unpainted

Stuck incongruously

At the end of a long muddy path

Covered with stones

And fallen brown leaves

In a bleak December woods.


The journey to Gethsemane was tedious

But grand –

Two hours along twisting roads

Through Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch

With their stunning landscapes

Of rolling bluegrass hills

And endless farms

Dotted with double-wides

And red brick mansions

With identical Christmas lights

Following the contours of their disparate roofs

And bathtub Madonnas adorning their lawns.

Near the monastery

I passed huge black distilleries

of presaging Spirits —

Makers’ Mark, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.


Merton’s hermitage had a large living room,

A bedroom with a narrow cot

On which (no doubt) the saint dreamed

Of that nurse in Louisville

Who won his heart

And made him human

For the rest of us.

There was a kitchen and bathroom

And a chapel too

With a small square altar

And a wall with the Coptic icons

So dear to that mystic’s soul.


We sat in a circle

Twenty of us

In Father Louis’ living room

On folding chairs

Spotted with rust

Between a smoking fire

And the desk where “Louie”

Used to write.

Jacques Maritain once sat with him there,

We were told,

And MLK would’ve as well

Had not the assassin’s bullet

Aborted his planned pilgrimage

To the Great Man’s feet.


We listened to Brother Paul

Read his poetry –

A gloss on Matthew’s words,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

In the winter cold,

Some dozed,

One snored.

But brother Paul was on fire,

His breath’s vapor blending

With the hearth’s smoke.

For the wakeful,

His words lit flames

That made wood fire redundant.


All of us are poor

He said.

None of this is ours

Everything is gift.

Prayer knows the Reality

That is always there

But not perceived.

It is coming to realize

What we already sense

But normally do not recognize.

Prayer is a pause

That shifts the atmosphere

Of the soul.

It is encountering a Christ

Who comes in ways hidden,

But not recognized

For a long time.


Paul quoted Emily Dickinson

“I’m nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too? . . .

How dreary to be somebody!”


Suddenly Paul jumped up.

“It’s time for Vespers,” he said,

And ran off.

The rest of us scurried to follow him

To the monastery chapel.


“I used to live like this,”

I thought as I stared at the monks

In stalls opposed across a narrow aisle.

There were perhaps thirty of them

Mostly middle-aged and older

One black, the rest white, balding; some bearded.

“I did this for twenty-years,” I thought.

I wondered how.

All men, dressed identically,

Praying together seven times each day,

Keeping long silences

Punctuating endless hours of chaste study,

Now and then catching glimpses of women

And wondering about them

Before driving those thoughts from our minds.

I’m  glad I failed at that.


But Brother Paul was right.

It is all gift.

Trying to be somebody

Is quite dreary

Truly I was born without anything .

So were you.

My goal is

To keep most of it

Till I die.

What’s yours?

Thanksgiving Table-Talk: Immigration Reform


I’m not looking forward to Thanksgiving. Oh, it’s not that I don’t like turkey and won’t eat my share. It’s just that, like most of you, I’ve got this Fox News brother-in-law, and he gives me indigestion. I see Harry once a year, and for the past six Thanksgivings it’s always the same: complaints about Obama. You know the drill; just read Rush Limbaugh’s current talking points. They’re all sure to surface at Thanksgiving dinner.

This year, no doubt, we’ll end up arguing about immigrants, immigration reform, and the imperial presidency. My brother-in-law will complain about “illegals” (that’s what he’ll call undocumented workers), the law, amnesty, border security, and Obama’s failure to reach across the aisle to well-meaning and otherwise cooperative Republicans.

But most of all, my dear relative will complain about the disruptive effects of “the brown peril” – waves of immigrants pouring over our borders and disrupting our economy. “I mean,” he’ll say, “if we keep giving amnesty to ‘those people,’ they’ll disrupt everything. You just can’t let everybody into the country without rules. ‘Freedom’ like that is simply anarchy. And anarchy is destructive. They’ll eventually take all the good jobs.”

Well, here’s what I plan on telling old Harry this year:

“You see, Harry, we’re finally getting a taste of the disruption economies like Mexico have experienced since 1994 and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It was then that in the name of “free trade” tsunami waves of capital investment were unleashed across the Mexican border. To Mexican farmers it was an onslaught of “white peril” that dwarfs any threat you and I might experience from brown people.

“For instance, cheap American corn (actually subsidized in the NAFTA agreement) drove Mexican farmers out of business. True, a relatively few of them got employment in maquiladoras (assembly plants).  But many of those factories soon closed when it became possible to hire lower wage workers in China and Vietnam. And in any case, working in the maquilas meant moving from the countryside to polluted and dangerous cities. It also meant accepting wages of $1.50 a day with no bathroom breaks. Conditions like those inevitably cause desperate workers to relocate to where the money is – to where the jobs are. And that’s the United States.

“Remember, Harry, there are two main components of the economic equation – not just capital. Labor is just as important. So any “free trade agreement” that allows capital to move without regulation should allow the same liberty to labor. Instead, the NAFTA insisted on free movement of capital alongside a captive labor force.

“Workers implicitly recognize the injustice of all that even if they can’t say the words. So despite ‘state law’ forbidding it, the labor force will obey the dictates of capitalism’s Sacred Law of supply and demand – of self-interest. Like capital, labor will migrate to where the money is. And you can’t really stop it. That’s capitalism.

“So here’s the way to stem the brown peril:

  • Renegotiate the NAFTA recognizing labor’s freedom of movement as well as capital’s.
  • That will mean electing governments on all sides of “free trade agreements” that truly represent working people and not just the corporations.
  • Make sure that ALL stake-holders are represented at the negotiating table – including male and female workers, children, environmentalists, and trade unionists.
  • Make sure the final product protects the environment and addresses climate change.
  • See that the newly elected people’s governments establish a living NAFTA wage of $15.00 an hour – indexed to inflation rates.

“Without such provisions, Harry, I’m afraid workers will look abroad to better their condition. They’ll continue (like their capitalist counterparts) to act in their own self-interest relocating quite naturally to where the money is. Really, we can’t do anything about it.

Like I say, that’s capitalism.”