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Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

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Bill O'Reilly, Pine Knots and War

I stopped watching Bill O’Rielly long ago–and since I don’t have a TV at the moment, I don’t watch any of the Cable Newsertainment channels, whether CNN, MSNBC or Fox. I stopped watching O’Rielly when I realized that he displayed an amazing degree of ignorance or oversimplification when he discussed subjects with which I was familiar. I then concluded that I shouldn’t expect him to do any better when reporting/discussing topics about which I was not familiar; so I decided it was better to get my information elsewhere. My opinion has been confirmed many times since, most recently in an interview O’Reilly did with Diane Sawyer regarding poverty in Appalachia. His first mistake? In my book it was pronouncing it “Appa-LAY-shah” instead of “Appa-LATCH-ah,” but that’s (somewhat) debatable1. What isn’t debatable is the fact that his condescension is evidence of a long-standing problem. Whether one is speaking of language2 in particular or culture more generally, the people of the Appalachian mountains have been the acceptable butt of jokes in popular American culture. Betty Wallace over at the Appalachian History blog calls for an end to it, and an end to the passivity with which most mountain people put up with it, in her post Hillbilly stereotypes: picking up pine knots and going to war (If you’re curious you can see a YouTube clip of O’Reilly’s remarks below the fold).

Bill O’Reilly’s recent contemptible rant against Appalachian Americans is only the latest example of the widespread and multigenerational problem of Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes.

Quite simply, O’Reilly reminded the world once again that people of the Appalachian Mountains are still the only cultural group in America that many people have the audacity to ridicule publicly as being of low intelligence, and worse.

Can you imagine if O’Reilly had made the same despicable statements about ________ in _________, or ________ in ________, or _______ in ________. (Fill in the blanks with any racial or ethnic or cultural slurs you can imagine, the more insensitive the better.)

How can we as a people ever overcome this pervasive hillbilly stereotype? Why do we continue to pull in our heads like turtles and pretend we don’t care and that we will survive regardless of the outside world? Well, I do care—for myself, my family and friends, and my culture—and I don’t believe that we are surviving very well or will survive in the future as a culture with a shred of honor and dignity if we do not rise up, en masse, and protest at every opportunity this kind of insensitive abuse.

We continue to loll about in our insular Snuffy Smith, Lil Abner, Mammy Yokum, Jed Clampett, grits-and-possum stereotype as if the opinion of the rest of the world does not matter, even while we are being brutalized every time someone laughs at our dialect or accent, or asks WHERE are you from, or rejects us for a job, or does not publish our writing because how could an ignorant hillbilly possibly have something to say.

A professor at the University of Colorado once said to our own Charles Frazier, “Imagine that! A hillbilly with a Ph.D.!” Even worse than the professor thinking such a misbegotten thought was that she felt entitled to publicly say it right to his face. Can you imagine her making that statement to a person of any other racial or ethnic or cultural group? “Imagine that! A ______ with a Ph.D.!”

{Read it all}

The problems O’Reilly mentions are present in Appalachia, as they are present in any poor community, urban or rural. Meth in particular is a problem that has swept the country and has been particularly devastating in rural areas. Additionally, while I am one to push for personal responsibility and accountability, as someone who grew up in Western North Carolina–an area of the mountains that has escaped the worst ravages of industrialization such as coal mining (but has it’s own issues with exploitation in the past and rapid development and population increases in the present)–I find it interesting to note that many of the areas afflicted by the worst poverty and attendant problems are also those places that have endured the greatest outside exploitation.

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  1. As if the varying boundaries weren’t enough, there is no fundamental agreement even about how to pronounce the word “Appalachia.” Residents of southern and central Appalachia pronounce the term with a short -a- in the stressed third syllable; further north, the same -a- is given a long pronunciation, as in “Appal-achia.” Most of the experts and bureaucrats who came from Washington and elsewhere to fix the region’s problems beginning in the 1960s adopted the northern pronunciation, while resident experts favor the southern– which led to a situation, according to one commentator, wherein “people who said AppaLAYchia were perceived as outsiders who didn’t know what they were talking about but were more than willing to tell people from the mountains what to do and how they should do it.” Finally, while a majority of both long and short -a- users crunch the third syllable as though it were spelled Appal-atch-yuh, in New England– where the term “Appalachian” first came into widespread use by nongeologists thanks to the Appalachian Mountain Club and the development of the Appalachian Trail– a variant pronunciation uses “sh” rather than “ch,” as in Appal-ay-shuh. (Appalachia: A History, by John Alexander Williams, p14) []

  2. APPALACHIAN ENGLISH: The English of the mountain region of Appalachia in the south-eastern US: in parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and all of West Virginia. The most influential settlers in these areas were the SCOTS-IRISH, who began arriving in the British American colonies c.1640 and moved to the south and west. Because of the relative isolation in which it has developed and the continuance of forms regarded elsewhere as archaisms, Appalachian English has been regarded (popularly but incorrectly) as a kind of Elizabethan or Shakespearian English. However, it shares features with other kinds of non-standard English, particularly in the South: absence of the copula (That alright); the use of right and plumb as intensifying adverbs (I hollered right loud, The house burnt plumb down). Phonological features include: initial /h/ in such words as hit for it, hain’t for ain’t; -er for -ow as in feller/tobaccer/yeller (fellow/tobacco/yellow). Grammatical features include: a-prefixing with -ing participial forms (He just kept a beggin’ an’ a-cryin’) and the use of done as a perfective marker (He done sold his house: He has sold his house). A-prefixing is a relic of a construction containing the OLD ENGLISH preposition on in unstressed positions before certain participles: He was on hunting (He was engaged in hunting). Currently, Appalachian English is often socially stigmatized because it is spoken in its most distinctive form by poor, often uneducated, mountain people. See DIALECT (UNITED STATES), SOUTHERN ENGLISH.

    From: “APPALACHIAN ENGLISH” Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Ed. Tom McArthur. Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of the South. 2 March 2009 []

That a child might live…

Theotokos: Life-giving Spring

Theotokos: Life-giving Spring

As if the world of medical ethics were not convoluted and strained enough, our technology allows us to continue pushing boundaries while raising moral questions that were not even on the radar screen 100, 50 or even 25 years ago. Thankfully there are those who still ask the questions begged by various procedures–but such voices seem to be crying alone in the wilderness at times.

For example, I checking my RSS feeds today and came across this piece via Touchstone’s “Mere Comments” blog.  It seems that California courts have determined that it is illegal for doctors who perform in vitro fertilization procedures to refuse their services to homosexuals.  Don’t import your (private) ethics into your (public) work, the message goes.  Of course, the real question is, as James Kushiner rightly notes, why these Christian doctors (and evidently those protesting universal access to fertility and conception services are Christians of some variety or other) are performing such procedures in the first place, “Artificial insemination should never been accepted by Christians doctors in the first place,” he says “so the moral issue here lies further downstream.  On the face of it, the court decision might force Christian doctors to reeducate their consciences by learning what real Christian medical practice is.” (read his complete comment here)

But this wasn’t the only ethical quandary lurking in my blog-reader today and the second issue hits somewhat closer to home.  It seems that some doctors up in Denver have just released the findings of their government funded research in which they experimented with removing the hearts of severely brain-damaged babies shortly after their hearts stopped beating, but before total brain-death was pronounced.  As the article puts it:

Surgeons in Denver are publishing their first account of a procedure in which they remove the hearts of severely brain-damaged newborns less than two minutes after the babies are disconnected from life support, and their hearts stop beating, so the organs can be transplanted into infants who would otherwise die.

It just so happens that a family with close ties to St. Francis Church has a child who is in the hospital as we speak awaiting a viable heart transplant match.  What is one to say to this family, hoping against hope that prayer and modern medicine work together to bring their child a long and happy life.  The task to even think about this topic almost becomes too heavy a burden when one has not been in their situation, praying for one’s own child.  But is it their hope that puts this situation into a moral gray area, or is it the eagerness of doctors who, in their desire to save some may be depriving others of their lives (and it is murder to take life, even a life that would otherwise have ended minutes or seconds later without interference).  Again, from the Washington Post article:

Critics, however, are questioning the propriety of removing hearts from patients, especially babies, who are not brain-dead and are asking whether the Denver doctors wait long enough to make sure the infants met either of the long-accepted definitions of death — complete, irreversible cessation of brain function or of heart and lung function. Some even said the operations are tantamount to murder.

I don’t have an answer to every question, but I do wonder sometimes why we as Christians avoid such important issues and instead find ouselves locked in heated battle over what color the carpet in the foyer should be.  I’m not certain Christians would be as divided as we are on moral and ethical issues if we actually talked, as Christians, about them.  As it is, we are divided about large issues because we focus on and become defined by much smaller differences of opinion, so that we are no longer schooled in the Christian tradition that is meant to form us as followers of Christ.  As Kushiner says “Isn’t it time to establish an alternative, and moral, traditional Christian medical practice around the country? The fault line is already there, but we’ve got Christian doctors standing on both sides of it.”  That pretty much describes the relationship of Christians to every moral issue out there.  There is no unanimity among Christians on these topics.  And without a willingness to approach them, there never will be.

So here’s the hard question for us: what lengths are available to us from a Christian perspective in the creation of life, or in the preservation of life.  What are the legitimate actions to take so that a child might live.  Are we prepared to say that another must die–even if only a bit sooner than otherwise.

University Flashback: The Poisonwood Bible Review

I wrote the following review of The Poisonwood Bible for a Humanities course in college. I post it now in honor of Anna’s reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, vegetable, miracle. I may come back later on and add in the specific citations to the essay, but that will take more time than I’m willing to put in at the moment.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is extremely effective in its use and illustration of some of the defects present in liberal capitalist society. The book illustrates the critiques advanced by several modern critics of the liberal experiment, including communitarians, feminists and theologians. These critiques are exemplified very well in the dynamic that exists in the development of various characters within the work. Focusing mainly upon the characters of Rachel, Leah and Nathan this paper will demonstrate that they each of them seeks to negotiate a different aspect of modern culture even as they are supposedly outside of its grasp.

In order to understand the problems facing our culture it is necessary to understand the two theses inherent in enlightenment dialogue that have shaped the formation of subsequent forms of government; as Alisdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue: “It is clear that the Enlightenment’s mechanistic account of human action included both a thesis about the predictability of human behavior and a thesis about the appropriate ways to manipulate human behavior.” The history of the ideologies arising out of the enlightenment has been the story of attempts to focus and implement this manipulation. Communism and socialism, totalitarianism and liberalism differ in their assumptions about how to satisfy the desires of human nature yet agree that control is a necessity.

At its heart, the justification for any government is how effectively it protects it citizens. No longer is the responsibility of government protection limited to protection from foreign militaries and invasion however, instead, that protection has been continuously extended.

Evidence of our changing view of government is clearly seen in the new responsibilities we place upon it. Today it is not uncommon to place the blame for an economic slowdown on the government and ask what the “government” is going to do about it-as though the government were some “other” unit of society and wasn’t occupied and controlled by citizens. We speak also of a universal “right” to healthcare, of the “right” to bodily integrity and so forth. The common thread behind all these rights, from the ridiculous to the sublime, is the empowerment of the individual, often morally, usually economically. This is an extension of what it means to be free in the Anglo-American school of thought, which John Dewey articulates in Freedom and Culture:

In the American and English liberal tradition, the idea of freedom has been connected with the idea of individuality, of the individual. The connection has been so close and so often reiterated that it has come to seem inherent [. . .] in the continental European tradition the affiliation of the idea of freedom is with the idea of rationality.

The problem has not simply been how to control human behavior, but to determine what human nature is. Dewey’s belief was that majority of attempts to explain human nature have fallen prey to the tendency of becoming little more than abstractions of the problems observed. During the Enlightenment, freedom was seen to be the goal inherent in human nature while in his own time this goal was thought to be the love of power.

The common assumption iterated by both Anglo-American and Continental schools is that people desire safety or security. There are a few routes chosen to help accomplish the goal of making people feel safe and secure. The first is to make them feel empowered, the second to make them forget about death with the two routes intersecting naturally at various intervals.

Consider the stark contrasts exhibited in the Poisonwood Bible between the American interlopers and the native Congolese. The closeness of death in the minds of the native people juxtaposed with the sterile lives lived by the Americans helps further the story’s goal of humanizing the Congolese while simultaneously addressing many of the injustices inherent to and the detachment bred by modern capitalist culture. The items that the family takes to the Congo with them help to illustrate this detachment and sterility as well. Rather than being concerned about the basic necessities of life in such a place, the family chose to take cake mix and deviled ham. The interesting thing is that-the mother at least-viewed these things a necessary and basic. Their concern was with Betty Crocker, not clean water.

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The Atlantic: "Mr. Conservative" John McCain

Jonathan Rauch has a wonderful article on John McCain’s conservatism with the tag line “John McCain hasn’t betrayed conservatism; his party has.” It’s a good look at some of the reasons Conservatism will be much better off with McCain setting the tone than someone like Bush (who’s about as far from conservatism in some areas as Obama is in others).

Alert Washingtonians were treated to an odd juxtaposition not long ago. John McCain was booed at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the big annual gathering of the right-wing tribes, while trying to establish that he was a conservative. On the same day, across town at the American Enterprise Institute—another conservative stronghold—Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, was warmly received when he touted a new book called Real Change. Never one to go underboard, Ging­rich called for “explosively replac[ing] the failed bureaucracies of the past.”

The irony of the contrast seemed lost on conservatives. No one in the movement doubts Gingrich is a real, no-kidding conservative. Many doubt that McCain is. Some flatly flunk him. Thus spake James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family and a leader of the Christian right: “I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative.” He’s not one of us, these conservatives have insisted.

Actually, they’re not one of them. But he is.

{Read it all}

Where do we get the time?

Anna and I don’t have a TV at the moment (it broke before we moved to Goodlettsville).  We’re going to get one when we move into our house, but only for movies… no cable or satellite.  Evidently this is a smart move… we’re too busy to waste time on lots of TV watching (though TiVO is great for watching just what you want when you have time).  So… here’s the question: where do we get the time to work on the internet? I’ve sort of given it away, but watch this, it’s very interesting. (HT: Gavin)

"Sorry about the torture; we thought you were one of the terrorists"

During the Clinton presidency I recall the cries and warnings of pseudo-conservatives, especially folks like Rush Limbaugh, that our freedoms were being taken away, big brother was coming to enforce libertine ethics on our families etc… Fast-forward to today, and many “conservatives” have prostituted themselves and any legitimacy they may once have had to defend policies and decisions that–if made by an administration they hadn’t staked their political futures on–they would have decried as leading to the end of the freedom and virtue this nation was founded upon.

Take the following examples. Ten years ago, how would people have responded to stories of our government kidnapping people–even criminals or terrorists? Have we become so set on safety and survival that we not only give up our own freedoms for it, but are willing to do things that are unquestionably evil (and I use that term deliberately), practice the vices of governments that for years we have chastised, abuse people in ways that the US was established to oppose? And yet still we sooth ourselves with the mantra that we’re a “good people” and a “great nation” and that “they hate us because of our freedom,” as “America’s Mayor” has trotted out for the press so often. If that’s true, then they won’t have reason to hate us much longer. It’s a brave new world, and the freedom we so often parade has shown itself to be it’s own means of societal control–a counterfeit liberty.

Take for example the response of the Republican candidates to questions about the use of torture in one of the debates earlier this year. Of the field, only one candidate stated definitively that he would not authorize the torture of prisoners to get information–John McCain. To be fair, I’ve since read that Ron Paul has also stated he would not use torture. The rest of the candidates said flat out that they would use torture or tried to play games with the question rephrasing it to sanitize it by using the term “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

John McCain was not just morally right when he said he wouldn’t resort to torture, he was also correct from a utilitarian perspective when he said that information extracted under torture is notoriously unreliable. He’s also correct when he says this: “It’s not about the terrorists, it’s about us. It’s about what kind of country we are.”

Or, to put it another way, in the reimagined sci fi series Battlestar Gallactica, Admiral Adama says that their fight with their Cylon enemies is not just about survival, but deserving to survive. Perhaps thats a question we need to ask ourselves as we defend our way of life: does what we’re doing make us more or less deserving of survival?

Consider that as you read this editorial, “Sorry about the torture; we thought you were one of the terrorists.”

Here’s the problem with Guantanamo Bay – and secret CIA prisons on foreign soil – in a nutshell: If the prisoners being held there are illegal enemy combatants, then most Americans believe they do not deserve all the procedural niceties afforded by the Constitution. But the only fair way to figure out if a prisoner qualifies as an illegal enemy combatant is to follow the procedural niceties guaranteed by the Constitution.

And the Bush administration hasn’t even come close.

Take Khaled el-Masri. He was kidnapped by American agents while he was vacationing in Macedonia in 2003. He was beaten, stripped, dressed in a diaper and sweatsuit, and then chained, spread-eagle, to the floor of an airplane. He was flown to Afghanistan – where he was held incommunicado and, he says, tortured in a secret prison for five months. By then, U.S. agents realized they had the wrong guy. Khaled el-Masri was not, in fact, Khalid al-Masri, the terrorist. Whoops, sorry about that! El-Masri was then dumped in Albania and left to find his way home.

ON TUESDAY, citing the state secrets doctrine, the Supreme Court said el-Masri could not bring a civil suit in U.S. court. Germany’s parliament continues to investigate the episode.

If el-Masri’s were an isolated case, that would be one thing. But it is not. Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was kidnapped by U.S. agents and spirited to Syria, where authorities tortured him for 10 months. A subsequent inquiry by Canadian authorities determined “categorically” that there was “no evidence to indicate that Arar has committed any offense.” El-Masri and Arar are not alone.

How do Americans know the prisoners held captive in Guantanamo are not also victims of the fog of war but are, as the Bush administration claims, the “worst of the worst”? We don’t.

Take Australian David Hicks, the first Guantanamo prisoner to be convicted under the 2006 Military Commissions Act. According to press reports, “The high school dropout, Muslim convert, and al-Qaida recruit fought for two hours alongside the Taliban before he sold his rifle for taxi fare and was captured trying to escape Afghanistan in December 2001.” He was held at Guantanamo for more than five years before pressure from the Australian government led to a plea agreement – in which Hicks was sentenced to all of nine months’ imprisonment, on condition that he stop alleging that he was physically abused.

{read it all}

Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier

I just finished reading Thirteen Moons, the second novel by author Charles Frazier. I came to this novel with high expectations given my appreciation for his first work, Cold Mountain, and Frazier did not disappoint. In fact, I believe this effort may even be better than his first, though the differences in story, and the distance in time between readings could color that assessment.

I enjoy Frazier’s writing. He’s easy to read and he has a gift of making his characters seem real and alive. While he has chosen to base his characters on historical figures, he has used these traits primarily as markers along the way and is quite adept at filling in the details of personality and character.

In Thirteen Moons Frazier again finds his subject in the Mountains–indeed in the same general era, though taking in a broader sweep of time, both before and after the War between the States. Whereas Cold Mountain was a fictional tale inspired by one of Frazier’s Inman ancestors, Thirteen Moons was inspired by the story of William Holland Thomas, the “White Chief of the Cherokee,” but, as Frazier is quick to point out in the author’s note, the main character, Will Cooper “is not William Holland Thomas, though they do share some DNA,” and readers who are familiar with the history of the region should be able to pick out the bits that are more or less based on Thomas’ life.

For me, the great gift of Thirteen Moons is that it provides an interesting narrative overlay of the time period it covers. Certainly it is a work of fiction, and every detail is not historical, but that doesn’t take away from it. Indeed, where it departs, it is probably a benefit. The story follows the life of Will Cooper, a “bound boy” sent into what was then the frontier wilderness of the Southern Appalachians–beyond the white man’s land–to work at a trading post. In so doing it demonstrates in a very effective way the dissonance between the simplistic view of the “outside world,” particularly the government, and the reality of life in the region in all its complexity. But the novel doesn’t achieve this by setting up a sort of “us/them” conflict, it doesn’t say “this is how life is here” or add “and it’s better than where these other folks are,” instead it illustrates abiding and over arching principals through focusing on a particular story.

Above all the novel is a book about identity and mortality. By bringing up the complex question of what defined an Indian–was it blood or adoption etc..–it demonstrates how ill-equipped a society built on rigid color lines was to deal with the realities of human life. Tangled up with this theme of identity, and eventually becoming more predominant, is the theme of mortality. This mortality is not nihilistic however. It might better be called ironic, almost defiant. Everything changes the book confirms, people grow old and die, borders and ownership–such as it is–shift and become ephemeral, but in the midst of all this there is the truth of living–of friendship and love and history and place. Things may change, we may grow old and the world we know may even precede us in passing. But through it all, there is an assurance that life is to be lived and not regretted or fretted over. Indeed, one of the most believable aspects of the book is that while reading it really seems as though one is involved in a conversation with Will Cooper, that this old gentleman is sitting there with you on the porch telling you about his life, warts and all… and the best part of it is that the conversation doesn’t stop when you finish the book…

Another thing I love about Frazier’s writing is the humor he includes. Not to betray too much of the story, there is a wonderful description of John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson in the novel that had me laughing out loud (not the only place):

Jackson and Calhoun had the two most alarming manes of hair I had ever seen on white men. I qualified the judgement in that way because as a boy I knew a few old Indian warriors who still sported coifs from their youth way back in the previous century, styles that involved plucking half ones head with mussel-shell tweezers and letting the other half grow long, festooning random braided locks with colored beads and silver fobs and making part or all of the remainder elevate in spikes with the assistance of bear grease. But in a contest of extravagant hair just among white men, Jackson and Calhoun would have split the prize. they hated each other and yet continued to share their lofty hairstyles, which struck me as having all the features of placing exploding possums on their heads. Of course, they were both from South Carolina and thus given to strange enthusiasms.

Being from North Carolina (as is Frazier) I nearly rolled out of my chair laughing at that–especially the last line. But if you’re not from the South, don’t get any ideas–one thing you should know is that proximity and family ties makes it more like old friends having fun with one another when someone from NC, SC, TN etc.. says something about the other… but if somebody else says it–especially if they’re from the north east… well, that’s not good at all–it’s down right insulting.

All that is to say, Thirteen Moons is a wonderful book, and you should read it. Soon.

Update: The Eastern Band of the Cherokee have some information about Thomas on their web site:

Ok, I admit it–I'm a nerd

Wheel of Time

For those of you who didn’t know this already, I’m a nerd. Not just any breed of nerd, but a History/Theology/Sci Fi/Fantasy nerd. And in addition to the history and theology that I read, I’ve always loved fantasy and science fiction. I’ve read Lewis and Tolkien of course, as all living people should, but in addition to these giants, I’ve been a fan of Robert Jordan (the pseudonym of James O. Rigney) and his Wheel of Time series since I was in the 6th grade and picked up the first book The Eye of the World. Jordan, like Lewis and Tolkien before him, has succeeded in creating a fantastic world alive with color and drama, with characters that seem more friend than fiction. In many ways I’ve grown up with these books, reading them voraciously as a dumpy and awkward middle-schooler and beyond through high school and college and finally, this past year, reading his latest, Knife of Dreams, in seminary.

I learned tonight, while galavanting around the internet, that Mr. Jordan has been diagnosed with a disease called Amyloidosis, evidently this refers to the harmful buildup of proteins in various organs of the body (the exact nature of the disease varies). At any rate, Mr. Jordan is undergoing treatment at the Mayo Clinic for this issue and I’m sure he would appreciate any prayers you might offer. As one of his fans, I know I look forward to reading his writing for years to come.

you can read more about Mr. Jordan’s sickness and treatment at his personal blog.

View From Heaven from the album “Ocean Avenue” by Yellowcard

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