Sunday, February 12, 2006, 12:38 AM - Not to Fight with Beasts as Men
Reprinted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age

Tuesday afternoon a week ago (June 7 [2005]), my colleague Hasan Jeffries stopped by my office and asked if I'd seen the film Crash. Actually, "stopped by" is too mild a way to phrase it. Hasan is a fairly charismatic guy under the most ordinary circumstances, and on this occasion he was as animated as I've ever seen him. I told him I'd been meaning to see the movie since reading critic Roger Ebert's review back in May, but had not yet gotten around to it. "You have got to see this movie," Hasan said.

So that evening I did, and the next day Hasan and I met over lunch to discuss it.

"Crash," explains Ebert in his review, "tells interlocking stories of whites, blacks, Latinos, Koreans, Iranians, cops and criminals, the rich and the poor, the powerful and powerless, all defined in one way or another by racism. All are victims of it, and all are guilty of it. Sometimes, yes, they rise above it, although it is never that simple. Their negative impulses may be instinctive, their positive impulses may be dangerous, and who knows what the other person is thinking?" Hasan and I liked the film as a film, but we were most attracted to its ability to act as a catalyst for dialogue about racism. Yet Crash can be seen just as readily as a commentary on the ways in which we imprison ourselves behind walls of anger and how hard it is to escape those walls. I know that I myself have been, throughout my life, an intensely angry person, though I have tried very hard to control it and feel deeply chagrined and ashamed whenever I lose my temper. That's not just my personal struggle, however. It's the world's struggle. And the study of military history has much to do with understanding that.

Anger is everywhere. You never know when you'll encounter it. Last Friday (June 10) my significant other and I went out for a beer at a nearby bar called Caddo's. It affects a country-and-western atmosphere and is pretty laid back. (I think that for all my life I will be in the academy but not of it. I'm always most comfortable in what might be called working-class environments, and one of my favorite country songs is Aaron Tippin's "Working Man's PhD". Even though, strictly speaking, the song is sort of contemptuous of people with actual PhDs.)

We weren't there long. I spent most of the time chatting with a guitarist over a Corona beer and my SO, I belatedly discovered, spent a few hapless moments fending off a rather incompetent pass by one of the clientele. We had to be up early in the morning to drive out to Indiana so we left around 12:30 a.m. I backed my car out of its parking space and paused as a car two or three spaces away also began pulling out. For a couple of seconds it was no big deal; I figured he'd see me and pause to let me by before completing his maneuver. But then I realized he was getting closer and closer to my car and then he just hit me. Tapped me is more like it. No big deal. Here's a photo of the damage. You can click for a larger image; indeed, you may have to; otherwise you may not be able to make out the damage. . . .

I got out of the car to do the routine exchange of insurance information. The other driver got of his car and started into one of those what-the-hell-were-you-doing-there-and-it's-all-your-fault routines.

"We're not going to do that," I said, mildly--emphasis on mildly because I could see that this guy was belligerent and probably drunk. "We're going to exchange insurance information as the law requires."

He said that he didn't have the information on him but that had coverage with State Farm, so it was OK, and anyway there wasn't any real damage, and so on.

I said, "One of two things is going to happen here. Either we are going to exchange information or I am going to call the police."

He told me I could just call the police, then, since he had no insurance information and no intention of sticking around at the scene to undergo a potential sobriety test. I called out the number of his license plate to my SO and she wrote it down. The guy got back into his car. I walked around to the passenger's side and asked him to reconsider, which may sound nuts on my part except that as soon as I refused to get caught up in the moment and insisted on keeping things businesslike, he calmed right down. In response to my request for him to reconsider, he told me candidly that he already had several DUIs (Driving Under the Influence) and preferred to be cited for leaving the scene of an accident. "Good luck," I said quietly--no sarcasm, I really meant it, because he obviously had problems and there wasn't anything I could do but hope that he got home okay.

I called in the accident report. The officer who came told me that ordinarily the police do not respond to accidents on private property, so the dumbest thing the guy could possibly have done was to leave the scene. That made him the subject of a criminal investigation--though the officer told me not to hold my breath for any quick resolution. He ran the plate number. Information about the person to whom the plate was registered came up on a computer screen in the middle of the cop's dashboard--the technology these days is amazing. He asked if the photo of the person looked like the guy with whom I'd spoken. I said it did. He said the guy was driving under a suspended license and, sure enough, had three DUIs.

So that was that. The next morning I took a few photos of the damage and then my SO and I headed off for Indiana. Claypool, Indiana, to be exact. Population 308 and falling, 97 percent white, median age 31.5 years, median household income $33,833, median house value $62,500. Not much goes on in Claypool, Indiana. Someone had recently tried to have a cockfight, and two roosters had been driven up from Kentucky for that purpose. No one seems to have explained the point of a cockfight to the roosters, however, and when thrown into the ring they just sort of regarded one another with a sort of isn't-this-odd incredulity. The organizer of the cockfight, disgusted and disappointed, simply turned them loose into the neighborhood, where they are now known as Lunch and Dinner, respectively. I saw them several times during my visit. Mahatma Gandhi was more belligerent than the two of them combined.

My SO has a friend living in Claypool and we were in her father's yard chatting when just beyond a row of hedges we heard a truck slam on its brakes, tires squealing, and then a voice screaming at the top of his lungs. We couldn't make out exactly what was said except that it involved a threat to kill whoever the screamer was talking to. Apparently the screamer felt that he had in some way been disrespected.

One of my conceits, which will probably get me slugged one day, is that I can defuse pretty much any hostile situation. I have a great belief in the power of remaining calm. It seems to evoke calm from the other person, almost despite themselves. So I walked around the row of hedges and saw that the screamer was a man in his mid-twenties who had stopped his pickup truck in the middle of the road. He had gotten out of his truck to berate--wait for it--a boy who could have been no more than twelve. Having gotten things off his chest, he was stalking back to his truck.

A small puppy followed him on the theory that, since in his young life he had gotten only petting and tummy tickles from human beings, this guy offered another fat opportunity for a little loving. The puppy got under the truck right about where the rear tire would crush him as soon as the screamer put the truck in gear. A little girl desperately ran out to the truck and begged the screamer not to drive away. "Aw, he'll be all right," the screamer said. The little girl grabbed the puppy and ran away just as the screamer threw the truck into gear and accelerated away. This time I did not get the license plate.

This time I could barely believe what I'd just seen.

I walked over to the group of kids that included the little girl and the twelve-year old boy. I asked what that had been all about. The boy, obviously shaken, had no idea. He'd simply been waving to trucks and cars as they went by and the screamer seemed to interpret this as some sort of mortal insult. (When I tell this story I am sometimes asked if I believe that the kid was really just waving hi. In fact I do. It was consistent with what I'd seen of the little group before and the kid showed none of the little signs that betray prevarication. But the main thing I say is, So what? What could possibly justify a grown man to do something like that? Why is the screamer getting the benefit of the doubt here?)

In a previous and for some reason slightly controversial entry, I suggested that military historians had something relevant to say about bullies. I now told the kids that I was a military historian who had active duty officers among my students. I said I liked to think about things like what had just happened as if they were military problems to be solved. I was the readier to address this particular "military problem" because the kids told me--and after a few more hours in Claypool and the nearby town of Pierceton, I heartily believed it--that around here some people engaged in this sort of random hostility all the time.

I stood where the boy had stood. I waved to an imaginary truck. I imagined the truck screeching to a halt. I imagined the driver storming toward me. I imagined what sort of man could be filled with so much rage, and concluded that it was most likely a man who had been beaten down by life. Maybe he'd lost his job. Maybe his girl friend had dumped him. Most probably, given the depressed area, he felt that life had given him a raw deal. He got so little respect that when a kid waved hello to him, he interpreted it as more disrespect. And although he might have to take it from adults, he wasn't going to take it from some damned twelve-year old twerp.

I said to the kids, "A basic rule in war is that, unless you have a very good reason, you do not give the enemy what he wants. A guy like this wants to pick a fight. He wants an excuse to be mad. He needs to be mad. How about if you said something like, 'Hey, mister, I really like your truck. What kind is it?' And so on."

One of the kids pointed out that maybe the guy would think this was sarcasm. I thought the kid was exactly right. I tried again.

"How about if you say, 'Mister, you scare me.'" That instantly struck me as the right answer. He comes raging up, expecting the satisfaction of a confrontation, and gets instead to see himself as what he is, a scary man bullying a small kid. I notice that the door to a house is a few feet away. "How about if you run inside the house," I continue.

It all makes sense, but I know it also sounds like running away. If this is going to work, the kids have to have a sense of empowerment. "You say this happens a lot?" I ask. They nod.

"Then here's what you do. Write down the make and model of the vehicle and the color. Write down whatever you can about the driver. If you can, write down the license plate number." They note that they have no pen and paper. "You say this happens a lot," I say, "so keep pen and paper handy. And then call the police."

My talking to them like this seems to have calmed them all down. Better yet, they're starting to think of this as a problem to be solved. They don't feel helpless. I leave them a business card. It's just a stunt. I want them to feel like they really have just had a consultation with an actual military historian. I say before I go, "Remember, don't give your enemy what he wants. If he wants a fight, deny him that. Get him onto your ground, not his. Can you imagine what a weak man that driver was to think he had to pick on kids half his age? He wanted a fight on those terms. Get him into a fight with the police instead."

They like that idea. The twelve-year old and I shake hands. I walk away. I feel good that I've been able to help--and yet somewhere down deep, I feel a rage, an odd kinship with the screamer in the pickup truck.

The Politics of Church 
Sunday, December 11, 2005, 11:45 AM - Not to Fight with Beasts as Men
An aspect of religion that I have never gotten used to is that it has a political dimension. In fact, I'd say that church politics is probably the main reason I find myself unable at present to attend church or even really to believe in a distinctively Christian theology. I adhere to it as an ethical system principally because it's what I know.

At the same time, I recognize that this perspective is naive. Politics, defined in its broadest sense as the use of power over people, is endemic to human activities. And the greater the perceived stakes, the more intense the politics.

For a fairly workaday example of church politics in action, consider two posts by "Christian Grewal," the pastor of a Toronto church whose parishioners are mainly Chinese:
More than a decade ago, most of the other Chinese churches in Toronto serviced the Cantonese-speaking community, while our church serviced the Mandarin-speaking community (Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese). Despite very different political and historical backgrounds, Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese worshippers co-existed rather peacefully in our church. Part of the reason was the fact that since coming to Canada, it was nice to worship in their own dialect; so politics and nationality took a back seat. . . .

[R]ecently all this has begun to change. In an effort to raise the numbers in his Mandarin-speaking service, a Pastor at one of our neighboring churches has taken it upon himself to label our church "Taiwanese," thus tearing open an old wound and polarizing the two groups within our church. This man would send his people over to our church, or to co-operative special services (where several Chinese churches would get together) to spread his campaign of misinformation. He would tell other pastors that there were four Chinese churches in our area and one Taiwanese one (meaning us, HWC).

Notice the subtlety in his language? He openly recruits people (especially leaders) from our congregation by visiting them in their homes or inviting them over to his church to run a Bible study. Thanks to this pastor some families have left us, and we're now known as the "Taiwanese church in Downtown Toronto." As well, the Mandarin-speaking Christian community in Downtown Toronto is now nicely split along the lines of National identity (Mainlander vs. Taiwanese). I think, for this pastor, sheep stealing is easier than actually going out and evangelizing others.
I would imagine that from God's perspective, it is a matter of indifference as to which church these parishioners attend. In other words, I don't see how anyone's spiritual well-being is intrinsically being threatened here. However, it's impossible not to sympathize with a pastor who feels his membership is being poached, and I can assuredly attest that the tactics of which he complains--and quite likely any counter-tactics he may himself adopt--are apt to create the sort of conflict that does indeed have adverse spiritual effects.

Conflict is bound to arise. The trouble with Christians--I can't speak knowledgeably of other groups--is that when it does their repertoire of skills to deal with it is no more advanced than that of others. Pastor "Grewal" seems an appealing character, based on my limited reading of his blog, and he may well be very adept in matters of this sort. But I have sure known plenty of pastors and lay leaders who weren't.

How to address the problem? I think the first step would be to go straight to the other pastor for a one-on-one. A useful guide to this sort of thing is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (1999). A precis of its approach is Bruce M. Patton, Difficult Conversations With Less Anxiety and Better Results, Dispute Resolution Magazine (Summer 1999), 25-29.