I have already shared some bike routes in Northern CA, but this ride is a bit different. For reasons I have not fully discovered, it is a route I have ridden more than any other.
Part of it certainly is that it ends at a train stop, which makes for a great, longish ride without the need to worry about how to get home. It is a bit more complicated in these COVID-19 times, but when I started riding it, that was one reason.
It is also a ride that maximizes diversity–going from the Central Valley floor, skirting the coastal mountains, and ending with great views of the Bay–and on clear days, views of San Francisco.
Anyone who rides significant distances will tell you that riding 50 miles on a perfectly flat terrain–like we have here in the Central Valley/Northern Delta–is more fatiguing than the up and down of a ride like this one. Just under 3000 feet of climbing and some rolling hills get you out of the saddle and make for a more enjoyable and less tiring ride.
And for a nearly 70-mile ride, this is a very low-stress ride. I got out early (just after 7:00), and had it not been for some car club group (10 cars zooming by), no more than 15 vehicles would have passed me the entire ride. The last 10 miles are mostly on a mixed-use (no cars) paved trail, and that is always an excellent way to finish up.
I recommend this ride with the north wind blows in the Central Valley. It will push you to Martinez. If the south wind is up in the Valley, be ready for a challenging ride from the north side of Fairfield to the Carquinez Bridge. You will be tired.
This is an all-season ride here in Northern California. If the north wind is blowing, you will likely get the clearest skies and the best opportunities for pictures.
Today I had little wind until I hit the south/west side of Fairfield, and then it was pretty consistent and strong. The sky was the profound blue we take for granted here, but there was a haze to the Bay.
My favorite parts of the ride are an 8-mile section starting at the junction of Pleasants Valley Road and continuing to Lyons Road until it ends in Fairfield. This section has the kind of rolling hills I grew up with in PA, and it feels effortless (and fast!).
There is an optical illusion when you join Pleasants Valley Road. It looks like you are going up, but when you get on the road, you feel like it is downhill. I have not figured it out yet. Skimming along the freeway on Lyons is the fastest portion.
Another favorite part is the section I noted from Crockett to Martinez–the last 10 miles.
The Carquinez Bridge views are beautiful–Mt Tam dominating the distance with a reminder that you are near the coast, and the breeze confirms it.
Then you get to enjoy, mostly without cars, the twisty up and downs across the Bay from Benecia. Here you understand how California gained the moniker of “the Golden State.” I don’t think it was about 1849. I think it was the color of the hills from April through November.
Seventy miles alone gives you a lot of time to think. Today I thought about
Photographs I would like to take
A New York Times article that has been bothering me
Courses I need to develop
How much I love biking
How thankful I am for the bike I have
How I will miss Northern CA if/when I have to leave
Here is a cool video of the ride. Thanks for coming along on what I christened today as the Valley to Views Ride.
This review is either very late or just in time. You can decide.
Jackson Browne is my favorite musical artist and has been for many years. I have “flings” with a few others.
(I thought U2 was going to be a lasting love, but they left me sometime between Zooropa and Pop–though we tried again for a while after All that You Can’t Leave Behind. Nick Cave seemed promising, but was way too dark. We didn’t last. All the rest were harmless flirtations–though, Au4 still makes my heart go aflutter).
But Browne has been a constant for many years, and his 1989 World in Motion album was, to me, his best, least appreciated effort. Coming at the tail end of the Reagan era with the Cold War still raging, it was an album that offered a pretty systematic critique of what America had become in those years.
Remember Reagan’s “Morning in America?” Well, the title track (and first song) gets right to it:
Sun going down in the USA
Down on main, there’s a family sleeping in a doorway
Around the corner you can hear the sound
People dancing around the golden calf
Those who have not those who have
On the billboards and the t.v. screens
They got food and cars and toys and trucks and jeans
Like a homeless child’s fitful dreams
Smiling faces free from wanting
Life’s abundances beyond counting.
And we are off… Packed into that intro is a pretty apt description of what “morning in America” really meant. Is that 31 years ago? Is that today? Reminds of the title of that old Homer Price story: Eversomuchmoreso.
Keep in mind that the proxy wars that characterized the Cold War era but about which most Americans had and have not a clue were mostly focused in Central America at that time. It was a time when America dealt surreptitiously with sworn enemy Iran to arm contras in Nicaragua.
It was illegal and led Browne to write in The Word Justice:
A man stands up before God and country
Raises his right hand and takes an oath
Swears he has acted in the line of duty
And he more than anyone wants to tell the truth
But there is a need to keep some things a secret
Some weapons shipments–some private wars
In the future democracy will be defended
Behind closed doors
Later in the same song, he adds:
And there is a need to keep some things a secret
The names of some countries–the terms of some deals
And above all the sound of the screams of the innocent
Beneath our wheels
And flash forward. Is he talking about Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen? Yeah, people still getting crushed beneath those wheels and illegal arms deals are de rigueur under the current administration too. Plus ca change…
But Browne is not taking down just the powerful. He is asking all of us some pretty hard questions. And though BLM, and SNAP reductions, and sending kids to school amid a raging pandemic could not have been on his mind, he still asks all of us (in How Long)
When you look into a child’s face
And you’re seeing the human race
And the endless possibilities there
Where so much can come true
And you think of the beautiful things
A child can do
How long would the child survive
How long if it was up to you?
Are we going to answer that question? Because the next stanza drives home the challenge.
When you think about the money spent
On defense by a government
And the weapons of destruction we’ve built
We’re so sure that we need
And you think of the millions and millions
That money could feed
And that particular challenge is staring us in the face as we remind ourselves that just two weeks ago both the House and the Senate dutifully passed their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act.
$740 billion (with a “b”).
Reminder: $600 per week benefits for families devastated by COVID-19 have expired, and states and cities devasted by the crisis are set to receive nothing in the Senate version of the bill. And while the House passed a comprehensive bill, the Senate seems to content to do nothing while going all-in on “defense.”
Browne, writing today, might add: “And you think of the millions and millions of tests that money could buy.”
Are we taking a long look in the mirror yet, or is Browne’s How Long question merely a dated remnant of the last endless war? Perhaps we should remind ourselves that budgets will always be moral documents, and each one requires our full attention.
And if you are angry after all of this, and want to strike out (as I do), Browne has some thoughts on that too. Returning to Central America, and a song adapted from a poem by a combattant in those conflicts, Browne channels a way forward in My Personal Revenge. Living in what I hope is the twilight of the current destructive regime, I want to take it to heart:
My personal revenge will be the right
Of our children in the schools and in the gardens
My personal revenge will be to give you
This song which has flourished without panic…
My personal revenge will be to tell you “good morning”
On a street without beggars or homeless
When instead of jailing you I suggest
You shake away the sadness there that blinds you.
This is what we are fighting for: the right of our children to live in security.
Finally, if your cynicism has led you down the path of hopelessness that this kind of change can ever come, Browne wrote about hope for change–before that change finally came. Let’s remember…
And I come here to praise Mandela
And to bring this message to his jailer
Your walls may hold the man inside
But they’ll never ever hold back the tide
‘Cause in the years you’ve shut him away
A generation has grown where he stood
They’re gonna see the day
When the walls have begun to crumble
When the laws have begun to burn
When the wind is singing freedom
When the stone begins to turn
(When the Stone Begins to Turn)
I listened to World in Motion again as I wrote this, and the current relevance of the injustice Browne called out then made me realize that he stands as a prophet for our time.
Maybe it’s time to pull out some other old albums.
Compared to many people (millions), my wife and I are privileged to have jobs–jobs that pay well and allow us to work from home.
But change is coming. We will separate in two weeks so my spouse can head east to provide support for our grandchildren. Their schools are “re-opening,” but their mother (our daughter) is opting to keep them home. We support this because community spread in their PA county is high. It is easy to re-open. It is harder to stay open.
My daughter and I talked and concluded that people do not understand this virus.
As we made our plans–I stay here to help launch a more comprehensive response to COVID-19 in our University town (hopefully)–we discussed our feelings. They were feelings of sadness.
Sadness that the worst might happen, and she may never come back to the place she loves. We are not usually worst-case-scenario people, but this virus has taught us that everything can change (a lesson we needed to learn).
But also sadness that our grandchildren cannot learn with other children.
Sad that many people there refuse masks and actively call for the recall of a governor who has tried to use evidence-based approaches to dealing with the virus.
I repeat it, we are the privileged ones, and so it is reasonable to scoff at our sadness.
These have been years of sadness for too many. The president of the United States is a terrible person who has plunged this country into chaos, and still, 30% of Americans support him. I could get angry. But I am just sad.
He has used race and xenophobia and personal attacks and lies to divide, and he has had no plan except to do more of the same. Sure, that could make us angry, but I think almost four years on most of us have exhausted the anger and merely live in sorrow.
White folks like me have started to come to grips with racism and our long commitment to it, and complicity in it. It feels like the way we have allowed it to worm its way into our society’s interstices is so complete that we can never root it out. In the end, will we even try?
And we are so distracted by the layers of injustice that seem to be laid down every day that we have forgotten that thousands at our southern border live lives of indignity and fear.
We are harried, and scattered, and troubled, and anxious, and left wondering and wandering.
And even those finding solutions to our national malaise are harassed and threatened and driven out by a punitive fringe who demands that the pain go on so it can cling to power.
I could go on.
I name the sadness to lament: to structure and give form to my grief.
To wear it as tattered cloth.
To adorn my head with it as ashes of a fire that cannot be quenched.
To cover myself with it as I lay tired and thirsty on the bare earth.
There is a season for lament and mourning.
Things and people and hopes do pass away.
It is the way of the world.
She will pack her bags in two weeks and leave, and we do not know what will happen next. We make these decisions to try to insert some hope in the places where we go–or stay.
If there is to be an end to our sadness, and there will be, this is how we will practice our lament and walk towards tomorrow.
Those guidelines provide recommendations on selecting, managing and supervising, and assuring that CHWs fit well within the communities they serve and have the support they need to succeed.
To bring the rate of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 down requires essential changes to personal behavior, but also the ability to identify cases rapidly. The latter involves a process known as contact tracing. It has four elements:
Identify cases and reach out to them to discuss their positive status.
Encourage those cases to isolate themselves until their symptoms have passed.
Patiently work with them to identify people with whom they had contact (which is carefully defined).
Reach out to all contacts to ask them to quarantine for a specified period.
CHWs may or not play the role of contact tracers, but we can train them to perform essential functions in interacting with cases and their contacts.
Asking people to isolate or quarantine is straightforward. Helping them to maintain that isolation and quarantine for days is not. Depending on their circumstances, they may face one or more of the following challenges:
Loss of income due to lack of vacation days.
Inability to obtain basic needs due to lack of income or need to stay home.
Lack of connection to health services if their condition worsens.
Support for other needs, such as caring for relatives who do not live with them.
If we do not address these issues, recommendations to isolate or quarantine will go unheeded, and the risk of viral spread will increase.
If we can select CHWs who can listen and ask probing questions, if we can support them to problem-solve issues that arrive, and if we can make sure they have access to critical services to which they can connect people, then they can be paired with contact tracers to increase the odds of compliance.
Imagine a CHW connecting immediately with a case or a contact–on the same call during which they receive recommendations for isolation or quarantine. If a CHW could walk through a checklist of potential needs, probe deeper to understand individual fears and constraints, and offer precise support services, they would begin to build a relationship with the individual that will make a huge difference.
Community health workers would then build on that initial contact to do daily or twice per day check-ins with those in isolation or quarantine to ensure they continue to receive the help they need. They would also help do daily symptom assessments and connect their clients to services required in case of emerging or worsening illness.
The role that they play will free contact tracers to reach out to more cases in a shorter period–a critical need to reduce spread.
It is time to develop position descriptions, training materials, and recruitment guidelines to bring on CHWs to play this role.
In an earlier 30 for 30 post, I shared the Preface to a book I am writing about my time on the City Council in Davis. After I published it, I received feedback about the opening anecdote I shared.
I offered the anecdote to explain how it had opened my eyes to a reality that I had not realized before. As I wrote:
That is when the message came home to me. What happens “out there” is felt profoundly “here.” People’s sense of connection to broader national and global issues conditioned their reactions to what was happening in their City. It was a profound realization and explained a great deal of what I had experienced as the Mayor of this small City of 70,000.
While it is true that the event described in the anecdote was my personal “a-ha” moment, it was not the first time that I experienced this sense of “connectedness” of our City to the world “out there.”
The feedback I received about the anecdote was that it appeared to denigrate the genuine concerns of a citizen who spoke during public comment at a City Council meeting on an important concept. Even though that was not my intent, in re-reading the section in question, I fully understand that critique and accept it.
As I said, this experience was not the first time I had experienced this connectedness, but it was the first time I realized what was happening. The very first time was my third City Council meeting. So, I have re-written the opening anecdote to reflect that experience.
I sincerely appreciate the feedback several people provided, and I believe it will make for a better opening to this book. Here is the post in full. I have highlighted the new section and left the rest as it was.
In the weeks before my third meeting on the Davis City Council, as “Mayor Pro-Tempore,” during the annual Council summer break, the Davis Police Department took delivery of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) from the US Department of Defense as part of its “1033 Program” of distributing surplus military equipment to local police departments.
I had only vaguely heard of the 1033 Program. The MRAP acquisition was, apparently, so non-controversial that the Police Department never informed the City Council of its request.
The MRAP that arrived in Davis was designed to safely transport soldiers on mission in Iraq down stretches of road mined with improvised explosive devices (IED) laid down by opponents of the US invasion of their country. IEDs had been particularly deadly, and the MRAP’s design allowed it to withstand the explosion and protect those inside.
The first MRAP used in Iraq arrived in 2007, and nearly 12,000 were used throughout the conflict. And then the fighting subsided, and there was no place to go with the equipment. So it came home, and the 1033 Program sent MRAPs out across the land to police departments that merely asked for one.
I will delve more into what happened after it arrived in Chapter X. What is essential here is that the arrival of the MRAP in Davis created an odd connection between our City and a war on the other side of the planet, the people affected by that war, US soldiers who fought that war, and the entire military-industrial complex that could pay to create, ship-out, use, reship-in, store, and then distribute (for free) this particular piece of materiel.
While most people did not dwell on that connection, I thought about it a great deal and realized that our City that some said lived in a bubble was deeply connected to issues far beyond its borders.
This issue was the first time I experienced the reality that things that happen outside the City, in the world, can and will impact life in the City. It was only later, through other similar experiences, that I was able to name what was happening. What happens “out there” can profoundly affect us “here.” Our connection to these national and global issues should not have surprised me. We live in a globally interconnected world, and Davis, despite its size, is an international City. It was the beginning of my apprenticeship as a localist mayor in a globally-connected world.
By the time I decided to run for local office (City Council, Davis, California), I had a pretty good sense of the significant challenges ahead if I were to be elected. Our City’s fiscal situation, like most cities in California, faced significant challenges related to years of inattention to necessary infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, budgetary instability caused by underfunded pensions, and a variety of so-called “social” challenges—led by homelessness (a syndrome with widely misunderstood causes).
I knew that I would be dealing with these and all their attendant issues—painful budget cuts and priority setting, contentious land-use decisions, employee negotiations, tax proposals, social services planning, etc. I spoke about my understanding of and proposed approach to dealing with each of them in my campaign literature, small group meetings, and public debates and forums. I prepared carefully to address them in all their complexity. I expected them to take up most of my time.
I was not wrong to have so prepared, and collectively, they took up most of my time. Local government is very pedestrian, and its focus will always be on creating a sustainable, safe, and livable community by looking after the essential mundane.
This book is not (primarily) about any of these things. They indeed form the backdrop of what I share here, but this book is about things I never expected, never consciously prepared for, and never anticipated spending time on. In the end, these other things consumed hours, days, and whole weeks of my life, and at times felt all-consuming.
That I did not anticipate them does not imply that they are not vital. In their way, each of them is as critical to creating a thriving community as budgets, water and sanitation, and firefighting. As I hope to demonstrate, responding to them and walking with the community through them constituted some of the most important work I did over my four-year term.
The aphorism “all politics is local” is undoubtedly true. I would say that all politics is hyper-local. People rarely write about “community” concerns or “city” concerns. Instead, they want help with their park, their neighborhood, their street, their tree.
But in another sense, all politics is linked to broader social, political, and economic forces. All politics is regional, all politics is national, and all politics is, in certain ways, global. I mean this in a precise way—how we react locally to the world beyond our City’s borders. One feature of our networked world is that what happens “out there” elicits reactions here. Only that could explain the comments of the woman who addressed us, and it pushed me to believe that, potentially, every national and global issue of concern would find its way into our Council meetings on Tuesday nights. Many did.
Global terror showed up in the form of local imam’s sermon. Police brutality and militarization in a “mine-resistant armored protected” vehicle and the use of force incident. The consolidation of economic power and income inequality in calls to disinvest from Wells Fargo. Global retrenchment and xenophobia in hate crimes and calls to stand against white supremacy and create sanctuary. And the list goes on. From global climate change to Indian politics (yes, even that), from criminal justice reform to white flight in the form of “NIMBYism,” issues playing out around the world played out in my hometown.
What follows is simply about how I, as one city council member and, for a time, Mayor, perceived these global/local issues and how I tried to respond. The response is what still matters to me most.
I entered office (and left it!) as a localist. What I mean is that I believed then and believe now that we can face many of the most challenging issues of our time effectively ONLY at the local level. Despite the constraints imposed by state or federal statute or limited resources, I still believe that local communities are where resilience starts and where we find human solutions to our challenges. Because of this, I thought it was my job to help create a more resilient community—one able to face the inevitable shock related to climate change, recessions, disasters, and changing legal requirements. And so, I viewed my response to these global/local issues as critical to strengthening my community.
I felt (and feel) that they were not merely issues to be “managed” but rather opportunities to help build the social infrastructure to make us better able to withstand the challenges each community must face. This book reflects how I tried to respond to a variety of these global/local issues. I will leave it to others to decide whether these efforts accomplish the hoped-for goal of greater resilience.
I want to thank the four other members of the City Council who served with me during those four years: four members but five committed and thoughtful community members who gave up large chunks of their lives for the often thankless job of trying to lead our City—our home.
I want to thank the dedicated but too-often-maligned City staff who does the day to day work of running this town.
I would like to thank the dozens and dozens of community members who faithfully served on a variety of city commissions, task forces, and working groups. These groups provide input, act as sounding boards, and do a high-level technical review of thousands of pages of reports and other documents. Their dedication adds a layer of transparency to our public processes that should be the envy of every City.
I will avoid using any of these people’s names (or any names for that matter) throughout this book. Their identities may not be hard to figure out in some cases, but this story is not about holding them to account or holding up their failings for public review. They will go unnamed. Finally, I want to thank my wife, who agreed to let me run and serve but told me I “better never bring any of that stuff home.” I honored her command (for the most part).
Those of a more conservative bent had been warning of the devastation that would be wrought by the continued centralizing of government functions. A few communitarians chimed in over the loss of local control. I understood that (though I never understood the conservatives who were quite happy with central government control of surveillance against certain undesirable groups–but I digress).
Well, they got what they wanted, because when Keystroke hit, it hit hard and scattered all “authority,” all decision making down to the lowest level: neighborhoods, and townships, and even streets. We all became localists then because it was the only way to survive.
Of course, we also got local forms of fascism and authoritarianism that had previously been concentrated in that one guy at the top. At least we felt we could control him. But when that shit goes local, you have a real fight on your hands.
And if it had not been for the infighting among all those local warlords–mostly drawn from the ranks of former military, or cops, or judges, or even a few ministers, more might have died. Too many did anyway.
But I have to step back to how it all started.
Q-Anon was the world’s first alternate reality multi-player game that spilled off the web into the real world, and the conspiracies it spawned were no joke. They were deadly.
It seemed there was no way to reign it in until Keystroke. Like Q-Anon themselves (itself, himself, herself?), no one knew who Keystroke was. But we knew what they wanted.
Their manifesto jumped to every chyron on every channel and swamped social media. It was not long, and it was crystal clear: Keystroke existed to bring Q-Anon down.
Those of us of a liberal bent were on board immediately, though it was not immediately clear how they would do it. But then Keystroke started issuing releases and challenges–competitions if you will. It began to mimic Q-Anon itself and turned itself into a righteous alternate reality multi-player game, except that its reality was going after Q-Anon.
In the beginning, it rewarded anyone who would debunk thoroughly and convincingly, any posting by Q-Anon itself. And the results were amazing. Part of it was the rewards; they were high quality and frequent. Part of it was that people got stoked doing the research necessary to debunk those fools. The competitions were egalitarian, and everyone laughed a lot at the expense of the Q-Anons.
And they doubled down. And every time they did, more Keystroke devotees jumped in to debunk. It was a war, and more and more people were involved.
Phase two (though no one ever called it that), had Keystroke asking people to write their conspiracy theories to match and confront each Q-Anon one coming out. The idea was, you had to write a conspiracy similar to the latest Q-Anon drek and create an entire historical backstory to back it up.
That was when things took off. Some of the best alternate history sci-fi short form stuff ever written appeared in those days. And everyone clamored to get in. Keystroke started helping people write. That’s right, they supported people by helping edit their documents, make more persuasive arguments–basically be better writers. I assumed it was all AI because you can’t mobilize that many people and still hold cover. We will never know.
Schools jumped in. Teachers started assigning Keystroke for their writing assignments, and the prizes kept coming. Keystroke also started teaching coding so that students could search more profoundly and scrape the web more efficiently for fodder. The coding courses were the best around and, again, teachers, and even some university professors used Keystroke for coding classes.
I don’t know much about any of that myself, but it was awesome to watch. I have often thought since that Keystroke could not have worked without the virus. I mean, the real one circulating in the world (and has not gone away even now). Kids couldn’t go to school, schools had to get hotspots for everyone, Keystroke took kids “away” for hours (something parents wanted), and they were writing like never before. Parents took short breaks from their Zoom meetings to join in the fun on the company devices. There were multiple Keystrok apps to aid in searches and writing. It was a moment in time.
The coding got more sophisticated, the writing more comprehensive, and Keystroke put out the word in mid-July that they were going after Q-Anon once and for all. The second “manifesto” was even shorter and said: “We will reveal who Q-Anon is on August 11. And we will destroy them. Get your Keystrokes ready.”
There was a buzz, and not all of it was positive. IT experts started worrying where this was all going. Virus checks expanded, and warnings went out from a few that Keystroke, while very cool, might present some security risks. Nothing was found, and the naysayers were accused of being closet Q-Anons.
In the lead up to August 11, the estimates came in saying over 750 million people worldwide were active in Keystroke, and over 1.5 billion had dabbled in it at least once.
Keystroke sent out their last message on August 10 at 8:00 am Australia time (what?–was that a clue?): On August 11, every devotee was to be at their computer to code one last bit. This one would add their names (nom de guerre, nom de plume, or real name) to a compiled list–to be made available online–of every person who helped bring Q-Anon down.
And that’s what happened.
And then nothing happened.
For 10 hours.
Then at 6:00 pm Australia time (?) Keystroke sent out one last message–the last one it ever sent. It said, cryptically:
“There is no Q-Anon. Q-Anon will not harm us any longer.”
And then a list of names of every person who had helped bring Q-Anon down started scrolling across every screen everywhere.
I wish that had been the end. A cool game that wound its way down. Kids learning to write, and, hopefully, Q-Anon gone for good.
It all came apart just six hours later when every networked system in Australia crashed. The crashes followed the morning across every nation, and every continent as the day went on. Nothing worked–think electricity grids, wastewater treatment, and your computer, phone, and networked fridge.
Everyone expected a ransom request from Keystroke–knowing now we had been had. But none ever came.
And by the time the crashes hit the West Coast of the US, no one–I mean no one had a clue where this was going. We sheltered in place for two days. No electricity, no water. The weakest died quickly, and the lucky ones were those who lived by a water source.
Nothing came back online. Was it the coding–somehow complied in that last Keystroke of August 11? I have no idea. Not sure anyone does.
All of us realized just how networked we all were in the time of the virus. From what we heard, each time a “restart” was tried or new hardware added to the old, the infection just kept spreading. I don’t know how. It is almost as if Keystroke lived within the fiber optic cables themselves, in the satellite feeds, in the coaxial cables that fed our homes. Nothing would come back.
That was almost two years ago. The dispersal, as I think of it, was swift and comprehensive. We banded together the best we could, and bad people swept in to claim power in every place where life-giving resources existed. The first year was the worst–at least here. I don’t know about anywhere else–the rest of the world has disappeared.
Like everyone, I lost friends and family, and I will never touch a computer or a networked fridge, or cell phone, or whatever again. We are all Luddites now, I guess, though we have no idea when any of those things will ever come back.
And Keystroke? Who knows. They set out to destroy Q-Anon, and they did. But they did not bring down Q-Anon; they just wiped out the ecosystem in which thrived.
The second in a series of lessons learned from my time in Mauritania in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the first one is here), this post represents the lesson that has had the most long-lasting effect on my life.
Has the story reached you of the honored guests of Abraham? Behold, they entered his presence and said: “Peace!” He said: “Peace!” (and thought: “They seem) unusual people.” Then he turned quickly to his household, brought out a roasted fattened calf, and placed it before them. He said: “Will you not eat?” [Surat adh-Dhariyat: 24-27, the Qur’an]
I did not learn this lesson one time, but hundreds of times in big and small ways while traveling the length and breadth of this desert land. I discussed the “why” of it with colleagues late into the night and experienced it in small acts of kindness and protection that were part of daily life.
A cup of tea given as the first gesture to revive the dusty traveler.
A bowl of zrig (curdled milk) offered in a large calabash even when we were only passing through.
Choice bits of meat subtly pushed my way in a shared platter of food.
A mattress sacrificed.
A refuge from the heat under the scant shade of a tree provided.
A bucket of water hand lifted from a 40 meter well for a shower.
These were the daily acts repeated over and over. But there were also the narratives that acted as a reminder of the fundamental truth:
If your enemy approaches your tent and merely touches the rope that holds it, you must welcome him.
There was a place to fight your enemy, but an enemy in need of water required a welcome without rancor. You had to meet his needs.
I experienced hospitality in an isolated village when we arrived at dusk, and the residents spent an hour chasing one of their few remaining chickens, despite our protestations so that we could have dinner.
I experienced hospitality when I wandered lost in a sandstorm and stumbled across a lone nomadic family’s tent, and they gave us water and made sure we found our way to our destination–more than an hour’s walk.
But I think I came to understand it best during the Islamic holidays–the eids–that brought a moment of respite, and joy, and family homecoming to a tired, hungry, and overworked people.
I never celebrated eid alone, and I never celebrated eid with a wealthy family. Despite that, they are the times when I experienced true religion in the simple act of rest, food, and conversation.
Of course, there was food, and what lacked in variety was made up in quantity and taste. There was always a single simple treat that had cost the host too much, but made everyone know this was special.
All of this is nearly “pro forma” as hospitality goes, but what I really found during these feast days was home. I was not invited to merely take a meal, but to be part of a family. I was not asked to pass the time but to rest. I was not welcomed into a house but into people’s hearts.
It is hard to explain all of this, but imagine a place where you are physically comfortable. Imagine there is food served at a pace that invites savoring every bite. Imagine that you can speak if you like, listen if you prefer, and remain, collectively in silence, if that is what you all decide. Imagine having no obligations but to be in communion with friends. Imagine a peaceful time that you want it to stretch on into tomorrow (and sometimes it does).
And then add in the children, and the jokes, and the remembrances from the road.
I learned that hospitality is creating a space for a guest, providing them with what they need, at that moment, in that time. Think of the thought and preparation that goes into creating that space. Think of how discerning you must be and how attuned to your visitor’s needs–the focus, not on the spectacle but on the other.
To create such spaces is an act of worship, a liturgy, a sacred practice that forms us to be people of peace.
I learned that in Mauritania. May I practice it in my life here.
What follows is a short reflection on culture and cultural domains. The hope is that the concepts I present here will be tools that you can use for personal reflection and dialogue as you move through inter-cultural spaces.
When we approach the concept of culture, the first question is, what is culture? And maybe you want to pause for a moment and ask yourself when you hear the word culture, what do you think of? What are the words or images that come to your mind?
Well, here’s a definition from “Global People” that has some useful components.
There are a few crucial points in this definition. Culture is a set of values, assumptions, and orientations. So it’s more than just the way a person dresses or the food they eat.
Culture is a set of fundamental values that shape how we make meaning in the world. A group shares these values, be it an academic department, a nation, a subgroup within a country, or a business.
Culture influences our behavior, but we are not automatons. Saying the values we share helps us make sense of the world does not mean that we will act in a certain way simply because we’re in a cultural group. This idea is vital for avoiding the problem of stereotyping.
To sum up, culture will influence our behavior. It helps us make meaning but is not deterministic.
There are some useful analogies for thinking about culture. And you’ve probably seen some of these.
Culture is like a pair of glasses. It’s the lenses through which we view the world. We don’t always even analyze the power of the lenses, but they do influence our view. If we take those glasses off and try to put on other ones, we won’t see as well (make meaning).
Cultures like the water in which we swim. It’s so familiar to us that we don’t even analyze it or think about it or give it much thought. And yet it’s so influential in the way we approach the world.
Cultures like an onion, there are layers to it. There are superficial things that indicate certain things about cultures. And then there are deeper layers that we must peel it off and delve into if we want to understand a culture, including our own.
And then culture is like an iceberg similar concept. Some things are apparent about culture, and some things lie below the surface of observation or consciousness. So here is that iceberg.
Some things that come to mind when we think about culture are those external things: food, literature, language, art. Those are the things that are the visual manifestations of cultures, but the things that help us understand how culture influences our behavior and how we make meaning are the things that lie below the surface.
These include our views on beauty, the relationships in a family, power, who has it, how we make decisions, and our approach to time, which is very important in the work that we do. These are all things that we don’t analyze, but that influence us.
There are two ways of thinking about learning about cultural differences. When we’re sending students abroad or when we’re going abroad ourselves or into new cultural settings in the US, we often approach cultural learning in culture-specific ways. I’m going to country X. How do you greet people there? How do I act there? What should I avoid? What do I need to do? What do I need to do to avoid offending someone?
These are culture-specific pieces of knowledge, and they have value. We want to make sure that we’re honoring people in their places, but culture-specific approaches to learning about cultures do not get us very far.
If we want approaches that give us tools for thinking about culture more generally and moving within a variety of cultures at once, we need culture-general approaches. Culture-general knowledge uses models or frameworks to help us think about culture more broadly and, more generally, and compare our cultural understandings and values to others along using broad categories of comparison.
Two books that can help us delve into this general culture approach to thinking about culture are these two.
Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind and The Culture Map. Both layout ways of thinking about dimensions or framework for thinking about where cultures differ. I recommend both of them, but the Hofstede and Hofstede book provides more details on the research behind cultural dimensions.
Here are some of these dimensions that they bring up laid out as different ends of continuums. Here is a brief summary of each pair:
Individualism versus Collectivism
Individualism is a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected only to take care of themselves and their immediate families.
Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”
Power Distance: High and Low
This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people.
People in societies exhibiting a significant degree of power distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place that needs no further justification. In societies with low power distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.
Uncertainty Avoidance: Strong and Weak
The uncertainty avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?
Cultural groups exhibiting strong uncertainty avoidance maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas. Weak uncertainty avoidance societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.
Time Orientation: Linear and Flexible
In a linear time-oriented culture, project steps (for example) are approached sequentially, completing one task before beginning the next—one thing at a time. No interruptions. The focus is on the deadline and sticking to the schedule. Emphasis is on promptness and good organization over flexibility.
Those with a flexible timeorientation might approach project steps more fluidly, changing tasks as opportunities arise. Many things are dealt with at once, and interruptions accepted.
The focus is on adaptability and flexibility is valued over organization.
Communication: Low Context and High Context
In a low context setting, good communication is precise and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value.
In a high context setting, good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Messages are spoken and read between the lines, and body language and silence matter as much as the spoken word.
Decision Making: Consensual and Top-Down
In a consensual cultural setting, decisions are made in groups through unanimous agreement. In a top-down decision-making setting, decisions are made by individuals (usually an authority figure or figures)
Dealing with Disagreement: Confrontational and Non-Confrontational
In confrontational cultures, disagreement and debate is positive for the team or organization. Open confrontation is appropriate and will not negatively impact the relationship.
In a culture that avoids confrontation, disagreement and debate are seen as unfavorable for the team or organization. Open confrontation is inappropriate and will break group harmony or negatively impact the relationship.
Achievement and Nurturance
This dimension’s achievement side represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive.
Its opposite, nurturance, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.
People within a culture are distributed along the continuum–we’re not sitting at one pole or the other. That returns us to the point made earlier: culture influences but does not determine behavior.
If you consider a distribution, one cultural group may be more densely distributed to one end, and another distributed to another end of a given continuum. An individual in a given cultural group could just as easily be more like the other group than their own in terms of their proclivities, actions, and how they make meaning.
We are thinking about culture because we want to develop our intercultural learning abilities. We want to advance in our ability to respond appropriately in different cultural spaces. This four-phase approach helps us think about our learning process.
First, we want to approach cultural learning first and foremost, to learn about ourselves. How do we make meaning? Can we define that? Or are we blind to it? Are we unable to see it because it is the water we swim in? And so we want to start cultural analysis by looking at ourselves how we make meaning.
Then we can use the same cultural-general tools to understand how others make meaning and how that may differ from our way.
A third important step in our learning processes is to begin engaging mindfully in contexts that disorient us. Culture, cultural difference, intercultural engagement in a lab, department, or a project can be disorienting. People may say or do things that we don’t understand. And so we want to use our understanding of ourselves and others, and how we may approach things differently to help us step back, if you will, and ask what is going on without prejudging the situation.
The fourth step is then obviously actually bridging cultural gaps, understanding ways that we can bridge differences so that we can meaningfully advance the goals of an organization or a project. Step four moves beyond being able not just to understand what’s going on, but also to take steps to acknowledge and work to move things forward despite differences. Step four does not mean I stop doing things that are the way I think are appropriate culturally. The “bridging” activity may start as being able to call it out and acknowledge the differences that exist.
This is a four-phase approach, and critical to applying it is developing some practices to prepare ourselves to experience and analyze difference.
A simple approach uses three steps: describe, interpret, evaluate. We can use it in everyday life. The idea is that when you come up against a situation that disorients or confuses you, you begin by looking at it without judging it. What do I see objectively? How many people are here? What do I see them doing? What can I describe in the simplest terms?
Next, what do I interpret them to be doing, or what do I believe they’re doing? This step involves considering multiple options, not just one. This step of interpretation pushes us to think about alternative explanations to what we see.
Once we’ve done those two, we can think about our emotional responses to what we are experiencing and whether those emotional responses are useful.
This is a brief introduction to some general concepts about culture and cultural dimensions. I would very much value the opportunity to discuss these ideas more if you are interested.
Note: The following are a handful of initial jottings about restorative justice to our discussions about the future of policing and our legal system.
Enlarging the Discussion
Observing the early evolution of discussions around defunding the police–and after having read The End of Policing by Alex Vitale–it is clear that the real debate is around reprioritizing community health and safety, rather than simply abolishing the police.
I understand that some people are calling for abolition, but I do not sense that this is what most people mean when they speak about ending policing or defunding the police.
Since the start of this national debate, I have felt that a broader conversation about defunding the current criminal “justice” system is in order. The police are merely the first step–the gateway if you will–in a highly developed punitive system that does not lead to justice in any meaningful sense.
Defunding the police, that is, stepping back and revisioning public health and safety is a useful exercise. Still, without taking on the entire logic of the penal system, this reprioritizing will be self-limiting.
Our Penal System
Our current system defines crime as an act committed against a disembodied state that requires those convicted to “pay.” That payment is only rarely rendered to the direct victims of crime, and the system contains many crimes that do not directly affect any identifiable victims at all.
Instead, especially in most incarceration cases, the “payment” is made to society in an abstract. We still use concepts like “paying a debt to society” as the reason for incarceration. However, we have come to prefer the idea that imprisonment is really about removing “dangerous” people from society. This framing allows us to feel comfortable with the over-incarceration of people that has come to characterize our nation.
District attorneys and judges, along with a supporting role from the police, represent the state and provide the ritualistic practices that remove the dangerous ones from our midst.
In this system, victims, if they exist, are wholly owned by the prosecution and regularly used as proof that punishment is needed to expiate the sins committed against “these poor people.”
This entire system is so deeply embedded within our culture and our cultural understanding about what to do about wrongdoing, that we cannot imagine any reasonable alternative.
Restorative Justice within the Punitive System
Somewhat recently, restorative justice has evolved within the punitive system as an alternative in some instances or particular demographics. It is generally used as a diversion program when the penal system’s worst effects have failed in undeniable ways.
So, we offer restorative justice to low-level youth crimes when it becomes clear that the incarceration of young people leads to increased criminality and violence rather than reducing it. Or, we offer some form of restorative-like diversion programs for people with severe mental illnesses when we realize that frequent arrests, fines, or incarceration change nothing and make no difference in the lives of individuals involved.
More recently, some prosecutors are experimenting with expansions of restorative practice due to an overburdened legal system, choosing to shunt low-level victimless crimes into alternative approaches that provide options to perpetrators that keep their records clean.
Restorative Justice as an Alternative System
While many people have welcomed these incursions of restorative justice into the penal system, the truth is they do not fit. They do not because restorative justice is not merely an option within the penal system but a completely different theory of what crime and justice are.
Restorative justice defines crime as an act that causes harm to people and communities. It understands harms as damaging to human relationships and well-being. It seeks processes that lead those responsible for these harms to know what they are, face those they have harmed, and work out what actions are necessary to make the harms as right as possible.
Note that the depersonalized state is not at the table as an aggrieved actor seeking recompense. The state’s presence in a restorative system is to provide the support necessary to move towards naming harms and making them right.
Victims are involved directly or via proxies depending on their needs for safety. Because the focus is on harms, victims speak about those harms and define what making them right might entail.
Those causing the harms listen, understand the impact of their actions, and take responsibility for making the wrongs right. There is space within restorative justice for the needs of those causing the harms to enter the discussions as well.
An important, often unstated, part of restorative justice is the question of victimless crimes. Restorative justice asks whether a crime is genuinely a crime if there are no identifiable harms. This becomes a critical question in a society that criminalizes possession of small amounts of drugs (as just one example). There may be harms involved in possession, and it may be essential to ask whether the person charged with possession has substance use problems for which they need help. The point is, restorative justice demands a look at what we name as a crime.
A New System: Questions for Reflection
If we were to dispense with our punitive system and replace it with a restorative system, what would it mean for judges, for district attorneys, for the police?
What if we started our discussion of policing by looking at the system for which they are the entry point?
What would happen to district attorneys if rather than representing the abstract state, they served the needs of real victims, not to advocate for punishment, but to seek answers to what victims need?
What would happen if we examined laws regarding the harms they address (or whether they address any harms at all)?
What role might judges play in this system, and how might this affect how we choose them? Would they become mediators or impartial arbiters when things get stuck? Would they play a role in discerning the needs of those who cause harms?
What would success look like in this system? How does that compare to our current system, which arguably has no metric of success?
Are there dangerous people in the world who need to be removed from contact with others? I believe there are. But a restorative system is not afraid to ask why they exist, where they come from, and whether or not they are beyond “redemption.”
Because it seeks to restore victims AND offenders to the community and create healing, restorative justice permits us to explore the underlying causes of violence–including the role of trauma.
In this sense, restorative justice is a genuinely public health approach to criminality–seeking the underlying causes of actions that cause harm. And just as public health practice does not exonerate individuals of personal responsibility, it is also willing to investigate the social and economic determinants of harmful behavior.
A final word about victims: criticisms of restorative justice invariably return to victims of violence and the seeming willingness to require their participation in a restorative process or their continued exposure to those who caused them harm. There is nothing inherent within restorative justice that requires these. There are often good reasons to provide physical protection to victims by constraining the movement of those who have harmed them. There is also nothing inherent in restorative justice that requires victims to “confront” their offenders.
What restorative justice does offer to victims is an opportunity to describe their needs. Evidence shows that victims often have fundamental questions that revolve first around needing to regain a sense of personal safety. Often they want to know “why.” Only secondarily are they concerned with restitution.
It is beyond time to defund our punitive legal system by moving purposefully towards a different understanding of the meaning of crime, against whom it is committed, and what is needed to achieve outcomes that will build community.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them… Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. St Paul, in a letter to the church in the city of Corinth.
A friend called the other day to talk about how they could get engaged in all the fantastic change happening around us in light of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and reform of the police and legal systems. I sensed their urgency to be involved in helpful and relevant ways, but I also sensed frustration about how to actually do it.
Two thoughts came to mind as we talked. The first was that efforts to work on the kinds of change they desire require community. The second was that they require a diversity of community gifts.
One of the greatest American sociologists of our era, James Coleman, defined and developed the concept of social capital. Drawing on theory related to physical and human capital, Coleman described social capital as a productive good that could improve people’s lives. Specifically, Coleman defined social capital as the variety of relationships existing in a community that allow actions that would be difficult or impossible in their absence.
These relationships are not mere transactions worked out to achieve a community-wide benefit—I do this, so you do that. Instead, this ability to do things that benefit people comes through the formation and maintenance of social relationships. It is organic, not transactional.
In social capital terms, community is a gift we give one another to do things we could never hope to do alone.
My friend had already discovered the power of community in the initiatives in which they are engaging. They had, in other words, found the gift of community.
But they still struggled with their particular place within that community. What should they do? Where should they place their efforts? Could they make any difference?
Many people ask me similar questions in these days. Most have already discovered a powerful affinity group that is advancing essential activities. Still, those same people struggle to know what they should do within those groups to help make a difference.
In reflecting with my friend, and many others, I urge them to consider the other part of community: that each person in it brings their unique gifts to the service of the whole.
In the Christian tradition, there is a lengthy passage in a letter written by Paul that describes how God gives gifts to a community for the common good. Paul likens the community to a body—not everyone is an arm, or a mouth, or the head. A physical body could not function that way. In the same way, what would it benefit a community if all the gifts were the same? It is a useful image that explains how social capital works out in practice: each person bringing that unique thing they can contribute to the group to help solve a particular challenge.
Like a body, in bringing all our gifts together, we find a complete organism. Paul goes further and suggests that some of the less “seemly” or weaker bodily functions deserve special honor and that no part dare show disdain for another simply because it is not like itself.
Recently, I have been amazed to see and benefit from the diversity of gifts in my community. The organizers, the communicators, the facilitators, the “discerners,” the note takers and distributors, the ralliers, the truth-tellers, the questionners, and the list of gifts goes on. We genuinely do have a fantastic array of gifted people here.
I encouraged my friend to think of their gifts and consider how they could offer them to the groups they are a part of.
It always surprises me how people often do not think of the gifts they have and how they might bring them to a new endeavor. Maybe that is because our gifts are things that are so natural to us that we do not perceive them as unique and needed at all–almost like we assume that anyone can do them. After all, they are so easy for us.
But they are unique, and our community, which itself is a gift, needs our gifts.