Testimony for National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service — END DRAFT REGISTRATION

I prepared the below testimony to present at a public meeting in Chicago before the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, a commission created by Congress to deal with questions of draft registration, most specifically, whether to end draft registration or expand it to women. The Commission designed the format for this meeting with severely restricted opportunities for general public input. I intend to submit this testimony in written form, but I do not anticipate that I will be able to present it in person. At the end of this testimony is a much shorter statement that I intend to present to the media in Chicago, and directly to the Commission, if possible.

FULL TESTIMONY

My name is Dan Rutt. I have traveled from Toledo, Ohio, to be here today. I have come from 250 miles away to testify to you about service. I am volunteering my time to testify about that which is involuntary: conscience. I have come much further than 250 miles to be here today…

My testimony is rooted in family history predating the existence of the United States of America.  I am 12th generation in this land now known as the United States of America. In the early 1700’s, my ancestors settled on land given to them by William Penn, on what would come to be known as Pennsylvania. My Mennonite ancestors fled Germany to escape conscription and war.

With that wave of German immigrants and refugees, those that occupied the land had much fear about them ruining life as they new it. Newly-arrived German males age 16 and older were forced to take a loyalty oath to the British crown. The English oath was administered roughshod over the newly arriving boys and men, most of whom spoke only German upon their arrival. Apparently, a nominal and blind oath provided some comfort to those fearful residents already occupying the land.

As the Philadelphia harbor bells rang, signaling new arrivals, people gathered to greet them. Many gathered to welcome family or provide strangers with much needed assistance, knowing what it is like to leave one’s home and arrive in a strange land with little or nothing. Others gathered to enlist indentured servants. Here is my most important question regarding service. Serving freely or serving under coercion — which is the greater service? I submit that serving freely is greater. In this particular case, the free service of hospitality and welcoming outsiders is greater than enlisting indentured servants. In the shared scripture of The People of The Book — Jews, Christians and Muslims — a similar exhortation is repeated multiple times: “You must love foreigners because you were foreigners in Egypt.” This service of what may be considered radical hospitality is a time-honored practice of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The humble practice is at the heart of every great faith worldwide. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love because you were first loved. My ancestors, yearning to be free, wanted neither to be the cause of war as soldiers nor the tragic effects of war in its wanton destruction. This was at the heart of my ancestors’ journeys in life. This is my heritage.

More recently, in relation to war and peace, my great-grandfather, during World War II, ran an alternative service camp for conscientious objectors. As for me, I was literally born into service. I was born in 1961 in Haiti, while my parents were serving as medical missionaries, a doctor and nurse, with Mennonite Central Committee. Mennonite Central Committee has long encouraged and empowered years-long terms of service, often overseas. For my Dad, this was also as an alternative service to military service.

In 1979, the year I graduated from high school, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In response to this, President Jimmy Carter instituted draft registration of young men my age, ostensibly to send a message of military preparedness to Soviet leaders. I was in the first batch of young men required by U.S. law to register for the draft. However, the prospect of draft registration conflicted with a higher law, my conscience and ultimate commitments. I could not and cannot, in good conscience, participate in war-making. As the clarity of my conscience emerged, I could find no way to register for the military draft, whose sole purpose is preparedness for war. My conscience also dictated that if I was to disobey an unconscionable law, then I was to openly take full responsibly for my actions while I worked to change such a law. I began by writing letters to Selective Service and my elected representatives. I may not have had been well-schooled — yet, anyways — on the politics of waging war or peace, but I was intimately familiar with my conscience and the legal duty that my young male peers and I faced. I was a teenager facing obedience to my conscience. This obedience came at the legal threat of up to five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

I quickly learned that my war resistance is not dependent on geopolitical circumstances, political pendulums, or legal threats. I am already opposed to the next war. Unlike in the pragmatism of war, my enemy’s enemy is not my friend. For me, war is the enemy. Nonetheless, the nearly 40 years since my initial confrontation with draft registration affords me a certain perspective as I have lived through a full cycle of history.  While I was a skinny teenager facing taking on the United States government, the U.S. government was backing the soon-enough-to-be-notorious Osama bin Laden as a so-called “freedom fighter,” leading the mujahadeen in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation.  Of course, our support of Osama bin Laden, our enemy’s enemy, turned out to be a deadly lessen in the futility of weaponizing violent radicals in the vain hope that it won’t blowback in further violence on virtually all fronts. Today’s “freedom fighter” is tomorrow’s terrorist. Today’s war seeds tomorrow’s terrorist. Gandhi spoke frequently of the seamless connection of means and ends. War IS terrorism. How can we expect it to produce anything else — with it many “means” and “ends”? In the end, I cannot view warmaking as service to this country, or any country for that madder, certainly not to humanity as a hole. I find warmaking incompatible with Jesus’ call to love our enemies and to be peacemakers, the children of God.

In speaking with hundreds of Americans over the years about draft registration resistance, I have found that people’s objections to my objections are of two basic types. One type of response is basically that draft registration is such a minimal requirement that it isn’t worth much fuss. If this is the case, then why don’t we just get rid of draft registration, without much fuss? The other type of response is about the utter graveness of our warmaking, and usually something about our national doody. If war is so grave, perhaps the concerns around someone refusing to go postal should receive more thoughtful and consequential consideration. To add insult to injury, in a surreal show of moral farce, war apologists routinely cite “necessary evil” as their moral foundation. This is not the God I serve. Straddling these two poles of minimal and supreme concern, are the tired questions that are asked pacifists, such as: “What would you do if someone was raping your grandmother in the ally?” I learned to answer such questions with: “I’d register for the draft.” If their perplexity persisted, they might suggest that I go back to Russia (where I’ve never been) or indicated their inclination to see me face time in jail; presumably, so I am not around to not protect them.

Mean wile, back in 1980, soon after winning the presidential election, Ronald Reagan broke his campaign promise to end draft registration. His campaign rhetoric about getting the government off the backs of people rang hollow, like a hollow bullet to my heart. The media wanted to do a story on this broken promise and how it affected the young men subject to the law, particularly those opposed to it. As it turned out, while there were millions of nonregistrants quietly in violation of the law, I was the only local public nonregistrant that they could track down, and I soon found myself highlighted in various media for years to come.

To make a long story shorter, in 1983, I was indicted for failure to register — I prefer refusal to register. In 1986, I was tried and convicted. My indiscriminate honesty more than compensated for their lack of investigatory skills. I served 107 days in the federal Community Corrections Center in Detroit, served two years probation, and served 200 hours of community service. I can’t help but note, today, since the theme is “service,” that the solution to my singular failure was to rip me from my community in order to integrate me back into my community. Plus, the court had to bean-count community service that you couldn’t have stopped me from serving anyway.

Of course, there were larger forces at work. I, and a select few others, had to be made examples of. I, for One, am proud of the example I served. In the case of The United States of America vs. Daniel A. Rutt, there was a focus on my failure/refusal. In the meantime, I had finished college, got married, finished graduate school, had a son, and got a job. I went on to serve in a public health career of almost two decades. I even got a national award from the feds for my work in health promotion — thanks for noticing, U.S. of A. For the last 16 years, I have run my own business promoting social justice.

I do not consider my time imprisoned or countless hours engaging in war resistance as any great burden. In fact, I consider this as service to my country and humanity. I do suspect that most any person who did a tour of active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan has suffered more than I.  Unfortunately, war is replete with suffering. Of course, suffering is of no great inherent value. Nonetheless, whatever we willingly suffer for is a good measure of what we truly value. I hope that more Americans, whether male or female, young or old, will volunteer to put more skin in the game and resist war in any way they can. I believe that the cost of freedom is found in not killing, rather than killing. As General Patton so infamously stated, “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country.”

It is impossible for me to separate my service from my conscience. Conscience is that small still voice that emanates from the foundation of our existence, that calls us, at the risk of trademark infringement, to be all that we can be. My war resistance is deeply rooted in following Jesus, The Prince of Peace. The Jesus I follow was executed as an enemy of the state. He was executed at the behest of the religious elite. Today, the religious elite dutifully save themselves and their clan, more faithfully blessing warmakers than counseling their youth to resist war, more conveniently blessing warmakers than counseling their youth to resist war. The first wave of martyrs in early Christendom were men who refused military service. The broader wave of martyrs were Jesus followers who refused idolatry, the literal and figurative “pinch of incense on the altar” to Caesar.

For me, draft registration is that “pinch of incense on the altar” of the state. When it comes to military service, in the great U.S.A., there is no “one nation under God.” When it comes to military service, The United States of America is God. Specifically, The United States of America, does not recognize ANY Constitutional right to refuse military service for ANY reason, including conscience or freedom of religion. As we all know, the U.S. Constitution provides for many rights, rights that cannot be infringed upon by the state. There are many constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom to petition for redress of grievances, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to equal protection under the law, among others. These are often referred to as natural rights or God-given rights. Such rights define the character of a state, and place limits on its sovereignty, recognizing a power greater than itself. The United States of America, does not recognize ANY natural or God-given right to refuse military service for ANY reason. If you are surprised by this, so was I. I count this as the singular lesson that I learned in my draft registration resistance. This sad and idolatrous reality was unmasked only by a federal judge citing a Supreme Court case in a legal opinion rejecting my motion for dismissal on the basis of religious freedom. Fortunately, I have found that God’s grace extends further than legislative grace or constitutional provision of this republic. I strongly suspect that tens of millions of Americans of faith recognize that holy obedience sometimes requires civil disobedience.

My male ancestors age 16 plus who arrived to this land so many years ago were forced to swear a loyalty oath to the government, even though most didn’t even speak the language in which the oath was administered. This didn’t even seem to matter to government officials. Why is this? I suspect that the nominal and incomprehensible oath was a “pinch of incense on the altar,” a ritual form of national worship needed by a resident populace afraid of strangers. The minimal content of the oath served as a safe and surefire way to maximize compliance and minimize resistance. Who would get back on the boat and return across the sea because they had to mouth or sign an incomprehensible swearing. Who would not submit their name and basic information to the Selective Service System? Well, most young men do not register when they first become legally required. Most young men, hoping to go somewhere, register when they need to secure a driver’s license, or when they reach the shore of an education, needing a student loan.

I suspect that the ritual obedience of a “pinch of incense on the altar” may be more important than an actually functioning, fair and equitable system of potential conscription. Conspicuously absent from the Selective Service annual report is the noncompliance rate with the requirement for registrants to update their address (within 10 days) every time they move. Every observant person knows that 18-25 year-old men move a lot. How many address updates do they get? How many address updates don’t they get? Surely, this can be estimated, and certainly it matters if one actually cares about being able to effectively and fairly enlist young men in a potential draft. The noncompliance rate for initial registration is 8% for all 18-25 year-old men. I strongly suspect that the noncompliance with current address is much higher than noncompliance with initial registration; probably, in combination, high enough to blow a hole in any contention that draft registration is effective and fair. By the way, those young men not complying with address updates are subject to the same legal penalties of up to five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. In FY 2017, 184,051 names and addresses of suspected violators to initial registration were provided to the Department of Justice. Does it strike anyone else as odd that the names and addresses of suspected violators are forwarded? If the Selective Service System has the names and addresses of potential enlistees, what else do they need?

I contend that what Selective Service is largely after is your assent to civil obedience, participation in a national religion of warmaking, your “pinch of incense on the altar,” if you will. This seems to be a better characterization of Selective Service’s function than, in the case of a military draft, to “rapidly provide personnel in a fair and equitable manner.” Oddly, if you find yourself a male age 26 or older, beyond the age requirement to register, and you failed to register, you could still run into trouble by being denied eligibility for federal student financial aid, federal job training, federal employment, or U.S. citizenship; yet, you may be in the clear if your can “show by a preponderance of evidence” that your failure to register was not knowing and willful. Just don’t be too conscientious; that is, until you have to prove that you were not conscientious. Apparently, the true crime is conscientiousness in not registering, more so than simply not registering. The selective prosecution of a few conscientious and public resisters while millions are noncompliant speaks volumes to this.  Certainly, a system where obliviousness is excusable and objecting conscientiously is a crime is a system that distorts our nation’s highest values.  I don’t object to Selective Service being shot full of holes regarding compliance. I do object to Selective Service dishonoring or punishing conscientiousness. As there is no way for a registrant to officially indicate any intent at conscientious objection, I would be very curious to see what would happen if conscientious objector status were a checkbox in the registration process. We might learn a lot about the state of conscientious objection in America. Of course, if Selective Service noncompliance is largely about non-conscientiousness, then I have to ask: What would such a level of non-conscientiousness say about what we might be fighting for and who might be fighting for it?

The draft registration system cannot account for true conscientiousness. The draft registration system cannot muster enough compliance, conscientious or not, to claim fairness and equitability. The honorable course of action, in both cases, is to end draft registration.

In truth, the actual practice of draft registration ignores conscientious objection. While there is no apparent constitutional right to refuse military conscription, there are some legislative provisions for what are called conscientious objectors. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism to indicate conscientious objection during the current draft registration process. This is objectionable to many conscientiously opposed to war. Somewhat oddly, the only legal way to make such a claim is to submit to a system, the Selective Service System, whose sole purpose is preparing for war, which you must reject completely. Plus, conscientious objector status is only possible as a military service classification, if and when a draft may occur. The longer a registrant is unrecognized as conscientiously opposed to war, the further the objection. Further, conscientious objector status can only be recognized for those who are opposed to all wars. If you in good conscience object to whatever current war in which you are subject to serve, this is oddly irrelevant. You could, in fact, turn out to conscientiously object to every actual war that comes down the pike in your lifetime and this is deemed irrelevant if you are not opposed to every theoretical war (or past war). This renders conscientious objection to a meaningless idea for what is perhaps the vast bulk of being conscientiously opposed to war. Finally, there is no real mechanism to truly count or officially value the service of conscientious objectors, meaning that men will be drafted until the military need is met, whether ten or ten million men have conscientious objection. The service of a conscientious objector is superfluous to the determining aim of the Selective Service System. This itself is offensive to many persons of conscience opposed to war-making. Let’s end the criminalization of conscience.

In truth, the actual practice of warmaking habitually runs roughshod over international law and human rights. The promise of some possible future alternative service as a noncombatant is little comfort to my conscience, and of many others. In a warring world, the distinction between combatants and noncombatants offers fantastical sanitization rather than actual sanity. The fact is that across time and across a myriad of modern armed conflicts, over ten so-called “noncombatants” are killed for every “combatant.” The first casualty of war is the truth; most of the rest are noncombatants. My duty is to oppose war, not escape military service. This is my service to humanity. This service is regardless of combatant status. Plus, the best way to serve warriors happens to be ending war.

In the age of terrorism, some will claim that we live in new era of war, not subject to the old rules of war. We do live in a different time than in the 1980’s, the decade when draft registration was initiated. I can testify to a profound shift toward anti-war sentiment since then. During the first Gulf war, in the early 1990’s, I never felt so isolated as an American, confronting palpable resistance even from liberals. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, our local peace network, the Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition, initiated weekly Sunday demonstrations at busy intersections around town. These demonstrations for peace and against war occurred weekly for 15 years (and continue twice each month). In the early years, most of the feedback we had from passing motorists was angry yelling, middle fingers, and expletives flying. Over the years, this angry response has become rare, perhaps a couple a week, and the overwhelming positive responses are represented by hundreds of “honks for peace,” peace signs and thumbs up. Americans in the heartland of Ohio are tired of war and welcome peace. Draft registration is a relic of ages past. Why have draft registration when even the military cites no scenarios where they would want a draft?

One issue at the heart of draft registration and military conscription is what is the proper role of women in warmaking and peacemaking. I am delighted to see that women serve as 5 of the 11 commissioners. Surely, it is women who should determine what is the proper role of women, in this case, concerning warmaking and peacemaking. In my lifelong work across a wide range of social justice movements, I have found women to be the most reliable and most inspiring leaders and laborers for social justice. I strongly suspect that women will take up the mantle of even greater war resistance if they become subject to military conscription. I take inspiration to serve as a war resister from Julia Ward Howe. She, most famously known as the composer of the Battle Hymn of The Republic, was the founder of Mother’s Day, originally a day of war resistance. She issued this Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870:

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience. We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm! Disarm!” The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.

As men have forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his time the sacred impress not of Caesar, but of God.

 In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

I would much prefer entrusting my conscience and fate to such “a general congress of women without limit of nationality,” rather than the currently constituted National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service.

Perhaps somewhat ironic, given my heritage, Germany now has a constitutional right to conscientious objection while the United States does not. When Germany ended conscription in 2011, the majority of those serving were conscientious objectors, and the debate had shifted from conscience to whether they should give up a huge pool of cheap labor. I believe that forced national service is incongruent with our nation’s highest ideals. I believe that volunteerism is at the core of authentic service. I suspect that lowering our ideals by forcing service is a poor way to nurture true service. Let us lead by example. This is why I am here today. If you want to gauge both the heart and the cutting edge of service in this country and for this country, look to those who volunteer, willingly, without pay, to live out their deepest values. This is the clearest view of our highest ideals incarnate, that service, that work, which cannot be bought and sold.

I appreciate the opportunity to testify before the Commission. From your bios, I can see that you are exemplary leaders in service. Unfortunately, I think that you may have an impossible job. I appreciate that Selective Service is technically considered under civilian control. Still, I can’t help but notice that both Selective Service and this Commission are heavily represented by persons from the military or traditional national security apparatus. This does not fairly represent America in the civilian service necessary to make for peace in the world. Also, about 4 in 10 Americans are persons of color, including many of those in the military. Why is this Commission even whiter than the overly white Congress who appointed it? This is not a service to America, and raises the question of whether white supremacy is part and parcel to your work. In tandem, the Commission’s overwhelmingly militarized representation and unduly whiteness, inspires little confidence that your recommendations can represent America. Perhaps it would be more honest to call this Commission an Omission. I suspect that this failure is rooted in the failure and cowardice of Congress to deal with draft registration in a changing world, that is, a world that recognizes women as equals. Congress punted on the politically unpopular choices of just ending draft registration or expanding it to women. Instead, Congress kicked the can down the road for a couple of years by creating a Commission to address this question for them. Unfortunately, This Congress-created Commission is so couched in generic service rhetoric that it is hamstrung in dealing straightforwardly with the singular issue that triggered its creation: draft registration. Until the Commission owns up to addressing the issue of draft registration as its core reason for existing, any hopes of sparking a national conversation on service will be sparks falling on damp firewood.  Further complicating the credibility of the Commission is the tightly controlled and choreographed public meetings in conjunction with severely limited open public testimony. A responsive democratic process would have began with generous opportunities for open public testimony, and then using this input to shape additional “invited” testimony. This may already be too late to remedy. The chasm between the nature of “invited” testimony and uninvited testimony betrays a characterization of the Commission’s work to date as democratic or representative. In my years of public service, both as a community planner and as a citizen participant in many public forums, I think that it is fairer to characterize the Commission’s public meetings to date more as “dog and pony shows” than as an open and responsive democratic process. For this Commission’s work to claim legitimacy, there is a lot of changes that need to be made. Lastly, having to make FOIA requests to find out about the basic public functioning of the Commission does not bode well for a culture of transparent, accountable public service by the Commission. I hope that you have found worthwhile input in my testimony to move toward a peace-loving democracy in which every one of us finds ample opportunities, free of compulsion, for self-sacrificial service for the good of all.

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PRESS STATEMENT

My name is Dan Rutt. I have traveled from Toledo, Ohio, about 250 miles away, to be here today. I am one of the select few prosecuted and imprisoned for refusing to register for the draft, back in the 1980’s. We are here today for one reason, and one reason alone: Congress punted on the politically unpopular choices of just ending draft registration or expanding it to women. Congress punted by appointing a Commission to provide recommendations regarding draft registration a couple years down the road. That Commission is the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Unfortunately, This Commission’s work is so couched in generic service rhetoric that it is hamstrung in dealing straightforwardly with the singular issue that triggered its creation: draft registration. Until the Commission owns up to honestly and openly addressing the issue of draft registration as its core reason for existing, the Commission will be a failure. Draft registration continues to have no mechanism to accommodate conscientious objection. Draft registration is fraught with noncompliance by young men either not registering at all, registering late, or not updating their addresses. The military cites no scenarios where they would want a draft. This is no time to expand draft registration, whether to women or persons with select skills the military might want. Now is the time to end draft registration. Voluntary service is true service. Let’s keep it that way.

Today’s public meeting in particular highlights the failing credibility of the Commission. Previous public meetings around the country have had very limited opportunity for open testimony from the general public. Today’s meeting has even less opportunity. Previous public meetings have been billed as having opportunities to speak directly to the Commission; and when people get there they find out that there is a scheduled two minutes per citizen. This meeting is being billed as an opportunity for Q&A, not even to the Commission but to their invited speakers. Furthermore, the overall time for the public to even participate in this insular Q&A has been cut down to “20 or 30 minutes.” From the experience of previous public meetings, the chasm between the nature of “invited” testimony and uninvited testimony betrays a characterization of the Commission’s work to date as democratic. The Commission is moving in the wrong direction. A responsive democratic process would have began with generous opportunities for open public testimony, and then used this input to shape additional “invited” testimony as needed. This may already be too late to remedy.

Unfortunately, the Commission has other credibility problems that may very well make their job impossible. This Commission is dominated by members from the military or traditional national security apparatus, all the while trying to couch their work in a broader, more generic view of service. This Commission is extremely white, in a nation where people of color are about 4 of 10 Americans. This Commission is poorly designed to represent America. To make matters worse, the Commission has chosen to conduct its business in such a manner that citizens have had to make FOIA requests to find out about the basic public functioning of the Commission. This does not bode well for a culture of transparent, accountable public service by the Commission.

Originally, I planned my trip from Toledo to Chicago, for this public meeting, to deliver testimony to the Commission, offering a story of conscience and how draft registration fails to meet a broad range of America’s ideals. Because this public meeting cannot accommodate such open testimony, I stand before you, hoping that a free press will shine a light on the ill-conceived and poorly executed work of The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service.

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ANTI-FASCISM POEM: In Efface of Creeping Fascism

He was a custom
Too accept
That creep
Creep
Creep
Of fascism
Without a furor
Incite
Picking wons
Fights
Posedly agin
And agin
Sow frayed
Peering opposed
Laws and orders
As just
Be for
It’s too late
Over
Due
In efface of populations abashed
In habiting legions of apprehensions
With all
Act right
A weigh
Even as if
Unhinging
On won soul

got fascism? POLITICAL BUTTONThis anti-fascism poem was inspired by some recent situations in my life and my reflection on the endemic response of many to use the rubric of “picking one’s fights” to avoid pushing back against creeping fascism.  My most recent experience with creeping fascism was on a long bus trip when a U.S. Border Patrol agent boarded the bus during a layover at a station in the middle of the night.  The agent asked some riders “Do you mind telling me your country of origin?”  First, this was odd because we were in Rochester, New York, several hours from the Canadian border (a known backdoor for alien entry); and the bus had been in the Buffalo station, which is much closer to the Canadian border.  I Don't Agree With President Vader's Policies, But I Still Think We Should Support Our Storm Troopers POLITICAL BUTTONThe Border Patrol agent was profiling passengers and he never asked me, a white guy, anything.  The agent also did not ask for identification or “papers,” so he was not very rigorous in this fishing expedition.  Perhaps this was a tip of the hat to the honest-faced people he was profiling, but I strongly suspect that the primary purpose was actually to make people afraid rather than nab aliens or criminals.  QUESTION AUTHORITY Before It Questions You POLITICAL BUTTONAs this agent was questioning passengers, I was pondering what to say if he asked me the loaded question: “Do you mind telling me your country of origin?”  Of course, I minded.  Refusing to answer the question was my first preference.  I could answer honestly, that I was born in Haiti.  Perhaps I could reveal to him that I am a convicted felon.  Maybe I could let him know that I detest creeping fascists.  But, alas, I didn’t fit his middle-of-the-night profile.  Perhaps us hippies are going to have to work harder to make the list.

A Nation of Sheep Soon Beget a Government of Wolves - Edward R. Murrow Quote - POLITICAL BUTTONI was somewhat surprised and very much creeped out by this incident, but it has increased my resolve to push back against creeping fascism at every opportunity.  As luck would have it, I arrived back in Toledo early morning Tuesday, in time for our weekly Trump Tuesday protest outside Sen. Rob Portman’s office and his aid happened to be available that day to speak with a group of us.  So, I was able to share this story of the Border Patrol agent on the bus.  Plus, us Trump Tuesday protesters had been experiencing ongoing creeping fascism in the form of building security arbitrarily limiting only four of us in the lobby at any one time to fill out comment sheets for Sen. Portman.  While there was an alleged policy regarding this, I suspect it never existed, nor could it hold up to constitutional muster.  One Nation Under Surveillance POLITICAL BUTTONThis alleged policy apparently applied to an identifiable group of people peaceably assembling, not, for instance to a dozen apparently random people in the lobby.  The lobby security guard didn’t like us, and he spoke demeaningly, especially to the women protesters.  Most of the protesters complied with this arbitrary restriction by herding only four people at a time into the lobby.  However, I made a point of filling out a comment sheet only if I could be a fifth person.  I never got any hassle for doing this, but if I had, I would of insisted on seeing a written policy.  For whatever reason, there was a new security guard in the lobby.  The new security guard didn’t care how many of us came into the lobby.  As five of us entered, I declared the new reality, “We now have 25% more democracy!”

Police Everywhere, Justice Nowhere POLITICAL BUTTONBeside directly oppressing target groups, creeping fascism has the nefarious side benefit of training others to tolerate little creeps of fascism that may seem uncivil to resist.  I find this a good example of how our quest for propriety can interfere with simple, and small, moral actions.  Perhaps ironically, resisting these little creeps may bring about disproportionately large consequences.  I contend that this disproportionality is the best evidence for an unjust situation and social control through intimidation.  Unfortunately, the risk of disproportional consequences is the very reason that people often cite for not resisting, and in solemn pronouncements of practicality state, “You have to pick your battles.”  Of course, you do.  Though I prefer to call them opportunities.

Feel free, to browse my anti-fascism designs.

A Spiritual Autobiography

I wrote the below spiritual autobiography a dozen years ago as part of a servant leadership study group.  While it definitely needs updating, it serves well as a brief overview of my spiritual history and development over much of my life, particularly my early years.  Fortuitously, my humor remains righteously irreverent and my faith grows.

RUTTS
by Alex Haley
(that’s just my pun name)

The year was 1961. Preceded by John, a child was conceived, fathered by a closeted gay man, in Bethlehem, on the outskirts of the city of brotherly love. In my mother’s womb, I was transported to Haiti, where my parents, as doctor and nurse, were beginning their service as medical missionaries with the Mennonite Central Committee. A dozen (and a half) generations ago my ancestors had fled religious persecution and military conscription in Germany to settle in America. For a new beginning, they were gifted with land from William Penn. This land was some of the most fertile in the world; so fertile, in fact, that even gay men father children there! Though now in Haiti, they were soon to be counted again among the privileged of the world. I was born. And on this journey, Joseph followed. Continuing my heritage as a sojourner in a foreign land, I was born a true child of the 60s.

I have no specific memories of those first couple of years in Haiti. However, only in recent years have I realized my ideal vision of serenity as sleeping without a care late in the morning in a mountain cabin while the rain pounds on the tin roof likely came from memories as a baby (now, if only I can figure out why I have a pleasant association with the smell of skunk!). Also, I am told that I was scared of most white people. Strangely, I am still haunted by white people on occasion.

After a brief stint in Detroit, perhaps explaining my love of urban life, I grew up in a small town in Michigan. The town was Mennonite-free, so I was raised a United Methodist. My childhood was strikingly trauma-free (only striking in retrospect). I knew safety. I knew predictability and caring. Our family always ate meals together, beginning with a prayer too short not to recount here: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen.” A lot more theology in that prayer than I usually give credit. Our family participated in worship and church functions regularly. Worship was generally boring. One of my few memories was a teenager with a guitar, singing “Blowing in the wind.” I guess that would have been contemporary music, huh? And that was before Bob Dylan was a Christian. I attended Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and youth group. I only vaguely remember confirmation. I remember good times. Except for a desperately poor matching of gifts by placing me in a children’s choir – my first, and really only, experience with “playing hooky.” I loved summer camp. First there were church camps, then Boy Scout camps. My younger brother and I earned Eagle Scout ranking (the highest in Boy Scouts) in record time. Our scoutmaster was easygoing and playful. Perhaps paradoxically, it was easy to achieve in that environment. If “achievement” had been required of me, I probably wouldn’t have done it, or at least wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. When we later moved and joined another scout troop, which was probably better organized and certainly more rigid, we dropped out after a while.

My understanding of diversity was child-like. I knew that Catholic families were the ones with five or six kids. Good families to play with. My best friend’s dad was Cuban. He also had two older half-siblings. In retrospect, this was the only somewhat non-traditional family I recall; though I don’t recall giving it much thought.

I was baptized at age eleven. Apparently, I was out of the country at the time such events usually occur. Fortunately, my understanding of baptism was still pretty much that of an infant, so it worked out well. I was confirmed a year later. About this same time, I was in little league baseball. In an attempt to deal with performance anxiety, I kept a pocket-sized New Testament in my back pocket. This crude attempt at spiritual osmosis was discovered by my brothers who with little affection labeled me “Bible boy.” I didn’t like this. I remember that my parent rebuked them.

When we moved to Dearborn, Michigan, before my ninth grade, my parents looked for a church nearby, but had little success – “too suburban” I think. Not surprising, considering we lived in a nice home with a pool, only 100 feet from a golf course. They decided to return to their church from earlier years, Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit, 20 minutes away. Central is the oldest Protest-ant church in Michigan, and has been called “the conscience of the city.” Always a leader in social justice, their most widely known pastor preached pacifism before, during and after World War II. I was soon to be raised on 45+ minute sermons, truly epic sermons. A turning point happened to me sometime during my high school years when my mom took me to a peace conference at church. My eyes were opened and my heart would soon follow.

I went to Hope College, a small, private, liberal arts school. It was a Christian College, as were most of its staff and students, mostly Reformed and Christian Reformed. However, it was unlikely that I would ever be Reformed; conservatively speaking that is. My college years began with my father lightly warning me of these Calvinists. I didn’t know what he was talking about. My first roommate and I, who were boyhood friends, unknowingly were matched because we were both Methodists – apparently, a rare breed thereabouts. Early on, I must have been an easy target for an overabundance of evangelism. A friend invited me to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. I went to what turned out to be a practically diversity-free zone; even ALL of the other persons in my small group were named “Kathy” (though probably a diversity of spellings). Later, when I saw out my dorm room window the friend who invited me, I said, “hello.” She asked me what I thought of the meeting. I shouted from the second floor window something to the effect that it was “too religious.” I did like church, and I went willingly. I even went to chapel services three times a week – religiously. I was also on part-time staff of the campus ministry. Though a biology major, I was frequently mistaken for a political science or philosophy major. Apparently, I was succeeding at the liberal arts (or at least the art of being liberal).

I very soon got involved with a small group of students known as the World Hunger Committee. Being a United Methodist, I must have known that there would be a committee for that! This formally launched my work in social justice, and my personal interest in stewardship, vegetarianism and nutrition. That first year, God brought together this son of a Mennonite with a Hope graduate who was a Mennonite (perhaps the only one). I told him that I was concerned about President Carter re-instituting draft registration. He said, “Why don’t you start a peace group?” I said, “Yes.” Fortunately, I didn’t now what I was doing. So, I helped found “Hope for Peace.”

For my own concerns, I hooked up with a Viet Nam war-era draft counselor. To make a long story short, when President Reagan broke his campaign promise to end draft registration, I was identified in the Detroit News as a non-registrant. Being the only publicly-identified non-registrant in Michigan, I garnered much media attention. Eventually, the Reagan ‘get the government off your back’ regime and his Attorney General, Edwin ‘people are only hungry by choice’ Meese III, saw that out of millions of non-registrants, I was number 13 to be prosecuted. In the end, six years later, after heroically losing half a dozen pre-trial motions (with the help of a volunteer team of legal experts), my older brother dying, graduating from college, getting married, having a son, graduating from graduate school, and getting a job, I defended myself before a jury of my peers (though none of them were subject to the law I was defending myself from). I lost. But what did I win? (that is, beside three months room and board at the taxpayers’ expense) I learned to live in good conscience. I learned to refine my beliefs, even amidst great public scrutiny. I learned about civil disobedience, or as A.J. Muste, a great American pacifist and Hope College graduate would have said, “holy obedience” (in my write mind I say, “wholly obedience). I learned that the U.S. government has the absolute authority to draft any citizen regardless of conscientious objection. Any exception to this is due only to “legislative grace.” I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my government. Actually, I presented my case at the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, in conjunction with a resolution to support young men’s consciences who were subject to draft registration laws, whether their conscience led them to register or not. The resolution failed. So, I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my denomination.

During college, after guest preaching at my home church in Detroit, someone came up afterwards and said, “I didn’t know that you were in seminary.” Nonetheless, I consider myself a theological mutt. I have drawn from many Christian traditions. I have studied Asian religions, and I am drawn to Buddhism. I am an amateur philosopher (that is, until someone pays me) and I am intrigued by the angst of existentialism. I have experienced a spiritual re-awakening in Alanon, which has given me things that my church could not. I believe that “religionism” may be the ultimate “-ism,” preventing us from experiencing the oneness of God. I may be a leading candidate to be voted, “most likely to be heretical,” by the powers that be. This is my orthodoxy. I believe that paradox lives in the neighbor of truth; and we should love our neighbors. In true Zen-like fashion, I find that irreverence is often the highest form of reverence. Among my heresies is my unabashed appreciation of “The Simpsons” (but, as the Hindus would say, “Don’t have a cow.”).

After an intense summer working for Bread for the World as an organizer, and days before my senior year began, my brother John was killed in an avalanche in Western Canada; but only after dropping out of college while on foreign study, wandering, rock-climbing and working (pretty much in that order) for a couple of years in Africa and the Western U.S. His death has given me a much greater sense of mortality and the preciousness of life each day. I actually find funerals as fruitful opportunities for reflection and renewing my sense of “living in the moment.” I have undervalued such opportunities. One of the few regrets in my life was missing three of four funerals of my grandparents.

My paternal grandparents were particularly religious. Only upon the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary (and doing the math) did I realize that my father was a near-bastard child to a teen mom. Years later, when my sister was pregnant and out-of-wedlock at age 19, my grandfather said, “The sins of the grandfather are being visited upon the granddaughter.” My thought: get over it! Well, at least, I can now understand why my gay father was closeted until his parents were either dead or demented. While I didn’t see healing in my grandparents, I saw that having an understanding of God under construction is a good thing, and sometimes demolition work is required.

That brings me to my marriage. To make a long, and usually happy, story short, my marriage of 11+ years ended 10 years ago. Nonetheless, we were blessed with two wonderful children, Joshua and Kathryn. I love being a parent. It may be the closest I’ve been able to experience what God must feel in His/Her unconditional love for us. Kate’s life is an ongoing miracle since she was born with multiple heart defects. She underwent two heart surgeries, and at one point with surgical complications, a doctor, trying to be optimistic, said, she has at least a 50/50 chance of living. A brush with death. There’s that mortality thing again. Not unlike death, I thought I had no problem with divorce – as long as it was happening to other people. Accepting our divorce was the most difficult thing I have ever dealt with.

Being out of a “relationship” for a number of years helped my re-develop my relationship with myself and with God. This came more through Alanon than church. Now, being in a relationship for eight years with a wise and beautiful woman has taught me to appreciate life as it comes, one day at a time – with both of us half single, half single parent; no longer with in-laws but ex’s. I’ve learned that God makes all things new, and often faster than I want. God never gives me what I want; God always gives me something better!

My career. God brought me to a career in public health, as I savored its roots in social justice. God brought me out of public health, re-naming me “Top Pun,” and appointing me as a jester for peace, where the pun is mightier than the sword, and justice is no yoke. My canvasses are buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and the World Wide Web. My business, by definition, is good – that is, maximizing prophets. My business is exactly on schedule; though I don’t know what the schedule is.

God brought me to Central’s neighborhood, and a few hours later, to Central. Centralites were my kind of people. Some happened to be Christians who were gay. Through my social justice work, not my public health work, God brought me to work in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This opened further opportunities to work with persons who happened to be gay. My dad “came out.” My parents divorced. God had prepared me.

I have issues with money. I aspire to live simply, gracefully facilitated by my recent poverty-level earnings. Living with less financial security has inspired me to give today because I may not be able to give later. Whatever old car I’m driving facilitates my prayer life (of course, no “auto”-biography would be complete without a mention of my car).

I am a mystic at heart, journeying as a gifted rationalist, Caucasian, male, father, lover, businessman, American, etc., etc., yada, yada, yada. While embracing the enigmatic, I hope these few words will offer you a clue as to who I am. Hopefully, these few words will offer you a clue as to who we are. One of my favorite poems is from Muhammad Ali: “Me. We.”

In all, God has never left me; except for an instant in 1981, but that’s another story…

POEM: Standing On My Privy Ledge

I am a white, straight, Christian, male
And you see that
I am afraid
Though paying attention
To what is fare
I am more afraid
Of whites than blacks
Of straights than queers
Of Christians than Muslims
Of men than women
Of what is in than out
Of wear it so easy
To be dark, crooked, un-Christian, and un-manly
Standing on my privy ledge
Only names dropping
And eliminating a void
For it’s all in
The taking
That in is capable plunge
Before the plumb it
Takes us
Awe down
Oar
Run over by a drain
Holey a bout
In which wee re-side
And set assail
As expect torrent-ly weight
Up on that wayward look out
Going long with dinghy surroundings
Only keeping us on won’s tows
Castles in the err
As hope tangles with whose faltering
If only to feel
The win behind your back
In one fell sloop
Without assemblance of humanity
Ripping that one accord
With know shoot culpable save you
You are precariously throne
As a matter of coarse, bowled over
Un-less first choice
To devote your undivided tension
To what is fare
Forsake of humanity
Either weigh
That first step
Is a due see

This poem is about privilege: the privilege men have over women, the privilege whites have over blacks and other people of color, the privilege Christians have over Muslims, the privilege straight folks have over queer folk.   Privilege Is When You Think Something Is Not A Problem Because It's Not A Problem To You Personally POLITICAL BUTTONEnd Heterosexual Privilege - Rainbow Pride Bar--Gay Pride Rainbow Store BUTTONThis is a first person poem, in that I am such a multi-privileged person.  The unnamed privilege in this poem is the privilege people living in the first-world have over people living in the second- or third-world (or as some say: the two-thirds world).

I have been pondering the reality of privilege most of my life.  I consider my birth into this world in Haiti, but as a son of white, well-educated Americans, as representative of profound tensions within my life in relation to the many human conundrums set up by vast differences in privilege.  My Mennonite heritage, steeped in values of simple living, has been a fortuitous foundation for my drift into economic irrelevancy and semi-voluntary poverty. Live Simply So Others May Simply Live - POLITICAL BUTTONMy training and career in public health has afforded me a perspective rich in dealing with social justice.  My vocation and avocation as a social justice activist has yielded abundant opportunities to stand in solidarity with my human kin, and even reflect upon erudite concepts such as intersectionality.  My short stint in prison plus hanging around more poor folks has helped prompt me to shed some of my middle-class sensibilities.  I am working intentionally to trade many of my first world problems for second- and third-world problems.  Yet, perhaps the greatest testament to my many privileges, is that I still feel like the richest person I know (though I don’t really get out that much).

Recently, my dealing with privilege has been kicked into high gear, with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement.  BLACK LIVES MATTER [Black Power Symbol] POLITICAL BUTTONI am deeply grateful to all of the people of color, queer folk, highly conscious feminists, and “others” who have enriched my life beyond belief.  got privilege? POLITICAL BUTTONI hope that the privilege I have at my disposable serves the larger interest of equality for all.  May any privilege we possess not possess us but spur us to break down any inhuman barriers that separate us.

Feel free to check out LGBT equality designs, Black Lives Matter designs, feminism designs, human rights designs, and anti-hate, anti-discrimination designs.

POEM: Halving No Interest

Wile a capital idea to sum
I halve no interest
In how you make a living
Rather
That which
Makes you
Come alive

I would dare say that most of life lost is in the chasm between making a living and doing that which makes you come alive.  I would even dare say that being distant from having to worry about basic needs — “having it made” — is a greater threat to coming alive than what life palpitates within us when we are connected to struggling for basic human needs.  This narrative runs counter to the liberal, artsy dream of not having to worry about money so you can be free to pursue “more important things,” presumably art as luxury rather than art as necessity.

The art of living is essentially doing that which makes you come alive.  This is where art is a necessary reflection of our overflowing aliveness, or, in less flowery language, art is a basic human need.  Art lives coequal with our basic material needs of food, shelter, health care, an environment free of violence and full of affection, and the long litany of human rights inalienable to humanity.  Art flowers in our connection to others and creation.  Revolutionary art serves as a critique of alienation and destruction, which often comes at the hands of money first — sometimes driving a cruel bargain for our humanity; more often offering a seductively easy price for our humanity.

Personally, my art is rooted in both the privileged experience of a first world nation and the surrounding larger reality of vast material deprivation more common than not on this planet we share.  I was literally born into this conundrum.  As a helpless baby, I was not helpless.  While I was born in Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, I was not fated to live a life anything like the countless babies born within a stones throw.  I was born to well-educated, white Americans — a doctor and a nurse.  As a toddler, I would fly off in an airplane, already then cementing myself solidly within the experience of less than 1/20th of the world’s inhabitants.  My rant above is perhaps one of privileged hope.  I may never know for sure.  However, as I grow in my art of living, I find it much wiser and productive to root for humanity, not money.  The truth of any above assertions is probably best demonstrated by the fact that Haiti has the largest concentration of artists, predominantly painters, of any nation on earth.  Perhaps art is a necessity, not a luxury.

 

 

POEM: The Death of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier

He was a Baby with a capital B
A ruler by which so many would be judged
He was unjust
A child of 20
A President for life
A President for death
As so many capriciously dyin’ with a king
An entourage of automatic weapons and complimentary wine
Drunk with power
As a prince of port
Celebrating fear
Of those his pathos cross
In the company of thieves
A bout to meet their maker
In the chaos of Haiti borne
I was just
A child of 10
With a father doc of my own
Standing up like so many others
In a sense wondering
Who had come before me
And what might fallow
Only to depart so quickly
As a pre-mature baby with terminal rashness
Vainly hoping to reach ode age
Goon before we know it
And such is life
I dash to the winnow
Like a babe in the woulds
Mirrorly site seeing
Unschooled in this deathly land escape
As my mother
Without peer
Pulled me to her side
That one side that fits awe
Only hereafter to learn
In do time
With respects
To wrest in peace

I wrote this poem this morning after hearing of the death of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, a former president of Haiti, much more aptly described as a brutal dictator.  I was born in Haiti while my parents were serving there as medical missionaries with the Mennonite Central Committee.  Our family returned to visit Haiti in 1971, soon after “Baby Doc” inherited the family dictatorship from his father, “Papa Doc.” This poem recounts an incident when we were dining in a restaurant in Port-Au-Prince, the capitol of Haiti, when “Baby Doc” came in for a meal.  I was ten years old.  All of the sudden, everyone in the restaurant stood up.  And as is the etiquette in a foreign country, when everybody around you does something, follow suit.  We stood up.  “Baby Doc” and his entourage of guards armed with automatic weapons entered.  The proprietors of the restaurant quickly prepared a few tables for them directly adjacent to our table.  We were mere feet from three tables occupied by the president and his armed guards. Complimentary wine was ordered for all of the restaurant’s guests. Of course, I found all of this quite fascinating.  They ate and left rather quickly, and I scurried to the window to capture yet more of this gawk-worthy event.  My mom quickly and discreetly rounded me back up and pulled my away from the window.  Only later did she share the worry that such behavior could be viewed as suspicious and perhaps dangerous.

The death of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was experienced by countless Haitians who were murdered and disappeared.  This morning there were probably relatively few Haitians mourning the death of this one man.  May Haiti continue to recover from the death brought by his reign, among so many other troubles and challenges.  The experiences of myself and my family in Haiti continue to give me a life-long perspective from which to work for justice and wrest in peace.

POEM: Tasting God

Tasting God

I almost tasted God
In what turned out
To be
A fine guacamole
A common mistake
Well worth repeating

I find eating guacamole a religious experience.  As family legend has it, when we lived in Haiti when I was a toddler, my Mom found me under the kitchen sink eating rotten avocados.  While in college, I food poisoned myself with a bad batch of guacamole.  This imprinted in me an aversion to avocados which lasted for months.  Fortunately, I have fully recovered — and then perhaps some!  Though I delight in avocados, I rarely buy them.  Mostly because I am cheap, and somewhat poor.  Partly, because I have so many delights in my life where I can access God, many of them sensual.  I suppose if God hid better in my life, I might have to resort to avocados more frequently.  Fortunately, my sweetheart is familiar with this highway to God, and she feeds me avocados with some regularity.  One of her many titles is “Giver of Guacamole,” though in goddess-like ineffableness she seems to resist pet names.

This poem plays with the experiencing of God as a sensual experience.  The almost tasted God suggests that it may be close to experiencing God, but perhaps not directly.  Of course, the “turned out to be” could mean that the mistake was in the almost.  Either way, the experience is well worth repeating; and if there is some mistake involved, the sheer gloriousness of a fine guacamole should amply cover any falling short.

Blood Donor Deferrals Border on Insanity

I just returned from donating blood at the American Red Cross.  I have been a regular blood donor for a long time.  I usually donate blood two or three times a year.  Unfortunately, I have been deferred as a blood donor for two of the last four years.  I was deferred as a blood donor twice for one year each time, both due to traveling to an area where there may be some malaria risk.  The first time that I was deferred as a blood donor was because of travel to Haiti.  The second time was due to travel through rural Colombia.  In my case, these deferrals resulted in a loss of 4 to 6 units of donated blood to the American Red Cross.

The American Red Cross is constantly trying to recruit new blood donors and to get previous blood donors to donate again.  From the regular calls and advertising campaigns, I get the impression that the US blood supply may be low at times and that my blood donations are greatly needed.  However, I am struck by the huge range of reasons for deferring willing blood donors.  It seems to me that the threshold for deferral is very low.  The willingness to accept any nonzero risk is very low.  This approach is insane, or least pretty darn close.  The vain quest for absolute security and zero risk is a dangerous fiction.  I understand the reasons for wanting to avoid blood transfusion related adverse events.  However, deferring extremely low risk willing blood donors and potentially depriving someone of a needed blood transfusions is not a zero risk enterprise either.  As stated by Richard Benjamin, MD, PhD, chief medical officer for the American Red Cross, “The most dangerous unit of blood is the one we don’t have.  Not having blood for someone who needs it is worse than giving someone a unit of blood that carries a 1-in-5 million chance of disease.”

I am not your average blood donor.  I have a master’s degree in public health, so I have training in epidemiology, the scientific study of the distribution of disease, health and their determinants.  Also, in the 1990s I worked in a health department managing an HIV-AIDS program.  I am familiar with the political and cultural forces that can distort our scientific assessments of risk management.  However, you don’t need a graduate degree to recognize that our culture has great issues around security and fear of losing or risking most anything.

Less than 38% of Americans are eligible to donate blood according to the American Red Cross.  Today, as I read through the pages of reasons for which you could be deferred from donating blood, I was struck most profoundly by the deferrals based simply on where one has lived.  If, in fact, the scientific basis for avoiding such blood donors is sound, then the entire continent of Europe should refuse blood donations from virtually its entire population.  This cannot be sound scientific reasoning.

In the last decade or so, there’s been a lot of hysteria about mad cow disease.  According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 22 cases of mad cow disease in the United States since 2003.  Three of these cases originated in the United States.  Most of the other cases were from Canada, which you may note is not one of the restricted countries that will put you on the blood donation deferral list by the American Red Cross.  The United Kingdom was the epicenter for the mad cow disease epidemic.  While in the United Kingdom there had been thousands of cases of mad cow disease in years past, in 2010 there were only 11 cases reported.  Maybe it’s time for the American Red Cross to relax its deferral requirements related to mad cow disease. Or, maybe we should come up with a new diagnosis for this irrational insanity, and declare that the American Red Cross has Mad American Disease.  You are literally dozens of times more likely to be killed by being struck by lightning in the US then getting mad cow disease.  I’m not sure what the chance is of lightning striking the American Red Cross, but I would settle for a light bulb above the head of somebody who makes these crazy decisions.

Over the decades that I have donated blood to the American Red Cross, I have noted the quickly changing and almost always growing list of reasons to defer a willing blood donor.  As a personal example, I had malaria when I was an infant in Haiti where I was born.  During the ensuing 50 years I’ve not had any symptoms of malaria.  However, how the American Red Cross deals with this distant case of malaria changes back and forth.  Many years ago, the American Red Cross simply asked whether you have ever had malaria, and if you indicated yes, the nurse would ask more specific questions.  This always made for an interesting blood donation visit as I suspect there were few Ohio blood donors who had ever had malaria, and the nurses often had to consult with other professional healthcare staff to figure out what to do with me as a blood donor.  Although sometimes it took a while for them to figure it out, it never prevented me from donating blood.  Then, at some point later, they changed the question as to whether you had malaria in the last three years.  I can answer no to this question, and this streamlined my visit quite a bit.  Now, in recent years, they are back to the more general question of have you ever had malaria.  Fortunately, there seems to be better training among the nurses during the screenings and they do not seem to need to consult anyone else to determine that I am, in fact, eligible to donate blood.

The American Red Cross’ quest for zero risk seems to be marching on.  Since I last donated blood less than three months ago, they have added yet another safety precaution.  Now, when they stick your finger with a needle to get a drop of blood to check your hemoglobin, they place a plexiglass barrier between your finger and the nurse.  Really now, how often does anyone ever got blood splashed in their eyes from giving a finger prick?  More importantly, does this represent any risk worth worrying about.  If it does, I’d hate to see what such risk assessment would do to health care workers in hospital settings.  Perhaps we should expect nurses in hospitals to soon be wearing spacesuits just to be sure.  According to the CDC, “Health care workers who have received hepatitis B vaccine and have developed immunity to the virus are at virtually no risk for infection…the estimated risk for infection after a needlestick or cut exposure to HCV-infected blood is approximately 1.8%.  The risk following a blood splash is unknown but is believed to be very small…The risk after exposure of the eye, nose, or mouth to HIV-infected blood is estimated to be, on average, 0.1% (1 in 1,000).” For instance, for hepatitis C,  “the risk is considered to be less than 1 chance per 2 million units transfused.”  That’s for a blood donation recipient who has an entire unit of blood transfused into them.  The risk of  the nurse getting infected by pricking the finger of a potential blood donor would be on the order of that one in a million TIMES the chance of getting a drop of blood splashed in their eye when pricking a blood donor’s finger TIMES the chance that such an event could cause disease.  You can do the math yourself.  For the example of hepatitis C, conservatively, we are talking about one in a million times one in thousands times one in a thousand.  In the end, we are talking about no more than a chance of one in many billions of getting infected by hepatitis C by pricking the finger of a potential blood donor without having eye protection .  For the number of blood donations every year in the US, it would take centuries for this practice to expect to prevent even one case of blood borne pathogens.  The risk for hepatitis C is the highest and adding in hepatitis C and HIV would not substantially change this basic calculation.  From the resource perspective, the question becomes how many billions of times do you want to place a plexiglass barrier between you and a potential blood donor to prevent a single case of infection?

I am well aware of the emotional place from which the quest for zero risk comes.  Unfortunately, the emotional experience of wanting to live in a zero risk world does not match up with a simple costs and benefits calculation of going very far down that road.  It quickly leads to unjustifiable contradictions.  Why defer blood donors due to a nearly incalculably small risk for mad cow disease from people who spend significant time in Europe but not Canada, where most of the US cases have originated from?  Well, I’ll tell you.  Starting a deferral process for people who spend significant time in Canada would expose the insane balance between actual risk and actual costs in trying to avoid the risk.  It seems that we can “afford” to ban, for example, military servicemen who were stationed in Germany or England from donating blood in order to “buy” some unscientific sense of security in our blood supply.  I recognize that plenty of people are willing to pay such prices.  I just ask that we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that these choices are based on scientific evidence and well-reasoned analyses of risk management.

Another example of blood donor deferral that rests more on cultural biases than scientific and well-reasoned risk management, is The Lifetime Ban on Blood Donations from Gay Men, where policy analyst Robert Valadez writes:

“So where did this policy come from? And why is it still enforced despite advances in technology that can identify HIV in a unit of blood within days of infection?

The policy dates back to the early days of the HIV epidemic, when knowledge of transmission was nonexistent. Recognizing the disproportionate incidence rates among gay and bisexual men, the FDA responded by enacting a policy that prohibited all men who had sex with other men from donating blood. The year was 1985. Twenty-six years later, the policy remains unchanged.

Current blood donor eligibility criteria are largely inconsistent, imposing significantly less restrictive deferrals to heterosexual men and women who engage in high-risk sexual behavior. For example, a heterosexual person who has sex with a partner who is HIV-positive is eligible to donate blood after only 12 months. Yet the policy permanently bans all gay and bisexual men, even those who are HIV-negative, consistently practice safe sex, or in monogamous relationships”

Like many experiences in my life, I find that even the wonderful experience of saving lives by donating blood, comes with the collateral costs of having to participate in the system that is driven by an insane quest for zero risk.  This insane quest has costs.  It has costs for the blood supply and the people who depend on it.  This insane quest for zero risk has costs for those who are subjected to its unscientific cultural biases, and for all of us who live in an environment that unnecessarily models for us this insanity and vanity.  Life has risks.  There are reasonable and scientific ways to reduce these risks.  We should pay attention to these.  However, we should not be driven and reduced by unreasonable fears, unfounded fears.  As is often the case in life, that which we feel threatens us gets a disproportionate amount of our attention.  Nonetheless, we should look at the full range of costs associated with trying to avoid some threat, and realize and accept that risk is an integral and unavoidable part of life.  I would hope that the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans, in its broadest sense, would kick in as we live into the fact that taking and accepting risks can far outweigh the costs of those risks.  Maybe even the American Red Cross will take a risk and pare down its blood donation deferral list.  We can always hope — though this entails some risk…

“PUNS NOT GUNS” Manifesto by Top Pun

“PUNS NOT GUNS” Manifesto

“Some claim that puns are the lowest form of comedy. Dan, rather, says, “Guns are the lowest form of community.” Choose your weepin’! I prefer to hit ’em in the groan. Though puns and untrained minds can produce a “Not see,” puns and arms go hand in hand when used as a righting instrument. Mixing puns with peacework puts you in the dis’armament business; and though rhyme doesn’t pay, the prophets are good. With puns, and sharing a little peace of mine, we can realize that one side fits all. In truth, it’s guns that have too “meanings” for the price of won. Sometimes it takes everything we’ve got to see the blight (as they say, “sinner takes all”). While some may feel it’s an impossible play on wars (a mortality play for sure), all it takes is a sick sense (no relation to paranormal parents). Let’s have some serious fun (a free for all). Justice is no yoke. Think good that the pun is mightier than the sword!”

I wrote this manifesto early on in my career as Top Pun.  I have been a terrible punster as long as I can remember, and I have been interested in a wide range of social justice issues since I was a young adult.  I remember that my parents, recognizing my propensity towards puns, gave me a dictionary of puns as a present one year for my birthday.  In this pun dictionary, it was stated that there are an infinite number of puns.  At first, and actually for a very long time, I thought that this could not be possible.  Now, after cementing my vocation as the best punster for peace in the English-speaking world, I have little difficulty recognizing that there aren’t infinite number of puns.  I am a little surprised that this “Puns Not Guns” manifesto has held up so well for me over the years. I think that maybe I’m onto something with this punning thing.

As you can tell from the manifesto, much of my early inspiration comes from involvement in the peace movement.  Nonviolence seems to be the thread that ties together all of the many issues that I’m interested in.  Of course, perhaps conveniently, I define nonviolence very broadly (that’s non-broadly if you’re a woman).  Actually, while my first foray into nonviolence was in the late 70s when my mom took me to a peace conference at our church, Central United Methodist Church in Detroit.  This is the most salient event that I can identify as far as my consciousness raising around peace issues.  Back to the whole issue of nonviolence, I defined world hunger and extreme poverty as violence.  World hunger has continued to be the defining issue for me in relation to the world.  The interface between great affluence and extreme poverty has always challenged and perplexed me.  It is very difficult for me to reconcile these cruel and destructive differences in a world with so much.  The fact that such issues are deep and central to me really comes as no surprise.  In fact, I was literally born into it.  I was born in Haiti while my parents were serving as medical missionaries with the Mennonite Central Committee.  My father was a physician at the time, and my mother was a nurse at the time.  Mennonites have a tradition of encouraging their young folks after high school or college to perform some service to others.  Also, while I have been a lifelong United Methodist, I come from a very long line of Mennonites.  This Mennonite influence has been very strong, with predictable outcomes, in the sense, that peace and justice and simple living are powerful themes in my life.  Little did I realize early in my life that I was a good candidate for being a hippie.  My parents never really spoke that much about their experiences in Haiti, and when they did speak of their experiences in Haiti, they spoke rather nonchalantly.  Perhaps paradoxically, this more casual exceptions of what is hardly typical service, instilled in me that such commitment and service should be normal; and for me it was normal.

View Top Pun’s PUNS DESIGNS