Weapons of Mass Construction: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic

[This week every year Graduation Day reverberates through the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok for hundreds of poor students (nearly 1,000 this year) who are completing the Mercy Centre's three-year preschool program. Several years ago I attended the ceremonies. That experience became Chapter 1 in The Gospel of Father Joe. In honor of Father Joe Maier and Mercy it is excerpted below. The world remains indebted to Father Joe's wisdom and his peaceful way of combating poverty, terrorism, and human trafficking.]

Father Joe delivering the commencement address to Mercy’s preschoolers, March 2007.

[For the Huffington Post version click HERE]

The story begins like the parable it’s become, in a no-man’s-land with the seed of dreams strewn in the most foolish of places: slum rubbish. This was the 1970s when few people believed anything good could grow from the backwater of the undeveloped world. There were no official addresses or property deeds in the cordoned-off corners of Bangkok, nothing much for the municipal books, just putrid ground so primal and bleak that land was free for the staking. It’s where squatters pretended to own real houses and children made do with make-believe.

But these seeds were sown by an angry young Catholic chased from finer society. A priest, stubborn and cursing. The local Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians nurtured that seed, and in time the people and the priest, the abbot and the imam, worked together, as though the Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ were brothers and best friends. No doctrine, dogma, or creed was lorded. No growth tethered chapter to verse. The only belief that mattered was the one they shared. In the children. That was common, sacred ground.

Nourished like this, the seeds exploded with growth. There was a harvest, then another and another. The seeds grow still today, more than three decades later, a genus of hope thriving in the muck, as if it had been indigenous to the slums all along. Tales of it grow too, spreading from those roots in Thailand to the media of North America and Europe, and in the retelling, it can begin to sound legendary. How in Gideon’s name does something grow from nothing and multiply like New Testament fishes and loaves? But nothing about it is myth. Every tale is true.

You can see for yourself when a new crop is gathered each year just before the yearly monsoons. For two, three, and often four days, a cordoned-off corner of the world blossoms in a brilliant hue of graduation gowns.

So it was on the sun struck first week of March 2007– thirty-three years after the first seeds were planted.

The Mercy Centre preschool graduation was standing-room-only; moms, dads, aunties, uncles, siblings, cousins, the neighbor next door and next door to that one. Seven commencements stretched half the week and through a half dozen slums in celebration of seven hundred graduates from thirty-two schools built “officially illegally,” as the priest says, on the Thai government’s squatter land. Children six and seven years old accustomed to flip-flops and hand-me-downs strutted around in black mortarboard caps and matching silk gowns trimmed in a shade of blue my folk back home call Carolina. And while girls and their mothers and aunts fussed with lipstick and rouge, the boys did what boys do: swirl their heads until the tassels on their caps whir like the blades of a helicopter. Dizzy, they fall to the ground.

The priest was there, of course, more bald with each and every harvest. He conferred the diplomas and delivered the commencement address wearing the black and burgundy of Thailand’s revered Thammasat University. Draped across his left shoulder was a velvet sash with white stripes of cotton, thick enough to brush and braid: three stripes in front, three in back representing the honorary rank of a Thammasat Ph.D. If you were new to the slums or to their graduation rituals, a sash like that in a place like that might stop you. It might even if you weren’t.

Arriving at each school, the American known by tens of thousands of Thai as simply Khun Phaw Joe (“Mister Father Joe”) would park down a ways and out of sight. He’d pull on the gown, fix the sash just so, and then begin “the Walk”– a purposeful stride intended to put education on parade. Each route was different but familiar: past walls of plywood, lopsided floors, rusty tin roofs, and bare-bottomed babies; through humidity flavored by garbage and a subsistence watched over by sun-wrinkled village matriarchs who smiled even as they spit pinpoint tobacco-brown streams of betel nut juice. Heads turned to watch. Motorbikes slowed in deference. Cars stopped to let him pass. Old and young joined in, falling in behind or alongside, knowing full well where he was headed, knowing it was time.

In a backwater where nothing good was supposed to grow, graduation today is a rite of passage.

Some of the hardiest seed will scatter and continue maturing. There are graduates thriving now in the high school and college classrooms of North America with majors in economics, business, biology, computer science, and neuroscience. It’s why Khun Phaw Joe gave the Class of ’07 the same speech he has given every class since the Class of ’95 , the same he will give the Class of ’08. Something about it seems to work.

As the Walk approached the first podium, the room fell silent. Pigeons gurgled their Rs, a mobile phone tweeted, somewhere a baby shrieked. Khun Phaw Joe waited. A small, heavy statue of the Virgin Mary sat in a May altar (on cloth surrounded by flowers) next to a Buddhist shrine of joss sticks and a portrait of the Thai monarch (Massachusetts native King Bhumibol Adulyadej) framed in gold leaf.

Fitted for kid-sized attention spans but fired like buckshot, the commencement address was aimed at everyone crowded into the ceremony.

Khun Phaw cleared his throat.

“If you don’t have anything to eat in the morning,” he began, speaking Thai and scanning his attentive audience of children, then go to school!”

Most of the students sat erect or leaned slightly forward on the edge of their benches or chairs.

“If you don’t have any shoes to wear … ,” he continued, pausing for effect, “go to school!”

“If Mommy or Daddy says you can stay home … go to school!

“If your friends want you to sell drugs … go to school!

“If Mommy gambles and Daddy’s a drunk … go to school!

“If all the money is gone and you can’t buy lunch … go to school!

“If your house burns down and you don’t have anything or anywhere to sleep … go to school!

“Go to school! Go to school! Go to school!”

Children joined in, louder and louder, chanting what sounded to me like “Tong by wrong rain high die!”

Go to school! Dhong bai rong Tien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and the neighbor next door joined in.

Khun Phaw Joe directed the burgeoning chorus, his Thammasat gown waving until the bell sleeves billowed.

Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

And that’s the sprint from beginning to now, three decades of harvests. But in the journey, as in the parable, lie the lessons and wisdom of a social revolutionary who bucks convention, the law, and what the rest of us might consider common sense or self preservation.

Father Joe Maier

The Reverend Joseph H. Maier, the eldest child of a philandering Lutheran father and pious Catholic mother, survived his own poverty and dysfunction to become a throwback of sorts: the durable, American-made export. It should be no surprise, then, that he settled on the wrong side of our economic divide and discovered a comfortable fit.

The neglected children of Klong Toey (three hard syllables sounding like a curse but meaning “canal of the pandanus,” a plant growing near the water and cultivated for its flavorful leaves) would put a nice sheen of perspective on his own welfare beginnings.

Today, whenever Khun Phaw Joe feels a pang of self-pity, and often when he sees it rising in others, he quashes it with self-mockery and echoes of an earlier time: “Yeah, yeah, everybody hates me, nobody loves me, all I’m ever fed is worms. That’s my life story. Blah, blah, blah…. Well, guess what? The sun is rising, the rooster is calling, and another day is here. I guess ol’ Joe better get his ass out of bed and get going.”

 

Avery’s Run to Freedom (or Our White Noise of Modern-day Warfare)

NOTE: Avery Bargar, age 23, delivered the scripture reading before I spoke on Sunday, March 10th at First Baptist Church in Newton (MA), eight miles southwest of the Boston Marathon finish line. Five weeks later he was near that finish line at about 2:50 p.m. when he felt two explosions. He sent me this essay. The insight he shares about the “techno-media echo chamber” is especially valuable. Please read to the finish. And please circulate. 

Guest Blogger Avery Bargar

Maybe World War III wasn’t nuclear; maybe it came and went, and Americans watched it on TV. The Long War could be World War IV, better hidden, though not for much longer, in the internet age. Rather than World Wars becoming increasingly obvious in their destruction, perhaps they’ve become more psychological, because they’re tied to our entertainment. We did not get a new World War, instead we got The Real World: War.

By Avery Bargar

BOSTON— On the morning of the 117th Boston Marathon, I opened the Lindt Chocolate Store in the Lenox Hotel in Copley Square, right at the intersection of Boylston and Exeter Street. There were thousands of people lining both sides of Boylston as I squeezed my way through the crowd to work. In the store, our view of the race could hardly have been better — we were a hundred yards or so from the finish line — so as the front runners of the women’s and men’s races took the title, we watched. My coworker and I both marveled at the feat of will, determination, and faith that it must take to make it to the front of the Boston Marathon.

I left work at 2:40 to jam with someone at Boston Conservatory. Outside of the store, I found myself instantly amidst an enormous crowd. I had to walk slowly away from the finish line, bumping my backpack filled with sheet music into everybody on either side of me. I laughed a bit at the pomp of this whole event—thousands of people; cameras and corporate advertising everywhere—New Balance having cleverly co-opted the themes of social upheaval of the last two years into several historical, Boston-related slogans, including “Run to Freedom”—and in the middle of it all, runners streaming by, pumping their fists in the air. Ten minutes later I had barely made it a few hundred feet from Lindt when I heard a massive BOOM.

Instantly the tone of the crowd changed. Cheering stopped. I turned to face the street, confused, noticing bewilderment and disorientation on a thousand faces. I saw a large plume of white smoke rising a couple hundred feet down the street. As soon as this registered, there was another explosion, and people began to scream. The shock tore us away as fast as possible. Let me make this clear— I was not one of the extremely brave people who ran into the heart of the attack to help the wounded. I was a couple hundred yards from the explosions, amid an enormous terrified throng. We ran south, fast. I alerted other pedestrians and drivers along the way, lent out my cell phone, donated blood an hour later, and I tried to call my coworkers, but I did not double back into the heart of the carnage to help. I did not notice that as a possibility, and I am in awe of those who did. There was intense confusion from the start; the immediate experience of it was obscured by this odd emerging technological phenomenon that is both a web and a barrier; connecting yet dividing us.

A week later, this is one of the hardest things for me to unpack about my experience of these attacks— the use of what I’ll call the “post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber” as a political medium. We carry it with us everywhere, even if we don’t have a smartphone.
As I ran away from Boylston Street with thousands of other frightened Bostonians and tourists, I noticed the waves of communication unfold. The first was with the emerging reality— we all witnessed two violent explosions.

“Get away, fast. There could be more.”

The second wave was with the other people in the area.

“Are you ok? Let’s go, keep running.”

I saw a mother and two boys weeping in fear. I lent my phone to a woman much closer to the blasts than I was— right at the finish line when they went off. She was traumatized from what she had seen, which has already been repeated in what will probably be weeks of reports. Which brings me to the third wave, brought through digital devices— calls and texts with family and friends. I tried to call my coworkers to see that they got out.

And in the fourth wave, we distanced ourselves just a bit from the immediate moment, those around us, and our friends and family, and focused on information. We wanted the facts. As we wandered away from the blasts, the sounds of police and ambulance sirens screaming through Back Bay, we became the second hand consumers of our own experience. We turned to our electronic media to help us interpret our confusion and terror, and joined the intended audience of these attacks. Because the key to the post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber is this: the attacked and the witnesses are not the intended audience; we were simply players, acting out the role thrust on us. The real audience is you, out there, watching on your now unavoidable screen— which has followed you from your local cinema into your living room, then into your businesses and restaurants, your lap, and now your pocket.

But how did this echo chamber come to be?

I walked through Boston and into Cambridge, then took a cab to Medford. Stopping at a pizza shop, I saw coverage on the TV of what I’d just seen firsthand three hours earlier. One thing nearly as traumatic as escaping bombs is having them follow you on screens for hours. Here I was in Medford, tired, shaken, hungry, confronted with four new angles of the blasts I’d just run from.

“And look, there’s a scared crowd running for their lives; how awful!”

Within a matter of hours, I’d gone from running for my life to watching my performance on screen, playing a young man running for his life from the danger and bewilderment of a Postmodern Nightmare. Except it’s a nightmare within a nightmare, because the techno-media echo chamber follows us everywhere we go. And this brings me back to that first point— the use of the post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber as a political tactic. Indulge the digression, please. It is relevant.

The assumption I learned in high school history was that World War II was the last World War due to the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction. World War III could only be nuclear, and since there has been no nuclear war, we’re not there yet. YET! Which is why we took out Saddam! And bin Laden! And Gaddafi! And are looking out for Ahmadinejad! And Kim Jong-Un!

But what about the “Cold War?” Where was it cold? The US, USSR, UK and Western Europe, all sites of World War II. Where was it hot? South America, South East Asia, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, ending with the disintegration of the USSR, and resulting in regime changes the world over. The difference here is that the media learned to bring the spectacle from American cinemas on news reels into American living rooms on TVs, with spin. A hot war in a cool package. Could this be a candidate for the title of World War III?

But what about the “War on Terror,” or the “Long War?” This one has been pretty well hidden, and yet, “terrorist attacks” and American invasions and interventions made the evening news, the papers, and online news sites; there’s leaked video on Youtube and Vimeo— Twitter, Facebook, and the blogospohere offer platforms for sharing information and perspectives unavailable from the mainstream media. The justifications for this war crumbled under international scrutiny years ago, and yet the drones fly forward, largely un-examined by the mainstream. Could this be another candidate for the title?

Maybe World War III wasn’t nuclear; maybe it came and went, and Americans watched it on TV. The Long War could be World War IV, better hidden, though not for much longer, in the internet age. Rather than World Wars becoming increasingly obvious in their destruction, perhaps they’ve become more psychological, because they’re tied to our entertainment. We did not get a new World War, instead we got The Real World: War.

 

The normalization of violence through movies, video games, TV, and the news is part of this war, and the techno-media echo chamber, which evolved again on 9/11, has been essential to this process. And further, since five years ago, we carry it with us everywhere! At all times we can access a wealth of perspectives and contacts, yes, but the echo chamber has one main message: DANGER, AROUND THE CORNER— Stay Tuned! From the very format of the Hot Leading Story — “Now to you Tom, at the scene of the blast”— the media feed us the same formats again and again. Tragedy is our New York Times Bestseller, America’s Greatest National Export. And the antidote? “Security.”

In other words, the techno-media echo chamber co-evolved with a culture of international violence, and in shaping our perception of that violence it became a political medium. But it is a battleground only because it insists on being simplistic. It refuses to ask hard questions. And since World War II it has so succeeded in branding and re-branding war, and has amplified itself so absurdly, that we now carry it in our pockets. As a friend told me, “It’s like there’s a town crier at every corner.”

People have learned how to use it against us, and this has only gotten worse since 9/11. It is a crucial tool in modern warfare— whose home front is not a nuclear battle ground or worse, if possible; it is simply a battle against consciousness, against possibility.

As I ran away from this attack, I was in shock, jolted totally awake, and in that state, I was not surprised, to be honest. This is what happens when we live in ignorance. The victims are not at fault. “At fault” is not the right term. “Collateral damage” is closer. I don’t know why this happened, but my main point is that civic dialogue, a practice of open discussion and patient engagement, has gradually been lobotomized. The spaces where it happens are few and far between, increasingly de-funded, or expensive. The intended audience of these attacks is all of us caught in the din of this post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber.

I bring up the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror” and “Terrorists” because they are misleading labels, propagated via the echo chamber, that reduce a few perspectives into “facts” to be memorized and regurgitated,and  then sold in textbooks and on TV, erasing other more nuanced interpretations, and concealing violence.

“Cowards ruined a great event.”

“A tragedy in Boston’s fine history.”

“Increased security will of course be necessary.”

We have to step back and ask the question: WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? We have to ask! “Random, senseless violence” is insufficient.

Further, I’d like to know more about all of this military equipment local and state police forces have rolled out. How much did it cost? Where else could that money have gone? Now that a precedent has been set to use hundreds, if not thousands of high-tech weapons to catch one man, what limits will be put in place for future use?

We have been unconscious as this behemoth has grown.. It has lured us into its den. It spins half-truths and lies, and coins terms that force their way into our language, cannibalizing many more specific terms. It demands that we watch.

My sympathies to the victims and their families. I won’t be forgetting what I saw and heard at the Marathon, and how totally it fit with the logic of Postmodern America.