I am reminded this morning of the scifi spoof series, The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy when the giant computer created to find the answer to the question of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, took millions of years to come up with the very disappointing answer of “42.”
I normally try to pick just one topic for our limited time together each week but life, the universe, and everything have demanded some kind of rational response to anti-Asian prejudice, gun violence and gun laws, shocking voter suppression moves, mental health issues and the ways in which white supremacy is tying it all together.
Like a lot of people of our ilk, we had hoped that the November election would be the end of a nightmare in America in which the darkest elements of our nation’s id had been validated and allowed to run wild in the streets. I don’t know why I allowed myself to believe that we could simply turn a page and normalcy would return.
Like a lot of people of our ilk, we had hoped that the November election would be the end of a nightmare in America.
It seems silly now, but in the light of day, we recognize that we have a lot of work to do to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. And, in the words of our Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, “failure is not an option.”
The November presidential election set records for the total number of votes. Trump actually got more votes in 2020 than he got in 2016, but, thanks to energetic voter registration drives and “get out the vote” efforts, especially across the south, Biden got even more.
We have to soberly note that he still barely won the electoral college vote because that strange 250-year-old compromise with slave owning states is still empowering the former slave states with disproportionate power in our presidential elections.
The electoral college system, an institution that exists in no other democracy in the world, is a part of what Isabel Wilkerson so brilliantly describes in her book, Caste, as being a part of the racist studs in the walls that hold up our nation. Racism continues to be an almost invisible part of the very bones of America . . . hard to understand and even harder to get rid of.
Trump and his most ardent followers were not merely sore losers in the election. They simply couldn’t believe that it had really happened. Trump’s phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, in which the former president desperately demanded that Raffensperger do what is clearly massively illegal and anti-democratic, and just find an extra 11,780 votes for Trump because there was just no way that he could have really lost Georgia. Of the myriad legal liabilities our former president faces, that phone call may be the event that eventually sees Trump in prison.
But the delusion was not Trump’s alone. The insurrection we experienced on January 6th was, in large part, a violent and coordinated effort fueled by an unconscious white privilege that pushed people to take back an election that they felt had been stolen from them, not by rigged voting machines, voter fraud, or a conspiracy of foreign nations, the deep state, Democrats, or deep space Jews with laser beams. It was votes cast by people of color along with a many of my tribe, a rare species of white people who still have an intact conscience.
The insurrection was idiotic. Genuinely stupid people, manipulated by genuinely evil people, to attempt something that simply could not succeed. But folks, evil isn’t always stupid. The Proud Boys, the 3%ers, the various racist militia groups that stormed the Capitol Building on January 6th were not the brains behind sustaining the white privilege that has ruled our nation for 250 years.
The strategists in Republican states were not buying bear spray and “stop the steal” flags, no, much more insidiously, they went to work to suppress the votes of people of color. In the past three months, more than 250 state bills have been introduced by Republican legislators, across 43 states, to try to limit the ability of minorities to vote. Though they try to spin it as stopping voter fraud, what lies behind that is a deep-seated belief on the part of white conservatives, that black and brown people really shouldn’t be allowed to vote. These people are so convinced that they should be in power, that they will subvert democracy itself to be sure that they are in charge of our nation.
Now, let me point out, that while they are actually convinced that a minority of voters should be the decision makers, they would not agree to something like only allowing people with doctorates vote, an education and information based version of Jefferson’s preference for only allowing white, male, land owners to vote. They would not agree to only allowing people whose IQ was higher than 140 vote. They are not interested in having smarter, or more educated, or more informed people making decisions . . . this is white privilege in its most pure form. In fact, some of their heroes are the QAnon, conspiracy theory riddled, uneducated, knuckle dragging, mouth breathing, dangerously unhinged people in America, but they believe that they should be in charge. Because they are white. It is that simple.
The most offensive and obviously racist of these new voter suppression laws are in Georgia. After Georgia voted for Biden in November and then, in the Senate runoff races in January, Georgia elected two Democrats, one of which is a young Jewish journalist and the other a seasoned black pastor, Georgia Republicans went to work, not to change their message and policies to attract more diverse voters, but to make it harder for minorities to vote. For years they have been closing voting places in poor neighborhoods, shortening the voting period and hours, but after the senate wins in Georgia, they have tried to made it illegal to vote on a Sunday, a day when black churches take bus loads of church members to vote in their “souls to the polls” programs. And, since they have made voting places so few and so crowded that lines can be hours long, they have also made it illegal to give food or water to those who are forced to stand in line for five to eight hours.
Voters wait in a long line to vote at the Buckhead library in Atlanta on the first day of in-person early voting for the Georgia Senate runoff election on December 14, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia." Let me say that again, Georgia has made it illegal to give a grandma, who has been standing in line for five hours, a drink of water. The Charlie Daniels classic that sings: the “Devil went down to Georgia, looking for a soul to steal,” might have to be updated. It looks like the Republicans in Georgia have already given up their souls for any chance to cheat and steal in order to stay in power. This is racism so naked, it is impossible to hide.
Even in the now hotly debated use of the filibuster in the Senate, we see how this Senate rule has been primarily used to suppress voters rights for blacks for 160 years. Last year, when Barack Obama referred to the filibuster as a vestige of Jim Crow era practices, I didn’t even know what he was talking about, but a flurry of well-done media reports has catalogued the dozens of times that filibusters have been used to block voting rights legislation.
It was predicable when Strom Thurman famously led filibusters of the Civil Rights Act in 1957 and 1964, but when Rand Paul filibustered an anti-lynching bill just last summer, how can you be in favor of lynching in 2020? And now, now in 2021? There is a voting rights act bill set to go before the Senate that can wipe out some of these shameful and obviously racist attempts at limiting minority voting but if the Republicans can filibuster it, they will. Literally, democracy itself is at stake if we don’t overturn the filibuster rule.
In a different but strangely related topic in this “life, the universe, and everything” message, after seven mass shootings in as many days, there is the predictable conversation about doing something about our insanely lax gun laws in America to make it at least a little more difficult to buy deadly firearms, especially the ones that have no application to hunting or home defense.
Although mass shootings make up only a fraction of the total number of people killed by guns in the United States every year, there is a chillingly similar theme that runs through most of them. The vast majority are using a weapon that is eerily similar to the weapons used on a battlefield. An AR-15 has been used in most of the mass murder instances in the past few years. This is a weapon that used to be banned and could easily be banned again. This could be managed by a simple vote in a functioning government, if only we had one of those.
The most recent mass shooting took place in a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado.
The shooter had a history of mental health issues, but it deserves to be said many times over that the mentally ill are much more likely to be the victim of crime than they are to be the perpetrator of a violent crime like this one. In this case, the shooter appears to have been regularly bullied specifically because his mental health issues made him different, and therefore a target. Friends said that he sometimes had outbursts but usually got over it quickly and was an OK guy.
What turned this young man into a mass murder was not the uncommon nature of his mental problems but rather the ready availability of a military styled weapon. Which is true of many of the cases in this list I just showed you. Untreated mental illness is an issue of concern in America but that is complex. It is impossible to tell which person who suffers from paranoia or who sometimes has delusional thinking might one day turn violent. What makes the difference is the easy availability of these kinds of weapons.
There are people with issues of instability in England, in France, in Germany, and Mexico, and Egypt, but they don’t have these mass murders because these weapons are not easily and readily available to them. The time when these events could be portrayed as unavoidable mysteries is long past. Most people in America do not want these weapons on the market. Most law makers know that they could solve this problem in a week if they only had the political will to do it. And, most Democratic lawmakers will vote on a measure in the next few days to do just that, but the predictable thing is that the Republicans will use filibuster and cloture rules to keep it from passing.
Some of that is because of the political donations of the now tremendously weakened NRA, but mostly because they are catering to that element of their base that already believes that the NRA is too lenient, that group of genuinely crazy voters who think that they should be able to buy hand grenades and shoulder launched missiles if they want them.
40,000 Americans die of gunshot wounds every year, and more than 100,000 are wounded, some very seriously disabled, because guns are too readily available to the general public. If we regulated guns the way we do cars, demanding licensing and liability insurance, those statistics would change overnight. Every other Western Democracy has done it. Only in America are our politicians on the right so corrupt that they continue to suffer this inexcusable carnage.
But there are two sides to this equation . . . there are the corrupt and immoral politicians to allow this untenable situation to go on, and there are the people who keep voting for them. That people like Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, James Inhofe, and the laughably ignorant Ron Johnson, are returned to the Senate in election after election would almost make you doubt that evolution has actually happened. Missouri has a lot to apologize for in having sent Josh Hawley to the Senate, but Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, Wisconsin, and Florida continue to keep us from appearing to be uncommonly irresponsible voters.
With Columbine, Sandy Hook and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shootings, we learned that our children, even the little ones, are not safe in school. But we have also learned that going to the mall, a movie theater, to church or synagogue, or mosque is also no safe. Even the grocery store can be a place where you learn to look for exits, leave if you see a suspicious looking character, and you just never know what place might be unsafe to go because our government has placed our lives in the hands of every unstable, angry, paranoid, self-pitying person in America.
But Georgia, Georgia, that beautiful state that has come to embody the deepest divides in our nation. They were largely responsible for voting Trump out of office and putting the Senate into the hands of Democrats, while still embodying some of the most toxic politics married to racism in America.
My final issue today is the much talked about mass murder of people in Asian spas in the Metro Atlanta area. This one was similar to the others in that the shooter was an unstable young white man who was able to LEGALLY buy a 9 mm hand gun just before he went on his shooting rampage, killing 8 people, six of whom were Asian women, the apparent targets of his rage.
I have anguished over this one because I believe that there is so much that needs to be said and yet there is so much that can be said wrongly or misinterpreted. My daughter is a beautiful Asian woman. She has been my only child since she was 4 months old. I have experienced, firsthand, the way in which Asians are both admired as model immigrants, while perpetually being made to be somehow, never quite American. And Asian women are hyper-sexualized, made out to be the objects of fetish and fantasy, but never quite entirely given status as equal people.
My former in-laws were uneducated racists in Memphis. My introduction to anti-Asian prejudice took place before my daughter even made it to these shores. When we told my former wife’s family that we would be adopting a little girl from Korea, my wife’s mother burst into tears and announced that Asians were all drug addicts and that if her mother gave her up for adoption, she must be a whore and that our little girl would grow up to be a drug addict and a whore. I was barely still a part of that family that Christmas morning, and it wouldn’t be long before I started the paperwork that would make me a single father.
There were other incidents along the way. Bullying on the school bus began in kindergarten so that I drove her to school myself every day until she was old enough to drive her own car. It seemed more legal than dealing with the elementary school bullies on the bus myself. In our largely white community, she was both minority and novelty. I discovered in school that she was asked to pose on the front row of a choir photo, a choir she was not a part of because the school wanted the choir to look integrated. In Middle School she was made a cheerleader without even trying out for cheerleading because they needed to integrate the squad and even though there were dozens of Black students in the school, they chose one of the three Asians to be their person of color.
In the end, she always preferred navigating her own way through the largely white world in which she found herself, rather than to have me fight her battles for her . . . something I was always eager to do. But when this guy bought a gun and traveled to three Asian spas to kill the women who were the objects of his obsessive lust, my daughter was shaken, as were Asian women and men, parents, grandparents, and children all over America.
Evangelical religion played a role in this. The shooter not only suffered from sexual obsession, he also suffered from tremendous religious guilt. He had even spent time in an Evangelical sex treatment clinic, trying to overcome his obsessions. So, his church both filled him with guilt and hopelessness and after he committed these horrible murders, murders that had the fingerprints of irrational guilt-ridden religion all over them, the church met to dis-fellowship the shooter, saying that he was not one of them when, in fact, he is the logical outcome of their toxic theology.
In the same way that this whole wave of anti-Asian prejudice is the product of Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric, attempting to blame the pandemic on Asians rather than his own incompetence and criminal indifference. Here is the part that I need to be really careful about . . . just as I said about the shooter in Colorado, yes he was suffering from mental illness but you can’t portray everyone with mental illness as being a more likely murderer. . . they are more likely to be victims than they are victimizers.
In this case, the land mine that the media has tried to avoid is the apparent fact that this young man in Georgia had been to Asian spas for sexual attention. That these spas are often fronts for brothels is not something that can be much disputed, but we must not suggest that because some of his victims may have been sex workers does not mean that they in any way deserved to be murdered or that their deaths are any less to be grieved than the deaths of people at a country music show or in a grocery store. I have not attempted to discover if these three spas were actually selling sexual services or just massages because, folks, it doesn’t matter.
But it did matter to this young fundamentalist. For him, the women he desired were somehow less than human. They held powerful sexual allure, but their value as humans was not considered when he decided that killing them was a way to put distance between himself and his lust. To kill a person, you first have to take away their humanity inside your own skull.
When my father was sent to fight in the Pacific during WW II, they did not teach the soldiers about Japanese art, poetry, literature and sculpture. No, they showed them caricature drawings, depicting the Japanese as having the ears and nose of monkeys, sometimes even with a monkey tail. It is easier to kill a monkey than it is to realize that person on the other side had been taken from their school and family, just like you had been, to kill the other children of the poor on the other side of the globe.
It seems important to me to add regarding this particular crime that there are many layers of racism and abuse involved here. There have been a number of important documentaries done on this whole business of Asian spas. One excellent piece of reporting was done by Lisa Ling on CNN just last year. Many if not almost all of the women who work in these spas are trafficked. They were recruited in China and Korea, told that they could come to America and be actresses, models, or even schoolteachers.
But, instead, they were put into this massage sex business against their will. Their passports are taken from them. They are housed together, given little or no exposure to English. They are moved around the country to make sure that they never make friends or even find an ally among their clients. This is well documented. The police know what is going on here. And yet, right here in our small city of Springfield, Missouri, the international headquarters of the Assemblies of God, home to several Baptist colleges and seminaries, mission centers, and mega churches, we have at least a dozen such spas operating in the open. There are more than 20 in metro Atlanta. You see them along interstate highways. They are in cities and even small towns all over America.
Now, do you believe that if there were English speaking, American, white young women being forced to work in these sex shops that the police would ignore them? I’ve lived here for 30 years. The ones on the north side of town appear to have been there all along. But if that was Sally, and Rhonda, and Erica, and Mary working in those back rooms, do you think it would take all of 24 hours for the police to raid them and shut them down? I don’t. What makes the difference?
It took this horrific shooting in Georgia for most people to become aware of these businesses, but they are rooted in a largely unconscious belief that Asian women are prostitutes, which, though illegal almost everywhere in the United States, it is ignored by the dominant culture because this is the role relegated to these women.
So, they were victimized by those who recruited them and forced them into the business. They are victimized by a culture that is indifferent to their plight so that they get no police intervention or protection, they are vulnerable to their managers and their customers and now even to a disturbed young Christian evangelical with a brand new 9 mm pistol.
Laws against prostitution are, I assume, well intended. We don’t want women being used this way and we don’t want men to be sexually irresponsible or to encourage sex that is not a part of a committed relationship. However, government regulation of morality never really works, and it creates a place in society for this kind of abusive and criminalized business.
The painful reality is that you cannot legislate the sexual appetite of society away and, like with alcohol and drugs, trying to outlaw their use creates organized crime and greater levels of violence, illness, abuse, and, in this business, trafficking of defenseless young women.
The joke about the Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’s giant computer, Deep Thought, telling them that the answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is 42, is, even if 42 is the right answer, it doesn’t explain the complexities of life or solve any problems.
While right wing media is obsessed about cancel culture and the loss of Dr. Seuss books they had never heard of, the de-gendering of Mr. Potato Head who never had anything more gender identifying than a moustache, and going all #MeToo on Pepe Le Pew, there are real things going on that they don’t want to think about.
The Republican Party is trying to keep millions of people of color from voting. More than 40,000 people are being shot and killed in America every year because our gun culture is not properly regulated, licensed, and insured. And right now, there are between 50 and 100 women forced into sex slavery in this small town and thousands more in the states around us, which is just a part of the anti-Asian prejudice that has gone almost unmentioned by anyone for a hundred years.
The good news is that these horrible problems have been largely solved in most western democracies. We need only look across the pond towards the democracies in western Europe where guns are effectively regulated such that their fatal shootings are typically less than 1% of ours. Where voting rights are guaranteed, and drug use and prostitution have been decriminalized while sex trafficking is aggressively prosecuted.
I realize that the answers that work among our allies won’t sound good in an evangelical Sunday School class, but Evangelical ideas are what have gotten us into the mess that we are in now, so doing what we have been doing is very obviously not the answer. I’m saying that we need to be less puritanically pious and more intelligently compassionate.
If you don’t like gun control, if you oppose voters rights, and you don’t want to decriminalize prostitution and drug use, then I am eager to hear your solutions to these cultural problems because what I know that we have to agree upon is that the status quo is not acceptable.
All that I can really add is, “don’t panic” and don’t forget your towel.
Dr. Roger Ray