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The Hospital as Global Neighborhood
A metropolitan hospital is actually a global neighborhood as it uniquely reveals the humanity everyone shares. Patients and families of different races, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, political ideologies, religious beliefs and economic classes bring their common mortality to the hospital’s crossroads of humanity and reveal what our global neighborhood looks and feels and is like—like every one of us. In the hospital’s radical humanizing setting, individuality discovers its commonality, diversity meets its connectedness, uniqueness is introduced to its oneness, illness offers class consciousness a lesson in equality. Everyone become ill, experiences fear, endures pain, sighs, laughs, cries, and is grieved. Everyone bleeds human. Life and death inside a hospital hold the key to fulfilling a basic Christmas message: understanding and embracing our common humanity is the pathway to any real and lasting “Peace on Earth.” A homeless patient shows the way.
It was Christmas Eve. I was the hospital chaplain on call, and the page came at 10:15 pm: the intensive care unit secretary said, “The patient is dying; she is going to be taken off the ventilator, and the family wants a prayer.”
The medically-paralyzed patient, Millie*, was a homeless white woman in her forties. Those who “wanted a prayer” were her bearded boyfriend, Kenneth, also homeless, and her older sister and brother-in-law. Kenneth and Millie met in a homeless shelter nine months ago.
Kenneth was standing on one side of the bed, holding Millie’s hand, and her sister was seated on the other side, rubbing her arm, with her husband seated next to her.
I offered the prayer they requested. A prayer affirming the preciousness of Millie’s life to her loved ones, and expressing the belief that she is forever embraced by the love of her family’s god.
The removal of the ventilator tube led Kenneth and Millie’s sister to intensify their support. Homeless himself for five years, Kenneth drew closer and began stroking Millie’s brow; and her sister repeatedly whispered in her ear, “I’m here, Millie. I love you, Millie. I love you, Millie.” At that point, the husband began to rub his wife’s shoulder, and she turned and kissed his hand. Love flowed from one through the other to the other.
When it passed midnight, the sister suggested that we find a Christmas service on the television in Millie’s room. I located one, with a church choir singing, “O holy night.” We were deeply involved in a holy night of human love and loss.
After a period of time, I asked Kenneth if he would like to sit in my chair. “No,” he replied. “I’m used to it. In the last four years I watched my mother and brother and uncle and aunt die.” Then he thought about what he had just said, and reflected, “Well, you don’t get used to it.” His watery eyes told the same story.
The older sister lovingly affirmed Kenneth, expressing great appreciation for his relationship with Millie. “My sister has had little happiness in her life. I’m so thankful that she and Kenneth found each other. These last nine months have been her happiest, for which I am grateful.” She then gave Kenneth a warm embrace, and he appreciatively returned her hug.
A few moments after Millie died, her mother called from Florida. The older daughter said, “Millie just passed away, mother. What? You want me to put my cell phone to her ear? She’s gone, mother! She’s gone, mother. Alright, mother. Alright, mother. I will do it.” With that, she put the phone next to her dead sister’s ear so that her mother could say whatever words of love and regret that might bring her relief and comfort. Evidently the older sister heard her mother’s pain. “Are you alright, mother? Are you alright, mother? We’ve been here with Millie all the time, mother. She died peacefully. She knows you love her, mother.”
A daughter’s words of comfort and reassurance—perceptive and caring words that countless troubled grieving people, of various economic classes, need to hear. Millie and her loved ones put a face on the 47% of Americans discarded by Mitt Romney—and now in danger of being plunged into an economic abyss by austerity-advocating “financial cliff” dwellers.
As a hospital chaplain, I have been present at many such “holy nights” (and days) of human love, expressed by different culturally, religiously, politically and economically diverse people. The “snot-nosed kid” who was loved is another patient who reveals the universally shared humanness upon which “Peace on Earth” takes root.
He was a black teenager. Shot in the head, at night on a Dorchester street, and rushed to Boston Medical Center. I was paged at the request of his family, whose members were in shock.
The youth’s father had difficulty containing himself, pacing back and forth in the hallway, now and then leaning against a wall with his head in his arms, and staring blankly when comfort was offered. When he finally sat down on a couch in the waiting room, his mother-in-law stood behind him and caringly rubbed his shoulders to calm him.
The teenager’s mother was fearful of entering her son’s room, but finally pushed herself to do so. Seeing her son prone and unconscious on the bed, she screamed. The pain of her own wounded love for him piercing the air. Overcome with fear, she fell to the floor, and was picked up and helped on to a chair by family members and hospital staff. Later, she was sitting in the visitor’s room; and as I returned from her son’s bedside, she continued to stare at me. Finally she hesitantly asked, “Do you have something to tell us?” “No,” I replied. “I’m just returning to be with you,” sensing the dread in her question.
The teenager’s aunt stood next to his bed, gently siphoning the blood repeatedly oozing from his nose and the side of his mouth. At one point, as she siphoned blood coming out of his nose, she looked at him and lovingly said, “You always were a snot-nosed kid.” She then gave a sad chuckle, as did the attending nurse on the other side of his bed. I also smiled, and welled up inside.
In spite of the medical staff’s exhaustive efforts to save him, the teenager died early on a spring morning. Like Millie and her loved ones, he– and his family– puts a human face on state and federal budgets for educational and youth violence prevention programs, and for safety net hospitals like Boston Medical Center. It should not be about cutting budgets and saving money during an economic crisis, but about serving vulnerable people in crisis and saving lives. It should be about providing and protecting comprehensive health care for those who have less, so that they don’t fall off a trumped up “fiscal cliff,” manufactured by the 1% to profit from cuts to the 99%’s Medicaid and Medicare programs and other safety net benefits.
The tragic death of a 17-year-old white female patient, from an affluent suburban family, provides another example of the humanness everyone shares, the embracing of which is the pathway to “Peace on Earth.” The medical team members were unsuccessful in their long, intense struggle to keep her alive, which included the last resort of massaging her heart to revive her. Throughout this ordeal, her distraught father remained at her bedside, periodically encouraging her struggle to live by saying loving words of support to her. Finally, upon recognizing that the medical team had done all it could to save his daughter, the broken-hearted father stood at the foot of her bed and tearfully said, “I’m so sorry, Jessica. Safe journey to the other side, my dearest daughter. I love you so.” Shortly afterwards, medical team members, who worked desperately to save Jessica, broke down and tearfully hugged each other tightly in her room.
The humanness in front of us. The humanness inside of us. Doctors without Borders. Chaplains and clergy without theological blinders. Pathways to “Peace on Earth.”
A Muslim mother, and her young son who was dying in an intensive care unit, help us cross national and religious borders, and journey further along the human pathway to “Peace on Earth.” This mother sat daily in her critically ill, often unconscious, son’s room, keeping vigil over him. Early on, she asked me to speak to her son, to give him a blessing. It was about saying his name, and the name and blessing of their god, Allah.
One’s name is an integral part of one’s identity, individuality and sense of belonging. To speak one’s name is to recognize and affirm his and her personhood and existence. It is in saying another’s name that humanizing begins and rapport and relationships develop.
What do the struggles of a Muslim mother and son and other patients and their loved ones mean for understanding the universal commonality of humanity and the dehumanizing of people in other places? Dehumanizing and demonizing occur when people are portrayed as nameless, humanless, soulless. An example is NBC Nightly News’ selective coverage of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, during which the 1.6 million illegally blockaded defenseless Palestinian people of Gaza, confined in what is actually a deeply impoverished, open-air prison, were bombarded from land, sea and air by Israel’s military, with weapons supplied by the U. S. in violation of its own Arms Export Control Act of 1976.
First the context. In a piece on “Children Face the Fallout of Gaza War,” Mel Frykberg writing in Inter Press Service, cites a Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) report:
More than 160 Palestinians lost their lives by Nov. 21, the last day of the bloody confrontation between the world’s third most powerful military and Palestinian fighters. The dead included at least 103 civilians, 33 of them children. More than a thousand Palestinians were wounded, including 971 civilians– 274 of them children. Three of the Palestinians killed were journalists … [And] six Israelis were killed as indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza targeted Israeli cities. (Common Dreams, Nov. 27, 2012)
The assumed justification for launching such disproportionate violence was Hamas’ shooting of (mostly ineffectual) rockets into Israel. Never mind that the rockets were a response to Israel assassinating Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’ chief military leader who, reportedly, was in the process of actually working on an Egyptian-negotiated peace agreement with Israel.
Never mind also that the people of Gaza live in what Noam Chomsky calls “the world’s largest open-air prison, where a million and a half people, in the most populated area of the world, are constantly subject to random and often savage terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade, and with the goal of ensuring that Palestinian hopes for a decent future will be crushed and that the overwhelming global support for a diplomatic settlement that will grant these rights will be nullified.” (“Impressions of Gaza, Chomsky.info, November 4, 2012)
The Nov. 21, 2012 NBC Nightly News coverage of the aftermath of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense showed gangs of young Gaza men and youths victoriously and boisterously marching and firing guns into the air—and with a young boy standing in a motor vehicle precariously grasping and holding up a big revolver.
NBC Nightly News then contrasted this impersonal and militant Palestinian scene with a reporter interviewing an older Israeli woman, who expressed her fear of the rockets fired by Hamas, and who also said that in the turmoil she lost her dog. The dog was found and filmed being reunited with her. The woman and her dog were individualized and had names. The parading Gaza young men and youths remained nameless and impersonalized.
In the face of the Palestinian people’s long oppressive reality, President Barack Obama defended Israel’s latest war crime against Palestinian civilians: “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” he said. “So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defense itself from missiles landing on people’s homes.” (“Obama: Israel has ‘right to defend itself,’” By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CBS News, Nov, 18, 2012) So many U.S. missile and drone strikes have rained down on the homes of innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere—from far outside their borders. Obama has even conferred on himself the authority to carry out extrajudicial assassinations against anyone deemed a threat to America, including American citizens. His statement about Israel’s right to defend itself is as out of touch with reality—and justice—as the Christmas carol Christians will soon be singing: “O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie!” (Words by Phillip Brooks; Music by Lewis H. Redner)
The Israeli government’s oppressive policy of making life unbearable for Palestinians and its continued confiscation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements serve to lessen the possibility of a two-state solution. Greatly needed is the shared humanness powerfully expressed in the Hebrew Holy Scriptures’ book of Exodus, wherein, after leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, their god is recorded as speaking these words to them: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (23: 9) Ironically the Palestinians are oppressed “strangers” in their own land.
“Please say a blessing for my son,” the Muslim mother said. To bless people is to call them by their own names, which affirms their individuality and right to believe as they choose and to belong. Looking into the sad eyes of a loving Muslim mother, sitting in vigil at her son’s hospital beside, can lead one to visualize the humanness of countless grieving mothers everywhere—whose children are victims of the criminal U. S. invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, illegal drone strikes, death-producing sanctions, and destructive austerity cuts.
In my over 18 years as a hospital chaplain, I have been present, with families, at the bedside deaths of many religiously, culturally, politically and economically diverse people. “Don’t go, Mamma. Don’t leave me. I love you, Mamma” “You were always here for me, dad. I will never forget what you’ve done for me.” “You are the best mother in the world. Whether we were right or wrong, you protected us. Always.” “God damn it! I love her so!“ “Wherever you are in the afterlife, I shall find you, my darling.” “Momma, Daddy is waiting for you up there, and wondering what is taking you so long,” a tearful son said, chuckling sadly, at his dying mother’s bedside.
So many human expressions of love’s universal grieving aftershocks: anguish and anger, crying and cursing, screaming and shaking, silent and solemn, stroking and hugging and comforting. Human love transcends culture and color, religious belief and political ideology, poverty and wealth, straight and lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgender. People with less love as deeply as people with more. As with birth, death reveals the humanness everyone shares, and love is at the heart of that humanness. To hear each other’s laughter and to see each other’s tears is to experience each other’s humanness.
An older Jewish male patient, a lawyer and agnostic, reveals the human pathway to “Peace on Earth.” When I asked his religion, which was listed as “unknown,” he began by toying with me. “I’m an atheist, thank God,” he replied, smiling. Then he said, “For some people, seeing is believing. For other people, believing is seeing.” He points the way: “Peace on Earth” is about experiencing other people’s reality, not interpreting it.
“Peace on Earth” depends on speaking truth to political, corporate, military and religious power. The truth that follows The Golden Rule and dares to put itself in another person’s place. The truth that recognizes everyone is entitled and has the inherent human right to be and to become and to belong. The proof of this truth? See how humanity comes together in the context of an urban and metropolitan hospital. A hospital uniquely reveals the universal truth of love that demands justice for all people, and thrives on kindness.
Any worthy messiah awaits our coming to the realization that no one is going to come and save us. “Peace on Earth” depends not on saviors, but on models. Not on monuments, but on movements. Not on rituals, but on rights.
“Peace on Earth” is about a global neighborhood, which can already be found at the hospital’s crossroads of humanity.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, has recently been published and is available on Amazon.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.