Aldon Hynes's blog

Safety Pins and Favorite Verses from the Quran

Another commentary that I wrote for my News and Religion course:

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, I started wearing a safety pin to show my desire to provide safe spaces for people around me, especially people who might be targeted by rising anti-Muslim sentiment. Some of my friends got together a group to provide safe spaces like this online.

A few months earlier, the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a report, Confronting Fear: Islamophobia and its Impact in the United States. Among other things, the report found:

In 2015, there were 78 recorded incidents in which mosques were targeted; more incidents than ever reported in a single year since we began tracking these reports in 2009. Incidents in 2015 have more
than tripled compared to the past two years in which there were only 22 mosque incidents reported in 2013 and 20 incidents in 2014.

This August, CNN provided an update:

We mapped 63 publicly reported incidents from January to July 2017, where mosques were targets of threats, vandalism or arson. On average, that comes down to nine every month and at least two a week.

It is a disturbing trend that raises a very important question. How do we address Islamophobia in the United States? Some might look to the news media as a possible solution.

The CAIR report presents a “Vision Regarding Islamophobia in America” which includes this goal:

Islam has a 75% or higher favorability rating among the general public. In July 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that Americans rated Muslims at a mean of 40 on a scale of 0—100. Zero was the groups respondents felt “coldest” toward while 100 was “warmest.” Muslims generated the coldest feeling of all the religious groups.

One approach might be more positive articles about Islam.

In 2011, 31.3% of mainstream religion news coverage was devoted to Islam according to The Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life’s analysis, Religion in the News: Islam and Politics Dominate Religion Coverage in 2011. Yet Muslims only make up 1% of the U.S. population.

In contrast the article Getting Beyond Stereotypes on Israeli TV News reports:

Arabs with Israeli citizenship account for roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population, but comprise just 3 percent of interviewees on leading news shows. Several Israeli non-profits are trying to change that

While it is important to understand that not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arabic, the difference in coverage is still striking. The underlying issue fear and lack of information about Muslims remains.

Perhaps more explainer articles and less fear-mongering articles are what is called for. Yet fear-mongering sells newspapers and given the issues of confirmation bias, especially in the United States today, we may need to look at different avenues.

Carla Powers’ article, Reporting on Islam provides a helpful example. She talks about a six minute video, “The Use and Misuse of ‘Allahu Akbar’ to get people to better understand the phrase.

It seems as if addressing the perception of Muslims in the news media just scratches the surface. We also need to address the perception of Muslims in our popular culture. Christianity is so intertwined that many of us make reference to it often without even knowing it. If you make a reference to St. Paul or the Beatitudes, many people will know what you are referring to. However, if you make reference to Al Ghazali, few will know what you are talking about.

This led me to a little experiment in social media. On Facebook, I asked the question, “What is your favorite verse from the Quran?” At last count, it had received twenty-six direct comments and many of these comments led off into long discussions.

I have many Muslim friends on Facebook, and my highest hopes for my post was that many of them would post their favorite verses from the Quran; verses illustrating Allah's compassion and mercy. I hoped that people would explain that the word “Allah” is simply the Arabic translation for the word “God”; that the God of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah is the God of all of us.

Yet much of the discussion ended up being around comments from two Islamophobes. I was gratified to see many of my friends speak up eloquently against Islamophobia and all in all, while I didn’t get to hear as many great quotes from the Quran as I would have liked, I did get a chance to see a wonderful response against Islamophobia by many of my friends.

While the lack of understanding of Islam is a major issue that news organizations must face in reporting on Islam today, the lack of a common cultural context, and the downright fear and hatred of Muslims by a growing percentage of the population further complicates the matter.

Perhaps we must all wear our safety pins, but physically and virtually and make it safer and more acceptable to bring more elements of Islam into the American cultural mainstream.

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The Unexpected Santa: An Advent Reflections of an Ontological Priest

St. Nicholas Day, 2017. 7:20 PM. The GPS announced, “In a quarter of a mile take a left on to Airport Road.” It was guiding me home from an unexpected engagement as Santa at the Community Health Center in Hartford, CT. For the past few years, I’ve been Santa at our Middletown site, and again I’ve grown out a fairly respectable Santa beard. I had the outfit ready, so when I got the message, “x-mas emergency. We lost our Santa. Can you come?” I quickly rearranged my schedule.

I called my wife to let her know the change of plans. My youngest daughter answered the phone. She was not doing well. She handed to phone over to her mother who informed me the two of them were headed back to the emergency room. We had been there just a couple days earlier, trying to get my daughter’s migraine, flu, and whatever else is going on, under control. My wife told me things would be okay and I should go ahead with being Santa.

They say that priests really only have three different messages and everyone sermon they deliver is one of those three messages. I’m not sure what the other two are for me, but the one I am most aware of is that God loves you, the way you are, right now, not as some nice concept or a phrase you tell someone to cheer them up or when you pass the peace. God’s love is real. It is palpable. It is right now, if we can only stop for a moment to hear it.

It is a message I try to deliver any chance I get, in any form I can. When I serve as Santa at the health center, I know that some of the kids I am hugging have not felt that love enough recently. Life is hard when ends don’t meet, for kids, for parents, for all of us. The gifts that some of the kids receive when they visit Santa, may be the only gift they receive all year. They need to hear the message of love in their language and setting.

There is a YouTube video I like to watch every year before I am Santa for these kids and their parents, Validation. It is about a parking attendant that validates more than parking tickets as he sets out on his own journey towards validation.

Those same people that say that priests really only have three different messages also say that they are messages that the priest needs to hear themselves. I am on my own journey towards more fully being aware of the love God has for me. It hasn’t been an easy journey, and I don’t expect it to get any easier any time soon.

As I drove up to Hartford, I prayed that just a little bit of God’s love would come through me on this very distracted day. Not only do I have my youngest daughter to worry about. I have a week left in my first term in seminary. I’ve got a couple big papers I need to finish up, and with each unexpected event, the time to work on my papers slips perilously away. I thought of the real St. Nicholas and I asked him to pray for me as well.

7:22 I hugged a lot of kids today and thought about my youngest daughter who needs extra hugs today as well. As soon as I get on the Interstate, I will call my wife for an update. The Bluetooth display in the car flashed. “Incoming call. Unknown Caller”. Typically in the mornings or evenings when I am on my way to work, or on my way home, when I get a message like that, it means that my eldest daughter is calling me via Skype from Japan.

She is just finishing up her master’s degree in Gender Studies and has applied for a fellowship to work on her doctorate there. We had hoped she would be coming home for Christmas. It has been too long since we saw her face to face. She had bought tickets to come home, but my wife lost her job and money and time is tight for all of us. So, when the airlines screwed up her flight, we all agreed that it was probably best for her to stay in Japan.

Tomorrow, she has the big interview for the fellowship; a four minute presentation followed by six minutes of questions. She gave me the four minute presentation, translated on the fly from Japanese. I’m not sure if there is an official title of her presentation, or if there is, what its translation to English would be. If I were writing a title for it, it would be something like, “Historical Research as Activism: Studying the Amateur Historical Research of Women’s Peace Groups in Japan in the 1980s”

We’ve been talking through her research ever since she headed off to Japan, so I had a pretty good idea of what the presentation was, even before she started. Last year, when I was Santa at the health center, I took a picture of me reading The Guattari Reader. Her classmates have been fascinated by the story of their American classmate’s father who dresses up as Santa and reads Deleuze and Guattari and has long discussions about Foucault and Fanon.

I was almost home when the discussion was interrupted by another phone call. My wife was calling to say that she and our youngest daughter were leaving the hospital and on their way home. There were no substantial changes and the various tests proved inconclusive.

I got home, ate a little bit, and went to bed. I’ve got about a week to go in the semester. I have various family concerns to address. I have another gig as Santa coming up. It is Advent. A time of waiting. In many ways, I’ve felt like I’ve been living in Advent for the past three years.

As I wait, as we all wait, I want to remind you that God does love you in a real, palpable way. I want to remind you, in the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “Patience wins all it seeks. Whoever has God lacks nothing: God alone is enough.” Likewise, as Julian of Norwich says, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Happy Advent, everyone.

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Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit - December

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit. November went by without me writing a novel, or for that matter, much for the blog. I did write a lot for my classes and put some of those writings on my blog. This month, I have a few weeks of classes left and a couple big assignments to wrap up for them. One of the papers will also feed into my larger journey and I’ll hope to prepare my next ember letter. There are various holiday parties I should attend. When these things get wrapped up, I hope to belatedly start some advent reflections. It feels like I’m managing to all keep things together, barely. All will be well.

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Two Psalms for the Modern World

This week, for my Old Testament class, I wrote two psalms for the modern world, attempting to mirror the content and poetic style as closely as possible, while writing about modern issues.

The first psalm, from the genre of personal laments, is based on Psalm 51. I wondered what it would be like if your leaders, particularly those recently accused of sexual abuse would respond more like David in this psalm.

Psalm 51
A Poem of Donald, when the investigator Robert (Mueller) came to him after he had fired Comey.

1 Help me reinvent myself,
with all the self-help guidance in the world;
with all the ability to make personal changes,
do away with my faults.
2 Change all my error-filled ways
and clear my mind of all its troubles.

3 I know all too well what I’ve done wrong,
and the media won’t let me forget.
4 My misdoings are an affront to all that is good
and I’ve caused more harm than imaginable.
The low approval ratings make perfect sense;
the voters can see all my faults.
5 Really, I’ve always been like this,
taking advantage of my privilege since before I was born.

6 You want to really know what’s going on inside?
help me explore my sub conscience.
7 Show me my implicit biases,
that I might truly be ‘woke’.
8 Let us hear the rejoicing
that true racial equity brings.
9 Help me get past my own microaggressions
and all the ways I contribute to racism.

10 Help me make real, lasting changes,
and not just revert to the jerk I have always been.
11 Do not let me be ostracized,
or be isolated and alone.
12 Help me appreciate what really makes America Great,
and keep me focused on loving all people.

13 Then I can finally work with others,
and activists will show compassion as well.
14 Help me curb the violence in our country,
that people may feel safe again gathering in public.

15 Help me find the right words
to talk about what really matters.
16 For the empty political rhetoric
and failure to take action pisses you off.
17 What really matters is recognizing our own faults;
the desire to fix what we’ve broken is always needed.

18 God bless America, the way God wants it blessed;
help us feel safe and loved again.
19 Then we will say things that make you happy
and do good deeds to all people;
truly making American Great again.

The second psalm, from the genre of Torah psalms, is based on Psalm 1. It focuses on the way people interact online.

Psalm 1

1 The best online experiences
don’t come from being like everyone else,
from posting about self-serving exploits
or re-sharing outrage at others;
2 instead share gratitudes and things that are joyful
and constantly reflect on how to be kind.
3 These are the experiences
that bring many great responses
sometimes long afterwards;
they frequently comeback as good memories.
These are the posts that bring the most benefit.

4 That is not how it is for trolls;
they are rapidly unfriended.
5 Their complaints get ignored
and they get shut out of larger discussions.
6 For goodness stays with those showing kindness
but the trolls are soon forgotten.

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Towards an Evolving Understanding of Media

This is another commentary that I wrote for my News and Religion course:

I remember those early days of blogging when we thought we would change the world. We compared the Internet to Gutenberg’s printing press and wondered what it would do to literature, politics, religion, and society. What would it be like to live in a truly egalitarian society where everyone owned their own printing press?

We were mostly optimistic, although even then there were some concerns. How would you determine truth and authority? What economic models would support news gathering and investigative reporting?

In 2004, Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson released EPIC, an eight minute video that explored the impact of digital technology on the news media. It was based on a presentation they had done for the Poynter Institute, and while the specific events it described did not end up happening, the conclusion seems frightening prescient.

EPIC allows us to mix and match their choices however we like. At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world - deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before, but at its worst and for too many EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational, but EPIC is what we wanted.

Too many of us failed to consider the importance of the audience developing media literacy that kept pace with changes in media.

We did struggle with other issues. If everyone had their own blog, was their own publisher, what did this say about professionalism in the emerging media? Many of us would not be professional in the sense that it was our primary source of income. What standards and ethics would or should apply to bloggers?

2014 did not see the New York Times go offline as Sloan warned could happen, but it did see a court decision protecting bloggers against libel suits. In a commentary by Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center, he writes

“The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist,” Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote.

While the Supreme Court has previously observed that the lines between traditional news media and native web content have become blurred, this makes the first time that federal appellate court has essentially said that journalists and bloggers are one and the same when it comes to the First Amendment.

Again, we see our understanding of media evolve, and the audience needs to keep up.

The issues that this ‘new media’, as many of us called it a decade ago, and as some still refer to it today, also includes the financial aspects. We see this in the news today as a Billionaire Owner Shuts Down DNAinfo, Gothamist Sites A Week After Workers Unionize. This goes one step beyond what is happening at Digital First Media, whom The Street describes as “the biggest cost cutter in the newspaper industry” when their CEO stepped down recently.

Beyond the legal and financial issues, we have the issue of “truthiness” as Stephen Colbert described it, or an epistemic crisis, as David Roberts writes in Vox.

The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.

It is worth noting that conservatives on Facebook were quick to assert that this epistemic breach is fueled as much by news organizations they consider liberal as it is by very conservative news organizations they embrace, despite the research from Harvard. To further the epistemic breach, they go on to dismiss the research coming out of Harvard as not being trustworthy because it comes from a liberal university. This only serves to further illustrate the issues of the epistemic breach.

Perhaps more than issues of the legal rights of bloggers or the financial structures to support news gathering and investigative reporting is this issue of who we trust and how we come to know things. No matter how fair, objective, accurate, or unbiased any reporting is, if the audience chooses not to believe it, the reporting is ineffective.

All of this leads to the question of how we understand media literacy in a rapidly evolving media landscape. Keith Hamon offers a fascinating exploration of this in his blog post, Reading the "MeToo" Text as Hyperobject

I’m suggesting here that online texts—the billions of text messages, tweets, and Facebook messages, the currently dominant streams among countless others—function as a hyperobject, as Timothy Morton calls it, or a rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari), or noise (Michel Serres), or silence (Paul Goodman and the Buddhists). Approaching those texts from the perspective of hyperobjects may just help me engage them better.

As we move from a society whose news media has been broadcast oriented, distributed through television, radio, and newsprint, to a society whose news media is collaborative and digital, as we move from a modernist perspective to a postmodernist perspective, all of us must become literate in digital media and the hyperobjects that people like Keith Hamon are writing about.

Robin Sloan starts off EPIC with a quote from Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Perhaps we were right in those early days of blogging. We are changing the world. Now, we are in a liminal time where our media has changed but the audience has not yet caught up. If our words are to have meaning the audience needs to become more literate in the media used.

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