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Valerie Elverton-Dixon
Valerie Elverton-Dixon
Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar studying ethics, peace theory, public discourse, and the civil rights movement.



In Memory of Robin Williams

Aug18

by: on August 18th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Robin Williams saw us.

Robin Williams heard us.

Robin Williams paid attention.

Robin Williams

Williams wore both dramatic masks of comedy and tragedy in such a way that hid him from us and revealed us to ourselves. This is what great artists do. Credit: Creative Commons-Flickr: Hot Gossip Italia

Too many of us, myself included, see the Other only to the extent that we do not bump into each other as we move from here to there in the course of our day. Too many of us, myself included, do not want to look too closely at the human condition. And, when we do set a steady gaze on our humanity we too often look with shame and blame. We judge with a false consciousness created by a social and cultural system that undergirds a political economy that allows for and justifies economic inequality and an ideology that some people are just better and more deserving than others. We judge with a judgment that tells us that the pain that other human beings feel, that the tragedy they suffer will not touch us because we are different.

The life and death of Robin Williams show us that we are all vulnerable. Williams wore both dramatic masks of comedy and tragedy in such a way that hid him from us and revealed us to ourselves. This is what great artists do. However, Williams did his work with a virtuosity, brilliance, and purity that will cause that work to last through time.

An actor trained at The Juilliard School, Robin Williams was also a stand-up comedian who brought together a legion of characters to make us laugh and think. He was an improvisational genius, doing comedy on the jazz, and like Charlie Parker, he took an art form to an entirely new level. Many comedians do impressions and most are good at improvisation. The late great Jonathan Winters, a mentor and a friend of Williams, presented a comedic stream of consciousness that could cause one to laugh until it hurt. Williams did the same thing with more characters inside more situations at rapid speed. His carried inside his heart and mind a late 20th century and early 21st century global cast of characters that helped us see that our world truly is a global village.

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Cutting Through the Nonsense

Aug9

by: on August 9th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons

President Obama has ordered airstrikes against the non-state actor the Islamic State (IS) a.k.a. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) a.k.a. the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He has also ordered an airlift of food, water and medicine to Iraqi religious minorities who have fled their homes and who are now living on Mt. Sinjar. IS, a ruthless militant organization, has fought its way through Iraq with surprising speed and, as I write this, is only a few miles outside of Erbil, a major city in the Kurdish region of Iraq and where a US consulate is.

In his weekly address, President Obama said that the broad strategic goals of the US military operations in Iraq are to protect US citizens in Erbil, address the humanitarian crisis, prevent Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, and to urge Iraqis to reconcile, unify, and defend their country. While the president insists that this military operation will be limited, that the United States will not slide into another protracted military engagement, that there will be no commitment of US troops on the ground, we hear complaints that limited airstrikes will not be enough to stop IS.

This is a fighting force that is well armed with US weapons abandoned by some members of Iraq’s military. The group robbed a bank full of money provided by US taxpayers. The group also receives funding from wealthy people in the region who are sympathetic to their cause. They attract fighters from Europe and the United States who have a misguided view of the meaning of the concept of jihad in Islam.

This is a ruthless, determined, well-funded, well-armed organization. There is no question about this. The nonsense rolls in like an early morning fog when some journalists and analysts tell us that IS owes its strength to President Obama’s unwillingness to become more militarily involved in Syria at the beginning of its civil war. IS, they say, filled a vacuum.

Enough of this nonsense. Enough. President Obama did not intervene in Syria and did not do more to arm the Syrian rebels for good reasons. The Syrian opposition lacked unity then and now and it included groups such as IS. There was no reason to believe the weapons given to “moderates” would not end up in the hands of IS. Besides that, all of the various military options would have come with a high price tag and uncertain outcomes.

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“We’ve Become Cruel”

Jul30

by: on July 30th, 2014 | 7 Comments »

In the 2012 documentary, The Gatekeepers, Avraham Shalom, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet from 1980-1986, reaches the conclusion that Israel’s occupation of Gaza, Samaria and Judea has changed the character of the Israeli people. He says: “We’ve become cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of war against terror.”

Shin Bet is the Israeli intelligence organization responsible for Israel’s defense against terrorism. It conducts anti-terrorism and intelligence operations in the West Bank and Gaza. In The Gatekeepers, filmmaker Dror Moreh interviews six men who headed the organization from 1980-2011. They all agree that an end to the occupation is the only way to bring about peace and Israeli national security. They also say that negotiations with Israel’s enemies are necessary.

Shalom argues that Israel ought to talk to any and every one for the sake of peace.

“I said everyone, so it includes even Ahmadinejad, whoever. I’m always for it. It’s a trait of a professional intelligence operative to talk to everyone. Things get clarified. I see you don’t eat glass. He sees I don’t drink petrol. That’s how it is.”

Peace can only come if Israel and the United States talk directly with Hamas and all the relevant parties in the conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry faces criticism in Israel for supposedly being too close to nations who talk to Hamas. They say his cease fire proposals favor Hamas’ position. I say Secretary Kerry has not gone far enough. The Israeli government has not gone far enough to make a just and lasting peace. Both ought to be in a room this very minute talking directly with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. They should stay until a peace agreement is reached.

Avi Dichter, head of Shin Bet between 2000-2005, says:

“You can’t make peace using military means. Peace must be built on a system of trust, after, or without using military means. In the end you must build it on a system of trust. As someone who knows the Palestinians well, I claim that there should be no problem building a system of trust with them, a genuine one.”

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Eric Cantor and Karma

Jun23

by: on June 23rd, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons

When former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his primary election, the Washington punditocracy was stunned. A flurry of breathless stories and commentary followed seeking to determine and to explain what the loss portends for public policy and for the 2014 mid-term elections. Since Cantor’s opponent, David Brat, a college economics professor and a Tea Party conservative, ran against what he calls “amnesty” in comprehensive immigration reform, conventional wisdom says immigration reform cannot pass during this Congress. At the same time, it seems that Cantor, busy with the responsibilities of national leadership, failed to stay in touch with his constituents. I say Cantor’s loss is a function of Karma.

I am not a Buddhist, but the concept that derives from eastern religions, in its most basic sense, is an economical way to think about the relationship between act and consequence, cause and effect. Karma means “act.” Good consequences come from good acts; bad consequences from bad acts. Karma reminds us that the things we do – the good, the bad, and the ugly – thinking it will have a negative effect on someone else will have a negative effect on us.

Karma says: “you reap what you sow.” It is akin to the wisdom found in Proverbs 26:27 – “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.” (English Standard Version) The late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson echoed the same principle when she said: “If you dig a ditch you better dig two ’cause the trap you set just may be for you.” It is a more specific understanding of the African-American wisdom: “The Lord don’t like ugly.”

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In Memory of Ruby Dee

Jun19

by: on June 19th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons

I say and say again: actors give breath and life to the words of poets, playwrights, and screen writers. Ruby Dee, a great American actor, has died. We will miss her because the breath she breathed into words contained our own hopes, dreams, fears, anger, and love. Ruby Dee was great because her art was not for its own sake; it was for the sake of humanity becoming both more human and more divine.

Her long career started in the 1940s when opportunities for African-American women to play more than a servant were few and far between. In the 1960s she played Cordelia in King Lear and Kate in Taming of the Shrew. She became the first African-American woman to play major roles in the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut.

One of her most memorable roles was as Ruth in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Ruby Dee played the role in 1959 on stage and again in 1961 in the film version. She continued her long career on stage, screen, and television well into her elder years. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as the mother of a drug smuggler in the 2007 film American Gangster

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Iraq is not Pottery Barn

Jun13

by: on June 13th, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons

In advance of the Iraq War, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Secretary of State Colin Powell both referred to what is commonly known as the Pottery Barn rule: you break it; you buy it. Of course this is not true for most retail outlets, not even Pottery Barn. Customers break things all the time, and the store writes it off as a loss. However, when it comes to American military involvement in Iraq, the quote cannot be true. The United States did break Iraq, but we cannot buy it. We do not, cannot, and ought not own it. Iraq belongs to the Iraqi people and what becomes of the country is their responsibility alone.

In the past few days a militant Islamic group – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a.k.a. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an offshoot of al Qaeda– has captured several cities in Iraq and threatens Baghdad. The government of Nouri al Maliki has asked for American military aid in the form of air strikes and drone strikes. The public discourse in the United States today centers on whether President Obama tried hard enough to get a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq that would have allowed an American military presence of several thousand warriors. They also say that the president has not been forceful enough in the Syrian civil war. Some Republican legislators are calling for military action, some Democrats say they see no reason to return to Iraq in any military way.

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On the 70th Anniversary of D-Day

Jun9

by: on June 9th, 2014 | 5 Comments »

I once heard Rev. Billy Graham say that war does not increase death because we are all going to die. I was taken aback, startled. Then I thought about it. He was right. War does not increase death. It does however increase horror and misery and destruction.

Credit: Creative Commons

A few days before the 70th anniversary of D-Day while standing in the grocery line, I saw the special edition of Time magazine in remembrance of D-Day. I was under budget, so I had the extra money to make the impulse buy. I saw the movie Saving Private Ryan, the Ken Burns documentary about World War II, The War, and I have seen many documentaries about various aspects of that particular conflict. Still, I am stunned anew every time I read again, see again, the carnage of war in general and D-Day in particular. The thousands of deaths in that one 24-hour period may not have increased death, but the D-Day assault, as necessary as it was to the defeat of Nazi Germany, increased physical, psychological, and moral injury. It increased nightmarish dreams. It increased broken relationships.

Not only was there an increase in tears and pain, but there was an immeasurable decrease. Young men died too soon, too young. How much laughter and love died too soon? What inventions to add to the sustenance and joy of humanity drowned in the invasion or was shot to death hanging in a tree after jumping into the battle or died on the beaches, too easy targets for German gunfire?

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President Obama’s Strategic Goal: Amazing Peace

May29

by: on May 29th, 2014 | 7 Comments »

On the morning of May 28, 2014, I woke, meditated, decided to postpone yoga, and started to gather myself to listen to President Obama’s remarks to the graduating class at West Point. Political commentators kept saying that this would be a speech that would define an Obama doctrine of foreign policy. Why people do not know what the Obama doctrine is, mystifies me. He articulated it in his Nobel lecture in 2009. Still, I waited to see how he would answer his critics who complain that there is no overall structure to his foreign policy.

Maya Angelou. Credit: Creative Commons.

Then there was an interruption in the morning. Maya Angelou was dead. Angelou a poet, national treasure, wise-woman, mentor to all humanity, a force of nature had made her transition and joined the ancestors. After 86 remarkable years, she had left this earth and gone to her well-earned rest. Her words have been with me all of my adult life. They have been with my children their entire lives. Her words nourished my soul and gave me strength to carry on when times were hard. I was familiar with her voice and with her words. Her well-known words:

I’m a woman
Phenomenally,
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I was familiar with her words that remind me when I am at the bottom of my physical, mental, soul exhaustion, that after I rest, I have to get back to work:

Bringing the gifts that my ancestor’s gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave,
I rise
I rise
I rise.

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The Feminine Divine in “The Monuments Men”

Feb12

by: on February 12th, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons

When we think of the casualties of war, we think of the physical death of human beings. We think of the physical, psychological and moral injury warriors suffer. We think of the collateral damage of non-combatants killed, thus making the idea of a just war an impossibility. We may sometimes stretch our imaginations to include an injured earth, a wounded natural world where animals die. In the movie “The Monuments Men”, directed by and starring George Clooney, we see other casualties of war – fine art. We see a dedicated quest for a particular piece of art, the Bruges Madonna and Child, a representation of the feminine divine.

The movie is based on the real-life Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Task Force, a group of trained art historians, architects and designers whose purpose was to protect important monuments, buildings, and fine art if possible. They were to also locate and seek to return art stolen by the Nazis. The central question of the movie is whether or not a piece of art is worth a human life. Commanders in the field are loathe to risk the lives of their men over a work of art. If the decision comes down to bombing an important building considered a monument worth protecting and winning the battle, the battle takes priority.

The Allied forces destroyed many monuments during bombing campaigns, even when they were told of their artistic value. This story along with the story of the real-life Monuments Men are told in an excellent documentary “The Rape of Europa.” We see the astonishing number of works of art, religious objects, and everyday household furnishings that were stolen by the Nazis. However, one object becomes supremely important in “The Monuments Men” – The Bruges Madonna and Child.

This work of art depicting the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus was the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. Toward the beginning of the movie, we hear Clooney’s character – George Stout – tell his men not to risk their lives for a piece of art. However, as the movie unfolds, we see the Monuments Men willing to put their lives at risk for the sake of art.

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For Philip Seymour Hoffman

Feb4

by: on February 4th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Actors help us to see our humanity.

They put on various masks and characters acting within the contexts of various life situations. The best of them guide us to a deeper human truth that allows us to understand ourselves better. When we understand ourselves better, the hope is that we will make better moral decisions and thus do our part to advance the moral evolution of humankind.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the best and most important actors of our time, is dead, apparently from a heroin overdose. His death is a tragedy for all of us who have seen our humanity more accurately, more authentically because of his relentless struggle for truth. T.S. Eliot said: “Human beings cannot stand too much reality.” When we define truth as that which coheres with reality, we can see that human beings cannot stand too much truth.

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