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In Memoriam Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal in León (Nicaragua) 1979. PEDRO VALTIERRA / CUARTOSCURO

The famed Nicaraguan poet, priest and revolutionary Ernesto Cardenal died on March 1, 2020 at the age of 95. Over the years, many of the Quixote Center staff and our partners had met him. Even though he was a public figure, he was also known to be a man of the people, approachable and warm. 

His poetry expressed the complexities of his relationship to his Nicaraguan homeland, the natural world, and the United States. His life showed much of the same complexity. After graduating from the UNAM in Mexico, he continued his studies at Columbia University and returned to the United States to study under Thomas Merton in his Trappist community. From Cardenal’s early collection, Gethsemani, KY, we find a poem, which I have translated below, that gives a glimpse into how he understood the contemplative life in relationship to the realities of consumer society:

In the night lit up by words:



that flicker on and off on and off,

the red green blue lights of hotels and of bars

and of movie theaters, the Trappists go up to the choir loft 

and light the fluorescent lamps

and open their great psalters and antiphonaries

among millions of radios and televisions.

They are the lamps of the prudent virgins awaiting

their husband in the US night! 

From Kentucky, he moved to Antioquía, Colombia for seminary studies before settling on the island of Mancarrón, the Solentiname island in Lake Nicaragua, where he founded a radical intentional community that welcomed locals and international figures alike to reflect upon the nature of the Gospels as understood in lived experience. He developed a political and social consciousness quite at odds with that of the Catholic hierarchy and increasingly aligned with Sandinista leaders during the insurrection. As Cardenal described the development of the community’s collective conscience through the 1960s and 1970s:

These commentaries on the Gospel were radicalizing us, me and others in the community. Little by little, we found ourselves identifying with the movement in Nicaragua until a moment arrived in which we were practically assimilated to it. Some of the youths already wanted to leave the community to become guerrillas. It took a lot of effort for me to hold them back and a message sent to us by the legendary guerrilla Comandante Marcos was a great aid. He said that we had to maintain the community in Solentiname because it had social, political, military, tactical, and strategic importance for the revolution.

The consequences of that tactical and strategic importance were great. Several members of the community – Cardenal not included – participated in the failed uprising of October 13, 1977, with the goal to take control of a military base in nearby San Carlos. The reprisal was swift, with an aerial bombardment that decimated the island community of Solentiname and scattered the population. 

Even as Cardenal won many awards for his poetry, he was ostracized within the Church – particularly the Vatican – for his support of the Sandinista Revolution and his role as Nicaragua’s Minister of Culture from 1979-1987. He was famously rebuked by John Paul II on his 1983 visit to Nicaragua, who, wagging his finger at Cardenal, scolded him for his role in the government. His priestly ministries were suspended by Rome from 1984 until 2019, when Pope Francis lifted that suspension.  

Due to a combination of budgetary problems during the Contra War and what might be described as artistic differences with Rosario Murillo, Cardenal’s Ministry of Culture was closed in 1987. While he expressed a lifelong commitment to the Revolution, Cardenal left the Sandinista party in 1994 and publicly criticized its leaders. 

Although he was openly critical of the Sandinista party, his stature is such that the President and Vice President decreed three days of national mourning. As might have been anticipated in the current polarized environment, there have been media reports that the funeral services on March 4 were disrupted by Sandinista “turbas” [mobs]. But this claim is backed up with only a few brief videos supplemented with the claim that reporters were robbed

According to his wishes, Cardenal will be cremated and the ashes deposited in the Solentiname archipelago that was so dear to him. His archives, however, are stored at the University of Texas at Austin. 

In early 2018, Cardenal released a poem titled “Así en la tierra como en el cielo” [“On earth as it is in heaven”], reflecting on faith, mortality and the natural world. To capture the scale of his legacy I end this reflection with my translations of a few passages from this much longer poem:

Billions of galaxies with billions of stars

(there are more than one thousand million galaxies)

our galaxy of trillions of stars

barely one among millions of galaxies

a star gas

and a galaxy gas

I open the window and gaze 

at the stars from which we come

it seems that the universe had a purpose

in which we find ourselves

the universe conscious of itself:


that can in the night

gaze at the stars


We are lavish because of the Sun

always bathing in light and food

light that is food

because plants eat light 

a chemical reaction called photosynthesis

chlorophyll: light from the Sun and water from the Earth

by which plants are green

the variety of shapes and sizes of leaves

one over another fighting for the Sun

and the light made sandwich and made wine

“I am the light,” said Jesus

light and food

the universe is not only for man

and the Good News is for all of creation

the whole world with cries of childbirth

its mystery that surrounds us all

and is almost entirely empty space


God/Love is not an unmoved mover

but rather change and evolution

the future that calls us

and the resurrection our future

all together in the center of the cosmos

there are many rooms there said Jesus

the Only planet in the solar system 

with lights in the night

And we are God’s dream

God dreams of us

wants us in a different world

without the sins of inequality

the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer

where no one rules over anyone


The stars are not above

They are atoms like us

born of stardust

and from this same dust are they

Millions of conscious stars

their sacrifices shining all night long

the explosion of supernovas

teaching us how to die


~Rest In Peace, Ernesto

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Daily Dispatch 2/7/2020: Land of the Captive

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Daily Dispatch

February 7, 2020

Over the past couple of years, my husband and I sponsored two asylum-seekers in our home for a total of 6 months.  Prior to living with us, our guests had been held at two large detention facilities run by the two largest private detention corporations in the country.  We talked a bit – but never too much – about situations in immigrant detention. In these conversations, what I learned was how the point of immigrant detention seems to be isolation and the breakdown of social cohesion.

Mostly, it seemed there were a lot of arbitrary rules meant to keep people apart. 

One day, we brought home a jigsaw puzzle because they are a guilty pleasure of mine – an almost mindless thing to do that brings order in a world that often seems fragmented. Jigsaw puzzles are joint projects and yet can be worked on individually. Puzzles are good, too, it turns out, because they can distract the mind suffering from the effects of trauma. 

It turned out that our house guest – let’s call her Raquel – really enjoyed puzzles too. In fact, she completed one of our puzzles along with us, finishing it while we were at work. When we asked her about it, she told us that puzzles were permitted in detention but that they posed a special challenge. You could only work on a puzzle in a single day. When the last participant left the room, the puzzle had to be put away, so it was impossible to ever complete a 1,000 piece puzzle they had been working on, given the other constraints of their schedule. 

One day, they resolved to make a go of it. As early as they could get up, they went to the room, and they came and went in shifts, working steadily throughout the day. At the end of the day, they had made more progress than ever, but the puzzle still was not complete. On that day, the guard took mercy on them and let them leave the puzzle out, defying an arbitrary and ridiculous rule in an act of human kindness. The next day, for the first time, they were able to finish the puzzle with time to spare, an accomplishment that had previously been foreclosed to them. 

This is what community is about – being able to build something together over time through shared effort and initiative. And so it is obviously the opposite of everything that detention stands for. Detention follows the model of removing people from the body politic – stripping them of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, if not of life itself. This disarticulation of the social body is, of course, the point of detention and of nearly the entire immigration enforcement apparatus in which we find ourselves implicated today. And such disarticulation is part of a larger system that has worked to disenfranchise, imprison, and otherwise separate persons of color from the body politic since the nation’s founding.  

Last week, with the DC Detention Visitation Network, I visited a detention center, the Worcester County facility in Snow Hill, Maryland, which houses around 180 detainees under a contract with ICE. Although much of the coverage that we read about ICE detention focuses on the for-profit prison industry, which houses well more than half (estimates range from 60-73%) of the detained immigrant population, the majority of actual sites are county and local jails with much smaller populations. For what it’s worth, such facilities cost less and conditions seem better for detainees, since there is no profit motive interfering with good treatment of the human beings in the care of the county officials. 

My conversations with four men on a recent visit were pleasant enough. They didn’t have any truly damaging complaints to make about their care, although the food and the beds could be better. Their lengths of stay varied substantially, from a few months to nearly two years. As one of my interlocutors commented, the main problem is not the living conditions. His expectations with respect to shelter and food did not tend toward luxury anyway, so the facts of uncomfortable mattresses and institutional food are not major impediments to his happiness. 

Rather, he is impacted by the biggest loss for most people in detention – his personal freedom. 

This tradeoff is one that many immigrants face in our country today. They must choose between a country of origin where their lives are threatened by violence – whether political or personal, gang or structural – and one where their liberty is not a given, the United States, which fails to live up to its moniker of being a “land of the free” every time it imprisons an immigrant. 

What we can learn by visiting our neighbors in detention is the concerns and the realities of people who were our valued community members one day and were thrown behind bars the next for having the wrong paperwork. (This is why the term “undocumented” is more accurate –  because the offenses of the vast majority of migrants in detention and deportation proceedings amount to administrative infractions.) 

It is natural to ask, “How should we feel about all of this?”

A first response might be overwhelmingly sorrowful at the detention of human bodies after so much previous trauma and loss.

Beyond that, we might feel anger at those who created this system and live off the wages of sin. And perhaps, remorseful for our own complicity in that system we pay for with our taxes.

But finally, I have decided to feel hopeful that those of us who want to see the body politic enriched by the diversity of humanity can come together to heal and prevent the further dismemberment of our society caused by the capture, separation, and expulsion of some of us to the diminishment of the whole. 

Together, we need to work to become this better body politic. I maintain that this goal will be best achieved not by scattering our community members to all the corners of the earth or locking them away in separate boxes but through the creative process of bringing many distinct individuals together into a more perfect union.

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Daily Dispatch- 1/15/2020: How low can you go? ICE lowers its standards

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Daily Dispatch

January 15, 2020

Just in time for the holidays, on December 19, 2019, ICE released revisions to its National Detention Standards for Non-Dedicated Facilities. “Non-Dedicated” in this context means that these standards govern the 140 or so (ICE uses the word “approximately” three times in its introduction to refer to the numbers of facilities to which these standards apply) facilities that house immigrants alongside other populations (typically with non-immigrant criminal charges or convictions) in local and state facilities. Nearly 20% of immigrant detainees are held in such facilities.

Given the widespread reporting of unsanitary, dangerous, and abusive conditions in ICE detention more generally, one reads with hope that the NDS 2019 will be “addressing topics such as medical care, segregation, disability access, sexual assault and abuse prevention and intervention, and language access.” And indeed it does address these topics.

As the ACLU maintains in its analysis released this week of these standards, however, the way that some of these topics are addressed “weakens critical protections and lowers oversight requirements.”

For example, medical standards are one area where previous requirements seem to have been made more vague and more lax:

ICE’s new NDS has removed even basic, minimal safeguards necessary for adequate medical care. ICE no longer requires facilities governed by the NDS to maintain current accreditation with the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC).

Also gone is the requirement that health assessments of detainees be performed according to national correctional standards. It’s important to remember that the journey to the U.S. is arduous — many people arrive in poor health, and at least 16 people died in ICE custody in 2018 and 2019. These health assessments, which already lack rigor, are a critical life-saving mechanism.

Although ICE has come under fire for inadequate medical and mental health staffing, the new NDS no longer requires health care and medical facilities at these jails to be under the direction of a licensed physician, but instead a “Health Services Administrator.”

Likewise, some of the most barbaric practices – presumably named specifically in the earlier standards in order to remove all doubt as to their prohibition – are now no longer mentioned and have been replaced with much vaguer and more permissive language. Again, quoting from the ACLU commentary:

The new NDS further weakens protections for immigrant detainees against the use of force and solitary confinement by officers. The prior version of the NDS barred officers from the use of “hog-tying, fetal restraints, tight restraints, improperly applied” against immigrant detainees — but this restriction is now eliminated.

Even as the policy seems more permissive on what force may be employed against immigrants held in detention, it also expands opportunities to place them in solitary confinement – for any variety of reasons.

The new NDS broadens allowable reasons to place a detainee in solitary confinement and has removed specific protections for detainees in disciplinary proceedings facing solitary confinement. Medical staff at these facilities may now place detainees in medical segregation (solitary confinement) for refusing examination or treatment.

One especially jarring change that has the potential to reduce information about conditions and independent oversight are the rules regarding visitation. Where the prior version required non-dedicated facilities to allow press and NGO visits, such visits are now merely permitted.

These are only a few of the changes ACLU has compiled in a 9-page summary document listing all substantive changes between the original NDS 2000 and the new NDS 2019, released last month. The solution the ACLU offers –the one most likely to actually improve conditions for the thousands of those currently held in immigrant detention facility across the United States – is to reiterate their call for a moratorium on immigrant detention. Short of that worthy call, we would add that the need for local and state oversight becomes even more pressing when the federal authority charged with establishing national standards weakens them so dramatically.

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Daily Dispatch 11/18/2019: Are We Human Rights Abusers?

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Daily Dispatch

November 18, 2019

Members of a “caravan” of Central Americans spent weeks travelling across Mexico to the U.S. border, to ask authorities for asylum.Photograph by David McNew / Getty

On the This American Life podcast this week, in an episode entitled “The Out Crowd,” the reporters share stories of the Remain in Mexico program (formally called, in the most outrageous distortion of words, Migrant Protection Protocols). 

Some of the episode is organized around interviews conducted with migrants in Nuevo Laredo, one of the Mexican cities to which thousands have been sent awaiting further processing of their cases, and with the asylum officers who conduct credible fear interviews. If the goal is protection of migrants, finding a less safe place to send them than Nuevo Laredo would be difficult. As nurse and humanitarian aid worker Helen Perry describes the situation:

When I first saw it, I was literally just dumbfounded, because I’ve seen refugee situations like this. I’ve been to Bangladesh. I’ve seen Cox’s Bazar. I’ve been to Iraq. I’ve seen the IDP camps. I’ve seen the refugee camps from Syria.

I’d say this was the worst. Yeah, I would definitely say that this is the worst, if at a bare minimum for a lack of humanitarian accountability for what’s happening to these people.

Not only is there next to no data about who is in these camps and when they come and go, but they lie inside of territory controlled by cartels that regularly kidnap migrants and hold them for ransom. Indeed, in one segment, Emily Green, one of the reporters, describes and plays back pieces of calls with kidnappers who have abducted one of the families she has interviewed. 

If the destinations along the border seem not to prioritize protection of migrants, the process itself is also abusively bewildering. An asylum officer called “Ursula” in the story describes the MPP interview process from the point of view of the first family, this one from El Salvador, that she interviewed under these protocols:

You’re put into a cell. You’re separated from your kids and your wife. You have no idea what’s going on, because you thought today you were going to be interviewed about El Salvador and you were going to get to enter the United States.

A couple hours later, they lead you into this freezing cold cell where they chain your hands to a table in handcuffs, and someone is sitting across from you who doesn’t speak your language, and starts talking to someone in the phone who starts translating to you that you’re going to talk about Mexico. You smell like shit, because you’ve been living in a shelter, you know, without any running water for a month and half, plus you’ve traveled all the way across Central America to get there, and you don’t understand why someone is talking to you about Mexico.

This interview goes on for an hour and a half, and the person keeps pausing it so they can talk to someone on the computer, which they say is their supervisor, and another guard leads your wife in that you haven’t seen in the last 12 hours into the interview room, and you can, you know, brush her hand as she passes by. You’re so happy to see her because you’ve been separated, and you have no idea what’s going on.

So, where are my children? I don’t know, sir, I’m sure they’ll be fine. Your wife goes through a similar interview, but she keeps being confronted about the answers she’s giving because they’re different from yours, and the officer can’t understand why this story varies so differently between two people who experienced it.

Half an hour passes before her children are brought into the room, and then the officer has to talk to a 10-year-old boy about whatever his parents said, and then confront the 10-year-old boy on inconsistencies between his story and his parents’ story. And then, the wife is like, when am I going to see my husband again? 

One segment humanized in this reporting is the corps of asylum officers, called to carry out this policy with which many are in fundamental disagreement. As Molly O’Toole reports:

All three of the asylum officers I talked to said that the presentation left them with lots of questions, including the biggest one, how is this legal? These officers knew better than almost anyone how dangerous Mexico is, and this policy seemed designed to send tons of people back to Mexico.

It seemed to be in direct contradiction with U.S. asylum law, which says that, at the very least, we can’t send people back to a situation where they’d get harmed or killed. We can’t violate the principle of non-refoulment. […]

The three officers I spoke with are not alone. A union representing the asylum officers and USCIS employees filed a brief and a lawsuit against the administration arguing that MPP was illegal, and a ton of officers are quitting. I’ve heard this from a bunch of people in the asylum corps, and at Citizenship and Immigration Services, the parent agency.

Several used the word, exodus. And if officers can’t quit, they’re calling in sick– anything they can do to avoid MPP interviews. We tried to get some numbers from the government.

They wouldn’t tell us how many people had left. They did say that, by the end of the year, they hoped to have 771 asylum officers, but as of a month ago, they had something like 550, meaning they’re roughly 200 people short.

Another asylum officer, who is called Anne in this reporting, admits that the program seems to have achieved the goal of the current administration: 

They want negative decisions. They don’t want asylum seekers in this country. They don’t want people to get positive decisions or determinations for asylum. They have felt that the standards for screening interviews were too low, and they wanted those standards changed and those standards raised, and they’ve succeeded.

While Anne admits the success in achieving this goal of the administration, her personal feelings are another story. As reported here: 

Anne throws up in the shower almost every day. She has recurring nightmares. She says she can’t focus, can’t sleep. She thinks about the people she’s returned to Mexico all the time. It’s nearly 100. But there’s one family in particular that she can’t stop thinking about, a father and son.[…]

What’s my moral culpability in that? I interviewed that case, and my signature is on that paperwork, and that’s something now that I live with. So yeah, I feel– I feel in some ways that this administration’s made me a human rights abuser.

Anne is just one of hundreds of asylum officers struggling from within a system that sickens them. But I’m reminded that our taxes fund this system and it sickens me too. And if I miss any opportunity to oppose and dismantle this system – a system that willfully increases human misery – might I be a human rights abuser too?

Click here to listen to the full podcast, which profiles several other disturbing features of the treatment of migrants seeking asylum.

If you are looking for something to do right now, check out the #SaveAsylum campaign being led by the Latin America Working group this week. 

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From Palaces to Courtrooms

Yesterday, Pope Francis released a motu proprio called “Vos estis lux mundi” [You are the light of the world”] offering new guidelines for leaders within the Catholic church on how to respond to clerical sexual abuse. 

In Vatican parlance, a motu proprio is an official statement from the Pope that lays out a situation and on which he then makes a papal decree. The motu proprio is the most hierarchical of all documents, since it is issued only in the name of the Pope.

“Vos estis lux mundi” deals with crimes of sexual abuse and, for most of the brief document, there is little to surprise anyone who understands the monarchy that we call the Roman Catholic church. And problems within a hierarchy can only propose hierarchical solutions, unless they want to threaten the system. We should not therefore be surprised that Pope Francis proposes escalating problems to higher authorities within the church as a key part of the solution.

Some are celebrating the answer of bringing the concern higher up in the chain of command but there is reason for caution on this front. We all know that John Paul II had been informed about the case against Marcial Maciel, a serial sexual abuser, and that he continued to publicly praise him.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta responded to a question about the myopia of escalating the matter internally. As covered in the National Catholic Reporter:

Asked about why the apostolic letter does not mandate the involvement of lay experts in abuse investigations undertaken by metropolitan archbishops, Scicluna noted that metropolitans can ask lay people for help, but said: “We’re a Catholic Church, we’re not a congregational church.”

The message here seems to be that Catholic male clerics do not really need lay people to resolve problems, but they can call on them, on the rare occasions they deem it advisable. Asking why lay people are not involved is tantamount to saying that you do not understand how power is distributed in the Catholic church.  

But what if a critical element of the cause of the abuse is somehow the hierarchical structure itself, which elevates some people to a god-like status that tells them they bear the indelible mark of Christ-like priestliness on their very souls? 

The truly groundbreaking piece of the motu propio, I would argue, is the last provision: 

Art. 19 – Compliance with state laws

These norms apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities.

Some commentators have already noted that reporting is not mandatory in all cases, but rather only in cases where the local government requires such reporting. But if it is the case that a local state does not require such reporting, that is a matter that can be addressed locally, offering at least a possible path toward greater accountability, which is why this article seems to break new ground.

Even as the rest of the motu proprio reinforces the sense that more patriarchy is the solution to the problem, the final article shows openness to a secular judicial process that does not elevate the accused to the inaccessible exalted heights of a clerical Olympus – a place beyond human accountability. No more, we can hope, will members of the clerical class, even bishops and Vatican officials working abroad, be permitted to hide behind clerical privilege that would forgive their sins while shielding them from being held accountable for their crimes in secular courts. 

Francis knows this may not work, that he may not have gone far enough. The new norms take effect on June 1, 2019 and are enacted for an “ad experimentum” period of three years. Yet this experiment has, in sometimes awkward waysalready started and the initial results give some cause for optimism that secular authorities may be able to help survivors find justice they could not find within the church.

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Daily Dispatch 4/15/2019

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Daily Dispatch

April 15, 2019

21 Savage Describes the Uncertainty of Immigrant Detention

Back in February when the world learned that rap artist 21 Savage had migrated to the United States as a child and that he was being detained by ICE, many of his fans were stunned. Organizers from groups such as Black Alliance for Just Immigration and Black Lives Matter banded together for the #Free21Savage campaign and he was ultimately released on bond.

Despite prior arrests that had put 21 Savage in jail, he described his ICE detention as a harrowing experience because of the uncertainty of the process. From an interview with Billboard:

He says that his ICE detention, which lasted for 10 days, was unlike anything he had ever experienced. “The worst thing was sitting in there not knowing what was going to happen, or when it’s going to happen,” he recalls. “Whenever I went to jail before, it was, ‘You’re being charged with this and going to court on this date.’ But immigration ain’t like that. You’re just being held.”

Some Creative Resistance: Where Are the Children?

Local organizers in the DC area are planning to put a national spotlight on the issues of child detention and family separation that have been highlighted as particularly egregious practices to use for immigration enforcement. From the announcement from this coalition of organizations in Howard County, Maryland calling itself Where Are the Children?

Please join us on International Children’s Day, June 9, 2019  to oppose this injustice.

National Mall in Washington, D.C. between 12th and 14th Streets

We will display hundreds of pajamas hung on clotheslines to represent the separated children. Each pajama is a stark reminder of forcibly separated families and parents spending nights away from their children.

Americans must remember that our government continues to divide families and
forcibly detain children.

The pajama display will be available to other groups wishing to raise awareness in their communities.

Nothing New Under the Sun: Native American Family Separation

As much as family separation shocks the conscience, it cannot be forgotten that this policy of taking children from their parents has been used repeatedly by the U.S. government as a way of controlling populations of people it failed to treat as full and equal members of society.

The National Native American Boarding School Coalition recently announced that it is undertaking a study of how child removal affected Native communities in the United States. From a release on Indian Country Today:

Between 1879 and the 1960s, tens of thousands of American Indian and Alaskan Native children were forced to attend boarding school against their parents’ and tribes’ wishes. The goal of these schools was to eliminate the “Indian problem” that the United States had to its westward expansion by removing all traces of tribal existence — language, culture, spiritual traditions, communal and family ties, etc. and replacing them with European Christian ideals of civilization, religion, and culture.

Moreover, while we might like to believe that this practice has ended, it persists in practice:

Although the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) was designed to address this form of cultural genocide, Native families continue to face very high levels of child removal. For example, in Alaska, where Native children make up 20 percent of the general child population, they represent 50.9 percent of children in Foster Care.

To read more on this study or if you know someone who might be able to participate in the survey, check out the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

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Sex, Violence, and…Movies on Airplanes?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has shared his perspective on the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, offering an analysis of what he states to be the root causes. The full text of this piece is available in English translation here.

While there will no doubt be in-depth commentary on the theological and doctrinal content of this analysis, I wish to offer only a few preliminary comments on a passage in the opening section of the document, in which a connection is established between the sexual revolution and sexual violence:

Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.

The mental collapse was also linked to a propensity for violence. That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes because violence would break out among the small community of passengers. And since the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression, school principals also made attempts at introducing school uniforms with a view to facilitating a climate of learning.

Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.

The first statement here is partially true. 1968 was a year of revolutions and one of the demands of many groups was for greater sexual liberation. This of course was largely rooted in a call for gender equality and for an end to the weaponization of sex and sexuality in maintaining a strict separation of opportunity for people based on rigid gender norms. But going from challenging norms used to justify centuries of oppression to stating that this new regime “no longer conceded any norms” seems a statement that would demand some justification.

It would be reasonable to assume that the next paragraph would cite such evidence, but instead the argument proceeds to its next step. “The mental collapse was linked to a propensity for violence.” To buttress this claim, we are told that “sex films were no longer allowed on planes because violence would break out.”

Well, this is alarming. I remember a similar public health threat on planes being addressed in the United States some years ago. In my youth, smoking was allowed on flights on U.S. carriers. One can readily find news articles starting dating back to 1988, when the federal ban on smoking on most flights was implemented. Indeed, flight attendants still remind us on every flight that no smoking is allowed on the plane. 

So what about “sex movies” on planes? This surely would have captured some news coverage and stirred debate. Lacking German language skills and pressed for time, I limited myself to English sources as I sought out some documentary evidence. (Feel free to conduct your own search as well, but be advised that you may learn more than you bargained for about the “mile-high club,” a topic unrelated to the matter at hand.)

The first promising lead I found was the New York Times piece “In Flight Movies Update Content and Equipment,” published on April 27, 1982. What I learned is that the initially hesitant airlines gradually loosened their strictures on sex-related content, but that some level of censorship did occur. Yet there was no mention of any relationship, causal or otherwise, between exposure to sexual content and violent actions on flights. 

On January 18, 2017, The Economist published a piece looking at the question “Should films on planes be censored?” examining what kind of content is generally eschewed on in-flight entertainment offerings (e.g., plane crashes) and also pointed out that social norms vary significantly from one country to another. More relevant to the investigation at-hand is that this column made no mention of any historical evidence of violence on airplanes being related to in-flight entertainment. It seems curious that neither of these two journalistic pieces mentions any correlation between violence and in-flight movies. Absent any evidence, it seems advisable to doubt this claim.

The next sentence continues with the same lack of evidence. A controversial assertion – “the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression” – is presented as a brute fact. Given the way in which clothing is commonly cited to dismiss male responsibility in acts of sexual violence committed against women, there are disturbing implications in this sentence about school children: that the way these students dressed was inviting acts of sexual aggression against them, and that uniforms might be used to “facilitate a climate of learning”.

If there were any doubt about this implication, consider what comes before and after it. References to the “Revolution of ‘68” book-end this bizarre passage about in-flight movies and school uniforms. The closing sentence quoted above suggests that the values of that revolution “diagnosed pedophilia as allowed and appropriate” but, once again, no documentary evidence is cited, probably because it does not exist.

The rest of the letter does nothing to exonerate or clarify this irresponsible passage from the opening section. Indeed, when it feels we are about to get an answer to the really critical question of what went wrong to allow a crisis of sexual abuse of children, we get something else instead.

Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God. We Christians and priests also prefer not to talk about God, because this speech does not seem to be practical. After the upheaval of the Second World War, we in Germany had still expressly placed our Constitution under the responsibility to God as a guiding principle. Half a century later, it was no longer possible to include responsibility to God as a guiding principle in the European constitution. God is regarded as the party concern of a small group and can no longer stand as the guiding principle for the community as a whole. 

This letter really is not about sexual abuse at all. It is about Benedict’s disenchantment with a secular world independent of the Christendom of yesteryear. 

Yet only in a secular world, where the clerics responsible for abuse are not revered and elevated, will justice for survivors be possible. In such a world, where science and evidence inform good policy, and due process is managed by independent authorities, perhaps we can also articulate the relationship between sexual violence and power in a more intellectually honest way. And the work of unraveling power that does violence through flawed human institutions – including the visible church – is at the heart of our calling as people of faith. 

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The Disdain of a Formidable Neighbor: The U.S. in Guantanamo

Cuban intellectual José Martí lived in the United States for a number of years, giving him a broad perspective from which to consider U.S. relations with Cuba and, by extension, Latin America. In his frequently cited essay, “Nuestra America,” Martí – whose Cuban homeland was still part of the Spanish Empire – worried about a threat that was much closer than Europe.

Pero otro peligro corre, acaso, nuestra América, que no le viene de sí, sino de la diferencia de orígenes, métodos e intereses entre los dos factores continentales, y es la hora próxima en que se le acerque demandando relaciones íntimas, un pueblo emprendedor y pujante que la desconoce y la desdeña. […]

El deber urgente de nuestra América es enseñarse como es, una en alma e intento, vencedora veloz de un pasado sofocante, manchada sólo con sangre de abono que arranca a las manos la pelea con las ruinas, y la de las venas que nos dejaron picadas nuestros dueños. El desdén del vecino formidable, que no la conoce, es el peligro mayor de nuestra América.

[But our America may also face another danger, which does not come from within it, but from the differing origins, methods, and interests of the continent’s two factions. The hour is near when she will be approached by an enterprising and forceful nation that will demand intimate relations with her, though it does not know her and disdains her.[…]

Therefore the urgent duty of our America is to show herself as she is, united in soul and intent, fast overcoming the crushing weight of her past, and stained only with the fertilizing blood shed by hands that do battle against ruins, or by veins opened by our former masters. The disdain of the formidable neighbor who does not know her is the greatest danger that faces our America.]

Contrasting “our America” with the other America looming to the north, Martí feared U.S. influence would rival that of Spain. Martí himself died in an armed uprising against Spain in 1895 but his words would prove prophetic. While the United States publicly supported Cuban independence, the resulting Spanish-American War led to the imposition of a new imperial authority over the formerly “Spanish” Caribbean and the Philippines. Unlike Puerto Rico, Cuba was not subjected to outright colonialism but forced to agree to the Platt Amendment, allowing the United States to interfere directly in the affairs of the island. Soon after, the United States negotiated very favorable terms for the use of Guantanamo Bay as a continuing naval presence in the Caribbean. Cuba tolerated the U.S. presence on the island and, for several decades, little changed.

With the Cuban Revolution, came the demand for the U.S. to leave Guantanamo, but for 60 years now there has been no international legal forum with the force to vacate the lease and require the U.S. to leave. The United States continues to send lease payments to Cuba (since 1974 an absurd $4,000 a year) – though not a single payment has been deposited by Cuba’s government since 1959.

Incarceration in Guantanamo

Following a military coup in 1991, a large number of Haitian refugees took to the sea to escape the violence and seek asylum in the United States. Tens of thousands of Haitians were provided what was called “safe haven” in Guantanamo Bay while they were being screened for asylum. This practice, essentially detaining potential asylum seekers in large camps, was initiated in the administration of George H.W. Bush, paused briefly, then was resumed in the Clinton administration. Indeed, the limited capacity at Guantanamo Bay, where Clinton stated that 14,000 Haitians were interned, was a contributing factor to the decision to reinstate Aristide in the presidency of Haiti. At nearly the same time, the Clinton administration began to detain Cubans who wished to immigrate as well – also in Guantanamo –although this policy was relatively brief and impacted somewhat fewer persons. The detention practice was declared unconstitutional by a Federal District Court in 1993 (the ruling later vacated) – the last Haitian detainees left Guantanamo in 1995.

For a few years, Guantanamo was not known to be holding any detainees, but this door would not stay closed for long. On January 11, 2002, George W. Bush re-established the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, this time to house a population who were being described as “enemy combatants” in the “War on Terror.” The people in Guantanamo now are detained indefinitely, without trial, and many of the detainees have been tortured. Today these men – for they are all men – are 40 in number and a few have been charged and convicted but only in the Guantanamo Military Commission system, a tribunal of dubious legality. Indeed, the Supreme Court has sided with detainees in all four cases that arrived to the highest court. One of Obama’s first executive orders when he became president was a commitment to close the Guantanamo detention camp. He failed. One of Trump’s first executive orders was a commitment to keep Guantanamo open, indefinitely. 

January 11, 2019 marks 17 years since this detention center was established as part of the War on Terror but this is only the latest episode in the long story of U.S. imperial tactics in this place. In 2005, a group of concerned activists traveled to Cuba to attempt to visit the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and this trip gave birth to Witness Against Torture (WAT). Since 2007, WAT has been organizing actions in Washington, D.C. and around the nation leading up to the January 11 anniversary. In solidarity with the hunger strikes that have been started and maintained by detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere to protest unjust treatment and living conditions, participants fast all week as a sign of their commitment to close down Guantanamo. This year, I have joined their number. Yet we know that our collective hunger pains are only a small reminder of the suffering of those held captive by our government in a foreign land. 

Taking our calls for justice one step further, once the closure of the detention center is finally complete, it is doubtless long past time to return full sovereignty of Cuba to its own people and vacate this base. Indeed, if we are serious about wanting to reduce the root causes of migration, we might revisit some aspects of U.S. foreign policy rather than build more spaces to hold humans captive.

In closing, I would like to leave you with a few lines from the Versos sencillos, also by Martí. These words have been immortalized in the classic Cuban song “Guantanamera,” a title referring to a woman from the Guantanamo region of Cuba, and they speak of a deep longing for an idyllic Guantanamo of the past, a land the poetic voice loves as his home. 

Con los pobres de la tierra
Quiero yo mi suerte echar:
El arroyo de la sierra
Me complace más que el mar.

[With the poor of the earth,
I cast my lot:
The mountain stream pleases me
More than the sea.]



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Contact Us

  • Quixote Center
    7307 Baltimore Ave.
    Ste 214
    College Park, MD 20740
  • Office: 301-699-0042

Direction to office:

For driving: From Baltimore Ave (Route 1) towards University of Maryland, turn right onto Hartwick Rd. Turn immediate right in the office complex.

Look for building 7307. We are located on the 2nd floor.

For public transportation: We are located near the College Park metro station (green line)