Monday, February 19, 2018

Duck and Cover for the 21st Century

Mid-twentieth century students practicing for the apocalypse.

No, I'm not that old. Duck and cover drills ended before I started school.

I did get a heavy dose of "Your Chance to Live" lessons, courtesy of the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (formerly the Office of Civil Defense), during my middle school years. This lessons took the forms of films and filmstrips about a variety of disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, floods and, yes, nuclear war, the existence of which made the whole series necessary. Curiously, I don't remember any of those lessons taking place once I started high school, which leads me to wonder if having them be such a large part of public school was just an Idaho thing. (My family moved to Oregon the summer before my freshman year.)

Whatever the reason for exposing impressionable young students to so many ways we could all die, the result was probably not what the preparers of the curriculum intended. Being prepared didn't make me feel any safer. If anything, I felt more overwhelmed and helpless than if I'd never learned the stages of nuclear death. In a nuclear attack, I learned, death was inevitable for the vast majority of people within several miles of the explosion, whether it was from the unimaginable heat at the epicenter, being crushed by collapsing buildings or the shockwave, or toxic doses of radiation; and since it was the era of Mutual Assured Destruction, there were very few people fortunate enough to be living out of that range. And those lucky rural folk not slaughtered in the initial attack had only a limited reprieve from death: all the debris thrown up in the air would blot out the sun for years, while that which drifted back to earth would spread radiation to every corner of the planet.

No wonder the OCD/DCPA dropped its instruction to "1. Duck. 2. Cover." (and, in many an anti-war poster, "3. Kiss your ass goodbye.") "Your Chance to Live" was an inapt title for the curriculum, which could more accurately have been called "You're All Going to Die."

So let's jump ahead to the early 2000s, and my reentry to teaching. I trained for the profession during the Cold War, left it almost as soon as I started, and spent the late 1980s and all of the 1990s in the United Methodist ministry. The civil defense agencies I remembered from my own childhood had been absorbed into FEMA, and children were no longer being taught what to do if a hydrogen bomb took out the nearest city. Fire drills were, as they had been in my own childhood, still a frequent and inconvenient part of life for teachers and their students. The terrorist attacks of September 11 seemed not to have affected school life in any way.

Columbine, on the other hand, had introduced a new cause for alarm, as it introduced us to the concept of the active school shooter.

Active shooters had been a fact of life for decades. There had been incidents in workplaces and college campuses of a gunman systematically killing random victims. In Columbine, though, a new phenomenon asserted itself: shooters could be children who'd accessed their parents' guns, with or without their permission; or in places with ridiculously lax gun laws (which, if the NRA has its way, will include every jurisdiction in the United States), had simply gone out and bought them. These weren't just handguns or hunting rifles they were using, either: schools were being shot up with assault rifles with high-capacity magazines. These are military weapons, the sole purpose of which is to take human lives, and they are being used for precisely that.

That's why "duck and cover" is back--though it's really more like "hide in a corner with the lights off." In a lockdown drill, we teachers are instructed to lock our doors, turn off the lights, and have our entire classes huddle in a corner of the room that can't be seen through any windows. We're fortunate at my school in that, apart from the doors, there are no windows at all, so it's not hard finding a corner that's out of view. While the drill is being conducted, we expend a lot of effort quieting the children. Meanwhile, administrators roam the building, testing doors to make sure they're all locked. It's a great relief when the "all clear" is sounded.

We don't need civil defense films to tell us why these drills are so important. It's in the news. Since the beginning of this calendar year, school shootings have happened once a week. The conference I attended in November in Fort Worth, Texas, began with instructions of what to do if an active shooter entered the convention center. There have been mass shootings at a church in Texas, and a country music festival in Las Vegas. Acquiring a mass murder weapon and using it on a crowd of defenseless people has become a suicide fad.

And not all lockdowns are drills. In the sixteen years since I resumed my teaching career, I've been through at least four lockdowns that were initiated by word of a violent crime being committed in the area. One of them was an actual school shooting: Reynolds High School, June, 2014.

About 200 children a day pass through my music room. They are inquisitive, funny, awkward, goofy, distracted, charming, sweet, and, with almost no exceptions, innocent. The thought of any human being turning an assault rifle on them is so appalling to me that I find myself tearing up whenever I encounter news of a school shooting. I grieve the innocent lives lost, the permanent wounds it leaves in the survivors, the parents, the school, and the community. I'm furious that there is a powerful lobby that actively takes these tragedies as an opportunity to promote even laxer gun laws, and that the Republican party does their bidding without questioning even their most ridiculous policy proposals.

At the same time, for once, I feel hope. The surviving students of the Parkland massacre are calling bullshit on the Florida politicians, as well as President Trump, who have so easily slid into the ineffective platitudes with which Republicans traditionally try to spin away from the obvious implications of shootings to their reckless gun policies. And they're not stopping there: drawing on the lessons of the Women's March, they're organizing, putting together a march on Washington to demand action. Many of these young people will be of voting age, if not this fall, by 2020; and while 18-year-olds have been a historically apathetic demographic when it comes to the ballot box, there is nothing like feeling your life is at risk, and the party running the government doesn't care, to turn a nonvoter into an activist.

The original "duck and cover" gave birth to a generation of peace activists who, while they did not succeed in reversing the Cold War (it took the collapse of the Soviet Union to bring that about), did manage to get the United States to abandon the Vietnam War. Perhaps the lockdown generation can begin to reverse our national addiction to weapons of mass murder, starting with restrictions on their sale and confiscating them from the minors and people with records who should never have been permitted to buy them in the first place.

It'll be hard work. The NRA is powerful, and the Republican party is full of cowards unwilling to stand up against it. But there's nothing like the fearless righteousness of a teenager to cut through the excuses and nuances of a debate that we've permitted to become far more complex than it needs to be. Less guns means less death, and if anyone has the right to insist on that truth, it's the young survivor of a school shooting.

Hard work, yes. But it sure beats hiding in a dark corner, waiting for the killer to break through the door.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

No More Guns

Students at a memorial service in Parkland, Florida

If he hadn't had the gun, those seventeen people would still be alive.

I can't say that truth will get lost in the pointless ritual that follows every school shooting. There are always commentators making this point, and plenty of people--the majority of Americans, in fact--who agree with it. And yet, I know that in the end, it will be ignored.

How do I know this? Let's start with the responder-in-chief, the President of the United States, who, for once, spoke with measured, careful tones about what had happened at that Florida high school as an angry antisocial ex-student smuggled an assault rifle on campus and indiscriminately picked off students and teachers, then disappeared into the crowd of terrified fleeing teens. Trump didn't mention guns once in his speech. He's not alone: most politicians treat the truth at the heart of America's gun problem--that it involves guns--as a third rail.

From there, I turn to the organization that has, all by itself, managed to cynically, even diabolically, deflect attention from that truth again and again, hundreds of times since the Columbine massacre ushered us into the modern Age of the Active Shooter: the National Rifle Association. This lobbying group has so much blood on its hands it's beginning to resemble a death cult. Any policy proposal that even remotely has a chance of limiting the access of angry young white men to the tools that enable them to become mass murderers is labeled an assault on essential liberties. The NRA's solution to too many guns is always the same: more guns. Arm everyone. Turn a mass shooting into a free-for-all in which everyone dies. Then, at least, we have a better chance of knowing that the active shooter will be dead at the end.

But there's nothing I can do about those gundamentalists, so I'll move on to the next part of the equation: well-meaning people who blame deficiencies in society for school shootings. Look at Canada, they'll say. They've got plenty of guns there, yet nobody walks into a Canadian school and opens fire. It must be something wrong with this country. And yes, they do have a point there: mass murder has become something of a fad in the United States of America. Whether it's the country music festival in Las Vegas, a Baptist church in Texas, or a high school in Florida, killing a lot of people with an assault rifle has become a cultural phenomenon. Something snaps in a person--again, almost always a white man--and he uses his obscenely lethal hobby guns to mow down a roomful of children. We have a public mental health problem, these commentators will say. There aren't enough psychologists and counselors in our schools, enough social workers in our communities, enough access to the services that could help a lonely, isolated, angry white man overcome his frustration and make less lethal choices.

To which I say, yes, but: take the guns out of these men's hands, and while they'll still be frustrated, angry, and isolated, they at least won't be killing a dozen children over it.

Yes, America is a horribly callous place when it comes to public mental health. Yes, we are ridiculously miserly in doling out services to those who need them most. Yes, being proactive in our handling of sociopaths is something we ought to be doing whether or not they have access to AR-15s.

But they do. And they're killing our children with those weapons. So how about, before we offer therapy to the first grader who's playing with matches in a puddle of gasoline, we take his matches away?

Yesterday morning, I cried into my breakfast. I was listening to "Up First," the NPR morning headline podcast, and they did a story about the students who were using their phones to report, live, on the shooting as it happened. They followed it up with the protest the students organized, on their own, soon after the shooting had ended, and the words they chanted: "No more guns! No more guns!"

They get it. They've seen all the bullshit, and they're calling it for what it is. They know that the difference between a disgruntled teenager with a gun and one without a gun is seventeen bodies. They know the political platitudes, the public hand-wringing, and most of all the inexcusable lies being spewed by the gun lobby will do nothing to prevent next week's school shooting. They know there are just too many guns, and more of them will only make matters worse.

Here's where I need to get personal, and speak from my own perspective as an educator. I teach music in a public school that was built in the 1970s. My building is blessed with a dedicated, caring staff who work hard to make sure that no child, however difficult, is left behind. We can tell which children are struggling emotionally and socially, and we do everything we can to get them the support we need. Our psychologist and counselor create plans for them. Our teachers and administrators conference with their parents. We put them in support groups, given them a cool-down room for when they need to be alone, have educational assistants accompany them to activities that are difficult for them. We put them on behavior modification plans to help them learn how to behave acceptably in every setting. In extreme cases, we refer their parents to professionals who can give them the help we're not equipped to provide.

In a word, we're being proactive. We're doing everything we can to help every child grow up to be a healthy, happy part of American society.

My school is not unique in this work. The school I came from before this job had all these same supports in place. I know they continue once children move on to middle school and high school. Public education takes mental health very seriously. The old canard about us not having enough resources, and spending too much time on testing, is simply not true. Sure, we could use more money to update our facilities and lower class sizes; and at some point, we really need to get over our nationwide obsession with standardized testing; but by and large, public education in 21st century America is providing troubled students far more support than it ever has before. These kids are not falling through cracks.

So what about the Florida shooter? Wasn't he expelled from the school he shot up?

Yes, he was. And here's the painful truth: there are some students who just can't be helped, no matter how much attention is showered on them by teachers, counselors, administrators, and even their parents. Some of them have a death wish. Absent the means to fulfill these bloody fantasies, they may still commit violent acts that land them in the criminal justice system. Assault without a deadly weapon is still a crime.

Assault with a deadly weapon, though, is murder.

I know there are other measures that could be taken to protect children. A couple of times a year, we have lock down drills, during which I lock my doors, turn off the lights, and have whatever students are in my room huddle in a corner where they can't be seen. There is only one outside door in the building that is unlocked during school hours, and it only provides access to the rest of the school by passing through the front office. That's not a 100% solution--a shooter could make quick work of the office staff, then head on through the work room to the rest of the school--but it's a buffer. We also have an open campus: at both ends of the school, people can just walk onto the playground, unseen by anyone in the building. Those areas could be fenced off, but like many public schools, our outdoor facilities are open to the public during non-school hours. I love it that our students can do what I did as a child, and visit the school on weekends to play on the equipment, perhaps use the playing field to fly a kite.

These are some of the things that make public schools public. Fencing off the facility, cutting off access to it, takes it out of its central role in the community.

So let's get back to the issue with which I started this essay: if he hadn't had the gun, those people would still be alive.

Pundits and politicians are wrong. This is not complicated. Take the guns away from the angry young white men, and while they'll still be obnoxious, and might even need to spend some time in jail until they can outgrow their rage, at least they won't be mass murderers.

And no, I don't have any illusions about this simple solution being easy. America is addicted to guns. Curing an addiction is a difficult, expensive thing to do. It doesn't happen overnight. Some addicts spend their entire post-addiction lives in recovery. But if they never start, they'll never recover.

We need to begin recovering from our gun addiction. Taking the first step need not be a complicated thing. It needn't even be returning to the ban of assault rifles--well, not yet anyway. It could just be restricting how big a magazine they can have. Less bullets means less bodies. It could also be restricting the sale of weapons to people who, for one reason or another (say, being expelled from a high school for violent tendencies), should obviously not be allowed to have them.

And yes, I now that in the eyes of the gun cartel and the rabid addicts it services, even these simple common sense restrictions are blasphemy. But at some point, we the people and the politicians we elect have got to summon up the courage to tell the NRA to go to hell.

As those terrified children said in the wake of yet another NRA-sanctioned slaughter: no more guns. It's as simple as that.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Like, Smart

"What are your superpowers again?"
"I'm rich."

And that, my friends, is why we have an idiot in the White House insisting that he is "like, smart" on Twitter.

But I digress before there's even been an ingress. This essay was inspired by a tweet straight from the thumbs of the Chief Twit, but it's framed by a movie I saw a week ago: "Justice League." That movie is every bit as awful as you may have heard from those superhero completists unfortunate enough to have subjected themselves to it, but it does contain some saving graces, one of which is the brilliant casting of The Flash with a twitchy nerdy fanboy who can't believe he gets to hang out with his heroes--and yes, that's a device that was ripped off in its entirety from the introduction of the new Spiderman as a twitchy nerdy fanboy who can't believe he gets to hang out with his heroes in both "Captain America: Civil War" and "Spiderman: Homecoming." But again, I digress.

Soon after Bruce (Batman) Wayne has recruited Barry (Flash) Allen, Barry, in the context of a conversation about the dream team of superbeings Bruce is assembling to combat a really dumb cosmic villain named after a one-hit wonder band of the 1960s (Steppenwolf) who is, again, a knock off of the uninteresting cosmic villain who will be the centerpiece of the next Avengers movie, asks him what superpowers entitle him to be part of this team. Bruce's two word answer--"I'm rich"--is maddening to anyone who's spent any time at all in the shadowy Gotham side of the DC universe. Yes, Bruce Wayne has a lot of cool toys that enable him to zip up the sides of high rises, glide across the skyline, encase himself in lightweight body armor, and roar through the city in a turbocharged tank. But all of those gadgets would be worthless without the years of training he's devoted to sharpening his skills as a martial artist and gymnast, not to mention the deductive intellect he puts to use as the World's Greatest Detective. Take away all the gadgets, even strip him of his body armor, just give him a black cape and a cowl, and Bruce Wayne is still a superhero. Riches do not the Batman make.

They did, however, make a President. We who care about the future of American democracy have long railed against the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which equated corporate money with free speech--though in a number of elections, it appeared that advertising blitzes actually worked against the success of the candidate being promoted. Trump's victory erases those losses, and jolts us back to the equation of money with electoral success.

I'm not saying that Trump bought the election--or that he could even have afforded to. Part of the collusion scandal that surrounds Trump is the extent to which he is indebted to foreign interests, including Russian oligarchs. His taxes have been withheld to protect the lie of his status as a billionaire. His campaign depended to a large extent on funding by the ultra-right, nationalism-friendly Mercer family. So no, it's not that Trump is, statistically, all that rich. It's that he, more than any other member of the million-to-billionaire class, embodies wealth. He moves in a cloud of money, gilding his homes and hotels, descending to announce his candidacy on a gilded escalator, angrily tweeting from a gold toilet, posing with his family in a gilded chair resembling a throne. His actual bottom line is just not that important: the world treats him with respect not because he is rich, but because he acts rich. Challenge the veracity of his claim to wealth, and he sues. Whether or not he has as much money as he claims, he's got enough to drive his accusers into bankruptcy with lawyer fees and court costs.

This brings me to the other reason I've emerged from my teaching-diminished blog output: three days ago, excerpts of an expose of the Trump Regime revealed that without exception, every Trump advisor interviewed for the book considers the man to be an idiot. Those who make public declarations of admiration for him--Vice President Pence, his Cabinet secretaries, and most embarrassingly of all, Senate and House leaders--are sucking up, knowing that lavishing the man with undeserved praise is the only way to get him to cooperate. None of these toadies believes a word of this vapid praise. Trump doesn't read, lacks the attention span to sit through even a short briefing, spends his days watching sycophantic Fox News, lacks the mental capacity to understand what any of his appointees actually has the power to do, and engages in pissing contests with nuclear-armed dictators. Nobody in Washington who knows the first thing about government sincerely believes he's up to the job, and they will admit to it the moment he's out of earshot, slapping their foreheads in disbelief at his incompetence and referring to him as an idiot.

Idiot though he is, the man is still rich, and he did manage to get himself installed as President. In his mind, that makes him smart; no, strike that, it makes him a genius. In his mind, the multiple investigations into Russian manipulation of the election are bogus because they endanger his sense of having won the election on his own merits. His wealth, his fame, his political success prove he's smart.

In fact, though, we have a President who, despite the wealth that got him elected, lacks any other superpower. He has none of the discipline, intellect, or commitment to justice that turned Bruce Wayne into the Batman. Strip Trump of his gilded lifestyle, and he's just a demented racist senior citizen venting on Twitter. 

Which brings me, finally, back to "Justice League" and the wrongness of that throwaway line about wealth as a superpower. There were times in the Batman universe when one or another of his nemeses--the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler--got access to some or all of Batman's gadgets, went on a joyride in the Batmobile, and proved that it actually takes skill to use those toys. Put on the Batsuit in its modern, armored version, and you could probably survive a beating, maybe even a few gunshots--but that doesn't mean you could climb the side of a sky scraper, hold your own in a melee, or steer a rocket-powered tank around Gotham City. Those villains were all super in their own ways, gifted in manipulating minions, cracking safes, creating dastardly gadgets of their own, but none of them could hold a candle to Bruce Wayne in using the tools of his trade.

That's what we have in Washington now: the White House, the center of our superpower nation, is no longer inhabited by a human being with the talents and skills to use it properly. A villain whose only power is wealth is behind the wheel of the Batmobile, careening around the city, destroying landmarks and treasures in his hopeless quest to be taken seriously.

At the end of "Justice League," the considerable powers of Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and the Flash are still inadequate to defeat Steppenwolf. It takes the intervention of a resurrected Superman to bring him down.

There are heroes all over America opposing the Trump phenomenon: the millions who turned out for the Women's March, the lawyers and judges who keep rejecting his executive overreach, the masses whose phone calls saved the Affordable Care Act, the Black voters who chose Doug Jones over Roy Moore for the Virginia Senate seat. The initial premise of "Justice League" is correct: no one superbeing can bring down a monster like Donald Trump. It will take a communal effort. We as a nation must reject the most insidious falsehood of this regime: that wealth does not, in and of itself, prove that anyone is good, wise, intelligent, competent, just, or deserving of any distinction save placement on a list of people with money. We must do it with our voices, our hearts, our bodies, and our votes for someone who will make us proud to say "That's my President."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Entitled Impunity

No, he can't really get away with murder. He just thinks he can.

Nothing says "Trump" like impunity.

The man blusters, blows, blabs as if he believes himself to be untouchable. With his entire regime under federal investigation, he regularly self-incriminates via the Twitter account his handlers have struggled in vain to regulate. By the reckoning of the New York Times he will, by the end of his first year in office, have told well over a hundred bald-faced lies, many of them repeatedly and with a clear effort to convince his most rabid followers of their veracity. In contrast, the Times found that, over the course of his entire Presidency, Barack Obama had told at most 16 falsehoods. Arriving at that number meant, in some cases, stretching the definition of falsehood to include exaggeration. On top of that, when notified he had been caught in a lie, Obama was quick to apologize and correct the error. Trump's response is to double down and insist all the more vehemently in the accuracy of his alternate world view, blasting the fact-checkers as tools of the Fake News Media.

Trump's public life has teemed with impropriety. He burns through marriages, deeming a woman only worthy of his wealth as long as she is hot enough. He has driven casinos and an entire football league into bankruptcy and liquidation with his penchant for expensive lawsuits and refusal to accept blame for the colossal errors he makes. His legal team's response to the ongoing investigation of his and his campaign's involvement in the Russian rigging of the 2016 election has been the public obstruction of the rule of law by every means possible, including smearing the highly respected, Republican-appointed investigator and, most ridiculously of all, to insist that he is incapable of obstructing justice because, as President, he is justice. His response to a host of accusations of sexual harassment has been to deny every one of them, threaten them with lawsuits, and libel the accusers.

These are just a few examples of the impunity Donald Trump believes himself to enjoy when it comes to the norms that every prior Presidential administration--including those of couldn't-keep-his-pants-zipped-if-his-life-depended-on-it Bill Clinton and plunge-the-country-into-the-worst-quagmire-since-Vietnam-on-false-pretenses George W. Bush--held itself to, with the help of official Presidential ethicists. It is the last one, though, that I wish to highlight in this essay, as it speaks most clearly to the paradigm shift the nation is undergoing.

But first, let's look more closely at the source of Trump's impunity, which I define as freedom from the fear of consequences for one's actions. As I stated a few paragraphs earlier, Trump has acted his entire life as if he need have no fear, ever, of consequences for his actions. As a real estate mogul, he engaged in racially discriminatory ways that were already illegal. As a celebrity, he's felt entitled to walk, unannounced, into the dressing rooms of beauty contestants, and to grope and kiss any woman he finds attractive. He's held back payment to contractors who worked on many of his properties, forcing them to sue and, ultimately, accept a reduced amount in settlement. He can get away with many of these misdeeds because he can afford to hire better lawyers and to keep cases in the appeal circuit long past the point at which the complainant can afford to continue.

And how can he afford to use the court system as a mop to clean up his messes? Quite simply, he was born into money. He's never had to want for anything: never had to choose between getting a cavity filled and paying his rent, buying groceries or repairing his car, sending his kids to school in worn-out jeans or filling the heating oil tank. Growing up free of want, he's come to take all these privileges for granted, as things he's entitled to. He belongs to the entitled class, and with that entitlement comes impunity.

Yes, I'm using the word "entitlement" to mean something other than the basic provisions our welfare state makes for retirees not born wealthy to have meager income, for children born into poverty to have some food on the table and medical care, and for veterans to have some benefits in return for their often life-wrecking service. The entitled class--the conservative monied elite who run this country's industries, financial institutions, and the Republican side of Congress--have been successful for decades at referring to, and getting the rest of us to refer to, government-sponsored social programs as "entitlements," services that we haven't earned and are picking their undeserving pockets to pay for. The just-passed Republican Donor Relief Act (they're calling it "tax reform") redistributes much of that money back into the pockets of the Uber-rich, and, if Paul Ryan has his way, will in the future be paid for with further reductions in the already scanty safety net for the poorest of the poor.

That's a sidebar, but it does place Trump in the context of his people: entitled robber barons who consider themselves immune to prosecution due to the sheer size of their treasuries. Most of them are born into this wealth; and while the Republicans were not wholly successful in their latest bid to eliminate the estate tax, they did manage to exempt even more of these incredibly wealthy people from having to pay a penny for inheriting millions of dollars they never lifted a finger to earn--at the expense of middle class taxpayers who will be finding their net tax rates, not to mention the cost of their health care, increasing in the near future in order to pay for that regressive redistribution.

That's where the impunity comes from. In my youth, it was not unusual to hear the children of the wealthy referred to as "spoiled rotten": they never lacked for anything, never had to fear consequences, and lived their lives accordingly, going on benders and sprees that would've landed anyone without a trust fund in jail. It's not considered polite to use the term "spoiled" anymore, but "entitled" fits the bill even better. Again and again, for his entire adult life, Trump has acted as an entitled jerk, unafraid of paying anything but a lawyer bill for his misdeeds.

Apart from the vindication we hope will eventually come in the form of indictments from the Mueller investigation, there is one thing, in this entire moral morass, that could bring an end to Trump's smug entitled impunity: the collective slap in his face that the women he's groped and molested are beginning to deliver.

There has been a sea change this fall in the way this country deals with sexual harassment. One by one, public figures, many of them pillars of the liberal elite, have been fired or forced to resign in disgrace. A very few conservatives have faced them same judgment. The GOP has been counting on its belief that, somehow, being elected to office absolves a politician from any accusations of sexual misconduct that may have been made public. Thus, the theory goes, Trump has been pardoned by his success at gaming the electoral system, even though it was only a minority of the plurality who voted in the election that put him over the top in the only way he could win.

"Not so fast!" shouted the women whose honesty he had impugned. Their accusations have the ring of truth, as did those of the accusers of Roy Moore, who just barely lost his bid to become the junior senator of Alabama thanks to his predilection for pederasty. These women are not just going away, however inconvenient their testimony may be for Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.

If this had happened a year earlier--if the paradigm shift of women not just coming forward, but being believed by and large--we might not be in the mess we're in. If the public ethos then had been what it is now--if we had become, in 2016 rather than 2017, a nation whose patience with workplace molestation has finally run out--then we would have, rather than a sexual predator, a strong feminist occupying the Oval Office.

But that's not what happened. And even if the election were to be relitigated post-Harvey Weinstein, it might not look any different; because in this one way, out of all the ways I've mentioned, of enjoying entitled impunity, Trump is far from alone. Most American men, especially white American men, even those of us earning below the median income, were born into this particular entitlement: we are privileged over women simply because we are men.

Growing up privileged, it's not surprising we come to take this entitlement for granted, and to be surprised when women call us on it. We're startled to learn, not just that women earn less money for doing the same work, but that those doing different work also expect to be equitably paid. We're shocked, sometimes even hurt, when women call us on the sexist jokes we like to tell. Some of us are angered that their aggressive office flirting is considered offensive by their female coworkers just trying to do their jobs.

The truth is, though, that half of Americans, whether rich or poor, of color or white, speaking English as a native or second language, have been born into the privilege of the Y chromosome. We didn't as for this privilege, for much of our lives may have been oblivious to it, but it's there.

Until it's not. Women are finally standing up to the inequality they've experienced both in the workplace and at home, fighting back against the sexual aggression of their male coworkers and superiors, and are insisting they be accorded the same dignity and respect every human being deserves. It remains to be seen how far this battle may go toward reversing a trend that is as old as civilization.

But maybe, just maybe, it'll be enough to topple a President. And if it can accomplish that, who knows how much more good it may do?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Baking the Damn Cake


I rarely post memes, but this one grabbed me, and went straight to my Facebook feed:

The issue addressed by the meme is a case before the Supreme Court: Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker and owner of Masterpiece Cakes, refused to bake a custom wedding cake for two men on the grounds that he was religiously opposed to gay marriage. Colorado has a non-discrimination law that applies to businesses, and the couple complained to the state's Civil Rights Division, which found Phillips to be in violation of the statute. Phillips has now appealed that decision to the highest level, and sometime in the next year, we will learn whether public businesses can discriminate against protected minorities by appealing to the First Amendment.

The case is complicated by many factors, including the conflict it presents between the freedoms of expression and religion, and the right of state governments to offer a higher standard of protection to historically victimized minorities than that provided under federal statute. Acknowledging I am, at best, an amateur when it comes to legal analysis, I'm not going to attempt to parse the case itself. I am, however, a degreed theologian and Biblical scholar, so I feel very comfortable critiquing the religious argument being presented by Mr. Phillips.

Quite simply, he hasn't got a pot to piss in.

At least, that's my sermon sentence, the conclusion I'm going to build up to in the course of this essay. Now you know where I'm headed, I'll go at it systematically, as any serious preacher would do.

First, consider Jack Phillips's sectarian persuasion: as an evangelical, Phillips professes a faith that is Bible-based. I've long wrestled with the evangelical embrace of scripture, especially with those who claim (as a former parishioner of mine once did) that the Bible "says what it means and means what it says." In fact, depending on the presuppositions of translators and interpreters, any given passage of the Bible can be interpreted to mean many different things, especially when its taken in the light of its historic and literary contexts. Add to that the incredible diversity of the Bible--its writers span a thousand years of ancient history, and their ideas run the gamut of the Hebrew, Israelite, Palestinian, and Gentile cultures that gave birth to them. Simply put, then, an appeal to the literal meaning of any Biblical text demonstrates a profound ignorance of the nature of that text.

All that aside, there is simply no text in the Bible that tells business owners to turn away clients based on their perceived morality, or any animus they may feel toward them. Quite the contrary: the Torah contains many directives to include foreigners in festivals and Sabbath observances, making it clear that they are to be treated as fairly as fellow Jews. (e.g., Exodus 12:49, "there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.") If anything, Old Testament law specifies that those who are part of the covenant shall make no distinction when it comes to strangers, treating all with dignity and respect.

Now, while evangelicals are quick to cite Old Testament passages that appear to condemn homosexuality, they are just as quick to brush off those that condemn them, claiming that the rule of Christ exempts them from such strictures. I find this practice infuriatingly hypocritical; but rolling with it, I think it's quite fair to say, as the meme does, that Jesus would just bake the damn cake. Some cases in point:

Jesus heals a woman whose chronic hemorrhages have rendered her ritually unclean. (Mark 5, Matthew 9, Luke 8).
Jesus heals a Samaritan leper (Luke 17).
Jesus chides the Pharisees for being less righteous than tax collectors and prostitutes (Mark 21).
Jesus turns away men who would stone a woman caught in adultery (John 7).
These are just a few of many stories in which Jesus scandalizes the business and religious leaders of his time by socializing, ministering to, and accepting hospitality from people who, for one reason or another, were deemed unworthy of participation in polite Judean circles. Again and again, Jesus makes it clear by his actions that, like his divine father, he makes no distinctions. There is equal protection under the Gospel.

Contrast Jesus' hospitality and generosity toward those he was culturally conditioned to fear and avoid with the "right to refuse service" being claimed by Christian merchants like Jack Phillips, and it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that rather than being guided by the faith of Christ, they are hiding behind the banner of Christianity to justify actions Christ would find abhorrent.

That's why, in previous Supreme Court decisions expanding the protections of the Constitution to include gays and lesbians, Justice Kennedy has been particularly critical of the animus aired by conservatives like Phillips. The only religion being espoused by Phillips and his evangelical ilk is bigotry, elevated to the status of dogma.

And yet, before we simply dismiss the rightness of Phillips sheltering his odious business practices beneath the shield of religion, we have to acknowledge something huge: he's far from alone. In fact, there are millions of Americans who, believing their bigotry to be a Biblical doctrine, are fully on board with what he's doing, and consider him a martyr to the cause of religious liberty.

Typically at this point in a piece like this, I find myself launching a screed about all that is wrong with Christianity, and not just the modern variety. I've written in the past about the integral link between the anti-Judaism of Martin Luther and the Holocaust; the persecution of Jews, Muslims, and pagans by both Roman Catholicism and Protestant churches; and the ways in which Catholics and Protestants have taken turns persecuting each other. Bigotry is hard-wired into Christianity, just as it is, in one way or another, into every world religion. Pakistan and Bangladesh exist because Gandhi couldn't convince Indian Muslims and Hindus they could live together in peace. The Baltic wars were, to a large extent, religious conflicts. As atheist comic and commentator Bill Maher is fond of pointing out, the one thing almost all conflicts and mass persecutions have in common is religion.

But that's not where I want to go here. In fact, as I hope the passages referenced above indicate, today I'm feeling much more sanguine about the roots of the faith I was raised in. As one of my seminary professors liked to say when systematically vivisecting a fellow student's naive beliefs, "Give me that old time religion, the religion of Jesus and Paul, before the church got hold of it and turned it into this nonsense." For all the problematic passages in the ancient scriptures, they are still primarily a history of the evolution of loving, ethical living, of a community whose God was big enough and inclusive enough to embrace every human being, no matter how screwy their own beliefs might be. These are not just airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky Hallmark sentiments, either: every major religion at its best promotes generosity and compassion toward strangers.

That's what empowers me to say that honoring diversity and welcoming sojourners are not just an extreme, radical concept that liberals are forcing on conservatives. As I wrote just yesterday, the arc of the moral universe is bending this way. Deep down, we know that the grace we extend to people who are just like us is far cheaper than that we are called to extend to those who are different from us.

It's not just that we're called by scripture and tradition to offer hospitality to strangers, making no distinction about their class, creed, ethnicity, or orientation. The practice of hospitality is profoundly reciprocal. I have found myself welcomed and ministered to by people of other faiths, gay men and lesbians, Jews and Gentiles, churches composed almost entirely of African-Americans or Hispanics, Ghanaian animists, British Thatcherites, and on and on. Experiencing hospitality, I find myself prompted to practice it. The Bible references this reciprocity as far back as the book of Exodus, which reminds the Israelites that they, too, were once strangers in a strange land, having to rely on the hospitality of strange people who had strange beliefs but were, nonetheless, good generous people.

So I don't just think I'm right: I know this is the future toward which the arc of the moral universe is bending. Which is precisely why Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and the evangelical community are poured their prayers and gifts into pushing Jack Phillips's case all the way to the Supreme Court, and are so delighted that the Republicans succeeded in keeping a moderate like Merrick Garland off the court. They are afraid of a future in which the fig leaf of religion can no longer hide the ugliness of bigotry, a future in which they must learn to live with people who don't believe in their small-minded God, preferring to worship a God who's much bigger and more inclusive--or no God at all. They are conservative in the worst sense of the word, clinging to the old chauvinist, hateful ways because it's just more comfortable to be around people who are just like them, rather than waking up to the diversity of the world we really live in.

The power of this frame of reference is crumbling. Gay and lesbian people are getting married, and increasingly, America as a whole is fine with it. Women have been getting legal abortions since 1972, and America, again, is largely just fine with it. In fact, in case after case, the majority of Americans are significantly to the left of the evangelicals and Republicans who claim to represent true America, and who are scrabbling to hang onto its hateful traditions. Out of desperation, evangelicals have been embracing politicians who are ethically and morally bankrupt. For all his insistence that he bases his actions on scripture, Roy Moore is as anti-Christian a politician as has ever occupied a space on an American ballot--as is his sponsor and chief campaigner, President Donald J. Trump. Evangelical leaders turn blind eyes to the daily misbehavior of their corrupt champions, ignoring the hateful tweetstorms, the adultery and sexual abuse, the careless throwing around of nuclear threats, the dismantling of government programs that care for children and the elderly, that sum up the platforms and identities of these monsters. All that matters is that they will enact the reactionary throwback agenda of America's theocrats.

It's leading some in the evangelical community to walk back from the word "evangelical." Believing, as the Bible teaches them, that they are called to open-hearted love, rather than bigoted rejection of the other, they are opting to call themselves simply "Christian"--and not in the way Jack Phillips uses the word. They are also coming to find the Republican party, once the champion of evangelicalism, to be an uncomfortable place to faithful persons with integrity.

The Christians I admire have big hearts and open minds. They know that the morality of another person is a matter best left to that person and to God. The humble ones even acknowledge, with fear and trembling, that they could turn out to be wrong about homosexuality, just as their Southern ancestors were wrong about slavery. And when someone whose sexual orientation is different from their own walks into their place of business and puts some money on the counter, they provide them with the same quality of service they give to anyone.

It's not just that Jesus would bake the damn cake. It's that anyone who claims to be a Christian, and operates a cake shop, would bake the damn cake.

Here's hoping the Supreme Court agrees.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Bending Toward Justice

Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. 
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
These words come from a sermon by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian Minister, Transcendentalist, and Abolitionist. They first saw print in a collection of sermons published in 1853, and, quoted by essayists, preachers, and politicians, were ultimately boiled down to this aphorism: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." In that form, the quote found its way into the sermons of many a preacher of the social justice era, culminating in Martin Luther King, Jr. There is also an echo of it in these words of Mahatma Gandhi:
When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.
I've been clinging to these thoughts since 2010, the year the brief hope of the Obama election was shattered by the populist movement known as the Tea Party. At its roots, the Tea Party was a reactionary tantrum over the election of this country's first non-white President, coupled with a misperception of how the Great Recession had been precipitated (in a nutshell, not by federal deficits, but by greedy capitalists). The movement was cynically manipulated by the same wealthy elites who had caused the economic collapse in the first place to dilute and over-complicate the two great progressive policies of the Obama administration's first term: the economic stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. Both these policies, once enacted, improved the lives of millions of Americans who had been victimized by the Recession, not to mention by generations of abuse and neglect from the health care industry. Many of their beneficiaries were the same Tea Party protesters who most vehemently opposed them, who went on to, over the course of the next three elections, remove from office the moderate, pragmatic Democratic legislators who'd limited the scope of the programs. Increasingly empowered by these victories, the leaders of the Republican party doubled down on their opposition to anything that originated in the Oval Office, forcing President Obama to impose policies by executive orders that could be all too easily reversed by his successor.

So now we have a President who cannot open his mouth, or apply his thumbs to his phone, without alienating allies, inflaming the most deplorably know-nothing core of his base, and endangering lives; a Supreme Court the majority of which was stolen by Republican delay tactics; a Cabinet of secretaries whose first priority is dismantling the agencies they head up; a Congress that, almost halfway through its biennial session, has yet to pass a significant piece of legislation (whether the fundamentally flawed and abysmally unpopular tax "reform" can survive the reconciliation process remains to be seen); white supremacy groups marching in the streets of university towns; national monuments and wilderness areas opened up to fossil fuel exploitation; nuclear sabre-rattling; a frantically overheated economy that could, at the drop of a Presidential hat, sink into a worse downturn than the one that gave birth to the Tea Party--it's a list that could go on and on. Every day brings new horrors, signs of apocalyptic times that could spell the end of the American experiment, the collapse of the Republic into an authoritarian nightmare, and the ultimate dissolution of the United States, not to mention the post-war international community.

It's very hard, in times such as these, to feel hope, to feel that the arc of the universe bends any way except toward chaos.

And yet, in the last month, I am finding hope in some of the very unraveling that is adding to my despair. I've written recently of my sadness at the fall from grace of a number of political and cultural liberal icons, all of them either being ejected from their positions of power or stepping down in the face of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. This has been especially galling when compared to the apparent ability of conservative politicians to brush off similar accusations, and of the willingness of their most ardent supporters to overlook their depravity. Seeing so many fall--including a number of the most potent voices for progress--I cannot help but grieve, not just at my disappointment in these formerly great men, but in what their collapse means to the cause of progress.

Except--and here's the key point--the downfall of progressive sex abusers is, itself, a sign of progress. It's an ancient piece of wisdom that one cannot remove the mote from another's eye without first extracting the log from one's own; or, as I'm reminded by flight attendants every time I board an airplane, to, in the event of cabin depressurization, put on my own oxygen mask before helping a seatmate. Blinded by my own failings, I have no right to pick at the flaws of an opponent. Unconscious, I can't lift a finger to save the stranger, friend, or loved one beside me.

The tide of sexual abuse has finally turned. Whether it will sweep away the racist pederast seeking an Alabama Senate seat or his buddy, the demented huckster in the Oval Office, remains to be seen; but in the light of what continues to happen in the upper echelons of every sphere of American society, as previously unassailable executives, entertainers, politicians, artists, and more are brought down for behavior that just a few years ago was laughed off and ignored by everyone except its victims, I find hope shining through my tears. This is not the evidence I sought of the truth proclaimed by Parker, Gandhi, and King, but it is evidence nonetheless. And if we can bring down the sexists and molesters, who is to say we cannot do the same with the racists, homophobes, autocrats, oligarchs, and theocrats clinging to power in Washington?

I am hopeful that justice will continue to prevail, one besieged status at a time. I do see the arc bending in the way it must. I see the signs that the tyrants will fall, as they always do. At the same time, though, I tremble; for, as Theodore Parker observed in the second half of the quote--the part not carried over into its more succinct, King- and Obama-embraced version--"Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble." Reading the signs of the times, Parker knew there was a reckoning coming for a young nation that had chosen to postpone the dismantling of slavery. Eight years later, the Civil War began; and, as Charlottesville, the ascension of Roy Moore, and the Presidency of Donald Trump indicate, the wounds laid bare by that conflict are far from healing.

Reading the signs of these times, I find myself feeling very much like Theodore Parker in 1853: the mismanagement of things is accelerating, putting it on a collision course with justice. All the efforts of the Trump movement will ultimately prove futile. Women will step up to claim their share of power, and probably, in the vacuum left by so many men being driven from office, a bit more than their share. At the same time, the shrinking straight white plurality will find its clingy fingers pried away from the levers of power. There will be no more denying that this is a diverse nation, and thought it ought to be governed by diverse leaders. The only question is whether we will arrive at this future civilly, as perpetrators voluntarily step down or are voted out of office, or the hard, bloody way that should cause us all to tremble.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

#TooManyMen Making #TooManyExcuses

A perfect fit.

Birds of a feather, peas in a pod, two putrid tastes that taste even worse together, a match made in the second, fourth, and sixth circles of hell: ex-Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and President Donald J. Trump. The two have so much in common: an utter disregard for common decency, contempt for the U.S. Constitution, the fanatical embrace of the most deplorable segments of the American electorate, a steadfast conviction that the norms and laws of 21st Century American culture do not apply to them, impulsively violating those laws and norms with impunity, and a predilection for accosting, ogling, and fondling attractive women without their consent--including some so young they couldn't legally give it if they wanted to. No wonder Trump has, after weeks of squirming under the counsel of his staff and Congressional allies, enthusiastically endorsed the racist demagogue in his campaign to fill Jeff Sessions's Senate seat. In the process, Trump has dragged the Republican National Committee along with him, bringing its formidable campaign engine to bear in the tight contest. There are even odds that, come January, Republican Senators will again be holding their noses and acceding to the presence of yet another embarrassment into their midst for the sake of advancing their pro-wealth, pro-gun, anti-social-justice agenda. They need Moore's vote to pass their diluvian legislation almost as much as they need Trump's pen to sign it into law, so they'll look the other way as he foams at the mouth about Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, atheists, and anyone else he deems unworthy of being an American. And don't get me started on his increasingly-well-documented history of preying upon teenaged girls.

On second thought, that's the rancid kernel at the heart of this abomination, so yes, let's wade back into the morass of molestation entitlement. This country is having a moment that is becoming a movement, perhaps even an era, as women who have been silent or ignored are coming forward to denounce the impunity with which men have abused them. Many of those men are famous and powerful, but don't think for a moment that this is solely the province of prominence: sexual harassment runs through American culture like mold through blue cheese. It's been present in every walk of life that brings men together in hierarchical relationships with women, not to mention men who work with teenagers and adolescents (and yes, when we talk about the molestation of young adults and children, we have to include boys, as well as girls, as victims).

With the inclusion of those young people--and we have Roy Moore to thank for that, though our President's habit of barging into junior beauty pageant dressing rooms meshes well with Moore's dating preferences--as well as the more aggressive acts of these perpetrators, we enter the land of the illegal. Sexual contact between an adult and a minor is a crime, something Moore, who was a prosecutor at the time he was dating teenagers, should have known well. Alabama laws may have been laxer in the 1970s than they are now, but Moore's predatory behavior was creepy enough that it got him banned from a shopping mall.

In the case of Trump, and of most of the men whose public careers are ending over the allegations that continue to emerge, the behaviors in question probably did not cross any legal lines, though they may have violated workplace codes of conduct. That's been the excuse of many of the perpetrators: "I didn't do anything illegal." When caught breaking professional rules, many have turned to binding arbitration, paying out settlements in exchange for nondisclosure agreements.

If this was just about crime and punishment, we wouldn't be having a national moment that will hopefully signal the dawn of a new era of respect and equality. There could be talk about expanding definitions of sexual assault, and of stiffening penalties for those crimes, and that would be the end of it. But this runs much deeper than drawing lines around certain acts and consigning them to the realm of the criminal justice system. This is about what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior in all realms of life. The ever-growing tide of accusations and revelations of sexual aggression in all walks of life signifies a paradigm shift: women are fed up with brushing off unwanted advances, uninvited groping, and covering up assault for fear of recrimination. Empowered by the public humiliation of so many famous men, women are demanding a complete rewrite of the social code.

The excuses men have so often made--and which many continue to cling to--are providing less and less cover for their boorish conduct. It no longer takes being convicted of a sex crime to lose one's job: simply being accused by enough people can end an entire career. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, John Conyers, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, James Levine, Garrison Keillor, on and on and on the list grows of men discovering boundaries they once took for granted have retroactively shifted, and yes, they are accountable for actions they had previously believed would be consequence-free. In some cases, these may even be acts they have forgotten they committed. I was reminded yesterday of details I had completely forgotten about a minor trauma--the loss, then recovery, of a family pet--that occurred 38 years ago. I can imagine the same is even more true of persons in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.

It may seem harsh to demand the resignation of a statesman like Al Franken for acting in ways consistent with men of his generation so long ago that he has difficulty remembering his sins--especially when one considers what a force for good he has been since entering politics. And yet, the women he touched, kissed, badgered into doing things they really didn't want to do, but felt they could not say "no" to, deserve some semblance of justice. Reparations, restitution, restoration, redemption, whatever you call it, there must be consequences. Going on with their lives, continuing to pretend or deny that anything happened, that there should be no loss of esteem or power as a result of abuse, is simply no longer acceptable.

This is what makes this a watershed: these powerful men are being judged based on the acceptability, rather than the legality, of their actions. This sets a higher bar than statute alone, and Republicans embrace its application to the opposition party at their own risk. It's why conservative cretins like Moore and Trump have chosen outright denial as their response to the large numbers of women accusing them of sexual misconduct: just as with the rapid embrace of same-gender relationships, the American ethos is turning, almost overnight, against masculine sexual aggressiveness. Trump has recently been denying it was even his voice on the infamous Access Hollywood tape--in effect, retracting the apology he made in October, 2016, when the tape was released. Behavior voters were willing to forgive just a year ago is, in the wake of the ongoing revelations of male sexual transgression, now considered unacceptable by even the voters of deep-red Alabama, where voters rejected arguments that Roy Moore's underage predation was nominally legal at the time it took place; hence the shift to accusing every single victim of lying, regardless of the evidence she speaks the truth.

The Trump legal and PR teams' efforts to mitigate the Russia scandal have followed also stressed, especially as earlier denials have been revealed to be outright untruths, that collusion is not in and of itself a crime. In doing so, they make impeachment even more essential to correcting the insult to the body politic that is the Trump regime: the framers created impeachment as a corrective to "high crimes and misdemeanors," sins against the state that need not fall under the rule of statutory law. Acting in ways that undermine the republic, including colluding with a foreign power to dilute an opponent's voter base, make Trump's ascent to the Presidency in and of itself a high crime. The unacceptability of his actions as a candidate parallels that of his misogynistic, opportunistic assault on women, and establish the criteria for how American society needs to handle future assaults by powerful men not just on women, but on society itself.