Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Letter to Red America

Embedded

Dear Red America,

This is really hard to write.

How about we start with the good things? Yes, that's it; remembering the good times makes everything feel better.

Remember how thrilling it was when we first got together? We had something huge in common: big dreams of independence, founding a new republic, and we knew neither of us could do it solo. We needed each other. So we came together, hammered out some vows, and announced to the world that we were now in a relationship.

We knew from the beginning that we were not the same, that we had to make allowance for differences, find ways to balance the power in the relationship. Some of the compromises seemed minor at the time: we of the Blue states had more people, and in a simple democracy, should've had more power; but you made it clear from the beginning that you were not willing to give up some of your more peculiar practices, and if we wanted this relationship to work, we had to concede power to you.

That was hard on us. Deep down, we knew what you wanted was paradoxical, an affront to all the ideals we'd put into those vows. How could we in one moment declare ourselves a democracy and, in the next, allow ourselves to treat millions of human beings as property?

But we also knew that we needed you, desperately. So we made the compromise, built a glaring contradiction right into the heart of our relationship, let you keep your peculiar institution, even gave you more of a say in which individual would lead the republic.

And this, dear Red states, is where we have to confess something:those compromises that helped us hang together in the beginning weren't worth it.

You realized this long before we did. In fact, you were the first to ask for a divorce. We fought you over that, fought hard, beat you into submission with our superior numbers and technology. In the end, you made a lot of concessions. And now, after all those years of looking the other way, we forced you to acknowledge the paradox. We took away your beloved peculiarity, made you not just treat those you had enslaved as human beings, but permit some of them to have power of you as elected officials. To make sure you treated them appropriately, we occupied you with our Blue troops.

Oh, how you hated us for that. We were forcing this marriage on you now, requiring you to be democratic in ways you never wanted. But we hoped that, in time, you'd get used to these changes, learn to live with these millions of new citizens, accept them as neighbors rather than cattle.

But you never did. At every opportunity, you undermined our reforms, attacked our troops, terrorized the liberated former slaves. After ten years of trying to reconstruct our relationship with you in our own idealistic image, we pulled back and gave you your space: for the most part, it was back to the original compromise.

That was a hard pill for us to swallow, but if we hadn't, we couldn't have grown as much as we did. Together, we expanded, grew in wealth and power. We spread to the far side of our continent, acquiring wondrous new territory that was mind-bogglingly beautiful. Of course, there were already people living there, just as there had been in the first states we colonized.

And this is where the rot of those early compromises really took hold: if we could live with you Red staters enslaving people of one color, then why not subjugate and slaughter people of a different color who stood in the way of our expansion? Oh, we told ourselves we were civilizing them, evangelizing them with the gospel of Progress; but in truth, we were committing the same sins our colonizing parents made when they gave birth to us on these shores.

Looking back over the whole grand sweep of our history gather, it's horribly clear to us that our relationship was never conceived in liberty. Mortal sin was at the root of our union: genocide, slavery. We compounded those sins by pretending we could moderate them, pretty them up with ethics, treaties, and laws, but we always knew those were just delaying tactics. The time would come when we would have to pay for what we'd done.

Half a century ago, we realized we could no longer live with the contradictions. The people you'd continued to subjugate had had enough. They'd been denied the protections and rights of the Constitution for a hundred years after being ostensibly grandfathered in, and they were having no more of it. And we Blues agreed. Many of us came down into Red territory to help with the cause. We were able to bring it about without declaring war this time, but there were still troops involved.

You didn't like it, but we insisted. And we'd learned our lesson: some things ought not be compromised.

For fifty years, we've worked at it, holding true to the principles we all agreed to in those first days of our relationship: all people are equal, all people have rights, and the first task of government is protecting those rights. We know it's been hard on you Reds: you hated giving equal protection and representation to the descendants of the people you'd enslaved. You weren't happy about giving women control over their bodies, or letting them work alongside you as equals. You didn't like making amends to the first nations from whom we took this land, or to the citizens of Japanese descent we'd put in concentration camps during the Second World War. You especially didn't like extending rights to people whose sexual preferences differ from your own.

And what you hated most: deep down, you knew we were right. Because you signed on with us, at the beginning, to the principle that all are created equal. 

Which brings us to now, and this horrible thing you've done to our union.

You've used those rotten old compromises as a loophole, and taken total control of the nation. And we've let you do it, because from the beginning, our first principle, even more important to us than democracy, has been holding the country together. Oh, we don't like it: how you did it was sneaky, underhanded, dishonest, a perversion of democracy; but you followed the rules we agreed to from the beginning, so we've got no choice. Secession has never been part of our playbook.

And oh, how you're rubbing our faces in it. It feels like you're throwing it all back in our faces, marking up the Constitution with a Sharpie, crossing out the things you don't like, rewording them to mean the opposite of what we all agreed to, and demanding that we go along with it. 

And what can we do? We've worked so hard, for so long, to keep this country together, to make it a great nation, an example to the world. You've fought us every step of the way, but we never gave up on you, never let go of our dream that someday, we could become a paradise of freedom for everyone, and could do it together.

But maybe we can't. Maybe we were wrong when we forced you to stay with us. Maybe we should've let you go your own way as the Confederacy, clinging to slavery, and let it takes its natural course, the way it did in Haiti, where the slaves rose up and brutally slaughtered their former masters. 

But we didn't. And now, all these years later, we're paying the consequences of that decision to stay together, no matter what the cost. 

And oh, that cost. We're in for some very expensive years.

Which is why, dear Red America, we're finally beginning to question the union.

You're probably not taking us seriously. You think you can have your raunchy frat party in Washington, go back to treating women, immigrants, people of color, gay and trans people, as objects rather than people, and get away with it.

You're wrong. We haven't fought this long and this hard to make this country truly great for us to just surrender to the first fascist to take office. We'll keep fighting you, insisting that equal means equal, that no, you don't get to be more equal than anyone else.

And just in case you think you can roll back the Constitution all by yourselves, take a look at the map at the top of the page, and ask yourself how much of a nation you'd be without us.

One more thing, Red America, and you really need to pay attention: some of us, especially here on the West Coast, have had enough of you, and want a divorce.

Remember how horrible things got when you were the ones wanting out of the union? Remember how much blood was spilled over it? Do you really want to go there again?

Think about it. Please.

In love and sadness,

Blue America

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Somehow It Came

Image may contain: 1 person, christmas tree and indoor
A first for this family.

Somehow it came.

To Scrooge, to the Grinch, and even to curmudgeonly me: Christmas came, and not a moment too soon. It's been a season, a year, a decade of growing ugliness, of good will becoming as endangered as summer ice in the Arctic.

I could write of the ironic rightness of the way Americans have come to celebrate the birth of a poor child in a small Middle Eastern village, occupied by a global superpower, by spending billions of dollars on gewgaws and tchotchkes, screaming at each other over parking places at shopping malls, fighting tooth, nail, and bullet over perceived bargains and limited-availability toys, and how this so-very-American holiday has hegemonized so much of the rest of the world, drowning out far more appropriate traditions of generosity and piety--but I've done that. In fact, I've been doing that for most of my adult life.

And I don't want to, because in some inexplicable, mysterious way, Christmas has gotten under my skin this year, and become what I always wanted it to be.

As a child, I loved Christmas, yet almost always found it disappointing. Peanuts summed up my feelings perfectly, as Lucy complained of her "post-Christmas letdown." For children, there is an enormous buildup to the day and, much more specifically, to the moment at which the wrapping paper is shredded and the payoff proves to never measure up to the expectations: Santa didn't bring everything on the list, and even if he did, having is never as satisfying as wanting. (An insight I have Mr. Spock to thank for.)

Add to that the stress that so often issues from the adults in the room. We who are parents want so desperately to duplicate for our children the wonder we remember from our own childhood experience of Christmas that we go to extremes, making last minute Christmas Eve visits to Toys R Us (shudder), assembling complicated gadgets well past midnight, struggling out of bed on just a few hours' sleep when the children can't bear to stay in their own beds a minute longer, even though it's still dark outside. Our grownup post-Christmas letdown grows out of the materialistic gift-opening orgy we watch, and it's so rarely seasoned with gratitude (and why should it be? We've carefully nurtured the belief that all these goodies come from a magic elf rather than ourselves.), that the thinly-veiled disappointment in our children's eyes can sour even the merriest parent's Christmas spirit.

Children are sensitive to such things. I remember many a Christmas when the stress my parents were experiencing colored my own feelings toward the day, something that carried over into my efforts to make the day special for my own children.

And then came the tragedies: a sister-in-law driving into a tree a week before Christmas 1993, setting in motion the turbulent year that culminated, two weeks before Christmas 1994, in the end of my first marriage. The most selfish thing we did in the divorce was make the children spend Christmas Eve with one parent, Christmas day with the other. The sins of the parents were visited upon the children year after year, as at some point on Christmas day they had to leave all their gifts behind and travel to the home of the other parent. We told ourselves we were doing it for the children, so that they didn't have to spend the holiday without both parents, but in fact, we forced them to relive the trauma of the divorce, year after year, on a day that was supposed to be for them, not us.

I wasn't just inflicting the trauma: I was feeling it. The years that I had to hand off the children to my ex-wife on Christmas morning, I felt myself torn asunder.

Once the children were moved to Idaho, the Christmas day handoff was rendered moot. Winter break was one of the only times I could see my children during the school year, but now we found ourselves needing to get reacquainted. So much was going on outside my sphere of influence or even awareness that I struggled to understand the people they were becoming.

Those children are grown now, and I don't always see them at Christmas. In years when they're not with me, it's been important for me not to be alone on the holiday; fortunately, I have plenty of family and friends around to help with that. Much better, though, is that this will be the eighth Christmas I will spend with Amy. As our relationship has matured into commitment and marriage, we've found ways to celebrate this holiday together, with or without children, including, when we're able, traveling to someplace warmer and/or dryer than the Willamette Valley tends to be at this time of year.

This year, though, is different from all the Christmases that came before. It's my 56th Christmas. There are two kids in the house: Amy's children, Alex and Sarah. There's a Christmas tree in our house--something we've been doing since we moved in here in 2012--and underneath it, presents. In a few minutes, the house will awaken, and we'll have a breakfast of coffee cake and scrambled eggs, followed by the opening of gifts. The day we will be spent baking treats for the Anderson family celebration on Tuesday. And at 9:00 tonight, I'll go to the airport to pick up my daughter, Sarah, who is pregnant with my first grandchild.

It's been 22 years since the Christmas I spent weeping over a collapsing marriage, high time I finally had a chance at the holiday I always hoped it could be. But there's another factor at work this year: it's just six weeks since I began weeping over the collapse of democracy in this country. It's more important than it's ever been that this year, Christmas be a time of generosity, peace, and love, a witness against the selfishness projecting from Trump Tower.

And here's my Christmas miracle: I feel hope this morning. It's not just the anticipation of finally doing Christmas right. It's how long it took for me to get here. Year after year, decade after decade, Christmas let me down, sometimes in horribly traumatic ways. And yet, I never gave up on it. There were years I hardly noted its passing at all; in fact, for the last two, it really was just another day, in the middle of a trip to another place. Somehow this year, though, everything has come together. There will be warmth, and generosity, and love. We will celebrate, eat, sing, play together. There will be a father-and-child reunion tonight, a larger reunion on Tuesday. And I'm feeling it: this Grinch's heart is growing three sizes today.

Somehow, it came. Despite all the ugliness in the world, it came. After so many years of darkness, light is shining in my skeptical heart.

This is a dark, ugly time for our country and the world. A demagogue carelessly rants about a new arms race, threatens to deport millions of people, encourages expressions of racism and sexism by his followers, and in a few weeks, will have more power than any human (even a very good one) should. There will be many terrible things that happen because of this, and it was quite appropriate to fear for the continued existence of this nation as a democracy. We may be in the dark for a very long time.

Here's where the preacher in me kicks in: if Christmas can come for me after so many years without really feeling it, then it can come for this nation, too. I don't know how long it will take, but I do believe the light will shine in the darkness descending on this country. Peace will return, broken relationships will heal, a spirit of generosity will again open our doors, and we will declare ourselves finished with the trauma that has too long spoiled this day for so many.

That starts with us making each of our homes a haven for good will. For me and mine, it means making this Christmas day a miraculous, generous time that empowers us to make every day miraculous and generous. That can be true for you, as well.

May Christmas come into your heart and world today.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

This Isn't Science Fiction

Cover art depicting the Mule from a paperback edition of Foundation and Empire.

“The laws of history are as absolute as the laws of physics, and if the probabilities of error are greater, it is only because history does not deal with as many humans as physics does atoms, so that individual variations count for more.” 
― Isaac AsimovFoundation and Empire

In 1973, Isaac Asimov changed my life.

I was that most pitiful of adolescent types, a lonely nerd in search of a passion. I was mercilessly bullied by my seventh grade peers, had no close friends, and had only recently lost my interest in playing with action figures, but had yet to find anything to take the place of them. I had a knack for writing and some modest musical talent, but neither of these pursuits had become a passion for me yet. My hatred for sports (it was always pre-empting my favorite Saturday morning cartoons) meant I had little in common with other boys my age. As a whole, then, my life was miserable.

Then came the miracle: the public library moved into a brand new building across the street from my father's church in Emmett, Idaho, and Dad suggested I go in and ask for a job. I don't remember any of the details of how this came to pass, but somehow I landed the position of paperback exchange organizer. Every day after school, I'd walk to the library and sort the books on the exchange shelves, an honor-system area of the library where patrons swapped books with each other. I created my own system, grouping books by genres and, within genres, alphabetizing them by author. In payment, I took an occasional book home for myself. One of the first I took was The Naked Sun, a science fiction detective novel by Isaac Asimov. I'm not sure whether it was the provocative title (Naked! Ooh!), the cover art (a man's head with some skin removed to reveal circuitry underneath), or the plot summary that drew me to the book, but once I began reading it, I was hooked.

I'd already been watching Star Trek in syndicated reruns for years, and had loved Lost In Space when I was younger, so it's not as if I was new to science fiction. But there was something about Asimov's writing that grabbed me, and continue to do so throughout my teenage years and well into adulthood. Asimov's writing was style was unsophisticated, his dialogue stilted, and his characters more archetypes than living people--all things I was chagrined to discover in my 40s when I began rereading the Foundation series, long acclaimed as the greatest multi-volume work in science fiction history--but he had a gift for creating worlds that made sense and, more than that, for understanding the enormous forces at work in human history, and projecting them forward into our distant future. In the 1970s, though, I didn't care about any of that--not the lack of literary skill, nor the deeper meaning behind Asimov's plots. What I knew was I had found myself in these books. I was, and always would be, a science fiction nerd.

Those Foundation books--a series originally written as short stories and novellas in the 1940s and 1950s, supplemented and filled out in the 1980s as Asimov neared the end of his life--are to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Perhaps without ever realizing he was doing it, Asimov created a political allegory that has become truer with each succeeding generation. And suddenly today, for the first time in a decade (that reread I mentioned earlier took place in 2006), I find I can't stop thinking about them.

Foundation takes place tens of thousands of years in the future. Humanity has colonized the Milky Way, which is now ruled by a Galactic Empire. At the height of the Empire's golden age, a social scientist named Hari Seldon sees troubling trends developing, leading him to create a new science he calls psychohistory. By analyzing sociological and political data, and working it into a general field theory, Seldon is able to predict long term trends. He realizes the Empire is due for a collapse, and that this will be followed by 10,000 years of chaos. He also theorizes that, by creating a secret enclave of thinkers called the Foundation, he can limit the damage of the impending Dark Age to a single millennium.

Several hundred years later, all of Seldon's predictions have come true. The Empire has fallen, and much of the galaxy has reverted to primitive cultures and technologies. Like the great library of Alexandria, the Foundation is holding on, continuing to make progress in the physical sciences. Somewhere else in the Galaxy, a Second Foundation works in secret to guide social trends. Seldon's plan seems to be on track: civilization is making a comeback, and a new, more enlightened empire will rise from the ashes of the old one.

Enter the Mule.

Seldon's equations were all big-picture science, making no allowance for the impact one extraordinary individual could have on galactic trends. The Mule is just such an individual: a charismatic leader who can manipulate the emotions of entire star systems, creating a new empire before the galaxy is ready for it. His movement is brutal and fascistic. As an individual, he is both cunning and mercurial. He has no appreciation for subtlety. He succeeds in conquering the Foundation, and harnesses its advanced technology to expand his hegemony across the galaxy.

I am far from the first blogger to find parallels between the Mule and Donald Trump. But I'm seeing something much deeper than just the disruptive presence of a uniquely gifted individual: remembering the themes of Foundation is helping me cope with the imminent collapse of American exceptionalism.

There was a time when I was absolutely caught up in the greatness of this country. I saw the trends in our history leading us as a people toward equity and inclusion. Even with the setback of the Reagan/Bush years, I felt like we were ultimately on the right track: a beacon of democracy to the rest of the world, a big-hearted, generous country that embraced people of all ethnicities and creeds, and would, in just a matter of years, get over its obsession with sexual purity to become more welcoming to LGBTQ people, as well.

Then came the Persian Gulf War, and George H. W. Bush comparing Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler (Hitler came out better in that comparison, by the way). I saw American troops in a fight for "freedom" that was really about protecting oil wells. I saw 100-to-1 kill rations being called "just war." And I saw millions of Americans going along with it, waving flags, turning yellow ribbons into jingoistic symbols of American victory, and I was disgusted by the entire spectacle.

Bush was followed by Clinton. Things looked up for awhile--perhaps America could, again, be a force for peace--but all that came apart with the hypocritical Gingrich impeachment of a President whose misdeeds paled in comparison to those of his prosecutor. A stolen election, airplanes crashing into towers, a hideously bloody and expensive war with no positive result, eight years of relentless racist obstruction of the sanest President we've ever had, and now an election result that mirrors, on the largest and most significant scale imaginable, what's been happening across Europe: the world republic I dreamed of as a young man is collapsing. At the peak of our technological abilities, our civilization is beginning to crumble.

Some of it is that, as in Foundation, an extraordinary individual has come to power, subverting all the norms that had previously made for more peaceful transitions and to far less stomach-churning swings from left to right and back again. But this Mule did not just arrive on the scene out of a vacuum. The trends have been there all along, the simmering power of the right just waiting for the right demagogue to exploit it.

The question for us, as for Asimov's Foundation, is how long our dark age will last, and what we can do to minimize the damage. How much of the structure of our civilization can we maintain, keep in place, so that when the world finally awakens from its xenophobic nightmare, it has a scaffold upon which to rebuild democracy? That all depends on those of us who can see the bigger picture. If we let go of it--if we give into despair or hatred, secede from the union, hunker down and just try to ride it out--it's going to be a very long time before we're once again making progress toward full inclusion. If, on the other hand, we wade in and get our hands dirty, working to minimize the damage, to care for those who are excluded and persecuted, to maintain the institutions that foster respect and human dignity, and to never, ever stop protesting every single step our new government takes toward the darkness--then maybe, just maybe, we can keep this nation from tipping over into the abyss, and the dark time can be limited to a single election cycle.

Asimov was, after all, writing about an entire galaxy, so of course it was going to take centuries, if not millennia, to restore civilization. The world we're hoping to save is considerably smaller. Yes, it's an entire world; but it's all connected by a single internet, and a determined travel can physically circumnavigate in a day. The trends shifting civilization away from democracy involve hundreds of millions of voters--but there are hundreds of millions more (and, in the case of our most recent debacle, those millions are literally more than the opposition) who, given a chance, will shift their nations back away from nationalism, and toward globalism.

We can bring it back. We must bring it back. The alternative is too dystopian to accept.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Bringing a Handshake to a Grudge Match


A stunt, not a joke: Donald Trump serves up some verbal abuse prior to shaving the head of WWE chairman Vince McMahon, 2007.

"When they go low, we go high." --Michelle Obama, July 26, 2016

Unfortunately, in a cage match, going high means exposing your soft underbelly.

We've all heard and read it so many times in the last six weeks it's getting tiresome: we're grief stricken, horrified, furious, depressed, terrified at what the next four years will do to our nation and our world. How did this happen? Are the American people really that stupid? Is there any way to reverse it? Whose fault is it? Why, why, why, why, why?

There are plenty of answers to that question. We can roll out tired tropes about voter suppression, the rural bias of the electoral college, FBI collusion, Russian influence, inadequate outreach to the working class and evangelicals, the cyclical longing of the American people for change, and on and on and on. But there's another, more sinister and fundamental answer that we of the left ignore at our own peril: we're too damn nice.

I've seen a couple of people talk about how Democrats tend to bring a knife to a gun fight, but that errs in suggesting that Democrats have any interest at all in fighting. Since the beginning of my voting life, Democratic candidates have stubbornly adhered to the principle, cited by Michelle Obama last July and repeatedly by Hillary Clinton for the remainder of the campaign, that no matter how low-down, dirty, unfair, and deceitful the Republican party plays, we will always go high, keeping it polite, fact-based, and as morally superior as a political campaign can hope to be. Jimmy Carter wonked it up while Ronald Reagan played to the crowd with cheesy applause lines. Walter Mondale made the same mistake, and lost even worse to the avuncular face of conservatism. And don't get me started on Michael Dukakis. Bill Clinton had the advantage of running his smooth talking empathy against two awkward play-by-the-rules establishment Republicans, and Al Gore nearly managed to pull off a third term of Democratic governance, only to be shivved by dirty GOP tricks in the Florida recount. John Kerry's high-minded principles couldn't compete with the Bush campaign's smears. Barack Obama succeeded twice thanks to his gifts as a speaker and his excellent ground game--but also was, again, helped out by having establishment Republicans as opponents. Meanwhile, his hopes for remaking Washington as a place of reasonable discourse, where all politicians worked together for the greater good of the nation, foundered on the reality of increasingly partisan Republicans whose only interest was power.

I can back-date my political awareness to before I was old enough to vote, all the way back to the Watergate hearings (before that, I wasn't really paying attention). When I do, I come up with almost 45 years of Democrats being the party of niceness, the party that wants everyone to get along. Democrats reach across the aisle, looking for bipartisan support for their policies. They compromise pragmatically. They avoid slinging mud. In a debate, they talk policy rather than personality. In previous times, this worked: Republicans also believed in civility, and even though they might dirty themselves at times during campaigns, their primary interest in Washington was getting things done, a task achieved much more smoothly when Democrats can be enlisted to co-sponsor legislation, or at least, thanks to negotiated compromises, not to get in its way.

With the ascendence of Newt Gingrich as House minority leader, then Speaker, all that interest in effective, pragmatic leadership was discarded in the interests of ideological purity. Now the dirty tricks kicked in, and things got ugly. The philandering, hypocritical Speaker of the House pushed through an impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with an intern. That was followed by Republican intimidation of election officials and obstructionism in the 1980 Florida recount, ultimately leading the Supreme Court to put a stop to the GOP-generated chaos by stopping the process and effectively handing the election to George W. Bush. Al Gore, true to his Democratic roots, accepted the result for the good of the nation. The consequence of this decision to give in was a decade-long war in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

In 2004, Karl Rove stirred up anti-gay bigotry to turn out evangelical and Catholic voters for Bush, while engineering a smear campaign of "Swift Boat" ads against John Kerry, who took it like a Democrat and lost.

From the moment Barack Obama took office, the Republican minority was scheming to make a failure of his Presidency. Early on, they were handed a potent weapon in the Tea Party movement, a loose collection of angry Americans who weren't sure exactly what they were most angry about (they really didn't want to admit it was the President's race), and who managed to almost derail health care reform. Obama's efforts to build legislation on Republican blueprints resulted in a needlessly complex system that still received no Republican votes, and became a prime target for Republican opposition throughout the rest of his Presidency. Bolstered by gerrymandered success in Congressional elections, GOP obstructionism has become increasingly audacious in the years since, culminating in their refusal to even consider Obama's nomination of a moderate jurist with impeccable Republican credentials to replace Antonin Scalia.

Which brings us, finally, to the grudge match of 2016.

How did Hillary Clinton really lose the election? Take a good look at the picture at the top of this page: that's Donald Trump in 2007, indulging himself in a stunt at a WWE event in which he humiliated the head of the WWE by having him held down while Trump shaved his head. Like all pro wrestling stunts, this was staged--as, I am beginning to suspect, was the entire Trump campaign. The world of pro wrestling always turns my stomach, yet it attracts a huge, rabid following of fans eager to see bodybuilders and their sponsors verbally abusing each other before engaging in violent physical stunts that, were it a genuine competitive wrestling match, would instantly disqualify them. It's all stagecraft: winners and losers are decided ahead of time, as are the arguments that frame the matches. At the same time, there's plenty of improvisation, lending the whole spectacle an air of spontaneity. Which, I'm coming to believe, is exactly how Trump ran his campaign, concealing the artifice of reality TV beneath a thin veneer of outlandish, improvisational speeches and tweets, much of them dedicated to casting aspersions on his opponents.

And Hillary Clinton took it like a Democrat. Which is to say, she just let him have at her, maintaining the brave, civil exterior that made us so proud during the debates, but did nothing to convince Trump's base that she was a better choice to lead the Free World. He never took back any of his lies, just kept piling them on. His own peccadilloes--molestations, broken contracts, slurs against every conceivable segment of the population except under-educated white men--did nothing to blunt his followers' passion for him, nor their belief that, as Trump hyperbolically insisted, the far less significant moral fuzziness of Hillary Clinton constituted treason. To them, Trump was their wrestling hero, Clinton the villain he must defeat in pursuit of the championship.

And that's how Hillary Clinton really lost the election--the same way Jimmy Carter, Walter Monday, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry lost all those other elections; and how Barack Obama gave up his mandate so easily that he was never able to accomplish his true agenda of remaking Washington: by being the adult in a room filled with juvenile delinquents, by going so high that the leader of those delinquents was able to stick a knife in her ribs.

So where is the hope? Are Democrats just going to go on taking it, letting the Trumps of this world break chairs over their heads while they futilely try to reason with the insanity that Republicanism has become?

There was a time when this was not the case, a time when Democrats represented the working class, and were allied with organizations who knew how to fight dirty, who did it because they had to if they were to survive, let alone succeed: labor unions.

Labor unions work on the principle of organization: get enough bodies on the line, resisting the power of the management, and change has to happen. Strikes were the most visible tool of the unions, but they employed many other tactics, some of them morally questionable if not outright illegal, to further the interests of the workers they represented. Making common cause with labor unions was the move that broke the Democratic party from its rural, racist roots and transformed it into the progressive institution it is today.

Unfortunately, labor unions have been in decline ever since the election of Ronald Reagan. Today, only 1/16 of privately employed workers belong to unions, and breaking the power of public employee unions (my own, the National Education Association, is the largest and most powerful) is high on the agenda of every Republican elected to state and national office. Perhaps it is the weakness of unions that has caused the Democratic party to relax its relationship with them, and to seek support from progressive-minded elites instead.

In doing so, Democrats are losing a significant part of their base. Less than 100,000 labor votes, spread across four Rust Belt states, would have handed the election to Hillary Clinton. Those votes belong to workers who have lost their union power, and are now subject to the whims of the market.

Ironically, Barack Obama's rise to power came in large part thanks to his experience as a community organizer, employing the tactics that Saul Alinsky, community organizer par excellence, modified from labor union practices. Progressives have no monopoly on those tactics, either: the Tea Party Movement adopted them and rode them to power, with many of their standard-bearers now being nominated by Donald Trump to positions in his Cabinet.

Community organizing succeeds when politicians realize they cannot further their agendas without the assistance of their constituents--especially if those constituents are willing to put up a fight to block those agendas. It doesn't always have to be a protest--in fact, Alinsky liked to say that the best victories came when the politician acted to avoid a public demonstration--but they have to genuinely believe the only way to avoid a protest is by changing policy.

Democrats know this. Our soon-to-be former President, Barack Obama, came out of this world. But we've been so distracted by the deplorables, wound up by the lies, that we've forgotten who we are: the party of the common American, the party that knows not just how to get Americans working, but how to guarantee they'll do so for a living wage and with reasonable benefits. We need to put our energy into organizing these people who voted for the candidate least likely to promote their interests, solely because he gave (false) voice to their frustration.

Once we've done that, we can step back into the ring with the crowd on our side, and we won't have to go low: our opponent will see he's lost them, and he'll be the one offering a handshake rather than a kick in the 'nads.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rural Roots

Oregon Presidential Election Results 2016.svg
It's a divide as old as civilization.

A town mouse paid a visit to her country cousin, who served her a traditional country dinner. The city mouse turned up her nose at the humble cuisine, telling her cousin, "You should come visit me in town. You'd be blown away by how rich the food is." The country mouse took her up on the offer, and found that the food was every bit as delicious as her cousin had promised. Of course, this being a town, there were dogs roaming the streets, one of which chased the mice into a hole. "The hell with this!" said the country mouse. "No fancy city food is worth becoming a meal for one of those monsters!" And with that, she headed for home.

Aesop told the story 2600 years ago, but he drew on traditions already ancient in his time. Humans first began to practice agriculture 12,000 years ago. It took another 6000 years for villages to evolve into the first cities. At every stage in the process, there must have been conflicts: hunter/gatherers contending with their pastoralist cousins, who in turn found themselves at odds with the tradespeople congregating in villages, who for their part found the larger urban centers places of iniquity and danger. Meanwhile, people in those urban centers were developing new ways of relating to each other. Networks of trade, municipal services, affinity groups, higher education, cultural expression, religious institutions, and over it all, government: all these innovations contributed to the urban identity as more sophisticated than its rural equivalent.

And that's how Donald Trump got elected.

Whoops, I left something out: the electoral college.

The electoral college is one of the many quirks of American Constitutional democracy. Like so many other American quirks, this one originated as a compromise to bring the country together. From its very foundations, the United States was a nation of nations, thirteen colonies, each with its own identity, with one thing in common: a desire to divorce themselves from the British Empire. Individually, none could have succeeded, but working together, they pulled it off. Then came the far greater challenge of making that initial miraculous victory permanent. The newly independent states bickered for years, initially under Articles of Confederation but then, when that proved too chaotic, by cooperatively drafting and ratifying a Constitution. The states were still at odds with each other: in a pure democracy, the more urban states of New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania would have had more power than their rural counterparts simply by virtue of their higher populations; meanwhile, the more rural southern states created the raw materials that drove the new American economy, and were terrified that urban northerners would end the peculiar institution of slavery that made them so productive. It would take a massive compromise to unite these states, and that compromise was the electoral college. It vested electoral power not in a pure count of the vote, but in a set number of electors for each state, determined by the number of their members of Congress. The system was promoted as a buffer between an under-educated electorate and the nation's highest office: electors would be political savants who could correct a bad decision by the voters they represented, reversing it to keep a corrupt populist out of office. But it never functioned in that way (and certainly didn't yesterday), as the vast majority of electors simply went with the majority of voters in their states.

Practically, the electoral college has had the effect of diluting the urban vote and strengthening the rural vote. In most elections, this has not made a real difference in the ultimate victor. There are, however, notable exceptions, of which none is more notable than yesterday's result.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. No matter how Trump's toadies spin the result, 3 million more people voted for Clinton than for Trump. Unfortunately, most of those people lived in California and New York. So she won the states with large cities by huge margins. Meanwhile, she lost several rural states by much smaller margins. Trump eked out a lopsided (though nowhere near landslide) electoral map victory. It's an ugly victory, a victory built on America's fastest-shrinking cohort: a white working class that, in just a few years, will become a minority.

I've written a lot in the last month about the ugly things that election says about America, and I'm far from finished. For the remainder of this essay, though, I'm going to go back to those mice.

Take another look at the map of Oregon at the top of this page. It breaks down the 2016 Presidential election by county. The darker the color, the larger the majority for Clinton (blue) or Trump (red). There's no getting around the fact that Clinton's votes were concentrated in the northwest corner of the state. The purest Clinton vote is in a single county: Multnomah, home of Portland. Hood River and Benton counties come next, Hood River by virtue of the arts colony from which it gets its name, Benton thanks to the presence of OSU and the progressive small city of Corvallis. The left-wing paradise of Eugene, though, is not enough to darken Lane county beyond a very light blue; and Washington county, where I live, is similarly light in its blueness.

What can we learn from this map? That there are a hell of a lot of country mice in Oregon, and the city scares the bejeezus out of them.

I've been hearing about this divide for as long as I've been an Oregonian. As a high school and college student, I remember my classmates speaking disparagingly of Portland, and how unfair it was that this one city had so much power over the rest of the state. I heard more about this from my parishioners when I returned to Oregon as a rural minister: the Methodists in Portland have far too much say in how we do things here at Podunk UMC, they'd tell me. This rural resentment for Portland led to the movement, dating back at least to 1941, for southern Oregon and northern California to secede from their respective states and create a new, more conservative state called Jefferson.

I grew up in small towns in California, New Hampshire, Idaho, and, finally, Oregon. I remember traveling with my parents to visit cities and feeling overwhelmed by their scope and complexity. Boise felt huge to me, Portland mind-bogglingly enormous. These were frightening places marked by heavy traffic, crowded sidewalks, and criminal activity. It was so easy to get lost, to wander into a scary part of town. I knew I didn't belong, and worse, knew that the predators around me could tell that about me. It was just a matter of time until I was victimized, swindled, mugged.

That was me before Dallas. Prior to beginning seminary in 1985, the largest city I'd actually lived in was Salem, Oregon (population in 1980: 89,233), where I attended college. I'd visited bigger cities, even driven some in Portland, but none of that had prepared me for life in a real city.

Dallas changed me. It was huge, busy, frantic, and had no patience for the tentative driving manners of a hick like me. I had to adapt if I was to survive: none of my many off-campus jobs was accessible by Dallas's ridiculously inferior public transportation system. I also discovered that big cities have more cultural opportunities than even a big town like Salem can provide. Three years after starting seminary, I moved to England for two years of ministry in a suburb of Manchester. Now I had old European cities to explore, cities that had not been as intentionally engineered as American cities. Take a wrong turn in Edinburgh, and you can't count on a street grid to get you back on course. I came to find this chaotic infrastructure charming, wondering what the original purpose of an ancient road had been that led it to wind so haphazardly around a community.

Coming back to Oregon was a return to my youthful roots: once again, I was living in small towns, enjoying the cozy familiarity of rural life. Except I didn't really enjoy it: whenever I could, I headed into town to shop, eat out, take an urban run. Portland, I now realized, was not that big a city after all, and its street grid made it easily navigable. Better yet, I now knew, Portland's political identity was much more attuned to my own than that of any small town could ever be. I was transitioning from country mouse to city mouse, and I liked it. No, scratch that: I loved it. Sometime around 2001, I realized I was no longer a small town boy: I belonged in the city.

Since then, I've lived in and out of the Portland city limits. While I technically have a Portland address now, my home is actually located in unincorporated Washington county, in an area that is being transformed by developers from farmland into suburban neighborhoods. It's still easy to get from my street into the country, but that won't last. There's a lot of earth being moved on Kaiser Road these days, as farm after farm is transformed into residential properties.

The continued presence of those farms is what has kept Washington county light blue. A map breaking down the county by precinct shows some of them to be as bright red as any county in eastern Oregon. I don't have to travel far to be in the presence of country mice, and to see the signs they put up on their property decrying the development going on all around them. They're afraid of the future, and any candidate who promises to preserve or, better yet, restore the rural life they used to know is going to receive their vote.

That's the ancient divide that still dictates politics not just in my county and state, but in the country as a whole. We can talk about scrapping the electoral college; we may even someday find a way to do it; but that will not eliminate the reality that some mice belong in the country, others in the city. As a rural pastor, I served people who spent their entire lives within a few miles of their birthplace. They were suspicious of the city, terrified of its busy complexity, and quite content with the handful of retail and service choices in the county seat. There was no need to drive into the city.

Washington, Oregon, California: none of these states gave a single electoral vote to Donald Trump. And yet, all three of them share the divisions of the nation as a whole. It's why we can't really break away and form a liberal ecotopia. Too much of the bounty that makes our economies boom is produced by our rural counties, places that are, by and large, quite happy with the result of the 2016 election. If we're going to move forward as a region, let alone as a nation, we've got to find a way to bridge this divide, to get mice of every persuasion to mutually appreciate one another.

It's not going to happen if we continue to demonize the opposition, to belittle them from our lofty culturally elite perches. We've got to get in touch with our common humanity, our shared concern for the wellbeing of those we know and love. We've got to listen to them as they share their fears and insecurities with us, empathize with them over the trauma of widespread rural drug abuse, acknowledge that not all urbanization is good. Perhaps we can find common ground in the ground itself: most of the most beautiful parts of Oregon and, beyond this state, the United States of America are in regions that voted very solidly for Donald Trump.

I love those places. I want to be able to go on visiting them without becoming furious every time I see a Trump bumper sticker or baseball cap.

But it goes deeper than that: as much as I love living in the city, my roots are in the country. Those are my people. I belong there, among them. And no hate-spewing developer turned politician is going to take that away from me.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Unpresidented


Too soon!


As in so many other things, Donald Trump has defined the impending era for us via Twitter.

Trump was commenting on an incident involving an American drone submarine being impounded by the Chinese navy. He called it "unpresidented." The tweet was later corrected to read "unprecedented," and there's at least a chance Trump knew that was the correct word, and just slipped up and used a nonexistent homophone instead, something I've done myself in the heat of passioante writing (both with a keyboard and a pen). Merriam Webster spun it into a "not" joke with its own tweet, saying "unpresidented" was NOT the word of the day, as that honor was reserved for the word "huh." Social media seized on the neologism, and it's been everywhere, as the nation tries to come to grips with what's going to happen on January 20.

The scrambling to correct the Freudian slip--and the ironic glee with which it's been welcomed by those of us already weeping over the loss of the classiest White House family in modern history--speak to me of a deeper significance to this word. As a candidate and as president-elect, Donald Trump has been acting consistently to redefine the presidency as both more powerful and less competent than what the nation and the world need. Since the United States first emerged as a superpower with its entry into World War I a century ago, the office of the American presidency has epitomized power restrained by the rule of law. American presidents command the world's most powerful military force, oversee the world's largest economy, implement and originate policies that impact every human being on the planet, and speak with a moral authority accorded to no other world leader. Much of that authority comes from the most unique aspect of the office: it is temporary. With the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, no American President has held the office for more than eight years; and no President has seen fit to question this term limit, made permanent by Constitutional amendment in 1951.

There are other limits on the length of a President's time in office, most notably the ability of the American people to elect someone else after four years. Barring that, or in the event of the voters somehow choosing a candidate who endangers the nation and planet through corruption or incompetence, there is the release valve of impeachment.

In times of national sanity, there has been great comfort in both the electoral limit and the impeachment correction. Incompetent Confederacy-appeaser Andrew Johnson's disastrous post-Lincoln Presidency was reined in by the threat of impeachment. Chronic power-abuser Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was actually impeached (which means not removal from office, but indictment by Congress, with removal only occurring after a trial) for lawyerly obfuscation over a sex scandal. That show trial ended with Congress censoring Clinton. Disgusted voters dealt the Republican party serious blows in the following election, but also gave Al Gore too insignificant a majority to defeat George W. Bush; and the bad smell of that experience was one of the many factors keeping Hillary Clinton from winning outright in November.

I'd like to think that these three institutional brakes on Presidential abuse will protect our nation and planet from the apocalypse so many of my friends fear. Unfortunately, as effective as they have been in altering the course of presidential history, every one of them depends on an utterly unreliable force: the wisdom of those casting votes.

Let's start with what is indisputably both the most powerful and weakest link in this equation. In 1973, Congress acted honorably, in a bipartisan manner, to investigate the increasingly disturbing reports of Nixonian malfeasance in the 1972 campaign. Democrats and Republicans worked together to correct an electoral mistake, the reelection of an amoral, paranoid liar who was abusing the office for his own advancement and legacy. Republicans, in particular, chose the welfare of the nation over that of their party, and suffered the consequences in subsequent elections.

Not so the Republican Congress of 1998. Under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, the House in particular was out for blood. Republicans in the Senate acted more cautiously, choosing censorship over removal, but the die had been cast: since the Clinton impeachment, Congressional Republicans have refused to cooperate with Democrats, no matter how vital that cooperation is to the nation's welfare. Again and again, the GOP has chosen furtherance of its most extreme agenda, protection of its control of Congress and the White House at any cost, and obstruction of even the most bipartisan of Democrat-proposed policies. Republicans may claim to be protectors of the Constitution, but for two decades now their actions have belied that claim: they are, first and foremost, protectors of their party, to the detriment of true democracy. Considering what impeaching Nixon cost the Republicans of the 1970s, it's hard to imagine any action by President Trump, however unprecedentedly heinous, that would lead this Congress to impeach him.

That leaves us with the release valve of the 2020 election. Sadly, here, too, the human race must rely on an extremely shaky defender. The Trump campaign played a brilliant confidence game, worthy of the most gifted pool shark, convincing the nation its ground game was so incompetent that it could not possibly win the election--and then pulled it off by cobbling together an electoral college win, picking off just a few previously reliable blue states, even as it lost the popular tally by nearly 3 million votes. This shouldn't have happened: Trump's obvious exaggerations and outright lies; his disregard for immigrants, women, persons of color; his gilded lifestyle; his basic boorishness--all these things should have dealt him an even greater popular defeat, great enough to cost him those few swing states. The problem with that "should" is that it depends on enough swing voters being intelligent enough to 1) show up and 2) make the right decision. But that's not what happened: too many Rust Belt swing voters fell for the lies, both about the character of Hillary Clinton and about the fantasy of what Donald Trump could do for them. Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign just couldn't close the deal with these same voters.

It's the perennial problem with democracy as a method for choosing leaders: it relies on voters being both well-informed and wise. Some, perhaps many, are; but a large enough plurality vote with their guts that this nation has had, in my lifetime, to endure the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and, now, Donald J. Trump. That's a lot of years of governance by persons who are not dedicated to the common good, unless it incidentally occurs while they lavish attention on the 1%.

To put it more simply: we can't count on these voters to know what's best for them or for their country, and that's why we can't be sure they'll do the right thing in 2020.

That's why so many of us are despondent as we contemplate the future. It's not just that we didn't get the President we wanted--and to be honest, Hillary Clinton would not have been able to accomplish much (except possibly saving the Supreme Court from a right-wing extremist majority, but even that was called into question by the abomination that was the Senate's treatment of Merrick Garland). No, it's that we're looking at the possibility that rather than an administration, we're on the verge of being governed by a regime, and none of the Constitutional checks and balances can prevent it from clumsily laying waste to all that we hold dear. Donald Trump will not be a President in the mold of any President any of us can remember. Every day brings appointments to the Cabinet that should be jokes on late night TV, flurries of nutty tweets from the reactor-in-chief, and new revelations about the role of Russian intelligence in swaying those ignorant swing voters to elect a monster. All the things the Presidency is supposed to be about--thoughtful diplomacy, moral leadership, respect for the Bill of Rights, governance by the rule of law--are being discarded by him, and his followers don't care.

There's no better word for this than the one Trump accidentally made up: we as a nation are about to be completely and utterly unpresidented.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Lessons from the Worst Commute of My Life


No automatic alt text available.
One hour into my commute, I learned it had barely begun.

Strangely enough, I foresaw this in a dream.

In the dream, I was on I-5, headed south from downtown. For the first minute, it looked like I had the highway to myself. Then I saw the brake lights: traffic was completely stopped. I consulted my phone, looking for an alternate route, and saw something a lot like this:


No automatic alt text available.

Every road, whether highway, byway, or surface road was dark red. There was no way for me to get home: the entire city was gridlocked.

Oddly, there was no snow in the dream, which then morphed to me having dinner with the Trump family. Their servants were squirting beverages into their mouths from squeeze bottles, because apparently they'd never had to learn to use drinking glasses. There were two trays of food on the table, and both were beef, so I was going hungry. It didn't bother them at all that they were snubbing their dinner guest: after all, they'd won the election without the help of liberal middle class professionals like me, so why even pretend to be polite?

Last night, I lived out the first part of that dream. School let out "early": 2:25 instead of 2:30. As soon as the buses left, the principal was on the intercom urging anyone with a long commute to get on the road immediately. I did a quick cleanup of my classroom, hit the bathroom, and was in my car by 2:50. The first few blocks were fine, but then I caught up with the traffic. It took me an hour just to get on I-5. Crawling along, I watched the traffic information sign (see above) change the estimate of my travel time to US 26 from 55 to 60 to 72 minutes. Finally reaching the onramp to 217, I sat in stopped traffic for half an hour before I realized the ramp was closed. That led me to drive under the ramp and take the next exit--Kruse Way--which actually got me on 217 within five minutes of realizing I wasn't going to get there the normal way. 217 was actually the easiest part of the commute--I think I was on it for about half an hour, driving conservatively, maneuvering my Subaru around spun-out vehicles once I began the climb up to 26, which was almost empty due to all the accidents on Sylvan Hill. I got off at Bethany, and was instantly back in the gridlock. There were no open surface roads: spun-out cars blocked Oak Hills, Bethany, 143rd, West Union. It was 8:15 when I finally pulled into the driveway: five hours and twenty-five minutes total commute time.

For all the frustration, there were moments of grace on the drive: ordinary citizens helping push cars off the road, helping drivers chain up, directing traffic, working their way through traffic jams to let drivers know what to expect. And there was my car itself. Two months ago, I got rid of my oil-leaking, previous-smoking-driver-smelling Hyundai Sonata and bought a new Subaru Outback. Last night, the wisdom of that purchase was proven again and again as the car's traction and safety features got me around accidents, up and down slippery hills, without a hitch.

But back to the commute: Portlanders love to complain about how badly this city handles snow. There are nowhere near enough plows or sanders, too few cars are equipped with traction devices, and drivers lack the skills to maneuver on slippery roads. All these factors combine into a perfect storm (pun intended) of traffic gridlock. It took me longer to drive the eighteen miles between Tualatin and Bethany than it usually does to drive from Portland to Medford.

Which is where the other part of my dream kicks in.

Donald Trump has been loading his cabinet with anti-secretaries, individuals who are on record as opposing the very existence of the departments they've been slated to head; and incompetents whose appearance makes them look like they should have the job (an African-American with no experience of public housing for HUD, an Indian-American with no training or experience in international relations for UN Ambassador). The U.S. government is about to turn into a snow day commute in Portland, with every white man for himself and everybody else ignored, neglected, or persecuted.

People who care about our country, who believe in working for the common good, in progressive policies, in expansion of human rights, in promoting the interests of the downtrodden and marginalized, are living in a horror show. The obscenely wealthy con artists who hoodwinked the Rust Belt into marginally pushing them into office will be pulling the rug out from under their voter base as soon as they've got the power to do it, and it feels like there's nothing we can do to avert the catastrophe. The political infrastructure just isn't there.

But remember the good news from the commute: as awful as it was, as frantic as some of us became (five hours without food, a bathroom, or ibuprofen), there were so many who stepped up to help. Seeing those suburban volunteers embrace their citizenship took the edge off my headache, my empty belly, and my full bladder. Don't get me wrong, I couldn't have been more relieved to pull into the driveway; but knowing those people are out there, in such large numbers, gives me hope in the depths of this political winter. If we can band together to help push stranded cars off the road, perhaps we can do the same for all the Americans about to be stranded by the political blizzard that will hit us on January 20.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Invincible Summer



In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.--Albert Camus


It's still there.

I turned on the patio light to check, and at 6:30 a.m., December 11, 2016, after a snow storm with 50 mile an hour winds, followed by freezing rain, a thaw, and now more heavy rain, the single blossom is still there, vibrantly orange, a small defiant splash of color in a time of deep greyness.

It can't last forever. Eventually, wind, rain, and chill will cause the rose to wilt, its color to fade, its petals to drop. Like all the other roses in the planter, it will be tucked in for the winter, done with this stubborn display of resistance to the darkest time of the year. Eight weeks from now, I'll cut the roses back, preparing them for their spring growth spurt, and starting in May, they'll shyly begin to show their colors once more, until in June there's a rainbow riot going on that will last all through the real summer.

For now, though, it's vitally important to me that there is a vestige of summer hanging on behind our house. For a dark winter is ahead of us, dark even by rain-drenched Pacific Northwestern standards.

I could say it began November 8 when our hopes of a third term of Democratic leadership were stillborn. But as hard as the shock of that night was--remembering it still causes my eyes to water, a sob to catch in the back of my throat--the gathering darkness goes back to the first triumphant year of the Obama administration. The Tea Party phenomenon revealed a deep, oozing pustule of racist anger in the heartland of this country, and the decision of the Republican Party to exploit that anger rather than tamping it down laid the groundwork for what happened a month ago. There was power in that bigotry, power that could be aggrandized into taking over state legislatures, using them to gerrymander Congressional districts, passing voter suppression laws, taking both chambers of Congress, and choosing again and again to obstruct rather than compromise with the White House. When it turned out the anger was insufficient to elect a moderate Republican in 2012, the party doubled down, and the campaign for the 2016 Republican nomination became a competition to see who could pander the most to the increasingly racist party base.

November 8 was a double loss for us: not only did we wake up the next morning knowing the system had failed us, and that a minority of votes had elected a manifestly unqualified and execrable candidate President; we also had to accept the reality that so many Americans, even in our deeply Blue part of the country, had preferred this monster over a highly qualified progressive, in large part for exactly the reasons we so hated the very thought of him: misogyny, racism, xenophobia. In the days since the election, every large pickup blasting its horn at us for blocking its driver's desire to roar down a residential street at 50 miles an hour, every tabloid depicting Trump's grinning face while continuing to peddle conspiracy theories about the Clintons, every newly assertive white guy in the locker room is a reminder that these people are living in our neighborhoods, sending their kids to our schools, shopping and working out an worshipping alongside us. It's a very dark time to be an American progressive.

"How do I do it?" Amy asked me yesterday. "How do I get through this?"

I pointed through our living room window to the solitary orange rose stubbornly holding on. "Invincible summer," I said.

It took me a month to remember that quote, and it was the amazing tenacity of that rose that finally triggered the memory. It was published in 1952, at a time when the apocalypse that had been World War II was still a gaping wound in the memory of every European. Camus had lived through the Nazi occupation of France. He had seen the swastika flying at the top of the Eiffel Tower, had experienced government by Nazi collaborators. Tens of millions had died horribly, sacrificed to the maniacal vision of one man, harnessing the angry bigotry of a defeated nation. How did he make it through the occupation and the austere years that followed Allied victory?

Invincible summer.

In my former life as a preacher, I often spoke of spring as proof of resurrection: however cold and dark the winter may be, the light always returns, bringing with it warmth, color, new life. My other recurring theme was my understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven: that each of us builds the Kingdom in our own little corners of the world. I'm not a preacher anymore--at least, not from a pulpit--but I do continue to believe in these truths, and to practice them in my life. And that is how I am going to live through the Trump Era.

Even if, my some miracle of electoral legerdemaine, Trump is not inaugurated a month from now, we live in the Trump Era. There is no avoiding it: too many Americans voted for this man for us to ignore them any longer. Their anger and ignorance have to be addressed. When Trump is finally defeated, as he inevitably will be, whether it is next month or however many years from now his regime finally collapses under the weight of its own corruption, we will still be sharing space with those people.

That tells me we've got work to do, and not just in making sure a Democrat wins the next election. For those of us who work in the teaching, helping, and caring professions, we just need to keep on doing what we've always done: showing our students, clients, and patients we care about them, helping them become more generous, caring people themselves. In other work places, it's a matter of treating coworkers and customers fairly and compassionately. There's nothing new about any of that: it's what I was preaching years ago about the Kingdom, a teaching that goes back to John the Baptist and many who came before him.

And what if our work doesn't touch people's lives in these ways? For some, it's what we do after work that can make the difference: giving time and money to causes that promote justice, equity, and compassion; volunteering with agencies that work with children and teenagers; organizing with other concerned citizens to amplify our voices and get elected officials to pay attention; working to restore voting rights to disenfranchised citizens, and to redraw Congressional districts in more equitable, less partisan ways. At the most micro of levels, we can go on using LED bulbs, reducing/reusing/recycling waste, converting our homes to cleaner energy sources, choosing public transportation whenever possible.

That's all boilerplate responsible citizenship. Let's personalize it: There is someone you love who is afraid. It may be your spouse or partner, a sibling, one of your children. Perhaps it's your college roommate, a workout buddy, someone you play Mah Jongg with. This person is afraid because people have changed and are acting more aggressively, letting their bigotry out of the closet, threatening people who are different from them. This person has good cause to be afraid: either Donald Trump or one of his surrogates has promised to use the power of the Presidency to victimize her in some way. Maybe he's afraid his grandparents will be deported. Maybe she was harassed on the train for wearing her hijab. Perhaps the way he cuts his hair led a homophobe to make rude jokes. And here's the scariest part: if this person has any knowledge of history, that fear is completely well-founded. Whoever this person is--and there are many of them, beginning with the 51% of the population who were born female, before we even get to matters of skin color, sexual orientation, faith, or national origin--it's up to you to make their world a safer place, to let the invincible summer shine from your countenance, to carve out a corner of the world where truth, justice, beauty, and compassion reign.

For my part, I will continue to write, teach, perform, parent, and in every sphere of my life, to nurture the spark of summer within me, until finally the Trump era proves itself to have been no more than a season in the life of our nation. However bitter, cold and dark the winter, warmth and light inevitably return. That is the hope I will keep alive for however long it takes to make it a reality.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Yes, Our President

Unfortunately, it's actually "Yep."

I thought I'd said all I needed to about how we're stuck with Donald Trump in the same way a public school teacher has no choice but to teach every student who comes through the classroom door: they're all my students, for as long as I'm at this school and they're attending it. I really thought that was a frame of reference I could apply to the unpleasantness of having this awful man become the leader of my country.


The name "Dylann Roof" may not immediately ring a bell, so here's a quick review: on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, South Carolina, to attend a Bible study. At the end of the gathering, as the participants stood to pray, he took out a gun and killed nine of them. He did so for one simple, powerful reason: to incite a race war. All the victims were Black, and Emanuel was a church with a great history of advocacy for African-American rights.

Three days ago, Dylann Roof's trial began. Hearing the testimony of the three survivors was too much for his mother: she collapsed, whispering "I'm sorry."

That percolated down into my heart, and I found myself again grieving all over again for the people he'd killed, for the message the massacre sent to Black communities across the United States, for the way in which the Trump campaign came to embody Dylann Roof's philosophy, for the fear with which persons of color are facing the next four years of their lives as Americans--and for Amy Roof, who has not only lived to see her son become a white supremacist and mass murder, but will probably also live to see him executed for his crimes.

I don't know anything about how Dylann Roof was raised, or how he became one of the millions of Americans who think their world would be better if white men had even more power than they already do, then channeled that delusion into an act of domestic terrorism. What I do know is that Amy Roof's life has been permanently maimed by what he did, in ways that I can't begin to understand; because no matter how monstrous he was, Dylann Roof was still, and always will be, her son. And because of that, she will be atoning for his crimes for the rest of her life.

That's the connection we have with our children: no matter what they become, they remain our sons and daughters. Their triumphs, their failures, their accidents and mistakes, traumas and successes, all that happens to them, all that they cause to happen, is on us because we are the ones who brought them into the world. If it hadn't been for us, they wouldn't exist. That makes us ultimately responsible for them, whether we like it or not.

To put it another way: we don't choose our children.

Just as 53.8% of Americans did not choose to have Donald Trump be our President. And yet here he is, whether we like it or not.

As a voting-age adult, I've now lived through ten Presidential elections. Of those ten, I missed voting in one (I would've voted for Dukakis, but couldn't figure out in time how to register as an ex-patriate absentee voter); of the remaining nine, my candidate won four times. The first of those winners was Bill Clinton; the second was Barack Obama.

This means that for the first twelve years of my voting life, my President was a person I didn't choose. Neither Ronald Reagan nor George H.W. Bush made me proud to be an American; and especially during my time as an ex-pat, I felt the need to constantly apologize for the militaristic, interventionist policies of my President. I'm sorry, I'd say. I didn't vote for him. We're not all like that.

Then came the Clinton years, a time when my President frequently earned my approval. Oh, there were rumors about what a horndog Bill Clinton was, but I pushed those away, believed him when he insisted they weren't true, when he said with powerful sincerity that he had not had sexual relations with that woman.

Except he had.

The day after Ken Starr released the report of his investigation into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it was printed, in its entirety, in the Sunday Oregonian. I read the report over breakfast, then drove to the Amity United Methodist Church  to deliver a sermon. I grieved in the pulpit that morning because my President had let me down. He had lied to me about doing things that violated not just the covenant of marriage, but the ethical standards of any person who holds power over an employee. He had exploited his office to take advantage of an intern, and in the process, had thrown away all the good a politician of his gifts could have continued to do for his country. I can't remember what I used as a text that morning, but I couldn't have found a better one than 2 Samuel 11, in which King David abuses his power as king to have one of his generals sent to the front, where he dies in combat, so that David can take his wife from him. And still, David was Israel's once and future king, even as God punished him for his sins by taking the life of the child conceived by David's murderous adultery.

Barack Obama, the President I've been most proud to call my own, has embodied the dignity of the office better than any head of state in my lifetime. And yet, as President, I know he has pursued policies that run counter to the highest ethical and moral standards of that office. He has used drones to prosecute undeclared wars in the Middle East, at times bragging about the body count. He has fallen well short of the transparent Presidency he promised as a candidate. His discomfort with the glad-handing part of his job has permitted Congress to become a partisan brake on all the good he could have done. Don't get me wrong, I will very much miss having him as my President, and would even if Hillary Clinton had won; but he's still let me down.

The fact of the matter is this: even when the person we vote for wins, we don't really choose our President. Who that person becomes is shaped by forces beyond our control--and honestly, most of them are beyond the control of the President. Donald Trump rode a wave of bigotry into office, tying himself to a tiger that will not be easily appeased. The empowerment these people feel at his victory will fade fast when they realize he is not restoring jobs that simply can't be put back. When they lose the health care they've received thanks to the Affordable Care Act (probably called something more palatable to Obama-haters), when their parents have their Social Security and Medicare benefits cut or privatized, when they realize that those benefiting most from Trump's policies are the very fat cat elites they thought were on Clinton's side, when they see that the Wall is just a fence paid for out of their own tax dollars rather than Mexico's, when so many of Trump's promises turn out to be empty lies, they will turn on him. But all those failures are not just his, not just his voters'; they belong to all of us who are Americans. He is our President.

We don't have to like it, and we don't have to just take it. Responsible parents draw lines, create consequences, and act on them, often with tears in their eyes. Responsible citizens hold their elected leaders accountable. We've got to be absolutely clear that the hate-speech he continues to generate through his speeches and tweets is unacceptable. We've got to hold the feet of his Cabinet croneys to the fire, insist that our city and state governments continue to promote policies that are progressive and inclusive, and pour our energies into organizations that oppose all the retrograde policies of the incoming administration.

But no matter how hard we work against him, how much we hate him, how much we commiserate with our friends who are persons of color, how sincerely we apologize to non-Americans, how desperately we want someone else to have his job, until that day arrives, there is one inescapable reality:

He's our President.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Good News, Fake News

This never happened.

Did I get your attention? Are you furious? Concerned about the state of my immortal soul? Listening for the crack of thunder as God smites me with a lightning bolt? Or are you feeling suddenly insecure, worried I may be about to cast doubt on some of the truths that keep you sane? Or are there things you've been seeing and hearing about all your life, but never explored, and you'd like some help figuring them out?

If you answered yes to any of those questions: good. That's exactly where I want you to be. Because the story I'm about to tell you is one of the most significant in the history of Western civilization, and how you interpret it will absolutely determine how you live through the Trump Era.

Let's start with the truth: roughly two millennia ago, a baby was born to a Jewish couple somewhere in the Middle East. They named him Yeshua, a fairly common name, and raised him in their home town of Nazareth. As an adult, he became a traveling reformist preacher, attracted a large following, and was arrested and executed by the occupying Roman authorities. After his death, word spread that he had come back from the dead, then been taken up into heaven. His following grew, breaking away from Judaism and eventually becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire.

To reiterate: that's the true part. Everything in the last paragraph historically happened.

And now the not-so-true part, or at least, the part that cannot be historically verified: everything else about him. Yes, everything you know about Jesus, his birth, his ministry, his teachings, his death and resurrection, is utterly ahistorical, existing in the realm of faith, not fact. That doesn't mean it's false or fictional. But by the standards of any modern reputable news agency, there are no facts to check. No one who actually knew Jesus was interviewed about him or wrote a memoir about life with him. The writings that we do have came more than a generation after he left the mortal plane, and while they may have originated as stories told by eyewitnesses, they were at the time of the writing already so far removed from the actual events that they tell us much more about the identity of the persons who wrote them, and the communities in which they lived, than about the person of Jesus himself. This is nowhere more apparent than in the two stories of Jesus' birth, both of which I have appended at the end of this post. If you're not familiar with the actual writings, or haven't looked at them in awhile, you needn't take my blasphemous word for what's in them. Scroll down and read them for yourself. It won't take long, and it could just turn your world upside down.

Both these stories are considered canonical: since the second century, the church has declared them to be indisputably the Word of God, essential parts of the Bible, despite the presence of contradictions. (Like ancient Judaism, early Christianity was more concerned with including powerful texts in its holy book than checking them for inconsistencies.) Reading Luke, you can't help but wonder what happened to the Star in the East and the Wise Men who followed it. Reading Matthew, you'll miss the shepherds and the angel chorus. There's also an extreme contrast in tone: Luke is hopeful, celebratory, and expansive, calling on the reader to share the good news that is for all people. Matthew, on the other hand, is filled with intrigue and danger, with an evil king scrabbling to hang onto his ill-gotten power, the implication being that this important news must be guarded and doled out judiciously, lest the authorities hear about it and try to stamp it out.

With so many contrasts, you may be wondering: what actually happened? How could both the Fox News and MSNBC versions of this story be considered true?

The answer is simple: when they were first told, nobody thought they were.

Let me temper that with some context: the churches of Luke and Matthew probably had no contact with each other. They existed in different places, and for different reasons. Matthew's church was full of Jewish converts to Christianity who wanted to believe Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the Prophets, who would triumph over the corrupt puppet regime of Herod, as well as the far worse and more powerful Roman Empire, and bring about the apocalypse, bringing the entire world under the rule of God's Kingdom. Luke's church, on the other hand, was most likely a cosmopolitan blend of Christians from across the Empire, most of them Gentiles, who believed that God was already at work among them, transforming the Empire into an earthly manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew's church wanted Jesus to be in the line of King David, a righteous ruler who would fulfill God's ancient covenant with Israel. Luke's church believed Jesus had come to unite all humankind. Both churches cared for and advocated for the poor, and both saw Jesus as divine. Both also had a text: the gospel of Mark, a concise version of the life and teachings of Jesus that they probably found unsatisfying in its brevity and lack of details.

So they wrote some fan fiction.

That's not entirely fair, because what both Luke and Matthew did was far more than create new stories of Jesus. A good analogy would be what carmakers do with a good chassis. Take the Honda Accord, a car I've owned many versions of: in the mid-1990s, Honda built its first minivan, the Odyssey, on the Accord's chassis and engine. That same chassis, with a more powerful engine, was the basis of the Acura CL, a luxury sport coupe. Line up those three cars--Odyssey, Accord, CL--and you'd have a hard time believing they were all, at the most essential level, the same car. Take them apart, and the similarities would be readily apparent.

That's how it is with the synoptic gospels: line them up in parallel columns, and one can't help noticing whole passages from Mark that have been incorporated into Luke and Matthew, or that all three gospels have almost identical structures. Other source materials have been incorporated into Luke and Matthew, and whoever put each of those gospels together added plenty of interpretive tropes as well; but at heart, they're telling the same story, if for different reasons.

That's most glaringly apparent in the birth stories. Mark doesn't have one. (It also doesn't really have a resurrection story, though one was tacked on much later, probably in response to the resurrection narratives in Luke and Matthew.) That's a problem for the biography of a hero, the ancient form the gospels were using as their blueprint: the birth of a hero, demigod, or other mythical character prefigured the shape his life would take. So Matthew and Luke either selected (there were plenty of Jesus stories in circulation at the time) or composed nativity narratives that served their purposes. Both start with genealogies (which, compared side-by-side, have hardly anything in common), then move on to prenatal angelic visitations (in Matthew, it's Joseph who has the vision; in Luke, it's Mary and her older cousins), talk about the birth itself as almost an afterthought, detail the birth announcement (in Matthew to wise men, in Luke to shepherds), and conclude with foreshadowing: great and frightening things are going to happen because of the birth of this baby.

To be clear: historically, none of this happened. And yet, in the eyes of these two early Christian communities, all of it was true. These stories grew out of their experience of who Jesus was to them, and so were in complete harmony with that experience. It rang true to their ears, so they made it part of their story.

The untruth, the fiction, the fakery of this as good news comes later. Like their Jewish forbears, the early Christian leaders appreciated diverse ideas, and intentionally compiled a holy book that reflected that diversity. Only later (not much later, in the case of the church) did that diversity become an issue, as more authoritarian bishops took power and consolidated it by rooting out Christians whose beliefs deviated from their own. Heretics, they were called. Initially they were shunned; eventually, they were persecuted, tortured, murdered. Long, bloody wars have been fought over differing ideas about a book that, in its earliest versions, was a testament to diversity of thought and practice.

Which brings me, finally, to the title of this essay. Ideological wars are now being fought over the nature of truth. A Presidential election has been won by a chronic retweeter of lies, who continues to spread rumors and untruths to his millions of followers, many of whom uncritically adopt whatever he says. No intelligent discussion of climate change, international relations, economics, housing policy, health care, or any other issue that typically pads out a political platform, can begin without first addressing the mass existence of false stories about the topic. To a far too great extent, deceit Trumps truth. (And yes, I meant to capitalize that T.) 

This dynamic extends to something far more essential than even the survival of liberal democracy, or the ecological survival of the planet: the very nature of truth itself. Stories created 2000 years ago for the very specific spiritual identities of two unique religious communities have, almost since their invention, been mashed together and proclaimed as mortally true for all human beings, to the extent that the very existence of entire nations has hinged on whether they could embrace those stories as true. For most of the history of the United States, adherence to the literal truth of these stories has been a dominant feature of American religion. For a time--really just the last eight years--the people who most rabidly promoted that belief faded from the spotlight, and we of more liberal persuasions allowed ourselves to think the nation, as a whole, was becoming more reasonable, more logical, more fact-based. In the last year, those who embrace false news, mythology, conspiracy theories,and all manner of populist rumor-mongering have been empowered to hold onto both houses of Congress and to take the Presidency. And their messiah, far from being a humble preacher born in a stable, is a plutocrat who would put Herod to shame.


The Birth of Jesus (Luke)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew)

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[j] and he named him Jesus.

The Visit of the Wise Men

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[k] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[l] and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[m] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd[n] my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[o] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[p] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[q] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.