Sunday, November 27, 2016

Keeping Schools Public

None of these people believes in public education.

Here's a non sequitur for an essay about how bad things are about to be: there are far scarier things in the Trump agenda than appointing Betsy DeVos, a charter school advocate with no training or experience in public education, to run the Department of Education. The reason is perspective. Federal subsidies actually account for just eight per cent of public school funding overall, and much of that comes from departments other than Education, subsidizing meal programs and Head Start. Directing some of that money toward charter schools and vouchers is still problematic, but the local impact of whatever nastiness DeVos can push through is going to be minor compared to the abomination that was No Child Left Behind. Stack it up against protectionist global trade policies and climate change denial, and it seems even less of a worry.

What stinks about it is what it says about these ersatz populists who are now going to pick the pockets of the working class people who put them in office.

American public education was, to a large extent, the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson. For all the high-minded rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was not a believer in the literal equality of all human beings. Rather, he thought there was a natural elite, individuals born with the potential to become great leaders, provided they received a proper education. For them to rise up from the masses, there had to be a level playing field, a system of public schools that gave every American an equal opportunity to shine. The greatest education reformers have held that vision in common: give every child the best schools public funding can provide. To do any less is to risk losing great minds. As the United Negro College Fund used to put it, "a mind is a terrible thing to waste."

It took time for this principle to be augmented by the notion of equity, and the belief in education as not just the responsibility of a democracy seeking to nurture future leaders, but a basic human right. But come it did, refined from generation to generation, until modern public education is a model of the nation of the founders' dreams: a network of communities that do far more than teach important skills and knowledge so that children grow up with the tools to function in the adult world. To a great extent, public schools are a model for the democracy we seek to inhabit. In public schools, all are admitted, and all granted the best education skilled instructors can provide, differentiated to meet their individual needs of language, social status, and ability. Teachers and administrators work together to create an environment that nurtures them, helps them through difficult times, feeds them (in many places) two meals a day, trains them in social problem-solving, affirms and even celebrates their individual uniqueness, then hands them back to their parents for a few hours.

All the things that public schools do can, and often do, happen in charter schools and private schools, but with one significant difference: rarely is equity a concern. In fact, it is the ability of these schools to turn away students with academic difficulties, disabilities, behavioral disorders, and other challenges that artificially inflates their schoolwide scores on standardized tests, which in turn adds to the tired but endlessly repeated myth that they are inherently better than public schools at educating children.

Don't get me wrong: there are a lot of things about private schools that may lead public school teachers to consider taking cuts in their already modest pay to make the leap to the private realm. Class sizes are smaller, children are better-behaved, and often facilities, thanks to generous donations by families and alumni, are in better repair, and better equipped, than the neighborhood public school. But all this comes at a cost. The one year I taught in a Catholic school, seeing (as I do now) every child in the school, I had a total of three students who were persons of color. All my students were native English speakers, and none was lower than me in economic status. It was a school of privilege.

My current gig, in a middle class suburban school, is wonderful, and at times it feels almost as easy as that long-ago private school job. But there are differences: I have several students who are on IEPs for behavioral or developmental problems. I also have a significant number--though not enough to make this a Title I school, like most I have worked at--who are English Language Learners. Many of these children struggle with various parts of the curriculum, but all of them enjoy coming to music. Some even find it the one place at school where they can shine. None would be in my classroom if this was a private school. If it was a charter school, I would most likely only be teaching high performing students--if there was even a music program, as charter schools are often allowed to channel money away from subjects that do not directly contribute to higher math and literacy test scores.

Simply put, public schools are the one place in American society where children have a chance to become well-rounded citizens, building relationships that transcend class, ethnicity, language, gender, ability, status, and any of the other qualities progressives believe should not disqualify an individual from fully participating in society. Is it any wonder, then, that the xenophobic, racist, misogynist masterminds of the Trump campaign have guided him to choose for his Education secretary a wealthy individual who wants to redirect federal education funding to promoting private schools, instead?

Fortunately, as I said above, DeVos will have say over a relatively small portion of the average public school's budget. Most funding for public schools comes at the local and state levels. In Oregon, at least, we can count on our legislatures and school boards continuing to support the vision of inclusiveness that has been the mission of every district I've worked in. Schools in other parts of the country, especially in Trump states, will not be so fortunate--though again, since education spending and policy are largely set at the local and state level, it's unlikely DeVos will be able to (as some have imagined) dismantle the entire public education system. She might want to, but there are tens of thousands of education professionals standing in her way. I think I can speak for the vast majority of my colleagues when I say this: we're not going anywhere. We're going to continue to teach every shade of the beautiful rainbow of children passing through our classrooms. We'll advocate that they go on receiving the best education our tax dollars can provide. If that funding dips because of DeVos's misguided policies, we'll work with our communities to raise money to fill the gaps. And four years from now (please don't let it be eight!), we'll work to replace Donald Trump and his elitist minions with an administration that represents all the people, and believes in educating all of them, as well. We survived NCLB; we can survive Betsy DeVos.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Diversity Isn't Always Beautiful

I listened to this album once, then traded it in.

I remember the moment Steve Martin got bored with being a standup comedian.

It's immortalized on the third of his four comedy albums, the title of which is the punchline to the joke. I don't remember the joke at all, but I do remember the audience expressing outrage at where it went. There was a long, uncomfortable pause, filled with the sounds audiences make as comedians milk their unappreciation for effect, followed at least by the line, delivered with all the self-important irony of his first famous catchphrase ("Excuuuuuuuuuusssee meeeeee," just in case you're under the age of 50): "Comedy is not pretty!"

They were the words of a comedian who'd outgrown his schtick, who was ready to move on to something kinder, gentler, and better-respected. In the case of Steve Martin, it was his burgeoning career as an actor in screwball comedies that toned down the Dadaism of his onstage persona, enhancing his gentler side. The transition seemed effortless, and he never looked back.

That was a hard album to listen to. I'd heard Steve Martin's first, and in the opinion of many, greatest album ("Let's Get Small") many times, and had enjoyed its followup ("A Wild and Crazy Guy") as well. I could rattle off bits and jokes from both those records from memory right now, 35 years since I last listened to them. "Comedy Is Not Pretty," though, is just that punchline, coupled with the cover photo of Steve Martin in drag. I only listened to it one time. I remember all the humor had an angry edge to it, like he was disgusted with his audience for preferring the silly schtick of his earlier material. I've never enjoyed angry comedy--in fact, anger in general makes me feel ill--so that album very quickly went on the pile of albums marked for trade-in at the record store.

And now, looking back on the entire debacle of the 2016 election, I finally get it. It's still not funny. But it is profoundly true: the world can be a very ugly place.

That's not a very PC thing to admit. We of a liberal bent like to view the world optimistically, looking for signs of progress, growth, evolution toward our ideals. We inherit this worldview from the Western philosophical tradition: Aristotelianism, Gnosticism, Puritanism all saw human existence as a quest for perfection. We seek to improve ourselves and the world around us, to leave it better than we found it. Yes, there's plenty of ugliness to be found, but working together, we can beautify the planet until it's the paradisiacal capital of the United Federation of Planets. With the election of Barack Obama, we felt vindicated, allowed ourselves to believe that we were on the cusp of a new era of peace and cooperation, that together we could end poverty, bigotry, human suffering, reverse global warming, and never have to look back.

Eight years later, we've just learned, once again, that comedy is not pretty. Or, to put it another way: diversity can be ugly.

Conservatives view the word "diversity" as a liberal pipe dream, a euphemism for our embrace of depravity, blasphemy, immorality, socialism, whatever else they consider dark and ugly about our world. In their own way, conservatives are just as dualistic about the planet as liberals, but they're much more pessimistic about the possibility of humans making the world a better place. Squeeze what profit you can out of it while it lasts, and leave the mess for God to clean up in the apocalypse.

The beauty of diversity can be found on the playgrounds of schools in multi-racial neighborhoods. I saw it all the time in the Reynolds School District: children forming friendships that completely ignored distinctions of language, color, ethnicity. This was even true in bullying: the two misbehaving boys who worked together to disrupt whatever class they were in were Russian and Mexican; the gang of girls who were cyber-bullying were Asian, Ethiopian, and white. My favorite thing about working in that district was the rainbow quality of every class I saw. My new job on the other side of Portland is vastly better in countless ways, but I do have to admit I miss seeing a United Nations of children come into my teaching space every half hour.

That's the diversity of the Obama Era, an America that looks like a promotional poster for a Scout program, the cast of a Young Doctors in Love prime time drama, a Cabinet appointed by a Democrat. Seeing so many examples of this diversity around us, and seeing it expand to sexual minorities, we've allowed ourselves to be so caught up in celebrating our progress that we've forgotten the flip side of diversity, the yang to our yin: there are bands in the human rainbow we'd rather weren't there.

There are Americans who fondly remember Jim Crow, and they're not all older white people. Some are too young to literally remember what that was like--to be honest, I'm too young to remember it, and at 55, I'm solidly in the age range that voted for Trump. The bulk of the Baby Boom generation came of age during the Civil Rights Era. These people are now in their 60s and early 70s, so it's really only 80-somethings who lived through the time before the canonization of Martin Luther King, Jr. This means we can't just blame nostalgic older people for the Trumpification of America. Yes, his voters skew older; but we're talking about more than half a century of "living into" the normalization of racial diversity, and still there are 62 million voting Americans who were willing to at best overlook, at worst completely embrace, the most racist candidate to run for the Presidency in modern history.

There's just no getting around it: ugly Americans are here to stay. Any progress we make toward restoring the hope of Obama's election, to putting women and minority members in positions of power, to affirming the rights of all people to be treated with dignity and respect, will be despite them, and they will fight us every step of the way.

Or, as painful as this is for me to admit, perhaps we can defuse their virulence by learning to live with them. Remember the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"? It's the one in which a transporter malfunction splits Kirk into two halves, initially seeming to be "good" and "bad," but ultimately revealed to be more like "id" and "ego." The civilized half of Kirk looks with horror on his crude, violent half, would rather it was simply eliminated. But without his dark side, he is weak, indecisive, and begins to fade physically: yang needs yin to be whole. In the end, his two halves are reunited.

Our nation has been going through a slow-motion version of that story. We of the left have separated ourselves from the right, and they've enthusiastically embraced the process, doing all they could to distance themselves from us. Under Trump, they're going to find that having all their dreams come true is not nearly as satisfying as they thought it would be: much of their base depends on Medicare and the Affordable Care Act for health insurance, and will not take kindly to losing any of those entitlements; the American economy depends greatly on the labor, both professional and skilled, of immigrants; and free trade is essential to American prosperity. Republicans will suffer the consequences of being able to push through the Trump agenda, just as Democrats paid the price for the supermajority of 2009 with losses in subsequent elections. Progress is slower when Congress acts in a bipartisan way, but it's also more likely to take.

Yes, I'd much rather just stick to the beautiful side of diversity. But I can't: there are Trump voters living in my neighborhood. More than that, the ideas that give Trump his power have now been proven not to be obsolete. Honoring diversity doesn't mean I have to like those ugly ideas, or refrain from trying to change the minds of those who hold them; but it does mean accepting the rights of even people with ugly ideas to have those ideas, and to have a voice in this democracy. Our future as a nation, a people, depend on it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

It's All Politics

For some reason, I'm losing my appetite for leftovers.

4:30 a.m., and I can't sleep. Actually, I've been awake since 3:00; I just decided ninety minutes was long enough to think about what's happening, and that maybe writing about it would help me ease back into dreamland.

(Sidebar: since going back to full-time teaching, my body has been hardwired to get up at 5:00 a.m. I now set my alarm for 5:15, but rarely need it. I just can't stay asleep.)

I know I'm not the only American lying awake in the dark, my mind churning with fear and fury. There are many of us--if not a majority, certainly at least a sizable plurality--who are terrified not just by who's been elected President, but by the very fact that he was even nominated for this office, let alone that so many millions of our friends and relations voted for him. No, he didn't win the popular vote, in fact lost it by more than two million votes. But that's still 62 million Americans who voted for him. Look at that number again: 62 million people. Even if you discount those Republicans who "came home" despite reservations about their candidate--and also leaving aside how any intelligent person can just feel reservations, rather than outright horror, at the thought of this turkey running the country--that vote still means there are tens of millions voting the angry white ticket, voting for xenophobia, racism, misogyny, climate change denial, appeasing Russia, rattling sabers at China, breaking treaties and contracts, ignoring Constitutional rights, and oh my God, I may never sleep again.

This is not just about losing sleep. It's an every-waking-moment thing. (Except when I'm teaching; then, blissfully, wonderfully, my mind is utterly devoid of orange-faced bellicose billionaires.) It invades conversations. It flavors meals. It makes comedy unfunny. It makes drama much more poignant. It's absolutely going to come up this afternoon over the Anderson family Thanksgiving dinner, whether we like it or not.

I know there are many families declaring their Thanksgiving tables a politics-free zone. Last night, the Milshtein/Anderson household discussed doing just that. Alex tried it out like this: "How about this weather we've been having?" To which I replied: "Yes, it's unseasonably warm, isn't it? And you know who doesn't believe in climate change? OUR PRESIDENT ELECT."

And there it is: he's everywhere. There's no safe topic. Try football: "Did you hear about the Trump Foundation buying a Tim Tebow autographed helmet?" Talk about what the kids at the table are doing at school: "Wow, Emma, you made first chair clarinet? I sure hope there's still money for public school music after Trump's education secretary diverts all our funding to private school vouchers." Okay, how about waxing lyrical about how much I love my new car? "I love the adaptive cruise control. It's a real life saver when some aggressive wingnut in a giant pickup with a Trump bumper sticker cuts me off."

The simple fact is that there are no safe topics. Politics touch everything; and this season, just sixteen days after the election, all those places politics have touched are inflamed.

And it's not just our proximity to the election. For the last eight years, it's been blissfully easy to NOT think about politics. Sure, I've enjoyed reading about it--I'm a political junky, after all--and there've been plenty of Capitol hijinks to irritate me, as Republicans have refused to acknowledge the authority of the President; but for most of the time, I could go about my daily life unaware of the political significance of everything I did. This was even true, to an extent, during the Bush II administration: sure, they were incompetent, and often evil, but I didn't feel like my country was at risk because of them. I knew I could wait until the next election, and things would eventually be fine.

That's not true anymore. I now know that 62 million Americans were willing to at least take a chance, if not enthusiastically embrace, an authoritarian monster, and even if he serves just one term, or even just a portion of one term--hell, even if by some wild long-shot electoral miracle, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania do recounts and Hillary Clinton is rightfully awarded the Presidency--I still have to live with the knowledge that there are that many people who are either that stupid or that evil. More than that, I know that some of them are my neighbors, friends, possibly even members of my extended family. I have to share the road with them (and yes, I can't help noticing that some of them who drive large vehicles have become dangerously aggressive on the road lately), work alongside them, buy my groceries from them, and (unless I'm willing to give up my favorite places in America) vacation in locales where they're not just a sizable minority, or even a plurality, but a clear majority of the people renting me an Air BnB, pumping my gas, serving me meals, drinking beside me in a brew pub, hiking behind me through the wilderness.

So there's no getting away from it: however hard we try to avoid it, politics is on the menu today.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

No, We Are Not Going to Get Over It


Dear happily victorious Republican party,

Congratulations on your electoral upset. You've been working toward this for a very long time (just over eight years, I believe), and you must be enormously relieved that all that effort has finally paid off. I understand your eagerness to dive in and get to work overhauling American democracy. I also get your annoyance with all of us in the opposition. It must really suck that we don't share your glee. Of course you want us to just get over with it, to simply accept the election results and pretend everything's just fine, just like you did eight years ago.

Oh, wait. Come to think of it, that's not how you handled things then, is it?

In fact, if memory serves, you launched a campaign of obstruction that soured all the joy and hope of the Obama election. You launched a grassroots movement that was a model of inclusiveness, in that you welcomed all sorts of people who hated our first Black President: racists, homophobes, nationalists, misogynists--anyone you could count on to disrupt the democratic effort to gather information for health care reform, ultimately forcing us to create a system modeled on one of your own proposals, and pass it without your help. Then you campaigned against this plan, brainchild of your own 2012 Presidential nominee, and succeeded in taking back first the House, then the Senate, neither of which was willing to work with the President on anything.

So you never got over it. The only thing that could heal you of your fury at electing Barack Obama was electing his polar opposite, a rich racist sexual predator who has ridden a wave of angry bigotry to claim the world's most powerful office.

So if we're not just "getting over it" less than two weeks after the election, you can maybe cut us a little slack, okay? Hypocrisy is an ugly thing, and I'd hate to think y'all would be choosing ugliness over classiness.

Seriously--and now I'm writing to my fellow progressives--getting over it is a very bad idea. What happened twelve days ago was a violation of our democracy. And for those of us over the age of 33, this is the second time we've had the Presidency stolen from us by a system rigged to give more electoral weight to white conservative landowners than to for more diverse urban liberals. Losing so much, and knowing what it's going to cost our nation and world, we are quite naturally grieving. We're also terrified that our country is going to slide into fascism, and that people we love who are gay, Black, Brown, new to this country, are going to be registered, abused, interned, deported. We've already seen their systematic disenfranchisement by the cynical Republican electoral machine. How can we not worry that, emboldened by the victory of a standard-bearer who, in a fair election, would have been unelectable, the Republicans will continue to work to restore the unequitable electoral system of the early twentieth century, a system that advantages white, well-off conservatives over every other constituency?

No, we're not going to get over it. In fact, the best approach we can take is that which has been so ably modeled for us by the Republicans for the last eight years: resistance at every level, fighting to our last breath to hang onto whatever scrap of Obama-era progress can be preserved.

Twenty-eight years ago, as a student pastor in Cheadle, a suburb of Manchester, England, I went to visit George Lawley, a retired gentleman who had been a Labour Party activist in his day. George was in a lather that day: he'd just read Michael Dukakis's concession speech, and he was furious that the Democrats were pledging to work with the Republicans. "They must not do this!" he said, his eyes shining. "They must pledge to fight and fight and fight, and never give an inch until they are back in power!" This has always been the British political tradition: the party out of power is the loyal opposition, holding to their principles even in the face of defeat, always offering a complete alternative to the policies of the elected government.

Of course, in Britain, the party winning the election always has all the power. That's how parliamentary democracy works. It's rare for American political parties to have control of both the executive and legislative branches of government, so American Presidents have had to work with opposition parties in at least one chamber of Congress in order to further their agendas. That was not the case in the first two years of the Obama Administration, of course; and while I'm sure it was frustrating for the President to have Republicans rejecting a health care bill so favorable to insurance companies that, had it been proposed by a Republican President, they would've passed it in a day, I also have to admit they created a brilliant model for opposition.

That's what Democrats have to be for at least the next two years, and probably many more than that: loyally oppose all of Donald Trump's extremist ideas and appointments. Filibuster his right-wing nominations to the Supreme Court, insisting that this should be the decision of the next President, one elected by a majority of the American people. Keep the vast infrastructure of Hillary Clinton's campaign organization, and use it to elect state legislators who will reverse the gerrymandering of the Congressional map. Launch a nationwide search for the next Obama, a politician who embodies the dreams of the huge coalition of minorities who are the true majority of Americans. Be a loyal opposition, because unopposed policies and ideas can never be as fair, just, or effective as those that have been put through the legislative grinder. Be loyal to the Constitution, loyal to the principles of fairness at work, justice in the court, equality at the ballot box, transparency before the media, responsibility for the world in which we live.

Sorry, Republicans, but we are not going to get over it. Ever.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Good People Doing Nothing

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. --John Stuart Mill, 1867

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. --Winston Churchill, 1947

The system is rigged. --Donald Trump, 2016

I can't help myself. I just have to read it, listen to it, marinate in it, until I dissolve into a puddle of despair.

How did this happen? How did this republic hand over the reins of power to an authoritarian kleptocrat who, at best, will use the office of President to enrich himself and his family with the most corrupt regime this country has ever known?

There's plenty of "at worst" I could append here: mass deportations of immigrants, the return of profiteering chaos to health care, another generation of conservative control of the Supreme Court, reversal of progress for every minority in America, registration and internment of Muslims, the collapse of democracy into a racist, misogynist, nationalist dictatorship, the submersion of coastal communities as the world's climate goes on heating up, nuclear Armageddon...

See? A puddle of despair.

Actually, it's not that hard to see how this happened. The myth of the United States of America is that we've ever been completely united on anything. The very fact that we're called the United States should tell you something about how frequently we, as a nation, agree on issues. This country began its existence as a confederation of former colonies; and while the independence of those states from each other was diluted by the Constitution, this has continued to be a country defined more by diversity than unanimity.

That doesn't mean we're happy about it. We've fought internal wars, some symbolic, others literally violent, over policies: slavery, civil rights, abortion, health care. There's a dialectic to the struggles: losers rarely concede, choosing instead to nurse resentment over the perceived humiliation of having to accept that the winners do have rights, after all; and once the losing party is back in power, it does all it can to reverse any progress made by the formerly oppressed minority.

That's where we are now. There's been so much progress in the last twenty years for persons of color, for sexual minorities, for immigrants from Latin America, so many causes for celebration, that we of the left have been able to tune out the growing chorus of fury from the right. Oh, we knew they were there, hobbling health care reform with their irrational rants, insisting they had a religious right to mistreat gay people, seizing first one, then the other chamber of Congress and using the Capitol as a brake on any further advancement of this nation toward diversity and equity. So much of our democracy that we liberals had taken for granted--the idea of principled parliamentary procedure, of agreeing to disagree, of pragmatically choosing compromise over ideological purity, of making progress by big steps when possible while working for increments when necessary--all of this high-minded political quilt has been torn apart. These were ideas that worked best, it must be admitted, when power had to be shared: even as the Gingrich Congress savaged Bill Clinton with personal attacks, deals continued to be struck, policies made, bills signed. Similarly, throughout the George W. Bush administration, Democrats and Republicans continued working together across the aisle.

All that ended with the election of Barack Obama. Perhaps he was just too successful. With majorities in both chambers, he could push through an ambitious agenda. But the reaction--and that's what it was, far more than a response--from the right was brutal. The radical right had been cornered, and it was fighting back tooth and claw. There was no concession, no compromise, no willingness to even discuss issues that affected every American. The Affordable Care Act was passed with no help from Republicans, who have continued to fight it ever since, even as many of its provisions proved enormously popular.

The rage never abated, even as Republicans took first the House, then the Senate, back from the huge 2008 Democratic majorities. Republicans have stonewalled the Obama Administration's agenda, forcing the President to rely almost exclusively on executive orders his soon-to-be successor has promised to reverse. The 2008 thesis of progressive progress has run head-on into the 2016 antithesis of nationalist regress, and American history in the modern era now appears to be not so much a progression of accomplishments as a tennis match.

In Hegelian philosophy, these poles have to, through conflict, synthesize into a new thesis. This is not just happening in America: across Europe, radical conservatism is gaining parliamentary power, rejecting the open borders, free trade, and easy migration that seemed, for a time, to promise a new world order of diversity and peace. Hard-right nationalist parties are on the rise.

If this is all feeling unsettlingly familiar to you, you're not alone. Trump's rise to power shares far too many parallels with the fascist leaders of pre-World War II Europe and Asia. Like many of them, he has moved himself into this position by virtue of a system he complained was rigged against him, yet actually worked to his advantage, winning office without even achieving a plurality of votes cast, let alone anything approximating a majority of actual voters. He and his party worked this upset by manipulating the system: suppressing the votes of minorities, accusing his opponent of high crimes, lying so frequently that the media couldn't keep up, while simultaneously pandering to the most violent, reprehensible impulses of his voting base. He almost failed. If the Clinton campaign had been marginally nimbler in countering his attacks, less sure of its midwestern voters, more dedicated to getting minority voters to the polls, we wouldn't be facing the likelihood of the first unabashedly fascist American Presidency.

But that's where we are. Too many voters, both Democratic and Republican, allowing themselves to be turned off by Trump's accusations and conduct, believing his lies, decided not to exercise their franchise in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio. Winning those states, Trump won a lopsided electoral majority, even as his popular vote was hundreds of thousands behind Clinton's.

There were good people who chose not to vote. Thanks to their non-participation, this nation, this world, now face a far bleaker future. The best we can hope for in the next 2-4 years is that Democrats in the Senate can filibuster every policy and appointment that fulfills any of the most noisome planks in the Trump electoral platform.

And the rest of us? We've got to be just as steadfast. If we give up or, worse, allow ourselves to enjoy anything that comes from the Trump administration--whether it's improved infrastructure, tax cuts, or some marginal improvement in employment--we'll be joining the Republicans on their long slide into fascism. We can't let that happen to us or the nation.

Doing nothing is no longer an option, good people. There's a Congress, a White House, a nation to take back.

Monday, November 14, 2016

We Can't Secede

I get it.

Like most progressive West Coast Americans, I'm grief-stricken at what's happening to my country, horrified that so many who consider themselves patriots could vote for a racist misogynist authoritarian windbag, and furious that our antiquated electoral system awarded the most powerful office in the world to a man who actually received far less than even a plurality of the popular vote. As with my long-standing beef with United Methodism, this leads me, like so many in my circle, to contemplate seceding: taking our vital economy, our big-hearted people, our earth-friendly attitude, and letting the xenophobic rural remainder fend for themselves. Let's see how well they do without us.

There's nothing new about this idea. Various configurations of West Coast states (sometimes including British Columbia), joined together as a nation of their own, have been floated by futurists and environmentalists going well back into the last century. The result goes by a variety of names: Pacifica, Cascadia, Ecotopia. The impetus for secession is typically that our side of the country is fed up with taking orders from people who don't share our values or ideals.

It's comforting to imagine what it would be like to simply cut ourselves off from all those people who've made such a horrible decision. Of course, we'd have to maintain sister-nation ties with Atlantica, the East Coast corollary of our push for independence. It's even more delightful to imagine what would become of our embarrassing President-Elect, as both his permanent address and the White House would be part of Atlantica. Perhaps he could move the government to Idaho Falls. They love him there.

But here's the problem with secession--or, if we're really thinking about West Coast and East Coast republics breaking away, what we should really call partition: who's in and who's out.

Looking at the electoral map, it's tempting to think that the nation breaks down neatly into blue and red states:
The problem with this approach--and, as noted earlier, with the whole American electoral system--is that it's nowhere near that neat. There are plenty of red states on the map that should have been blue, according to polling right up to Election Day. At the same time, there are blue states that were much closer than was expected. And while Hillary Clinton did receive a majority of the popular vote (estimated to be somewhere between 1-2%, once all absentee ballots are counted), most of her margin comes from a few population centers: New York City, much of California, and Washington state. Yes, we of the Pacific Northwest did give her substantial majorities, but even here--and yes, even in New York City and Southern California--there are sizable segments of the population who voted for Trump. Travel a short distance outside any of our urban areas, and the Trump numbers go up. Cross the mountains to our high desert communities, and you've got large portions of all three West Coast states that voted, by substantial majorities, for Trump. If we're really going to separate ourselves from Trump Nation, we have to ask ourselves if we're going to take our beautiful rural regions with us. And if we do, will they go willingly?

Look at that red/blue map again. Does it remind you of anything you might have studied in, say, world history, ca. 1947? Anything like, oh, this:
Just in case you're rusty on your post-colonial history, or haven't seen Gandhi since it came out, here it is in a nutshell: India under British rule was a land of religious diversity, birthplace of Buddhism, home to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Muslims. Members of all these faiths banded together to peacefully rise up against the colonial authorities, and in 1947, India became independent. Almost immediately, Muslims and Hindus turned on each other, and in the end, there was no way to hold the nation together: Muslims migrated to regions in which they were already the majority of the population, while Hindus migrated to the larger central Indian republic. The Muslim homelands became Pakistan. Interfaith violence took thousands of lives, and millions of people were displaced. Relations between India and Pakistan are still tense seven decades later, with both nations maintaining nuclear arsenals as a mutual deterrent.

That, my friends, is what secession really looks like: not the progressive ecological paradise of Cascadia, but the bloody ethnically cleansed tragedy of India/Pakistan.

There are people in my neighborhood who voted for Trump. I don't believe there are any members of my family who did, but I have at least a few friends who probably did (they're keeping quiet, so it's hard to be sure). Incidents of racial violence have been committed in urban areas across the United States, places where large majorities voted Democrat. There are a lot of Trump followers out there, even in our precious West Coast progressive cities. Unless we want to become the next India, the next Yugoslavia, we cannot start forcing people to relocate, no matter how reprehensible their taste in Presidential candidates might be.

There's a larger point here: staying united, even in the face of deep moral and cultural divisions, is what makes us American. It's the cause Abraham Lincoln gave his life for. It's the reason losing Presidential candidates, whether Democrat or Republican, always pledge to support the victor. The diversity of this nation is what makes it strong.

Normally when we talk about diversity, we've got minorities in mind: persons of color, people whose native tongue is not English, the whole LGBTQ rainbow. There is a deeper diversity at the root of American exceptionalism, however: that of ideas. I know, faced with a President-elect whose approach to ideas he dislikes is to threaten violation of Constitutionally protected freedoms, it's tempting to scoff at how real that diversity is; and yet, nations have divided over ideas far less significant than those separating Clinton and Trump supporters.

What we don't want to, yet very much have to, face is this simple truth: many well-meaning people voted for Donald Trump, and chances are very good that we all know at least a few of them. We have to go on living and working beside these people. As much as we might want to build a spite fence running from Spokane to San Diego, this land is OUR land. Not my land, not your land, our land. All of us together. In the dark days ahead, we'll need to keep reminding ourselves of that fact, even as those of us who lost so much in this election work to mitigate, even reverse, the deleterious effects the incoming administration will have on the peace and well-being of our entire population.

As we do, they're going to find that we're also decent people, that, in fact, we care deeply about their well-being. That in itself will almost certainly put a dent in support for the Trump administration. It will also most likely bring us together with other like-minded individuals, and begin the work of promoting our next candidate for President. If Trump stays true to his nepotistic, race/gender/faith-baiting, deeply corrupt ways, people will be wishing they could vote him out at the midterm election break. Let's make sure we continue to go high, however low they may descend to in their own assaults on civility. At some point, Republicans will begin paying attention to who the genuinely grown-up candidate is.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Mad That I Feel

pinata.jpg
Los Angeles protesters burn a Trump-shaped pinata.

What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong...
And nothing you do seems very right?

What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?

It's great to be able to stop
When you've planned a thing that's wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
And think this song:

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there's something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.


I was at the gym, lifting weights, listening to Marc Maron's Wednesday morning rant about the horror of Tuesday night. Normally I would go on to hear the interview that followed, but I had just finished a long one he did with a reporter discussing the incredible damage black tar heroin has done across the United States, helping me understand that there's a good chance many who voted for Trump did so out of the anger and grief of losing a loved one to this pervasive poison. So there I was, preparing to do some bicep curls, and I'd just had enough. It didn't matter that the next interview wouldn't have mentioned the election in any way. I needed a change of thought stream.

So I clicked on a Fresh Air interview with TV critic David Bianculli, talking about the greatest moments in television history. Twenty minutes in, he played two clips of Fred Rogers from 1968. In one, Daniel Striped Tiger had a conversation with Lady Elaine Fairchild about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. In the other, Mr. Rogers appeared before a Senate committee considering whether to fund public television, and quoted his song about "The Mad That You Feel," winning over the hardest-hearted critic on the committee. I heard him speak those words in that gentle voice I remember so well from my own childhood (I was part of the first generation to experience Mr. Rogers, and remember watching it before going to school on National Educational Television, the predecessor to PBS), and I found myself moved so deeply I had to dry my eyes with my workout towel.

To be fair, there's been a lot of eye-drying since Tuesday night. But to put this in perspective: demonstrators across the United States are filling city streets to cry out against the election of Donald Trump. They're grief-stricken by the abrupt reversal of a historic moment, by the prospect of having all the hard-won progress of the last eight years at risk from a united conservative government, and most of all by the possibility of having a man who embodies all the most deplorable aspects of American identity taking the place of a President who was, in so many ways, the absolute opposite. The protesters chant, march, wave signs, block highways. Some engage in more visceral displays of outrage, burning flags and effigies. Some go farther: anarchists in Portland have been destroying property. 

Anarchists are not the only people expressing themselves violently. Empowered by the election result, bigots have thrown politeness under the bus, and are freely expressing their hatred to persons of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, women, and any liberal-looking people who might cross their paths. 

I understand the anger, the need to express it, the temptation to do so in destructive ways. That's the nature of anger. Fred Rogers was writing for preschoolers, but the message of those words rings true for anyone who's ever fantasized about giving a bully a taste of his own medicine. Donald Trump is not just the embodiment of the anger and despair felt by so many rural and working class Americans. To those of us who grew up in a culture of liberal values and found ourselves on the receiving end of working class anger, he symbolizes the brutes who made our teen years intolerable. We wanted desperately for him to get his comeuppance, to be taught a lesson by the women and minorities who had been on the receiving end of his venomous rants. Instead, we learned to our horror, he actually had a majority of white women voting for him, and even a sizable number of Hispanic Americans.

And as for those protesters: while they give voice to the fury of the popular majority who voted for Hillary Clinton, their geographic identity demonstrates why she lost. The cities in which they march were part of that majority. The places that won him the election were a combination of farm country and failing mill towns. He aimed his rhetoric at people who no longer feel like the intellectual elite of the Democratic party speaks for them. They resonated with the emotion behind his words, and cared little for the abominable and often self-contradictory meaning of those words.

This leaves us liberals in a confusing place. Up until 1999, I had spent most of my life in Trump Country, growing up in small towns, then returning to them as a Methodist minister. The farmers, laborers, and small business owners who were my father's parishioners and, later on, my parishioners were, by and large, decent, generous people. Seeing a person in need, their first response would be charity. Hearing a personal story of oppression, they would feel empathy and compassion. Their politics and theology were rarely sophisticated, though the folksy veneer could sometimes hide an amazingly complex world view. Because they were Methodists, not Pentecostals or Evangelicals, many of them were probably Democrats. But because I believed in big tent Methodism, we never discussed partisan politics, and I just don't know.

That not knowing serves me well today, as there are few, if any, of my former parishioners I can identify as Trump voters. That's a good thing, because as much as I want to empathize with the fear and pain that generated such a desire for putting a dictator in the White House, it's ultimately a bridge too far for me to cross. If any of the people I know were to proudly announce he or she voted for That Man, I'm afraid it would be the end of our friendship. I'd much rather look back on those old relationships fondly, remembering the warmth I felt in their company.

This is a problem we of the left are going to have to resolve. Even though the West Coast voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, all three of our states contain substantial Trump populations. Drive a few minutes south of Wilsonville, or head over to Gresham, and one can easily find Trump lawn signs, bumper stickers, and large pickups decked with American flags tattered from too many miles of high speed driving. Head over the Cascades to Bend, my second-favorite city in Oregon, and I'm sure these indicators of Trumpism proliferate. In August, we saw them all over rural New Hampshire. I'm hearing stories of racist incidents taking place in Eugene and Los Angeles. We can pride ourselves on having progressive majorities, but there may very well be Trump voters living right across the street from us.

Somehow, we are going to have to live with these people. Seceding from the rest of the country isn't going to be any help at all. Political cleansing would be no more humane than ethnic cleansing. Like it or not, political diversity is all around us.

So what do I do with the mad that I feel? Lashing out at individuals is not the progressive way. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both been criticized for the graciousness of their concession of the election, and the White House, to Donald Trump, a living, breathing example of going high, even as his own campaign went as low as any in living memory. I'm sure they're both seething underneath with frustration at the electorate, outrage at the media, fury at Trump and his surrogates. But as with all intelligent progressive action, that anger, however righteous, must be channeled, tempered, used constructively. Use it irresponsibly--react in kind to the nasty gloating of the alt right--and we could find ourselves in the midst of a civil war. The right wing has been building to this moment since Newt Gingrich took over as Speaker of the House in 1994. We've got to find a way to back away from the abyss, to de-escalate the violent triumphalism of the right and the grief-stricken fury of the left, to come together as a people and a nation.

What do I do with the mad that I feel? Obviously, I write. This is my third post since the election, and the longest thus far. I'll also be wearing a safety pin, a simple nonpartisan symbol of my willingness to step into the midst of a potential hate crime and keep a fellow human from being victimized, and other humans from committing assault. I'll teach music to children, because music is a balm that can heal all manner of divisions, an unmatched force for truth and beauty. I'll perform music. I'll give to organizations that promote human dignity and advocate for the marginalized.

I'll be me. But moreso.

Now, what are you going to do with the mad that you feel?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Remember, Remember, the Eighth of November

Aftermath of last night's riots in Portland.

9/11, meet 11/9.

It's cropping up all over Facebook: the observation that reversing the calendar numbers of America's deadliest terrorist attack gives the date of Hillary Clinton's concession to Donald Trump, the greatest risk to American democracy since that attack. And I feel it, too, as I struggle to lose myself in chores, errands, tasks. For a few hours on Wednesday, teaching was the perfect drug, enabling me to check out of my base-level horror and just be utterly present for my students. Unfortunately, Thursday was a planning day--no student contact hours--and I spent most of it running recorders through my dishwasher, hardly an intellectually immersive task. Today is worse still: I've got nothing on my agenda that will keep me from thinking about what is happening all around me.

It would help if I could cut myself off from the media, both social and journalistic, but I can't. Every time I pick up my phone, my fingers move without volition to see what's happening, the headlines, the memes, the stories and feelings and ideas both friends and strangers are sharing, and before I know it, I'm like a novice swimmer thrown in the deep end, thrashing about, gasping for air, sobbing out my fear and grief.

I cried over breakfast. It wasn't the first time this week. (Check yesterday's blog for a selfie of me doing it in my kimono.) It won't be the last, either. I could do it right now.

For me, it all really happened on 11/8, not 11/9: when Amy and I went to bed, we knew what would greet us when we awoke. I awoke for the first time at 12:30, technically 11/9, to see the headline that Trump had one. Then I lay awake and stared at the dark ceiling, imagining all of President Obama's accomplishments being flushed down the shitter by a racist, misogynist narcissist. I got little sleep after that, and I haven't had a good night's sleep since.

It feels very much like that horrible time fifteen years ago: the sense that the world will never be the same, that all we believe in and hold dear is at risk, that our nation may never fully recover from the damage being done to it by people who hate what we represent. Except it's worse this time, because the haters are our fellow citizens, and the country was assaulted through a customary practice that is at the heart of its identity. There were no plane crashes, no bombs, no envelopes filled with pathogens: we did this in the most civilized way imaginable. We voted for it.

Of course, by "we" I mean barely a quarter of eligible voters, a smaller percentage than put Hitler into office. Had Clinton been able to hold onto Obama's 2012 majority, she would've won handily. But too many stayed home, and of those who remained, enough cast protest votes (for Stein, Johnson, or, most shocking of all, Trump) to hand the White House to a man who boasts of sexually assaulting women, who publicly mocks persons with disabilities, who slanders and belittles persons of color, of faiths other than whatever little one he espouses, who believe in truth and justice and compassion and...

Pardon me for a moment while I weep again.

There. That's better. For now.

So yes, to me this feels very much like 9/11, but worse. I have a sense it will go on for a very long time, that it will still be going on when my ashes have been scattered at whatever mountain summit I finally decide I like best, and that it will be negatively affecting the lives of my great-grandchildren. The world is going to be a poorer, smaller, more hateful place because of this. Many people will die, some from diseases that could've been treated had the Affordable Care Act not been dismantled, some from poverty they would not have known had the economy not blown up under Trump's inept guidance, some in wars that could've been avoided had a careful, sane person been in charge, and far too many from violent hate crimes. 

One of the things that made me weep today was reading about hate crimes being committed on the campus of the University of Oregon, that bastion of West Coast liberalism: students wearing blackface, threatening messages being left on the phones of student minority representatives, even a case of a law professor dressing up in blackface for a Halloween party. Yes, even in Oregon, racists are feeling empowered to ridicule and threaten people of color.

Another thing that got to me this morning was learning that anarchists had taken over the peaceful downtown Portland protest, and rampaged through the city, smashing shop windows, then crossing the river and wreaking havoc at a Toyota dealership. I remember seeing anarchists at every peace march I participated in during the Iraq War, watching them provoke the police officers who were keeping the streets safe and clear for us to march, admiring the cops for keeping their cool, and grieving the fact that this handful of knuckleheads, rather than the tens of thousands of us marching peacefully, would be the ones making headlines the next morning. That's what happened with last night's protests: the news locally and nationally is all about the rioting, not the protest, lending justification to the "law and order" President-elect's plans on cracking down on dissent.

It feels very much like the world I thought I would be living in today has been ripped from me and everyone I love. Like 9/11, this will be a time that I can never completely escape.

Of course, there were glimmers of hope in the first days after 9/11, moments when I felt like the nation was going to come together and show the world just how civilized we could be, how powerful in our unity, how measured in our response. That all went out the window, of course, when Bush invaded Iraq; but for a brief time, it really did look like there might be hope of a positive way out.

Perhaps that can happen now. Perhaps we who love what our country is supposed to represent can channel that love into protecting those values in unity with other like-minded citizens. That's how I intend to respond in the days ahead--at least, whenever I'm not too busy weeping.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Grandpa Would've Voted for Trump

Wait, what happened? Oh God...

For five hours yesterday, I was fine.

That's not the time I spent sleeping: my dreams have not been fine, and whenever I wake up (and being a 55-year-old man, that happens at least a couple of times a night), getting back to sleep has been a challenge, as my toss-and-turn thoughts are even more frightening than my dreams.

It's not the time I spent trying to lose myself in entertainment: the meandering, unsatisfying pilot for an Amazon reboot of The Tick, the Jane the Virgin episode I couldn't stay awake for, the video games I play on my phone, all of it feeling futile.

And while talking with colleagues, my principal, and family members felt important, necessary, and affirming, it also did nothing to pull me out of the despair that's constantly invading my consciousness.

The one thing that made it better was the children. For the few hours I was able to engage with my students, I was able not to think about the national tragedy that began with Donald Trump's announcement he would run for President on the Bigoted Demagogue ticket. For all the time I was in the presence of the children of Byrom Elementary School, I was able to clear my mental desktop of fear, anger, recrimination, and be completely and utterly in the moment. It wasn't all good: two of the nine classes I taught were dominated by autistic children having meltdowns, and their classmates not always reacting in positive ways; but even in crisis management, I was completely present with the children, no part of me even remotely thinking about the four words that have dominated every other waking  and dreaming moment:

President Elect Donald Trump.

I think those words, and find my eyes tearing up. My mind races from one pole to another: the slap in the face to persons of color, women, immigrants, people who believe in science, who value honesty and common sense, who absolutely have to be in the majority of Americans, and yet somehow couldn't muster a large enough plurality of votes outside of the West Coast and the Northeast to keep this from happening; the unavoidable speculation of what it means to the global community that the most powerful country in the world is going to stop honoring trade agreements and treaties, will pull out of alliances, will react to international crises with hostility rather than diplomacy; the sinking feeling that the working poor of this country are going to find it even harder to pay their bills, provide for their children, obtain medical care; the deep fear that climate change is going to continue to escalate, unchecked, as larger and larger portions of the planet are immersed in typhoons, hurricanes, and floods; the knowledge that all three branches of government will be dominated by a party that cares nothing for environmental or social responsibility, and that one of those branches may be so dominated for the rest of my life; the deep grief that whatever gains have been made for equity and justice under the leadership of a decent, intelligent, and inspiring President are going to be erased by the selfish know-nothing lazy narcissist who will take his place, rather than extended and enhanced by the brilliant and supremely competent stateswoman who could even now be making progressive history...

That list could go on. In fact, it has gone on all day long, well into the night, in my dreams, and in the thoughts that will not permit me to return to dreaming whenever I awaken.

I sat at the breakfast table this morning at 5 a.m. (I'd been awake since 3:45, and finally gave up when Clyde, realizing I was awake, began rubbing his furry head against me, hoping for kibble), listening to more podcast prognostication about how and why this has happened and what it means for the future, wiped the tears from my eyes several times, and had a sudden insight:

My grandfather would've been a Trump voter.

Frank Richard was a New England Canuck, descended from Acadians who settled in New Hampshire. Most of his family spoke French at home. He was something of a rebel: he left Catholicism to become a Baptist, was deeply involved in Masonry, and after the death of his first wife, abruptly moved his daughters to California where he was briefly married a second time before settling down with a third wife who was with him until his death in 1985. He was a skilled laborer and hard worker, a tree surgeon, carpenter, and ultimately a crafter of small parts for Boeing.

I didn't see much of my grandfather. His visits were rare and often contentious. I remember him arguing with my parents about their liberal approach to parenting and their far more progressive politics. I remember him talking about keeping a gun in his glove compartment to protect himself from the African-Americans (he used a different word for them that I will not repeat here) in Seattle, where he lived during his Boeing years. I remember the huge mounted buck head that was always hanging in his home (and, when I was 6 and we visited, wondering how its body fit into the wall behind it). I think we visited his "cabin" (a fairly modern home he had built, and retired to, at Silver Lake) just once, and were gruffly told not to sit on certain pieces of furniture. On that visit, he taught me how to fish, and when I landed a large catfish, he expressed the only pride I ever felt from him as he took it off the hook for me, then clubbed it with a monkey wrench. In later years, he developed Parkinson's Disease, had several strokes, and finished out his life at a Masonic Home.

He voted twice for Nixon, and was loyal to him to the end, insisting to my parents that it was all a misunderstanding, a Democratic plot to bring down a great man.

And he would have voted for Trump. When I was in New Hampshire in August, laying my father's ashes to rest, I saw plenty of Trump signs there, sensed the angry vibe of working class New Englanders. The global economy has left them behind. My grandfather was of that class. He would've wanted to "make America great again."

My brothers and I have, for the most part, taken after the other side of our family. We are all university educated, many of us with graduate degrees. Our paternal grandparents were New Deal Democrats who believed in the principles of the Social Gospel: civil rights, universal suffrage, global interdependence. I'm proud to embrace that heritage.

It's important, though, that I also acknowledge the fear and uncertainty of people like my other grandfather, who feel themselves being left behind by a country and world they no longer recognize.

Because I, and people like me, are about to find themselves exactly where they were just a year ago. I don't recognize the America that elected Donald Trump, and a year from now, this nation will not in any way resemble the country I hoped it could become.