Sunday, January 22, 2017

Show Me What Democracy Looks Like

              This is what democracy looks like!                                           ....and so is this.

It's the chant that makes you feel good just for turning out. Long before I heard marchers shouting it, I was thinking it: walking across the Burnside Bridge behind several young soon-to-be marchers who were excitedly waving their signs at all the honking cars that passed them; and at the same time, gazing south at the thousands of people streaming into Waterfront Park; the words were already in my head: "Show me what democracy looks like!" "This is what democracy looks like!"

So yes, democracy definitely looks like large groups of people coming together to voice their opinion about some national issue. As I marched with those thousands, I saw a plethora of issues proclaimed on their signs: reproductive choice, an end to sexist discrimination and assault, defending the civil rights of immigrants and persons of color, protecting the still-fragile right to marriage for same-gendered couples, nuclear disarmament, global climate change, all the things that make for a progressive political platform. The one thing uniting all those subgroups of protesters: the inauguration of a monstrous human being as President whose agenda is anathema to them all.

And it was great to be there: comforting, inspiring, a new birth of hope. It was also, unfortunately, a reminder of the forces that brought progressive democracy such an excruciating defeat two months ago.

The organizers planned for a far smaller crowd than the multitudes who showed up. They began the event with a rally at which a number of speakers addressed the crowd. When I arrived at noon, the publicized starting time, I had no idea this was going on, nor did anyone around me: there were so many of us crammed into the park, spilling out across Naito Parkway to the other side, that I and the people around me were several blocks back from the rally. We couldn't hear or, much worse, see a thing. All we knew was that we had come to march, and we weren't moving. We continued not to move for two hours, as chants of "Let us march!" rolled across the crowd. Finally, at around 2:00, a stream of frustrated marchers began making their way a block over to 1st Street. Amy (who was there early, and present for the entire rally) tells me that this was the point at which the organizers gave up on getting every speaker up to the microphone, and just let the marchers go.

I feel for the speakers who didn't get a chance to address the crowd, and for the organizers who found themselves over-blessed with such huge numbers of protesters. Despite the impatience that led so many to take to a street not on the official route, the event was, by all accounts, utterly peaceful, unmarred by any acts of anarchist violence. After it was over, Portland Police congratulated the marchers on public media for being so orderly.

And yet, as encouraging as it is to be part of a mass showing of resistance to Trumpism, I have to express this worry: can we keep it up for four more years?

I've been part of progressive movements that ran out of steam before. In the early 2000s, there was the MoveOn response to the invasion of Iraq that was supposed to make George W. Bush into a one-term President. A few well-told lies about an uninspiring Democratic opponent left us with four more years of bumbling, not to mention tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A few years later, I was thrilled to see the Occupy movement raising awareness of toxic capitalism.

MoveOn may have laid the groundwork for Barack Obama's Presidency, so there is that. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, has descendents in both the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump camps. But neither became a genuine national movement. The Tea Party was far more successful at changing the face of Washington, electing some of the most powerful--and conservative--members of the House and Senate.

The difficulty for progressives is that we have so many things we care about, and every one of them is important enough to merit having its own movement. I remember this from work I did with the Human Dignity movement in the early 1990s: our cause was simply turning back the anti-gay Oregon Citizens Alliance, and we did that well; but frequently our meetings and discussions were interrupted by activists who wanted us to also take stands on clear cutting, abortion, animal rights, and other causes that pique the interest of liberals. The organizers of that movement were effective at politely--and gently--letting these people down. They knew that letting their organization become too diffused would result in failure. Sticking to their guns, they managed to keep the focus on basic rights, and ultimately won on many fronts, including marriage equality.

The Women's March yesterday brought out people representing all those diverse causes, and many more. That's what stands in the way of this becoming not just an event, but a movement that can accomplish in 2018 what the Tea Party did in 2010: dilution, if not total rejection, of the President's agenda; and defeat at the polls for all the craven Congresspersons and Senators who've shilled for him.

The progressive movement is at its strongest when its diverse elements band together, working for a single cause. There's no need for any of us to give up our individual passions: whether one is feminist, Black, Hispanic, Muslim, LGBTQ, environmentalist, or anything else that typically comes under the Democratic banner, or, more likely, any combination of those identities, all can agree that a massive turnover in Congress and the White House serves all their interests. As the Hillary Clinton campaign rightly proclaimed, we are all stronger together than any one of us is individually. It's this biggest of tents, the tent that most looks like America, that serves all those causes best.

Working for all those causes at the same time is, unfortunately, also the movement's greatest weakness. As happened in yesterday's march, some are bound to become impatient with the pace of change, and opt for a different route. That may make sense--while the Women's March organizers may have been frustrated to have to end their rally early, the good mood of the crowd out of range of the rally was teetering on the brink of much greater frustration, not to mention hypothermia and claustrophobia, and the release valve of just going ahead and marching down a parallel street probably kept many of us from having a bad feeling about the overall event--but in the bigger picture, it takes full cooperation to bring about the macro change that will enable progress on all the other issues. I've been at activist meetings where some people left the group out of frustration that they couldn't get it converted to their more specialized causes.

At its heart, democracy is a messy, dangerous thing. Uprisings are hard to direct, and without that direction, can go badly awry. The Haitian slave uprising quickly became a reverse-genocidal bloodbath as liberator slaves turned on their former masters. The French Revolution culminated in guillotines for aristocrats. An over-regulated uprising, on the other hand, runs the risk of enabling fascism or Soviet-style absolutism.

Setting these extreme examples aside, it must still be acknowledged that democracy--the people deciding how to be governed--has had a decidedly mixed record in this country. Sometimes it elevates an individual who transcends history, and sets the nation on a path toward higher ideals. At other times, it chooses a nincompoop with a friendly smile or, worse, a monster gifted at manipulating the masses with lies and corrupt promises. Democracy has given us saints and sinners, geniuses and dolts, technocrats and preachers. It gave us Obama, and now it has given us Trump.

If we can build on the peaceful, inspired unity of yesterday's march, democracy may yet save this nation from disaster. But it won't come easy: all of us must be willing to table our most passionate policies to make way for the one that can only be accomplished in unity. If we can, this nation may yet see a new birth in liberty, a turning back from authoritarian nationalism, and reclamation of government that is of, by, and for all the people.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

What Hath Democracy Wrought?

Image may contain: one or more people, crowd and outdoor
One very small slice of the Portland Women's March.

I still haven't warmed up.

It took me an hour and a half of mostly standing in one place, then finally working around the multiple bottlenecks on Naito Parkway, to meet up with Amy at today's demonstration. I've heard statistics being thrown around about the event drawing as many as 100,000 people, and based on my previous experience with such events, I can believe it. It's the first march I've been in that was so slow to start, and also the first that happened during an atypically drenching rain (most Oregon rain, contrary to what non-Oregonians think, is showery and/or misty) that didn't let up until we were making our exit from the march by crossing the Hawthorne Bridge. That also gave us our first glimpse of the sweep of this event, and it was stunning. So, too, was the atmosphere within the crowd: despite the chill, the rain, the press of bodies, and the long wait to start moving--and, much more than any of those, our fury at the very thought of Donald Trump being President, a fluke of history that inspired marches like this across the country and even around the world--the general spirit was cheerful. People around me joked, laughed, politely made way for persons trying to move through the crowd, delighted in the cheeky messages hoisted on soggy signs, chanted enthusiastically, joined into rolling cheers that reminded me of the Oregon Brewers Festival. Once the demonstration finally became a march, spirits went up even higher. There was no sense of the grief I know I am not alone in bearing, the fear that democracy may die over the course of this administration.

Don't get me wrong: physically, I was cold, wet, and miserable. My teeth were chattering by the time we decided we'd had enough, and I'd only been there for two and a half hours. Amy's presence at the march started with an early arrival at the pre-march rally, so she had another hour and a half on top of that. Once we were out of the march zone, heading back to my distant parking place on the east side of the river, we both became much more aware of just how cold and wet we were. It's a good thing my new car has seat warmers.

The grief, though: all this week, I've felt a deepening sense of despair, as if I was counting down the days, then hours, to an execution. Like many, I hoped for a deus ex machina to avert this catastrophic transition: perhaps there'd be one ethics violation too many, and the Republicans would turn on him. Maybe he'd get cold feet and walk away from the job. Maybe he'd be indicted for a sex crime. Or maybe the letter from his doctor would turn out to be the biggest lie of all, and he'd suddenly drop dead of a massive heart attack. But no, none of that happened.

And while millions across America marched in outrage at what the 45th Presidency means not just for our nation, but for the world, Trump went on making a spectacle of himself, insisting in front of a room full of CIA employees that the news media had faked the pictures of a sparsely attended inauguration, claiming that he'd had a record turnout. Meanwhile, the Women's March was setting real records, with packed demonstrations dwarfing any previous coordinated protest.

It's a hard time to be a progressive, a Democrat, or simply an American who believes in democracy. There is just no getting around the reality we're facing: American democracy has dealt us a losing hand.

It's not the first time this has happened. By its very nature of reflecting the will of those who choose to vote, whether or not they're well-informed and using their brains (as opposed to their viscera) to mark their ballots, democracy can be a disturbingly chaotic method for choosing leaders. The founders understood this, and crafted a system that might soften the whimsical nature of the electorate by filtering it through senior statesmen. It took just a generation or two for the voters to rebel against this approach, though, and since the 1820s, and apart from the electoral college that has now graced us with President Trump, the overall trend in American democracy has been to extend the vote to more citizens, rather than limiting it to those who can be trusted to make a rational choice. At times, this has resulted in the election of transformational leaders who could never have achieved victory if they'd had to rise through the ranks of the establishment; at others (now, for instance), it's resulted in a chaos candidate rising to the top. Voters are fickle, easily swayed by cynical appeals to their baser instincts, quick to fall for a winning smile or an appeal to choose self-interest over the greater good, anarchy over responsibility. Sometimes democracy lands a huge turd in the Oval Office. And here we are.

Apart from the march today, I've been engaging in a quiet pedagogical protest. My third graders were originally scheduled to have their concert next Thursday--though thanks to the two weeks of snow and ice days, I was able to push that date back a month--and as the concert drew near, I needed to pick some songs for them to sing. As soon as the election results were in, I knew exactly what I wanted them to learn: protest songs from the Civil Rights Era.

All this week, I've been introducing them to "If I Had a Hammer." As I'm teaching them the song, I share with them the role it played in the struggle for equal rights. Thursday as I was talking to one class about how both this song and the other they'll be learning soon, "Weave Me the Sunshine," are about people coming together to support each other, fight for each other's rights, and help each other heal, one child blurted out, "It's going to take four years for us to heal from Donald Trump." Friday I was talking to a different class about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez fighting for the rights of African-Americans and immigrant farmworkers, and a child raised his hand and began talking about how white people had long had more rights than black people, and it was time for that to change.

I teach in a middle class suburb. Most of my students are white, with a small sprinkling of students whose ethnicity is Mexican, Asian, or African. It's a huge contrast from my previous gig in a low-income, much more diverse school; and it's easy at times to think these children are out of touch with the concerns of the less privileged. Being with them this week, hearing them speak so sincerely about what these new songs meant to them, seeing how they care for each other--it was exactly where I needed to be, especially on Friday. It kept me from falling apart, and it laid the groundwork for the new sense of hope I feel today in the aftermath of a march which is, I believe, just the beginning of a movement that will transform this nation into the post-racist, post-misogynist, cosmopolitan democracy it was always meant to be.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Worst Form of Government

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
--Winston Churchill

We are four days away from the official beginning of the worst presidency in the history of the United States.

Do I know this for a fact? Can I be absolutely certain that Donald Trump's administration will be a disaster from start to finish? That his minions will be able to sell off public education, Medicare, Social Security, the National Parks, the interstate highway system? That he will expel immigrants, close the borders, alienate China will cozying up to Russia, abandon Europe, invade Mexico, launch a nuclear attack on Iran? That he will force the American power industry to abandon alternative energy initiatives and revert to burning coal, the auto industry to mothball emissions-reducing hybrid and electric technology in favor of giant exhaust-belching SUVs, the paper industry to resume clear cutting old growth forests, oil companies to drill in the heart of national wildlife refuges? That his nominees to the Supreme Court will reverse all recent progress on civil rights, reject attempts to overturn voter suppression, throw out Presidential term limits and even elections so that he can remain Dictator in Chief as long as medical technology can keep his tiny heart beating, if not until the end of the warranty on the robot body his narcissistic brain is eventually transplanted into?

No, I don't know it. I can't be certain any of these things will happen. Trump could drop dead of a heart attack next week, be impeached for flagrant violations of the emoluments clause next month, resign this summer out of frustration frustration at how hard it actually is to rule the world--though any of those contingencies would put Mike Pence in the Oval Office, handing over the reins to a smooth talker who can probably be far more effective getting Congress on board with his insidious right wing agenda. More likely is that the populist working-class vote that gave Trump his small electoral vote victory will be quickly disenchanted with how blatantly business-oriented his government is, how harmful to their own interests repeal of the Affordable Care Act will be, and how baldly anti-labor the Republican Congress has become, and will vote accordingly in 2018, handing at least part of Capitol Hill back to the Democrats. Meanwhile, even with conservatives taking the place of retiring, age-incapacitated, or dying liberal justices (not to mention the "Scalia seat" that should have gone to Merrick Garland), the Supreme Court will finally rule on gerrymandering, a practice so obviously anti-democratic that not even a Republican-Senate-approved Trump appointee could justify allowing it to continue. Meanwhile, Democrats will finally learn the lessons of the Tea Party, and respond to every outrage the GOP attempts to foist on the nation with organized grass roots fury. 

Trump's not even in office yet, but this last brake on his power is already gearing up. In Aurora, Colorado, a Congressman meeting with small groups of constituents snuck out the back door rather than face the hundreds waiting to tell him to leave Obamacare alone. Phone calls and tweets led House power-brokers to table plans to water down an independent ethics panel. Across America, pro-ACA demonstrations are drawing thousands. If this country goes into the dark night of authoritarianism, it will not be without a fight.

I wish it didn't have to be this way; that our government could arrive at bilateral decisions through thoughtful, courteous debate; that elections could be trusted to elevate leaders who genuinely represent the majority of the American people, but who never forget that the minority who didn't vote for them are also still their constituents.

That's what the founders of every democracy have wished. And yet, going back to the very first democracies, it's always been understood that this is a deeply flawed method of choosing leaders, as Winston Churchill famously observed. It's why the Constitution originally set the power to elect the President several layers away from the voting citizenry. The actual votes for the Presidency were cast by electors, who were themselves appointed by state legislatures, themselves elected by direct vote of white, propertied men. It took 48 years for the intermediation of the state houses to disappear from the equation, another 40 to officially open the ballot to non-white voters, 50 more after that to permit women to vote; and still, 228 years after the first Presidential election, the electoral college remains in place, skewing the result toward more conservative populations. All those buffers were in place to prevent a result like that we're facing this week: a demagogic populist with neither the experience nor the temperament to oversee the world's largest economy, most powerful military, and most influential culture. This wasn't supposed to be possible.

But that's the thing about democracy: it runs on chaos energy.

Churchill was well-acquainted with the more direct democracy of parliamentary rule. For all the trappings of royalist tradition surrounding it, British government is more purely democratic than our layered system. The British elect members of parliament; the leader of the party with the most members becomes prime minister; and whichever party has the majority rules absolutely. The majority can act as tyrannically as it wishes--although, since it is always just one election away from losing its power, it has to be utterly responsive to its constituents. Debates in the House of Commons are raucous affairs, and the prime minister is regularly subjected to blistering "question times" that make an American press conference look like tea at the Empress Hotel. Absolutely shut out of power, minority parties in Britain take seriously the responsibility of being the loyal opposition, and oh, how they oppose.

American democracy has only just begun to relearn this lesson. For most of the 20th century, Congress was a polite debating society, and Presidents governed with dignity, unafraid of disrespectful attacks from constituents, reporters, or other politicians. That all began to change with the Republican revolution of the 1990s, and Newt Gingrich's unabashedly partisan reign as Speaker of the House. The Tea Party movement of the early Obama years threw gasoline on this fire. Those who opposed government policy no longer felt the need to be polite, respectful, or even decent. Town halls on health policy devolved into shouting matches, and the Affordable Care Act was passed without any help from Congressional Republicans, who had realized that their return to power was predicated on opposing every appointee and piece of legislation to come from the Democratic party.

That effective strategy has landed us where we are, and has placed Republicans in an uncomfortable position: they've got the power to advance their extreme agenda, but they have it solely by virtue of the Trumpian con America fell for. They stitched together an ugly victory at every level by suppressing Democratic votes and encouraging nationalistic tendencies in their own base--people who, had they been tuned into Republican, rather than Trumpian, policies would have been furious at what they were ratifying with those Trump votes. Trump's populist message, whether or not he believed it, was often anti-capitalist; the Ryan agenda is ruthlessly pro-capitalism. Trump promised to protect the retirement safety net; Ryan hopes to discard it in favor of something market-based. Trump stirred up white working class support by being rabidly anti-trade and anti-immigration; the Republican establishment understands that economic progress depends on open borders.

It falls to Democrats to be a truly loyal opposition. Rather than cravenly opposing, in a knee-jerk fashion, everything that comes out of the White House and from the office of the Speaker simply because it is Republican, Democrats must fight back for reasons of justice, morality, and ethics. Yes, we must turn out in large, loud gatherings, just as the Tea Party did, to oppose any health care initiative that would remove coverage from any American, for any reason; but we must do it for our neighbors, and not for the insurance companies. Yes, we must express our anger and fear, and do it in huge numbers; but we must at the same time make common cause with the disenchanted Trump voters who are already discovering he was not really their champion, after all.

We'll be helped along the way by the simple truth that the Democratic agenda is, quite literally, democratic: of the people, by the people, for the people. Progressive American values are community values, values that are inherently coalition building. It's easy to contrast every single Republican profit-driven health care proposal with the simple principle of health care for all; to promote the rights of every American to have a voice in government over the backward Republican appeal to just white male voters; to insist, and never stop insisting, that this country belongs to all citizens, not just the billionaires who want to buy it out from under us.

Consistently argued by organized citizens, these are ideals that can and will defend this nation from the rapacious minority who are about to assume full control of Washington, and, in two years' time, will begin to take that control back from them.

Democracy got us into this mess. Democracy will get us out of it.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Failure to Empathize

The overabundance of flags, the pretentious sign on the podium, the table filled with (most likely) bogus documents, and most of all, the man himself--Lord help us.

I never see it coming.

It happens like this: I'm teaching a music class to kindergartners. They're deeply engaged, enjoying the story I'm telling, learning the rhyme we'll be turning into a percussion piece, playing the game I've just taught them. And then something happens: I child gets bumped by a classmate, doesn't want to partner with a neighbor, is told "I'm not your friend anymore." Those are the minor causes. Sometimes it's a child suddenly remembering she misses her dead daddy, or that his parents are breaking up. Whatever the cause, it's not something I can preempt, and now I've got a crying kinder on my hands. There may or not be sobs; sometimes (and these are the hardest ones for me to take) it's just tears streaming down a silent face.

Then comes the magic: as soon as the tears are detected, the weeping child is enveloped in a cloud of empathy. The lesson grinds to a halt as I make my way into the huddle, separate the weeper from all the other little people trying to hug their grieving classmate, and figure out what triggered the tears so I can address it. If I'm lucky, the emotion can be diverted through a pat on the back and a promise that the coolest instrument will be in this child's hands in the next rotation, and then the lesson can resume.

When this happens, I'm torn between the standard teacher frustration of having to break the flow of the lesson and a sense of wonder at how naturally empathy comes to a 5-year-old. Kindergarten is on a 4-day rotation through music, meaning I see most of these children just once a week, so I've got very little time to get a concept across to them. At the same time, though, I have to admit that being able to keep a steady beat--something we'll keep working on through first grade, and well into second grade--isn't nearly important to the development of these children as learning to empathize and act compassionately.

And yet, I'm not sure it has to be taught. My consistent experience as a teacher has been that small children can switch effortlessly from angry selfishness to sincere compassion. Narcissistic meanness, on the other hand, grows as children mature, peaking in the teen years. Even then, though, it's not uncommon to see young people overcome with empathetic sadness for a traumatized classmate.

How does it happen, then, that so many adults appear to lose their ability to empathize?

All around us are people in need: hungry, homeless, debt-ridden, sick, disabled, marginalized for factors beyond their control that make them different from the norms of American culture. There are people who dedicate their lives to caring for the needy: nuns, pastors, social workers, activists, missionaries. There are others who donate money, resources, and time to alleviate some of their suffering.

And then there are people who just don't care or, worse, engage in a primitive moral theology that blames all victims for their dire situations. The reasoning goes like this: everything happens for a reason. So you must have done something awful to wind up like this. God/Allah/Karma is punishing you. And who am I to get in the way of cosmic justice? More than that, why should my tax dollars go toward helping you out of this mess that you got yourself into?

You'll note that this mode of reasoning gives a ready excuse for failing to empathize: the poor and oppressed are simply sinners receiving their just desserts. It also lays the groundwork for the Republican party's most ingrained justification for neglecting the marginalized: if they got themselves into this boat, it's not our job to get them out. And for those who still empathize with these victims of their own making, there's one more nail in the coffin of compassion: helping them out could, in the long run, be dooming them to even more suffering. Only through hard work and self-motivation can they hope to attain redemption. It's the old bootstraps trick: if you don't learn to pull yourself up, then you'll always be dependent on the dole.

That's how compassionate conservatism operated through the 1990s and into the Bush II era. It went hand in hand with the excoriation of liberalism as a bleeding-heart approach to social ills, and was so effective that Clinton-era Democrats stopped using the word, opting instead for "progressive." With the election of Barack Obama, however, the compassion gloves came off: here was a President who could do no right in the eyes of conservatives, in large part because of the color of his skin. He wasn't their President. White antipathy for him was quickly associated with the policies he sought to promote and implement. The Tea Party movement grew out of this anger toward people of color who no longer knew their place. The white working class had suffered some hard economic blows, in part from the economic collapse brought on by Bush era policies, but also because the global economy was shifting away from American manufacturing. Neither of these trends was the fault of the new Black President, who actually spent most of his two terms working to dig the nation out of the hole his predecessor had put it in. But he was different: he looked different, he talked different, he thought different.

Empathy is about feeling commonality. Kindergartners feel each other's pain because it's so easy for them to say, "Me too." If I was knocked down the way you were, I'd be crying too. If my parents split up, I'd be scared and upset too. Making that association makes it that much easier to reach out in concern, across superficial distinctions of race, language, ethnicity, or creed.

The fury of the Tea Party was grounded in rejecting commonality, and focusing on distinction: those in power represented a liberally educated elite, far more diverse than the ranks of the opposition. Tea Partiers felt no kinship with Democrats, and Republicans were happy to exploit that antipathy, to stoke the fires and ride the conflagration all the way to overthrowing Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Once there, they continued to play the antipathy card, refusing to cooperate with the Obama administration, holding out for a Republican to take his place. Had their proposed policies in any way modeled compassion for immigrants, minorities, or the poor, they would have lost the hard edge, so instead, they had to become opponents of empathy. The possibility that a handful of individuals might exploit a social program were grounds for ending it, even if it meant condemning millions of Americans to hunger, homelessness, and losing the health care they had only recently received under the Affordable Care Act. Righteous indignation at the misdeeds of the few trumped compassion for the many.

I used "trumped" intentionally, because this Republican Congress laid the groundwork for Donald Trump to scratch his way into the Oval Office by reigniting the anger of white voters against those different from themselves. Trump campaigned against empathy, welcoming the support of racists, sexists, and xenophobes. The economic benefits of open borders were rejected in favor of a narrow nationalism. Trump's policy proposals were aimed exclusively at his base of angry white men, whom he encouraged to focus on their own frustrations, rather than on the needs of the nation as a whole.

The steady drumbeat--I almost typed "Trumpbeat" there--of vitriol has tainted the nation's spirit. Trump in victory has been uglier than he was on the campaign trail. Winning is everything to this man, and his followers have eagerly embraced that ethic. Perhaps it's the result of an evolving global economy that has, for too long, cast them as losers; but it's an ugly thing to witness, especially for those of us on the receiving end of the gloating. 

Which brings me, again, back to empathy. Empathetic winners don't gloat. In fact, as good as it feels to succeed, when success happens in a competitive environment, it always comes at the expense of others. Knowing that others are losing, it's very hard, if one has any heart at all, not to feel their pain. I was thrilled to get the job I now have, but I knew from my years of experience not getting jobs like this how hard it is to be on the losing end of an interview. This led me to feel awkward in the company of colleagues who, I knew, were themselves struggling to find a better job, any job, in a profession that has an embarrassing surplus of skilled applicants vying for a paucity of openings. I wanted to celebrate at this success that came after so many years of longing, but I couldn't help feeling their own fear and disappointment.

That's how my students are, to get back to them, especially the youngest ones. Children wear their disappointment on their faces, and even in the midst of victory, they're quick to comfort their former opponents.

I hope that will always be the case. Lately, though, I'm becoming concerned that Trumpism will eat away at the native empathy of children. In the two months since the election, we teachers have all noticed an increase in aggression among our students. There's something in the air that seems to reflect the increased aggression we're seeing on the highway, in the grocery store, at the gym. People who used to repress their more hateful impulses are expressing them openly. And it's rubbing off on the children. At school, at least, we have disciplinary techniques for dealing with aggression, and it's always appropriate to turn it into a teaching moment.

But I worry. In particular, I worry that the name "Donald Trump" is now being used by misbehaving children in the same way "fart" or "poop" would be: to get a laugh from their peers, and in the process, disrupt the lesson. I ignore the word, focusing instead on rewarding children who are on task, separating children who play on each other's goofiness, and occasionally sending an especially disruptive child to the "Alone Zone" to write an apology. But it's in the air.

And now I'm going to bring it back to myself. I find myself suffering from my own failure to empathize--with Donald Trump. Yesterday morning, I was tempted to watch his press conference (it was a snow day, or I would've been much more happily teaching). Instead, I followed it on my New York Times app as reporters live-tweeted what they were seeing and hearing. I was appalled just at this filtered experience. Later in the day, I heard one sound clip--just one--of Trump speaking at the press conference, and had I not been out on a walk in a public place, I would have screamed an obscenity. Had I been watching it on the television, I would've been tempting to put a fist in the middle of the screen.

There's no getting around it: I want to punch him in the face. I heard him reject a question from a CNN reporter, disparaging that network as a purveyor of "fake news," and I wanted to hit him. I'm a pacifist, a tried and true believer in solving problems through dialogue and empathy, and all I felt toward the man was hatred.

What's worse is that I'm feeling it toward his followers, as well. This is problematic for me, because I've spent much of my life living with, being related to, and serving the very rural and working class people who were Trump's core constituency. I sat in their living rooms, listened to their concerns, prayed with them, served them Communion, offered them words of encouragement and inspiration through my sermons, knew them to be good people with big hearts. In the words of Tex Sample, a Methodist theologian I had the good fortune to hear preach on several occasions, they were "oral people": people who might hold conservative beliefs but who, upon hearing the story of an individual who had suffered from those beliefs, could almost immediately evolve out of them. That "oral" nature is handy when one is trying to convince a person to empathize with a young gay man and, in the process, to open their minds to liberalizing church policies on gay participation. It also means, unfortunately, that they are politically mercurial. With his race-baiting and xenophobia-mongering, Donald Trump helped them make a connection between social progress and economic loss. It's a false connection--the loss of mining and manufacturing jobs has nothing to do with immigration, marriage equality, feminism, or political correctness--but that's beside the point. Because they felt it, they believe it.

And because they believe it, I'm beginning to lose my empathy for them. I know life has been hard for them, that many of them have lost friends and family to drug addiction, that they're mourning the passing of a culture that gave them comfort and support; but all I experience when I see the ragged American flags attached to their pickups, see the "Make America Great Again" slogans on their t-shirts and hats, or hear them railing against minorities or praising their narcissistic leader, is fury. 

That's right: the King of Antipathy is making all of America--not just the part that voted for him--a bit uglier.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Capitol Heresy

Richard Nixon is sworn in as the 37th President of the United States

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God. --Oath of Office for all U.S. Senators and Members of Congress prescribed in the United States Code, Title 5, Section 3331.

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. --Presidential Oath of Office prescribed in the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1.

They all take an oath.

It's a very American approach to government service: while our elected officials are not required to profess belief in any religion (though admitting disbelief is still considering an electoral third rail), they are required to believe in the Constitution; and, more than believing in it, to protect it. This obligation reaches far beyond Capitol Hill: Article VI includes all officers of the executive and judicial branches, not to mention state legislators.

So this is serious business. Our identity as a nation is inextricably bound up with this founding document and the rights it enshrines. It's a defining characteristic of American democracy, distinguishing it from Old World republics grounded in tradition rather than a Constitution. As much as evangelicals may want to claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, grounded in the Bible, it is really the Constitution that is the one holy book binding us all together--a document that explicitly forbids the nation from subjecting elected officials to any kind of religious test.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has spent any time at all being part of an actual religious community can tell you, the one thing that really unites all religions is hypocrisy. And anyone who studies American government can apply that same truth to the individuals taking either of the oaths of office with which I began this essay.

Republican hypocrisy burst on the scene before the House of Representatives was even seated for its new term, as a House organizing committee moved to defang an independent Congressional ethics commission. The rule change was met with a flood of protests by constituents, culminating in a tweet from the Hypocrite-in-Chief questioning its timing, and was quickly withdrawn. The message was clear, though: expecting Congresspersons to put the best interests of the nation ahead of their own ambition is folly.

That doesn't mean we should all just lie down and admit the oath of office is a fantasy, or that taking it is simply a formality. Consider another sphere of American government in which oath-taking is essential: the judicial system. When witnesses appear in court, their first task is to take an oath. Should they later be found to have violated that oath by lying on the witness stand, they are subject to penalties, including imprisonment.

Members of Congress and Presidents do not promise to be model citizens. They're not promising never to lie, never to cheat on their spouses, never to be complicit in the death of another human being, never to profit in any way from their offices (though there are other clauses in the Constitution that forbid just that bit of graft). The one thing they are swearing to is defending the Constitution. The Congressional oath spells this out in much more explicitly than the Presidential version, stating that the legislator will support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, whether foreign or domestic. The President, meanwhile, is promising to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.

The significance of this language triggered something for me just now, as I remembered that in Britain, since the days of Henry VIII, one of the monarch's titles has been Defender of the Faith. That American officials--not just the President, but all officials, whether elected or appointed--are considered Defenders of the Constitution underlines the assertion that Constitutional Democracy is the True American Religion.

As defenders of the Constitution, these officials are expected to hold up everything they do against this standard. To the extent that an official's actions violate the Constitution, whether by endangering the rights of citizens, coming under the influence of a foreign entity, or whatever other act of power-mongering, self-aggrandizement, or human rights violation may be committed, that official has not just committed hypocrisy, but heresy.

This sheds a different light on the campaign promises of the President-elect. When Donald Trump spoke of stripping Muslim-Americans of their rights to due process, he blasphemed. When he refused to release his taxes, he rejected the financial transparency that is essential to proving himself not under the influence of a foreign power.

The Republicans running Congress are just as guilty as Trump is of committing mortal sins against American democracy. Stonewalling President Obama's Supreme Court nomination, rushing ahead to repeal a health care law that covers tens of millions of their own constituents, pushing through safety net and tax "reforms" that will weaken support for the vast majority of Americans while lining the pockets of the already well-to-do--the GOP Congressional agenda is rife with policies that will, if not explicitly violating the letter of the Constitution, trample on its spirit. And because they've achieved that rarity of a unified partisan government, they can expect that, once this radical legislation passes both houses, it will not only be signed into law by the new President, but ratified by a conservative Supreme Court.

I used to be a United Methodist minister. While it's been years since I put on the robes of that office, I still feel the need to honor places of worship when I enter them: to change the tone of my voice, the content of my conversation, and to avoid in any way making light of what goes on in a sanctuary. I have always felt the same way about legislative chambers. These are holy places, places in which the spirit of democracy is made manifest through debate and parliamentary procedure, in which the will of the American people is carried out by their elected representatives.

Bit by bit, I've been feeling for several years now that these chambers are being blasphemed. To the extent that American government worked, it was that the people we elected believed in the Constitution, and while they might not always agree on its interpretation, they were at least sincere in their desire to fulfill their oaths to protect and defend it. When the occasional heretic violated that trust, Congress acted to impeach, censure, even expel the culprit.

No more. There are now powerful persons in Congress and, soon, in the White House whose attitude toward the Constitution is callous at best. Donald Trump cares nothing for the protections of the Bill of Rights. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will do little, if anything, to stop him as he runs rampant over those protections.

The one sliver of hope I perceive comes from last week's reversal of the House's bald-faced attempt to dispense with an ethics watchdog: what these politicians care most about is not the principles of conservatism, not the upholding of their oaths, but their jobs. Make enough phone calls, send enough letters, raise enough of a fuss, and they have to take notice. At least for now, this is still a democracy.

For now.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A House Divided

The 2016 election results by county.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South. --Abraham Lincoln, 1858

It's a terrible feeling.

I first experienced it in 1994. That was the year of coming apart, as my first marriage unraveled completely. My gut knew it long before my head was ready to accept it, and the more certain my intuition was of the great cataclysm ahead, the harder my mind labored to turn back. Those desperate efforts, and the ever-deeper denial, were exhausting. When things finally broke, the dividing house of the marriage was mirrored in the war that broke out within me. I'd never experienced such a complete emotional collapse, and haven't since. It was months before I could think clearly about any future beyond the next few hours of survival.

It happened again in 1999, as a far-too-hasty second marriage ended. Again, I poured myself into holding things together, but when those efforts proved as futile as in the first go-round, I was much better prepared. It still hurt, and triggered another catastrophe, hastening my exit from the ministry.

Since then, I've been through a number of other traumas involving relationships, re-litigated custody issues, family crises, and career ups-and-downs. Some of those relationship traumas have resonated with those earlier divorce odysseys. But nothing has compared with the nauseating revelation of December 12, 1994, the night that everything I held dear was torn in two.

Nothing, that is, until November 8, 2016, the night red America demanded a divorce.

The buildup to election night resonated eerily: crazy things were being said and done, things that should have completely disqualified Trump in the minds of any rational voter, and yet millions of people were responding "Hell, yeah!" The Clinton campaign tried taking the high road, but toward the end, began airing powerful ads reminding voters of what this monstrous man had said and done, but to no effect. Irrationality had taken over. Red America was on the edge of the abyss, and rather than fearing what a dive into that darkness could do to the body as a whole, was recklessly curious.

So they jumped. And as is so often the case in divorce, they got everything they wanted, while we of blue America, exhausted from trying to keep things civil and united for so long, horrified at what red America was willing to embrace, stunned by the magnitude of the loss, could not muster a strong enough response to avoid any of it. The bastard took it all, the house, the kids, the good car, the pension, all of it, leaving us shivering and forlorn with the carload of belongings we were able to get away with in a tiny apartment in the Divorce Arms.

As if that wasn't enough, now they're parading around town, boasting of their victory, giddily proclaiming how much better off they'll be with that sleazy ass of a new boyfriend. They're blind to his manifold flaws. All they know is he's not Hillary, not Barack, not the boring old socially responsible conscience who's always nagging us about taking care of the poor and protecting the environment. This new guy may not care about anyone but himself, may just be in it to have a good time, but at the very least it's going to be an exciting ride.

Divorce confronts us with some harsh realities: how could this person we spent so much time with be such an alien? That's not the partner I knew! Reckless, irrational, vindictive, explosive, back-biting, treacherous, dishonest--how could I have been so blind?

That's how I'm feeling about red America. I knew some of them were racist, sexist, xenophobic, reactionary, radically fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, irrational; but I had no idea those feelings could come out on such a sweeping national scale as to elect this buffoon President. I've spent a large portion of my life living among these people, serving them as a pastor, teaching their children; and yet now it seems I never really knew them at all.

A big part of divorce sickness is realizing you've been married to a stranger, that you've been sharing a bed with someone who apparently is an utter psychopath. Waking up to this reality--and the even more frightening sense that you've gone along for the ride, have even enabled and empowered this person to do such crazy things, have become a willing accomplice in the insanity--is the worst part of divorce. All that time together--the courting, the romance, the adventures, the celebrations, the embraces, the passion, the laughter, the memories--now reveals itself to have been a lie.

Coming to understand these things about our former partner, it's tempting to just wash our hands of them, say "Good riddance," take our share of the estate, and be done with them. If we were to divide the country by red and blue counties, blue America would actually come away with far better economic assets: the nation's largest urban centers, the silicon valley and forest, most of the Western and Eastern coastlines, and most of the Mexican border. We might even feel a giddy elation at what those heels will be left with.

Until it sinks in that they're getting some of the countryside we've fought the hardest to protect: national parks and monuments, old growth forests, wilderness, mountains, deserts, tundra, all of it in the hands of that boorish bastard who wants to cut it down, drill it, pollute it, trash it, exploit it until every last penny of profit has been extracted and is lining the pockets of his cronies.

So for all the giddy liberation we may be anticipating at finally being rid of those red staters, there's a cost associated with it. Even shared custody means losing some say in how children are being raised. Secession means giving full custody of this nation's most spectacular wonders to money-crazed tycoons.

Divorce is a cold, nasty, brutish thing, an abusive gift that keeps giving. I know it's tempting to just bring an end to it, to hop on the secession bandwagon and join Canada, or create Pacific or Cascadia or Ecotopia. But as Abraham Lincoln prophesied in 1858, if this house that is America divides itself in real, concrete ways, it will not stand. We cannot go on having red states and blue states, especially since, as the map above demonstrates, even the reddest of states have blue counties; and there are Republican counties even in the Democratic stronghold of the West Coast. If we partition ourselves along partisan lines, the whole nation will collapse.

That doesn't mean we have to give in, roll over, let the bastards turn this marriage into a farce. Three years after Lincoln spoke those words, the United States tore itself apart over slavery. It still has not completely put itself back together, but it's not for lack of trying.

I've rarely initiated breakups. Both my divorces were initiated by my partners, and there were many times when I felt like they had it much easier than I did. Holding a failing relationship together is a desperate, frantic, thankless, often futile struggle; but it's vital work. If there is to be a United States four years from now that is, as Lincoln hoped at Gettysburg, "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all ... are created equal," we will have to fight for it. We are going to have to force red America to stay married to us, be constantly in their faces with what it really means to be a great nation: diversity, hospitality, advocacy for the weak, intervention for the oppressed, fairness and equity and justice for all. In the hearts of hearts, they know that this is the nation they really want to live in: not the white power dystopia of the alt-right, not the money-is-power fever dream of the robber barons, not the privatized welfare state of the Republican elite; but an America that really is of the people, by the people, for the people.

That's why we must not just lie down and take it, why we must not angrily divorce ourselves from the struggle. It's up to us to hang onto the vision, to defend it, promote it, in order that it does not perish from the earth.