Tuesday, February 28, 2017


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The Taj Mahal, Atlantic City

Huge, gaudy, ugly, impossible to ignore, bankrupt, empty, squatting on several blocks of Atlantic City's fabled Boardwalk: the Taj Mahal is the perfect memorial to the Trump regime.

If only he'd taken up residence there, instead of on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Trump financed construction of this enormous eyesore with junk bonds. A year after it opened, he put it through bankruptcy. It subsequently reopened, thrived for a time, then closed its doors last October, a month before the election that elevated Trump to the Presidency. I was in Atlantic City shortly before the election, attending a music educators conference. From my hotel room, I could see brightly lit casinos extending up the Boardwalk for miles. In their midst stood the dark hulk of the Taj Mahal's hotel tower, its huge TRUMP sign turned off. Strolling on the Boardwalk, I paused to photograph the shiny hulk, thinking it was a fitting metaphor for the Trump campaign.

Three days later, to my horror, I was proven utterly wrong: the Taj Mahal is a metaphor for America.

Trump built his entire campaign on defending the privilege of old white men, particularly rich old white men. Those few wealthy votes were, of course, far from enough to score him his technical victory in the electoral college: he noted substantial numbers of working class men and women, mostly white, rural, and spread across the mountain states, the Midwest, and the South. Consult a detailed electoral map, and you can see Trump losing most of the places where his name dominates the skyline. City people hate him. Coastal people can't stand him. Even many of the people who put him over the top are skeptical of him, but allowed themselves to be convinced he was a "lesser evil" than the brilliant technocrat vying to be the first female President.

His fans, though--his white, racist, misogynist, xenophobic fans--they can't get enough of him. They're fully on board with his vacuous promise to "make America great again."

As with all Trump's exaggerations, distortions, fabrications, and blatant lies, that campaign slogan does not mean what many of his followers think it means. In their minds, America was greatest when polite white men led industry and government; when justices, congressmen (as opposed to congresspersons), senators, and, of course, Presidents all looked like the people gathered around Trump in so many of the pictures taken since he moved into the oval office: white, white, white, and masculine to a man.

To Trump and his followers, this is an act of restoration, putting the country back in the hands of its rightful owners. That means reversing decades of progress on civil rights, purging the diversity that has exemplified both Democratic and Republican administrations going back to the 1970s, ejecting the great numbers of immigrants whose contributions keep our economy humming, making entry to this country so difficult that overnight the USA has become anathema not just to those seeking green cards but even to visitors and tourists. I wrote a few weeks ago about the difficulty a friend and mentor, Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo (a Ghanaian national, Canadian resident, and international presenter) experienced in San Francisco, en route to a workshop in Portland, as CBP agents grilled him for hours. His ordeal was far from unique: academics from around the world have found themselves interrogated over minutiae; and Muhammad Ali, Jr., son of an American treasure who was recruited by both the Reagan and Carter administrations to be a goodwill ambassador, was held for questioning simply because of his Muslim name.

I've written, and will write, thousands of words about why the Trump administration's slammed door policy is an affront to the identity of this nation. Right now, I'm going to focus on a single issue that I find most galling of all:

I don't belong here.

Maybe that's too specific. Let me broaden it:

We don't belong here.

And by we, I mean people who look like me, who come from the same gene pool as me. I'm of mixed European stock: French, German, Swedish, Scottish, perhaps a few traces of something else. My ancestors came to these shores starting in the 1600s, all of them seeking a better life. Some of the earliest were Acadians, French-speaking Canadians forced to leave their homes in the Maritimes by British squatters. Some traveled as far away as New Orleans; the Acadians in my background simply cross the St. Lawrence, and took refuge in New Hampshire. They actually make up the largest slice of my immigrant pie: at least 3/8 of me entered the United States as refugees.

Francophone, Anglophone, Teutonic, or Scandinavian, they all share one thing in common: for them to become Americans, people of color who were already here, had, in fact, been here for millennia before my ancestors arrived, had to either relocate or die. Simultaneously, millions more persons of color were imported as slaves, brought to build up the infrastructure of the new nation, to plant and harvest its crops, to live, have children, and die for centuries as the property of white squatters. Others were brought in as indentured workers to labor for a pittance, then be expelled. Still others established Spanish speaking mixed-race mestizo colonies in the Southwest, only to lose the right to govern themselves in wars and political deals. Again, white squatters moved in, took over, and subjugated anyone who didn't look like them.

We never belonged here, but that didn't stop us from claiming the right of conquest, dominating all we considered inferior based on the impurity of their skin color. Generations of white squatters have skimmed the work product of these people, often treating them as cattle, property, even vermin. The "greatness" of this country lies heavily on their backs. Without their efforts, there would have been no Southern agrarian wealth, no transcontinental railroad, no northern industrial revolution. The millions of them who live here now without documentation feed billions into the economy, paying taxes into a system from which they enjoy few benefits: no Medicaid, Food Stamps, Social Security, or Medicare; and no security in the protective services of police, who are just as likely to deport them as address their safety concerns.

And now our President as the gall to tell them they are no longer welcome, to squander billions on a pointless symbolic wall, and to declare persons of color from across the planet personae non gratae, ignorant of the huge contribution they make to every segment of the economy, not to mention to the richness of a culture that is so much more beautiful than the gilded apartment where his wife and child live.

There's a word for a creature that moves into someone else's home and takes over, eventually either killing or expelling the original resident: parasite.

I get it, fellow white people. We don't want to think of ourselves that way. We're innovators, inventors, artists, evangelists, spreading the gospel of progress, of Western civilization, taming the savages of the wilderness, employing those tamed savages to help us build a shiny new nation.

That's a lie, though. There were already people here when we arrived. Rather than just move in beside them, we declared war on them, slaughtering them with our superior weapons and the diseases we carried with us across the ocean. Those who survived we expelled from their ancestral homes, forcing them into ever-smaller reservations. Finding ourselves now mysteriously short of labor, we raided other continents, and forced their residents to work for us. The nation finally constructed, we now found ourselves in the company of millions of people who bore little resemblance to ourselves, either physically or culturally. Rather than open our arms to them, thank them for their contributions, and welcome them into even partial membership in our culture, we established policies that excluded them from our privileges and rights.

Squatters. Invasive species. Virulent parasites. That's me, that's everyone who looks like me, and most of all, that's you, Mr. President.

The time is coming when there will be a great reckoning, when the people upon whom we built this nation set aside their differences with each other, unite, and claim the power that is so clearly their right. And they will be so much more powerful than Trump and all his minions, however rabid, can ever hope to be. His exclusionist, protectionist policies are going to bring the economy to its knees. The nationalists whose approval so matters to him will chant his praise. They will continue to vote for him and his weak-willed Capitol Hill allies, even as their policies favor the wealthy few. But the reckoning is coming: African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, Muslim-, Native-, transgender-, female-Americans--and the white men who agree with them--will be taking this country back from those who see greatness only in whiteness.

One might argue that we'll be the ones really making it great again, but that would be a lie. America's greatness did not go away, even with the ascent of the Trump regime. Our greatness lies in our diversity. The more we embrace each other, the greater we become.

Together, we will make America greater than it's ever been, a country born in the coming together of indigenous people, immigrants, slaves, and refugees, united to form the most diverse citizenry the world has ever known.

And yes, there's even room for squatters like me.

Monday, February 20, 2017

An Appeal to Trump Christians

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
--Matthew 25:31-46
You've heard some part of this before. If you've ever been a church-going Christian, chances are good some preacher used it to make you squirm uncomfortably in the pew. For those of us ordained folk who have ever fancied ourselves in the school of the social gospel, or considered ourselves, in one way or another, on a mission from God, this may well be a favorite passage. Speaking for myself, I had it in regular rotation.

It's sometime called the "Parable of the Last Judgment," but that's a misnomer. Apart from the brief reference to animal husbandry, there's nothing metaphorical about it. It reads to me like a sermon, containing as it does a real-life (to first century Mediterraneans, anyway) illustration, vivid imagery, a surprise twist, and a warning that could easily be turned into an altar call. At its most superficial level, it's revival preaching: wake up and small the coffee before it's too late! If you want to avoid the Wrath to Come, get busy performing acts of compassion!

Dig deeper, and we find something powerfully subversive about the text, which is not so much about actions or beliefs as it is about identity. For many in the Christian world, both Catholic and Protestant, the great debate is between faith and works: are we saved by what we believe, or by what we do? Can we make ourselves more faithful by doing good works, or does great faith inspire us to perform more good works? Answer correctly, and win eternal life; answer wrong, and go away into eternal punishment.

Some will look at this passage and call it a prescription for works-righteousness. Clearly, the sheep have lived lives of good works, meeting Jesus in the most unlikely of places, and have earned their place in eternity. There's a problem with that reading, though: the sheep are clueless as to how their actions have saved them. "When did we ever meet you?" they want to know. And here's where the significance of calling them sheep--vs. goats--kicks in: they didn't choose to be sheep, that is, people who simply did the good, compassionate thing. It's just who they were. The same goes for the goats: they didn't set out to ignore the needy and, in the process, the presence of Jesus in their lives. It was simply in their nature.

The subversive quality of this scenario is that it contradicts the most essential tenet of evangelism: salvation is not about having a personal relationship with Jesus as defined by the evangelist; it's about being a compassionate person who cares for and ministers to the needy. Original sin, the Virgin birth, the Atonement, the Trinity--dogmatic sound and fury, signifying nothing. Jesus is telling us the way to eternal life is to be a good humanist.

We live in a schismatic nation, in which a President appoints himself Son of Man, judging who will remain in the promised land and who will be cast out into eternal darkness. His criteria for exclusion: faith, country of origin, pigmentation. It's as if the goatiest of goats found himself sitting on the throne. As one might expect, he's hell-bent on changing the rules to favor himself. That's just how goats are.

The most galling thing to me about the antichrist-in-chief is that so many Christians were and are wholly embracing this abomination. A Pew Research Center analysis of the 2016 Presidential vote shows Trump winning 58% of Protestant and 52% of Catholic votes. Secular commentators were shocked that so many Christians could support a candidate whose understanding of the faith, and adherence to its principles, were both so obviously lacking, though I was unsurprised by their willingness to forgive his shortcomings. What I can't begin to understand, and never have been able to understand, is how eager conservative Christians are to embrace political philosophies that do not even pay lip service to compassion. Remember when George W. Bush pushed had to append the word "compassionate" to "conservative" because the latter had become associated with cruelty and selfishness, qualities that gave even the most hard shell of Baptists cause for concern? That appears to be the case no more. Candidate Trump rose to prominence on a platform of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny, proclaiming to cheering crowds that he would expel children and refugees from the United States, literally wall them out, and pull the country back from its commitment to making the world a better place. President Trump moved fast to implement all those hateful policies, though he is finding, thankfully, that Washington bureaucracy has a way of slowing down demolition projects.

But to get back to Jesus, and to the radical subversion of this text: the judgment is not about what religion card one carries in one's wallet, whether one wears a cross around one's neck or a hajab, whether one can recite a Creed or passages from the Koran, or whether even one has any faith at all. It's about compassion: seeing people suffering and in need, and caring for them. In doing so, even completely unaware of the presence of Jesus in the situation, one does his work. The way the passage is worded, it's likely that some who are judged worthy of eternal life may have no creed at all. For my part, I've known many faithless humanitarians who didn't need a scripture or a sermon to motivate them to act compassionately. Many of them devote their entire lives to such work.

This is not, I must hasten to add, to say that all Christians are hypocrites. Far from it: everywhere there is need, there are Christian missionaries whose work is not spreading the gospel, but caring for the needy. I know some will argue that the best witness is the performance of good works, and in fact that's an interpretation for this passage that works fine.

The part that doesn't work is this: since the founding of Christianity, there have been some who sought to define it by doctrine, rather than identity. Correct belief was what got one included in the church community and, by extension, in the promise of eternal life. Believe incorrectly, and one could find oneself excommunicated, no matter how good one's works might be. The present regime fits this description to a tee, though they have expanded the definition to include the entire nation: believe as we do, or be rejected at the border.

And this is where I throw up my hands and cry out to the people I used to think I understood: these are the very people the gospel demands you care for. They're hungry, thirsty, sick, strangers to this land; and yet, rather than reach out in compassion to them, you reject them, even imprison them. Come on, Christians. So many of you have hearts of compassion. I've seen it, been on the receiving end of it, and I know it's always been sincere. Put those hearts to work once more. There's a lot more than control of Congress at stake. If you believe the Bible, riding the Trump train could have eternal implications you're not going to like.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Light Bulb Has to Want to Change

It's a tired old joke.

It's also true.

It's a truth I avoided until I was 24: I needed help. I was not coping with adult life, especially post-college adult life, whether as a grad student, a struggling first-year (and, as a result of that struggle, almost only year) teacher, then a seminarian. Each year, the loneliness and depression deepened, until finally I walked into the campus mental health center at SMU and was assigned a therapist. He helped me get over my difficulties with dating (primarily that I didn't know how to do it). Once I'd been on a few dates, and gotten serious, I proposed to my first real girlfriend, and felt so good that I pronounced myself cured.

Five years later, my marriage and career in ministry were falling apart, and I finally went back to therapy. This time I stuck with it: there were interruptions, but it was nineteen years before I decided I'd really done all the therapy I needed. All told, between 1985 and 2010, I saw ten different therapists. Several were pastoral counselors, trained in both psychology and theology. One was a rabbi, two were Lutheran ministers, one a United Methodist. One was an advocate of yoga. Two were women. In those two decades of therapy, I developed excellent skills at self-examination and self-awareness. I learned to probe the source of my feelings, to challenge the knee-jerk associations I made in the moment: often the deepest, darkest reactions are triggered by moments that evoke old traumas, and have little to do with the situation at hand. Self-knowledge has not been a cure-all--it's of little use when feelings of oppression are legitimate, because someone really is out to get me--but they've saved me, and my loved ones, from the sort of emotional torrents that alienated several friends and lovers in my younger days.

I share this experience as a preface to my own take on what is becoming conventional wisdom about our President: that he should be removed from office because he's insane, demented, pathological, paranoid, narcissistic, cognitively compromised, and a dozen other armchair diagnoses that both laypeople and mental health professionals have been making since Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the Presidency. I'm not a psychologist. I've taken some classes, as has anyone who's trained to be a teacher or pastor, but if anything, those courses made me extremely cautious about judging the mental health of anyone besides myself (and even in that regard, I'm much happier having the help of a trained professional in doing so). In fact, one seminary course on counseling I took could be summed up with the monotonous assertion on every page of the textbook to refer, refer, refer at the first hint of emotional distress.

I'm sure that's still what they teach in psych courses for laypeople. Even more important is the caveat, spoken by many a writer in the field of psychology, that no practitioner should make a diagnosis without spending considerable time with the subject in question. That hasn't stopped at least two degreed counselors I know from publicly declaring the President is suffering from Narcissistic Personality Order or the early stages of dementia. Nor has it kept newspapers from publishing op-eds by psychologists drawing similar conclusions.

To boil all these qualifications down: I cannot say with any certainty that the President is suffering from a mental illness, or that he should be removed from office for that reason. If he is to be impeached or in some other way removed, it is up to Congress to take that action, and if they do, it will be for political, rather than psychological, reasons: a majority of Republicans will have concluded they, and their party, that it is in the best interest of the party, and of their careers, to bring charges against the most powerful man in the world, a man whose followers, however small their numbers in real terms (less than 20% of all Americans), are possessed of a perfect storm of rabid ignorant fanaticism that makes the Tea Party look, in comparison, like an actual tea party.

With that said, President Trump has demonstrated repeatedly in the not-quite-a-month (seems like years) he's been in office that he has no interest in presenting or promoting stability, either at home or abroad. Historians caution against drawing parallels with authoritarian leaders of the past or the milieus that gave birth to their movements, and yet the similarities are inescapable: demonization and persecution of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities; blatant deception that fools no one but his followers; declaring war on both the press and the judiciary; choosing to head up a campaign rally rather than attend a summit the purpose of which is to calm the rest of the free world; preening for cameras; boasting that his margin of victory was a landslide, that the White House is accomplishing more and running smoother, than any previous administration (all lies); making high level appointments to vital government agencies using appearance and loyalty, rather than competence and experience, as essential criteria; ignoring intelligence briefings; bypassing the media to appeal directly to his rabid base through Tweets and that execrable Florida rally--time and again, Trump's choices have been those of an unbalanced tyrant. To call his decisions, actions, pronouncements, speeches, everything he does "unpresidential" is to make a colossal understatement.

Again, I can't say that he's genuinely mentally ill. This dumpster firestorm could be a macro shell game, keeping the nation distracted while, behind his back, he undermines the very foundations of our Constitutional democracy, until, one morning, we wake up and realize we are no longer living in a true republic. That's as much a possibility, I'm afraid, as him actually being insane: he's the epitome of the crazy fox, and it's just a matter of time until he emerges from the henhouse, blood dripping from his jowls, nothing but feathers left in the nest.

Whether or not he is insane, he's been acting and speaking in ways that are unacceptable. If one of my students violated so many of the reasonable expectations I, and my school, have for behavior in our classrooms, he or she would be on a behavior plan. That's what he's got in common with a naughty first grader. The difference between the two is inequity: a first grader might have a few dollars in the piggy bank. Trump has an undisclosed amount of dollars invested in hotels and other products (how much is impossible to know, as he won't release his taxes, but given his penchant for telling whoppers, it can't be anywhere near as much as he's led us to believe).

If that first grader continues to misbehave through puberty and adolescence, and eventually is diagnosed with a psychological disorder, another dissimilarity kicks in: there's a substantial chance that he or she will wind up dead, whether from self-harm or at the hands of law enforcement. Meanwhile, the President has an enormous security apparatus protecting him at voter expense. The lesson in this: acting crazy gets a poor person shot, and a rich person elected President.

Where's the hope in this insanity? As I said earlier, it's up to Congress to do the political calculus and come to the decision that such behavior will not be tolerated in the Oval Office. They're nowhere near that point yet. They're more like the doting parents who just don't understand why so many teachers are complaining about how their darling child is acting, even as lesson upon lesson is hijacked, and every other child in the class suffers from the misbehavior. Like those parents, Congress needs a wakeup call. Perhaps it will be the droves of protesters at their constituent town hall meetings: it's already gotten ACA repeal pushed to a back burner. Or maybe it'll be the corporate interests that, facing boycott over their ties to Trump, publicly denounce him. Corporations matter to Republican leaders, more, it often seems, than constituents. At some point, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are going to have to make an extremely uncomfortable appointment with the President, and give him the choice of resigning or being removed.

Because he's not going to change. He doesn't want to. So they're going to have to do the changing themselves.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

We Don't Deserve Their Devotion

A week ago today, it got personal.

Three years ago, I traveled to Ghana to learn about the West African roots of Orff Schulwerk, the philosophy that guides my practice as a music educator. The trip was a mind-expander: every day was filled with rich experiences that were new to me. Sights, sounds, smells, flavors, and most of all, people. Everywhere I went there were people speaking languages I did not know, or speaking my own language in accents I had rarely, if ever, heard. And music, so much music, permeating every aspect of this culture that was simultaneously more ancient than anything white American culture has to offer, was the beating heart of all the music I have ever lived, and has organically gone its own way for so long since it influenced American music that it is a whole other world unto itself. Guiding me, and forty other educators, through this experience--organizing every aspect of the trip, curating nightly performances, taking us on day trips to local festivals and ritual celebrations, protecting us from con artists, getting some of us medical attention, and above all giving us a frame of reference for this spectacular and hospitable place--was Kofi Gbolonyo.

Kofi is an incredible human being. Born and raised in the humble village of Dzodze, he grew up to become a dancer, musician, and educator, eventually traveling to the United States to earn graduate degrees in ethnomusicology. He is now on the faculty of the University of British Columbia, but that's just his home base. Annually, he travels tens of thousands of miles to share the wonders of Ghanaian culture with other music educators. He does it using Orff methods, sneakily drawing participants into learning to move, play, and sing the games and music he grew up with, until they discover, to their amazement, that they are now able to perform this complex music themselves. These are techniques I've used with children for years, techniques every Orff presenter uses with educators as well; and yet when I experience them through Kofi, I can't help feeling that he didn't just pick this stuff up (like every other adult in the room) from a workshop or course: it's as much a part of his culture as the music he's using it to teach.

You may have gathered from this description that I'm a little in awe of Dr. Kofi J.S. Gbolonyo. Of all the international musicians, educators, thinkers, and theologians I've encountered, Kofi is far and away the best example of a cultural ambassador, a man with a big, generous heart whose warmth is contagious.

And now comes the part that's hard to say.

A week ago, Kofi was in Portland to present a workshop for the Portland Orff Schulwerk Association, an organization of music educators of which I'm currently the president. I'd been eager to bring him here ever since that 2014 trip, knowing he had so much to offer from a perspective outside of anyone we'd had in my memory. He didn't disappoint: I could tell my fellow participants were having a wonderful time, that their world was getting bigger with every song, dance, or game he taught.

After the workshop I was over, I drove Kofi to dinner, then the airport. On the way, he talked about passing through the San Francisco airport on his way hear from Brazil, where he'd just been for a conference. Since San Francisco was his port of entry on this trip, he had to pass through customs before he could board his connecting flight to Portland. For the first time in all his many journeys to America, Customs and Border Protection agents treated him with suspicion, questioning him repeatedly about what he'd been doing in Brazil, where he was going, why his passport was so unusual (he travels so frequently that it takes three passport booklets, stapled together, to hold all his current visas). The agents were humorless, dogged, and hostile. This was not a welcome.

Kofi is not from any of the seven countries President Trump banned from entry into the US two weeks ago. The only African country on that list is Somalia, thousands of miles from Ghana--and, it should be noted, while Kofi is still a citizen of Ghana, his permanent address is Vancouver, BC. He is obviously African, in both appearance and accent. And that was probably enough to give the CBP agents an excuse to hold him for questioning and grill him like a suspect.

And this is just a taste of what hundreds of travelers, many of them refugees, have experienced since Trump issued his order.

I was horrified when I read about the order, furious when I learned how quickly CBP officials pounced on it and the liberties they began taking with travelers with even passing association with any of Trump's targeted nations. I haven't had many experiences with American customs agents, but they've never been anything I could call pleasant. Coming through customs last March, after a spring break trip to Victoria, the contrast with the Canadian officers was striking: they were humorless, fully armed, and suspicious of anything that struck them as out of place. And this was while their boss was still Barack Obama. The stories I've heard in the last two weeks (including Kofi's) make we wonder if xenophobia is a prerequisite for the job.

Many of those stories are heart-breaking. Kofi was inconvenienced, treated rudely, but ultimately allowed to continue on his way. Many of the people affected by the travel ban were refused entry, sent back to their points of origin, whether or not they had homes to return to, even if they had valid green cards (and some were coerced into surrendering those documents).

I felt some relief that, at least for now, the Trump regime has grudgingly agreed to cooperate with the many court orders putting stays on his decree. The preponderance of those orders strongly suggests the ban, as currently worded, will not pass muster at any level of the judicial system. Trump has said he may revise it to address the many legal concerns with how it's been framed and implemented. In the meantime, he's ordered an immigration crackdown: ICE officers have stepped up enforcement, putting employers, landlords, school principals, anyone who deals with undocumented immigrants in any capacity that there are likely to be more raids in their future. None of the people being targeted by ICE are from the seven countries Trump attempted to close American borders to. No, these are Mexicans: in fact, the nation of Mexico has warned all its citizens currently living in the United States to expect increased ICE activity.

At this point in the essay, I could go on a long rant that this is not what the United States is all about, that immigrants make us the strong vibrant nation we are, that it is our diversity that sets us apart from all other nations, that we are renowned as a welcoming nation where people of all colors, ethnicities, and creeds can enjoy freedom and prosperity--but I'm not going to. Because it's only ever been partially true.

There are certainly been times when the floodgates were opened, and immigrants poured into this country. But there has never been a blanket welcome. Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese immigrants have all been greeted with suspicion, hostility, and abuse. Selective border restrictions have shut out whichever human beings Americans most feared or hated. In the buildup to World War II, European Jews were turned away; after Pearl Harbor. Citizenship was no guarantee of fair treatment, either: after Pearl Harbor, American citizens of Japanese descent were stripped of their rights, had their property seized, and were interned in camps. In the 1950s, Operation Wetback deported many American citizens of Mexican descent.

And don't even get me started on the horrors of how we've dealt with the millions of African-Americans whose ancestors were brought her, against their will, to be slaves. Or how the white majority has suppressed and slaughtered the people who were already here when Europeans first arrived.

This nation of immigrants, with its rainbow of skin colors and its chimeric culture, has never known exactly what to do with the ongoing renewal that comes with new waves of immigration--or with the lasting presence of so many millions who differ in any way from the European norms of the dominant culture. We've alternated between welcoming and rejecting them for so long, and in so many ways, that perhaps it's fitting we finally have a President who embodies our national bipolarity toward immigrants.

Fitting or not, though, it appalls me. If America's relationship to its immigration was an actual interpersonal relationship, it'd be well past time for the immigrants to write us off and go have a happier life somewhere else.

Nevertheless, they persist. There must be something about this country that, as badly as we treat these people, is worth all the effort they put into coming and staying here. Perhaps someday we'll live up to those dreams of who we are, deserve their devotion.

But not with this President.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Time That Is Given Us (or, Saving the Republic)

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

It is a frightening thing when the real world surpasses not just science fiction, but epic fantasy.

An enlightened, scandal-free Black President has been succeeded by a narcissistic misanthrope and his white nationalist allies. Power-hungry corrupt politicians are all too willing to jump on his fascistic bandwagon, just so long as it helps them realize their vision of a regulation-free, billionaire-friendly America. In Europe, interdependent globalism collapses to make way for similarly bizarre demagoguery. Meanwhile, global temperature records are broken every year. The populists are fiddling as the world burns.

You could make this stuff up, but no editor would accept the manuscript. "Ludicrous! Unbelievable! Write me something that could actually happen!"

This is the moment in epic fantasies, both ancient and modern, when the hero emerges: Hercules, Beowulf, Sampson, the Golem, Superman, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones (and yes, I'm aware those are all--with the possible exception of the Golem--men), saving the world with courage, goodness, cleverness, and at least a dash of some magical superpower. It's a brawny trope present in so much classic literature that, when I see it happening in a novel or movie, I find myself yawning.

And that's what makes The Lord of the Rings (as well as its prequel, The Hobbit) a true classic. J.R.R. Tolkien was steeped in epic fantasy, and clearly loved it. But he lived in a world shattered by world wars that put the battles in those classics to shame. The twin apocalypses of those conflicts demonstrated that true victory comes not from expending destructive power, but from the deeds of ordinary people who overcome their fear and weakness to turn the tide for good. The heroes of these books are hobbits, small people who eschew adventure, preferring the pleasures of home and hearth. They would rather keep to themselves while the world beyond the borders of their Shire tears itself asunder.

But the world will not leave them alone, and almost by accident, four of them are caught up in the maelstrom of a world war upon which the survival of humanity depends. They're too small to really fight, easily scooped up and put in chains by enemy forces eager to use them as hostages. The real fighting is done by the more traditional heroes: the noble elves, the courageous riders of Rohan, the brave soldiers of Gondor, aided by the powerful wizard Gandalf, led by the demigod prince Aragorn. These forces battle the evil armies of Sauron to a standstill.

And then Frodo, despite himself and thanks to the intervention of the even more unlikely Gollum, succeeds in his quest of throwing a ring into a volcano.

That simple act brings down Sauron. His armies collapse. Gondor and its allies are victorious. Aragorn is installed as king, and an era of incomparable prosperity ensues. The elves retire across the sea, their role in Middle Earth complete. The hobbits are honored for their decisive role in defeating the evil empire. But the toll on their souls is great, too much for Frodo: he joins the elves on their journey across the sea.

To return us to our present dystopian reality: if our republic is to be saved, and with it, the planet, it will not be great heroes who accomplish this victory. It won't be Hillary Clinton. Nor will it be Bernie Sanders, or even Elizabeth Warren, though they are doing all they can to hold off the creep of corrupt authoritarianism.

The saviors of our republic will be hobbits.

I'm speaking metaphorically, of course. But only a little: the strength of American democracy has always been ordinary people doing their jobs with integrity. People the Twit in Chief despises. No, I'm not talking about the working class people he claims to love, who turned out in just barely large enough numbers to turn just barely enough electoral votes in his favor, handing him a technical victory even as the popular vote was against him. He is President now because this is a nation founded on due process and the rule of law--two principles for which he is, ironically, little respect.

Throughout the campaign, and continuing from the Oval Office (or, perhaps, his bedroom in the Residence), Trump has tweeted incessantly about individuals, institutions, and corporations who stand in the way of his agenda. His cruel racist travel ban is being turned back by courts, so he casts aspersions on the judicial system, earning him the dismay of his own nominee to the Supreme Court. Any reporting on the unseemlier aspects of his regime is dubbed "fake news." Celebrities who stayed away from the inauguration or, worse, have the nerve to publicly satirize or ridicule him are labeled has-beens, unfunny. UC Berkeley's decision to cancel a controversial speech to protect the speaker from violent anarchists led Trump to threaten their federal funding. States speaking up for their federalist rights to decide policies within their own borders have also received the defunding threat. Ordinary bureaucrats exercising their statutory rights to disagree with Trumpian policies have been told to resign. And most significant of all, the millions who have turned out to peacefully protest the regime have been told to grow up, top being crybabies, and just accept the undemocratic result of the election.

Trump seems not to understand that dissent is the sine qua non of democracy. Without the astroturfed Tea Party opposition to the Affordable Care Act, it would have far fewer flaws, as Congress had to respond to all those objections--and yet, it would also be a far less American program, delivered by edict of the tyrannical majority. Trump has been trying for three weeks now to impose all of his agenda in this way, issuing executive orders with little or no consultation, becoming furious when demonstrators, lawyers, civil servants, the news media, and even a few members of his own party fight back. He reacts in true toddler tyrant fashion, tantruming on Twitter, occasionally sending his flacks and lawyers to do battle for him as they spout untruths and seek to spin the chaos his edicts create.

The good news is that the hobbits are succeeding. Unlikely heroes all, they are individuals who are often on the receiving end of negative polling: lawyers, journalists, feminists, bureaucrats, professors, activists. They are people who care about principles. Yes, they've been mostly quiet during eight years of progressive erosion, as Republicans have aggrandized the power of Tea Party fury into majorities in state houses and the Capitol. That hibernation has come to an end now--a bit too late to save the election, but not to late, it can be hoped, to bring the republic back from the brink.

It appears the travel ban will be turned back by courts. It appears, as well, that the news media will finally shed the illusion of false equivalency, as even the New York Times is calling out the President on his lies in its headlines. Bureaucrats have only begun to fight, using rogue Twitter accounts to broadcast unpleasant truths about the regime, signing letters of dissent at the State Department, and very much not resigning their posts. And the masses of dissenters have found new strength in numbers, joining together to fill city streets with their marches. 

I'm tempted to say it's a good time to be a hobbit, but it's not. As Gandalf acknowledged to Frodo, none of us want to live through times like this. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Best Worst Thing

By nature, I'm conservative.

If you've read any of my previous 470 posts, I know exactly what you're thinking: wwwhhhaaaaatttt???? So just to be clear: I'm not talking politics here, or at least, not about any of the positions being taken by Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, or (shudder) the Twit-in-Chief. The conservatism of which I speak is fear of changing jobs--or, more specifically, fear of losing a job.

My father was a Methodist minister. That meant a meager income and frequent moves--on the average, every three years--but it also meant there was never any fear that he would be jobless. Since the antiquity of the Methodist movement, its preachers have struck a bargain with the church: in exchange for serving in whatever setting the Bishop chooses, they are guaranteed appointments through retirement. This clergy tenure system kept even grossly corrupt, immoral, and incompetent ministers employed. Mind you, there was no guarantee the minister would like where he or she was sent by the Bishop: often the church-provided housing was substandard, the parishioners uncooperative, the local school system failing; and of course, the salary was just barely enough to keep one's head above water.

But that was all I knew, and so I came to count on Dad always having a pulpit, and our family always having a roof over our head, food on the table, and health insurance. Only later in life, once Dad had retired, did I learn how hard much of his career had been for him. He probably would've been happier as a public school teacher, but by the time he realized that, he couldn't justify the upheaval that would've meant for his family. With five boys to feed, we were always living on the edge financially. There was no way Dad could leave ministry without rendering us homeless and hungry for as long as it took him to earn his credential and find a teaching job.

I spent the first year of my post-university adult life the way a 20-something should: figuring out how to get by on very little money, substitute teaching, then taking temp jobs when the subbing dried up. Had a kept at it for another year or two, my teaching chops and self-confidence would've been strong enough for me to build a great career on, and I would now be thinking about early retirement. Instead, the instability of that year chased me back to the relative security of university life: I went to seminary. That meant I could put off, for 3-4 more years, having to figure out where and how to live; and if I succeeded in being ordained and appointed, I might never have to worry about finding a job the non-Methodist-minister way. Yes, it would mean spending my adult life itinerating, just as my father did; but it would also mean income and housing security for the family I would one day have.

Once I got into ministry, I had to fight for the "tenure" level of ordination. My status was probationary for eight years. Only in the midst of divorce was I finally elevated to the status of elder, one benefit of which was the guarantee of lifelong employment.

Four years later, it fell apart.

The handwriting had been on the wall from the moment I began my first student pastorate. I'm an introvert. I've known introverted pastors who managed to be successful by learning conversational skills, and I picked up those skills myself. I did not, however, ever become comfortable with the day-to-day professional friendliness ministry requires, and as my career progressed, I found more and more excuses for staying in my study rather than traveling around my parish visiting people.

The final straw was a second divorce and, with it, a surrender to solitude that my senior pastor and the administrators overseeing me could not ignore. I accepted placement on disability, which meant giving up my house, as well as most of my income. The only way I could think to survive was to move into a communal setting, a single room in the Peace House. For three years I lived there, casting about for a future, facing the loss of security I had spent so many years avoiding. After two years, I knew I needed to move on with my life: I couldn't remain on disability forever, and in fact, the depression that had put me on it had almost completely vanished within a year of leaving ministry.

So I went back to teaching. And that has made all the difference.

Please don't misunderstand me: changing professions in one's 40s is a frightening, dangerous thing. I was extremely lucky--no, I'll use the word "blessed" instead--to find the Peace House and the Metanoia Community that was centered there. Not everyone manages that. Many accumulate large debts during crises. Some become destitute. Some are never able to return to the standard of living they experienced in their previous careers.

But sometimes, it's just what the doctor ordered.

In the years since 2000, when I left ministry for good, I've had other crises: being geographically separated from my children, having relationships blow up on me, losing one job and seeking another. I spent two years laid off, two at half-time. In short, my adult life has been far less stable than anything my father experienced. And I'm all right. In fact, I am happier today, both personally and professionally, than I have ever been. Had I stuck with the security of ministry, on the other hand, I have no doubt I'd be miserable.

And now the pivot: a horrible thing has happened to our country. A monster has taken up residence in the White House. For however long his tenure as President lasts, he will do abominable things. He has already established himself as the cruelest, most mercurial head of state the Free World has ever known. It's an open question whether American democracy, already feeble from decades of Republican-generated nastiness toward all things progressive, can long survive.

And it may be just what the doctor ordered.

Over the course of the last eight years, progressive activism has gone into hibernation. I suspect it's cyclical: when one of our people is President, we feel we can relax, let the competent public servants we've elected do their job, and bask in the glow of government of, by, and for the people. This complacency results in us rarely holding the White House for more than two terms: had progressives gotten behind Gore in 2000, we could've avoided the entire Iraq/Afghanistan debacle, and possibly reversed the climate change juggernaut. Instead, it took eight years of Republican crony corruption to stir us up enough to elect Barack Obama. Eight years of his intelligent, eloquent leadership, and the decent, hardworking cabinet secretaries he appointed, lulled us back into our slumber--which permitted an even worse Republican result in November.

When George W. Bush took office, I foresaw a collapse for the Republican party, predicting that by the time he was done, America would be so fed up with his rapacious incompetence that Democrats would sweep the election. That happened. Now I believe Trump is going to do the same thing, but in spades. The progressives who couldn't be bothered to turn out for Hillary Clinton are flooding the streets to protest the first days of the Trump regime. His reactions are consistent with his campaign: his throwing Molotovs at the crowds, blasting out executive orders that are both incompetent and cruel, actively seeking to disempower the press, suppress minority voting, and dismantle every safeguard our nation has against the rape of the environment, exploitation of citizens, and abuse of human rights. It's as if Dr. Evil is running things.

I want to think he can't keep it up, that he can't get away with most of what he's doing, but time and again, Trump has defied common sense and conventional wisdom. Thank God, then, for the shot in the arm this has given to progressivism. We're up, we're energized, we're agitated, we're furious, we've got a country to save, a democracy to protect, a world to redeem.

I wish it hadn't taken Trump to get us here. But sometimes, a crisis is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Needs of the Few

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one." --Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan

It's become a Star Trek cliche: Spock's statement of utilitarian logic, leading him to sacrifice himself to save the rest of the crew of the Enterprise. At the conclusion of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the aphorism is turned on its head: Kirk's quest to rescue his friend have led to the destruction of both the Enterprise and, most likely, his career, not to mention the death of his son David. Asked by Spock why so many would give so much for him, Kirk replies, "Because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many."

Last Friday, our raging bull in a china shop President issued an executive order, effective immediately, banning citizens of seven Muslim countries from entry into the United States. The order was, in the words of one Republican Senator carefully choosing his words, not "vetted properly." It resulted in chaos at every international airport in the United States. Muslims with green cards who had taken off overseas before the order was issued landed to find themselves detained and, in some cases, deported. Enforcement was erratic, depending on which Customs and Border Protection agents were in charge of each airport. Within hours, the ACLU was suing. Five different federal court judges placed holds on some or all of the order. Many affected by it continue to be in some kind of limbo, and even administration officials (including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus) seem unsure exactly whom is affected by it. In response to the mess he made with this xenophobic, reactionary edict, President Trump tweeted that "only 109" people were detained on the first day of the order.

There are two problems with this number. The first is that it is simply wrong, a distracting minimalization of an order that will probably affect at least 90,000 people. The much more disturbing problem is that violations of rights are an issue no matter how few people are affected. In fact, the Constitution of the United States exists not to defend the rights of the majority, but the minority--however small a number it may be. That an atrocity is committed against only a few, or even just one, human being makes it no less heinous.

My philosophical touchstone in this matter has always been a piece by Oregon's greatest literary treasure, Ursula K. LeGuin. In her 1973 short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," she describes a utopian city that could be the ideal of any progressive, humanist thinker, a place where all people live in harmony, free from want and disease, able to pursue enlightenment and fulfillment throughout their lives. There's just one catch: the price of all the Omelans' happiness is that one child must eternally suffer in a cold, miserable dungeon. As children, Omelans are spared knowledge of this atrocity, but upon coming of age, every one of them must visit the cell, witness the suffering, and be forbidden from doing anything to help the child. All are moved, some angered, but most are able to live with the knowledge. Some, though, decide that the suffering of one child is too dear a price for the happiness of the many, and walk away from the city, never to return.

I read this story once, when I was in high school, in a collection of award winning science fiction. That's forty years ago. And it still haunts me.

Fifteen years ago, I became aware of a growing protest against the Boy Scouts' refusal to accept openly gay recruits: Eagle Scouts were mailing their medals back to the national office. At the time, I was serving as a den leader in my son's Cub Scout pack, and was on the mailing list for Scouting, the official magazine of Scout leaders. One day I read an article that sought to minimize the Eagle protest by claiming that only a few hundred Eagles had returned their medals, and I saw red. I remembered being told, when I reached the rank of Eagle, that only one in two hundred Scouts make it to that rank; so even if it was just a hundred Eagles who'd returned the medals, that could represent the opinion of 20,000 former Scouts. More than that, though, I knew just how much it meant to every one of those men to open up whatever treasure box he kept his Eagle badge in, to contemplate how earning it had shaped his youth, how significant it was to his identity as a man, and even so, to put it in and envelope and send it off to the Scout Executive in Irving, Texas. To belittle such a sacrifice by even one Eagle Scout was to demonstrate a callousness that should have no place in any Scout leader, least of all the executives who represent the entire movement.

(Scouting has evolved since then, finally opening its doors to both gay Scouts and gay Scoutmasters. Just yesterday, it took another step toward inclusiveness, permitting trans children to join. I never did return my own Eagle medal, just as I've never surrendered my ordination, despite having long since grown disenchanted with United Methodism's long road to nowhere on matters of inclusion; but those are two other stories.)

In fact, hiding behind the suffering of just a few, or even a single person, is an admission that the policy causing that suffering is fatally flawed. Any hypothetical good that comes from it--be it enhanced "safety" from terrorists (highly debatable, as in fact it's driving a wedge between the United States and those Muslims whose opinion of this nation is so high that they want to live here), or "protecting" Boy Scouts from being "recruited" by gay peers or mentors (not even debatable, but based on lies told by bigots)--becomes ethically tainted. In fact, in the case of closing our borders to Muslims, we commit the sin of scapegoating, causing innocents to suffer as payment for the misdeeds of people they are completely unrelated to.

There are many who have spoken out against the ban, insisting "This is not who we are." Unfortunately, if the few polls conducted since the policy was announced are to be believed, it is, in fact, who at least a significant number, perhaps even a majority, of Americans are. Banning Muslims--and no matter how much lipstick the White House puts on this pig, it is unmistakably a ban on Muslims entering the United States--is viewed favorably by far more Americans than I like to imagine. It shouldn't be that hard to imagine it, though: Jim Crow laws were still in place when I was born, Black and Hispanic men still receive far worse treatment from police officers, and ever since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the office of President, the Republican half of America has been humming with racist, xenophobic, misogynist energy. There were enough racists and people willing to accommodate racism in the right places to give Donald Trump the electoral votes he needed to become President. Whether or not it's who "we" are, it's clearly who he is, and enough of his followers agree with it that he doesn't give a flying fig what the rest of us think.

As much as it sickens me to admit that reality--and I've been sickened a lot in the last year, and expect to go on being sickened by nearly everything this regime does for as long as it remains in power--there is a higher reality that, I have to believe, is who we really truly are. It's the America enshrined in the Constitution, a land of protected freedoms, a place that understands even the smallest minority must be protected from the tyranny of the majority.

Trump has enough followers to wreak havoc on that America. Since his election, his racist followers have felt empowered to engage in far more mischief than they've practiced since the end of Jim Crow. They may not be a true majority--in fact, the not quite 63 million votes cast for Donald Trump are slightly less than 20% of the population of the United States--but even so, that's a lot of Americans who want to return to the days of lynching, segregation, and the disenfranchisement of non-white citizens. Their leader--our (groan) President--continually inflates their numbers to stroke his ego and justify the radically destructive policies he seeks to invoke by decree.

In opposition to this democratically conducted coup, we have the Constitution. It's not a perfect defense--it's been amended 27 times, and still could benefit from the work of a good editor--but it's bolstered by the tens of thousands of public servants who have all sworn to uphold and protect it, for whom the word "unconstitutional" is synonymous with "blasphemous" and "heretical."

Our founders believed not just in the rights of majorities, but of individuals, and they enshrined those rights in this document. Donald Trump's minimization of the 109 individuals who lives were most obviously turned upside down by his executive order is an admission that he acted outside the Constitution, and that in so doing, sought to enact an illegal policy. We must not permit this wealthy bully to hide behind the numbers of his victims, however few they may seem to us. To allow him to trample the rights of just one human being is a bridge too far for any self-respecting American to cross.

And if we become the nation Trump envisions, an America that puts itself first, at the cost of scapegoating innocent people anywhere, then it will be time for many of us to walk away from this country that is not longer even a shadow of what it was, from the beginning, intended to be.