Saturday, August 26, 2017

Waking Up Racist

Charles H. King, Jr., in 1981.

Changes in perception typically take time. The mind accumulates information through experiences, relationships, the media, and at some point, wakes up to a truth it has been stubbornly ignorant to. That's how it was for me with my understanding of homosexuality: I don't remember ever being taught that it was wrong, but my childhood was certainly steeped in the idea that it was a sinful choice some people made. I remember reading a couple of references to it in high school, and not really understanding them (one in an autobiographical essay by Tennessee Williams left me particularly confused). The first gay man I was aware of meeting was a theater major who lived in my dorm at Willamette University who struck me as outrageously flamboyant. Unbeknownst to me, one of my best friends in college was a closeted gay man who did not come out to me until our 25 year reunion. I also had no idea that a woman I was attracted to during my first semester in seminary was coming to grips with her own orientation as a lesbian. Coupled with what I learned in seminary, these experiences percolated within me until, at some point during my second year in Dallas, I came to the conclusion that gay people were...people. They deserved the same respect, the same rights, the same chance at happiness, that I did. I can't pin down when I came to this awareness; I just know it was sometime during that year of 1986-87.

I can, however, identify within an hour or two the exact moment I realized I was a racist.

Like waking up to homophobia, it happened during seminary, though the event I'm referencing wasn't specific to the God Quad. Like all first-year seminarians at the Perkins School of Theology, I was taking a course called "Introduction to Ministry." It was a frustrating course: we came in expecting basic nuts-and-bolts lectures on preaching, prayer, visitation, Bible study, administration, counseling--things ministers actually do. Instead, the three-professor team fed us meandering meditations on pop sociology that seemed to be aimed at convincing us congregations were problematic communities that would give us nothing but trouble. The one useful aspect of the first semester was the case study, an in-depth analysis of a particular congregation in the Dallas metroplex. I did mine on Casa View, a church that had had the same pastor since its founding in the early 1950s. The congregation had quickly grown to 800--and then Rev. Wil Bailey began to preach about civil rights, and justice for persons of color. Almost overnight, the congregation shrank by two thirds, a situation exacerbated by the church council's decision to request the appointment of an African-American associate pastor. Thirty years later, the congregation had shrunk even more; too small now to support an associate, it continued to be led by Rev. Bailey, as it would until his retirement. I was inspired by the witness of this now small congregation, its dedication to justice, the commitment of its members to advocate for the marginalized. And yet, despite its history and continuing work on behalf of African-Americans, Casa View's active membership was almost completely white.

The second semester of Introduction to Ministry included a project called the "Inter-Ethnic Experience." Realizing that most Perkins students were white and had grown up in segregated communities, the seminary assigned every first-year student to a congregation of a different ethnicity from their own. I was assigned to a Hispanic congregation that met at an Episcopal cathedral. My college Spanish was recent enough that I was mostly able to follow along during services, but the part of the experience that made the biggest impression on me was the presence of so many small, very active children in worship. That lesson was to stay with me throughout my pastoral career; but the real watershed, the experience that shattered my identity, was an add-on.

It was presented to us one morning in the large lecture hall as a way to get credit for a few more inter-ethnic hours (we had to reach a certain minimum to pass the requirement): a seminar on racism to be held up the hill, in a ballroom in SMU's student center, the following evening. Having a Sunday morning choir directing job was making it hard for me to get in enough hours with my assigned church, so I was eager to participate. The night of the seminar, I arrived and took my seat. I didn't see any of my seminary classmates there--most in attendance were undergrads--and I was immediately aware of this group being far more diverse than most classes I was taking at Perkins. The doors were closed and Charles H. King, Jr., took the stage. 

Rev. King's New York Times obituary doesn't say much about him, but it does give an idea what that seminary in early 1986 was like. King zeroed in on the white members of the audience, and spent the next three hours indicting us for everything that Black people had ever had to suffer in the United States, as well as everything that continued to keep so many of them poor and oppressed. It was a tour-de-force of a revival sermon, passionately and powerfully delivered, and by the end of it, I felt fully convicted of my guilt as an oppressor, guilt I could never completely atone for, never escape as long as I continued to have white skin.

Prior to seminary, I had had one African-American friend. It wasn't that I'd ever felt any antipathy toward persons of color: I just happened to have grown up in the Pacific Northwest, a region not known for its racial diversity. In Dallas, despite having a Black roommate and many Black classmates, I never really succeeded in making any Black friends. I put that down almost entirely to the guilt I felt for years after that seminar. It's very hard to be friendly with people when you feel like you should be apologizing constantly to them for something you can never make right. It would be five years before I was finally able to move on from the guilty awkwardness that seminar had infused me with.

The proximity filter is an essential part of how we make friends: you can't have relationships with people until you've met them. Social media is making this less of a factor, but it's still easiest to be friends with people with whom you share a zip code. After seminary, I returned to Oregon, and almost all of my ministry was in rural settings. There were very few persons of color in the churches I served. It wasn't until I left ministry and began teaching that I found myself in urban schools with diverse student bodies. This was particularly the case in the Reynolds District, where I worked prior to my current suburban job in Tualatin. My classes there were a rainbow of skin tones. And I loved it.

A big part of working with those students, many of whom had extreme behavior issues, was constantly checking myself to be sure I wasn't responding out of racism or classism. It was a hard three years I spent there, though most of that difficulty I put down to the setting and administration.

As hard as it was, it was also healing. Few of these children had chips on their shoulders. Many readily expressed their affection to me. It was liberating to realize I could love even difficult children, without regard to their color or ethnicity; and also to realize that some children simply can't be reached, and again, this is not a factor of color or ethnicity. Some of the most challenging children were white; some of the best-behaved were Black or Hispanic. When it came to basic humanity, the differences of color, language, creed were incidental: above all else, they were children, I was their teacher, and I loved them.

Growing up in pure or nearly pure-white communities, I never had the chance to learn this lesson. My parents were progressive, and never would have tolerated any expressions of racism from me, but there was no way for me to see persons of color as anything other than exotic. It's unfortunate that I couldn't discover my shared humanity with them, and learn to appreciate them, in the same way it happened with gay people: gradually, gently, as a slowly maturing revelation. Then again, perhaps I needed that harsh wake-up call. I know I worked harder at dealing with my ethnic responsibility and guilt for the plight of persons of color as a result.

Our nation has just been delivered a wake-up call of its own. White nationalists are a small minority of Americans who are feeling disproportionately empowered by a President who feels obligated to pander to them at every opportunity. In the last 24 hours, this President has pardoned Joe Arpaio, a racist sheriff who committed genocidal crimes against Hispanic persons, announced he will no longer extend tolerance to children of undocumented immigrants who were brought here by their parents, and instructed the military services to begin discriminating against trans-gendered volunteers. Most Americans disagree with these policies, and ultimately, they will be reversed. The question is how far down the intolerant rabbit hole we'll permit the administration to go.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Tolerance for the Intolerant

Trump goes off script, insisting there was nothing wrong with his response to Charlottesville.

I see it in every prepared word he speaks.

He wants so very badly to hang onto their enthusiasm, their passion for his cause--which is to say, their passion for him. They are the truest of the true, the deep core, the believers who can never be shaken from their faith in him, their undying trust that he will continue to vouch for them, even when he must do it in coded language.

It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to disavow him, and I'm sure that's what his advisors are asking him to do. Mind you, they can't tell him to do anything. That's a recipe for unemployment. But asking, and doing it in an absolutely respectful way, carefully wording the request in terms that are as flattering as they can possibly be--yes, I'm sure they're doing a lot of that.

"Just a though, Mr. President: the vagueness of the remarks you made is proving unpopular with some of the--oh, let's call them the more washy-washy parts of the party base. You know, the ones that still believe in globalism. They'd like you to just make a clear statement that the racists are bad, and the counter-protesters are promoting a good cause. Just a few words. It'll make everything so much easier."

But no, his directions to them are as clear as he's capable of being: say as much as you can without naming names. Condemn all the violence. Talk about "thugs," but do it in a way that could mean both KKK and Black Lives Matter. Put in some platitudes about how when one of us is hurting, we're all hurting, but don't specify the victim as someone who could be associated with antifa or some minority.

So that's what they wrote. That was what was on the teleprompter both Monday and Tuesday, for both the Afghanistan "policy" speech (a bundle of generalities that boiled down to "we'll keep doing what Obama did, but pretend it's something new") and the reelection rally in Phoenix (yes, it really was a campaign rally for 2020). On Monday, he stayed on message, adding hardly a word to the text his handlers had prepared for him. On Tuesday, though...

On Tuesday, he was true to form.

On Tuesday, President Trump started out with the teleprompter, but soon found himself reaching into his pocket, pulling out the text he was supposed to read more than a week ago, a careful condemnation of the nationalists who turned a college town into a pusch. It wasn't the words on those pages that got him in trouble, though he insisted they were what the media had turned into a scandal. No, it was the words he added, three words that he repeated for emphasis, and came back to two days later because he seems to believe them: condemning violence "from many sides." He went on, later in the week, to talk about the "good people" who were marching along with the militant racists, defending American history from those who would rewrite it to be something more like what actually happened, signifying what the Civil War was actually about.

You know, the thugs.

Again and again, Trump has expressed himself as a rich white man who just doesn't understand what those poor people of color are so upset about. It's not like they're slaves anymore, or that Jim Crow is the law of the land. For pity's sake, they get to vote now, and if they can just weave the new layers of voting restrictions he wants to put in place, they may even get to vote in 2020.

It's hard to tell how much of this embarrassment is simple cluelessness, and how much is the calculation of the only expert whose opinion really matters to Donald Trump: his own craven id. He can read the poll numbers, can see that even Fox News reporters have lost their perpetual positivity when they talk about him, and are even feeling obliged to distance themselves from his statements. He sees how the establishment that hitched itself to his crazy engine are now wishing they could move off to a siding, perhaps find a different, more traditionally sedate engine to link up with. He knows he's lost much of the Republican base, knows that the only base he really has left are the not-well-educated extremists, the ordinarily bigoted Americans who jumped on board because they recognized in him a kindred spirit of intolerance, something they'd not seen in a Presidential candidate since George Wallace quit the Democratic party to run as an independent. Here was someone who spoke their Truth exactly as they understood it, pinning the blame for everything that had come to feel wrong about the United States on Barack Obama and people who, like him, had darker skin than they. If they were immigrants, they needed to go home. If they were African-Americans, they were thugs who needed some tough love from a police force unfettered by Constitutional restrictions.

These were the people who marched in Charlottesville, waving flags of the racist parties they had joined. They brought with them their guns (when it comes to armaments, white supremacists love the Second Amendment), roughed up some counter-protesters, and were delighted when one of their brethren drove his car into an anti-fascist crowd, killing one and seriously wounding a dozen others.

In the wake of that horror, Trump has continued to demand that his speech-writers equivocate, writing non-specific condemnations of violence that can be interpreted by either side as applying to the other guys; and when those don't feel satisfying enough to him--and especially when he sees critical stories about himself in the media--he doubles down, finding new ways to appease the racists and scandalize everyone else.

As he goes on ramping up the racial hatred, criticisms grow. He's losing what little connection he had left with Capitol Hill. His base is shrinking. He's earned condemnations from every aspect of American government. With the exception of Russia, he's also been universally rebuked by the international community.

At least, he can promise himself, he's got the racists--though he'd rather call them heroes, patriots, defenders of the Constitution.

Since the first dissonance was sensed between what Trump was saying and what was happening on the ground in Charlottesville, the media have been almost unanimous is their insistence that this should be the easiest thing Trump has ever done. Condemning Nazis has been a staple of White House rhetoric for at least 75 years now. As horrific as war can be--and World War II was especially horrific--Americans can rest in the knowledge that they were on the right side. The United States stood for human rights, democracy, the rule of law. Nazis were antagonistic to all those ideals. Winning the war preserved Europe, enabling it to become the multicultural economic powerhouse it is today. It also left a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the Soviet Union, a nation that, overnight, went from ally to enemy in the new, protracted, and very cold war. Americans had no trouble then imagining Russians as the enemy.

Today, Russia is the international ally of the White Power movement; and as with his racist core, Trump is extremely reluctant to condemn Russia, however corrupt and violent it may become.

It's easy for someone like me to condemn Trump, even easier to condemn the hate groups he stubbornly clings to as the solid core of his base. It's easy, as well, to question whether organized bigotry should be afforded the Constitutional soapbox of rights to speak, publish, and assemble. When these people gather now, they do it armed to the teeth. They come looking for a fight, and at the first sign of anger from counter-protesters, they wade in with mace, billy clubs and, some day soon, gunfire.

The ACLU, an organization I have long supported, has stuck to its Constitutional absolutism, defending the rights of Neo-Nazis and Klansmen to assemble and proclaim their violent message in public places. It's the literal application of disagreeing with, even hating, what these people have to say, yet defending to the death their right to say it. I've long stood by this principle, even when it meant permitting certifiably horrible people to say disgusting things to innocent victims who had no way to fight back.

In the wake of Charlottesville, though, I'm beginning to rethink that position.

The threat of violence has always been a part of white supremacist demonstrations. In the bad old days of Jim Crow, it was understood that objecting too visibly to these displays could mean having one's care pulled over by a local sheriff for the crime of driving while enlightened. In the 1960s, far too many activists disappeared for doing just that.

Those days are gone, and we haven't had to worry about them for a very long time. When nationalists gather, they don't threaten violence like they used to. Local police are no longer wearing white hoods, and if they're found to belong to any of these groups, they're given their walking papers. The organized racists are also far fewer in numbers than they were then.

On the other hand, they're much better armed than they used to be.

In the decades since Jim Crow came to an end, the NRA has worked tirelessly to promote the rights of ordinary Americans to own firearms that can wound and kill dozens of people in a matter of seconds. The implicit threat of simply being part of a white terror organization has been replaced with the explicit threat of open carry.

There have been many in the last week who've called for limitations on the tolerance American society has traditionally extended to the expression of marginal ideas, including those of white racists. They've said we need to stop extending tolerance to the intolerant, that people who advocate for ending the rights of others should have those same rights taken from them. I will admit I feel a measure of sympathy for this view. I've been on the receiving end of some hate speech, and even a death threat (when I was pastor of a gay-friendly church, and working in gay rights advocacy), though nothing even remotely comparable to what the truly marginalized experience on a daily basis. It's a terrifying thing to realize someone hates you enough to risk imprisonment for expressing that hate. And it's true that I find the strict legal rejection of hate speech in post-war Germany to be an admirable thing, Reconstruction done right.

Even so, I don't live in Germany. I live in a country built on a foundation of radical freedom, and I do believe even the most deplorable of Americans still have a right to free expression.

But here's the rub: I don't believe they have the right to do it while carrying an assault weapon.

If you've read much of this blog, you know I'm no fan of guns. In fact, I'd love to have the Supreme Court rewrite the Second Amendment into something sensible and contemporary--or to interpret it as strict originalists, and point out that the text is clearly meant to promote a government-regulated citizen militia, not to put deadly weapons in the hands of anyone who wants them.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I see no problem with placing common sense restrictions on how fully armed demonstrators are permitted to be. I don't think it hurts anyone's right to speak freely to forbid them to do it while threatening counter-protesters with an assault rifle. And yes, I'm aware there are plenty of ways to injure and kill people that don't entail owning a gun (the woman who died last week was killed by a car, for God's sake). But I'd much rather see truth spoken to, rather than from, power.

Even if the "truth" is debatable.

America can tolerate hate speech. We've been doing it for most of my life. What we can't tolerate is the use of deadly weapons being used to silence critics, and to force the hatred on communities.

It's simply intolerable.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

White Shame

Torch-bearing "Unite the Right" bigots showing their true colors.

"How does legitimate white pride look?"

Tony Peterson, one of the people I most respect, posted this question on Facebook twelve hours ago. It's generated a great deal of conversation in that forum, to which I contributed one short response:
 "White pride" is for those who don't know or, worse, ignore history. White shame is where pale-skinned Americans like me need to start.
I posted an essay yesterday about how integral racism has been to the history of the Americas, with a line traceable to the first European explorers and colonists to set foot in the New World. Today's essay draws on much more recent history: specifically, the direct line of racist policies that runs from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump.

Modern racism begins in the 1960s with the passage of civil rights legislation during the Johnson Administration. That's when, for the first time since Reconstruction, the federal government put the full weight of its authority behind correcting the evil that had been allowed free rein in Southern states for almost a century. It took all of President Johnson's considerable skills as a legislator--next to which Mitch McConnell's supposed brilliance is but a dim refrigerator bulb--to push the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts through Congress, but he pulled it off. As he did, he announced to an aide that the Democratic party had just lost the South. It took another thirty years for that prediction to be fully realized, but today it's a hard reality: the South is solidly Republican.

For that to happen, though, it wasn't enough that it took Democratic votes to pass the new laws. It also took Republicans abandoning their century-old association with the abolition of slavery and the promotion, however short it lasted, of the political careers of ex-slaves in the post-bellum South. The betrayal began with Richard Nixon's Southern strategy in 1968. Using language that spoke to angry Southern whites, Nixon ran on a platform of "law and order"--code for cracking down on persons of color and Vietnam War protesters. Once in the White House, Nixon continued to pander to his white racist base, prosecuting a war on drugs that disproportionately focused on these same groups.

Ronald Reagan revisited this racist agenda with his new focus on "welfare queens," a fictional class of poor persons of color viewed as living off the governmental teat rather than finding jobs. The imagery and the language proved hard to eradicate, and culminated in welfare "reform" legislation that victimized poor persons of color. Reagan and both Bushes also continued to push the War on Drugs, as well as backing new criminal codes aimed, again, primarily at persons of color. Black cocaine users received much harsher sentences than white users.

Democratic administrations have struggled to reverse these trends. The welfare reform was actually signed into law by Bill Clinton, who'd been backed into a corner by its popularity among voters of both parties. Under President Obama, the Justice Department relaxed many of its War on Drugs tactics, but Jeff Sessions has sought to shift the department's focus back to prosecuting petty drug possession charges.

So there's a direct line running from Nixon to Reagan through both Bushes and finally to Trump. None of his predecessors came close to the blatant racist-pandering Trump has engaged in, but make no mistake: each of those administrations laid the groundwork for what he's been up to, including the voter suppression policies that seek to reverse the Voting Rights Act, and disenfranchise minority voters throughout the South.

I will admit that in the last few days, I've been heartened by the sheer number of conservative commentators and Republican politicians who've finally begun rebuking Trump for his cozy relationship with white supremacists. It's too little, too late--where were these independent GOP voices during the campaign?--but at least I don't have to go any further down the rabbit hole of wondering what it will take to wake the right up from its fever dream of total domination. It's tempting to focus on indicting conservatives as racists, and imagine Democrats and other progressives to be pure in our rejection of the white right.

Unfortunately, as I've stated before, the history of racism in America runs deep and wide, and no one is completely innocent.

Let's start with the Democratic party. Remember, please, that the Southern politicians who voted to secede from the Union were, to the extent they claimed any party affiliation, almost all Democrats. It was not until the twentieth century that the Democratic party began to shift its focus to representing labor, rather than landowners. In the 1960s, southern Democrats were the most vocal opponents of civil rights legislation. Many of those Democrats ultimately switched parties, especially as Nixon's Southern Strategy came to fruition. In any case, we can't pretend that Democratic hands are clean when it comes to racism: most slave holders were yellow-dog Democrats who'd rather elect a mongrel than a Republican.

Then there are the Republicans: the roots of the party are in the abolition movement. It's tragic that the party has strayed so far from its origins, but as we saw with the Democrats, that's what parties do. In any case, before casting too many aspersions on the Republicans, it's important to remember that, of all political entities in the United States, they had the most laudable principles at their founding.

Fast forward back to the present, and this sad reality: every white person in the United States enjoys privileges unknown to persons of color. I'll take myself as an example: I've been pulled over many times in my life, usually for little things that catch a traffic cop's eye: not coming to a full stop at an intersection, going a few miles over the speed limit, having a brake light out. In almost all those stops, the officers have been cordial, and only once wrote me a ticket.

Contrast that with my Black and Hispanic friends, all of whom have stories of being treated with suspicion and rudeness by the police.

This is simply the easiest example of white privilege I can invoke. I know there are plenty of others I take for granted, or of which I'm completely unaware. But set all that aside, and consider the single privilege that dwarfs all the rest, a privilege enjoyed by persons of all colors and creeds who have the good fortune to live in this time, in this country:

This nation was built by slaves.

There's no getting around it: the economy that drove early American prosperity, the infrastructure that knitted the young nation together, the houses and schools and churches and government buildings in which Americans lived, worshipped, ate, slept, learned, and legislated, all these structures were the products of slave labor. Without slavery, there is no America.

There's no us.

We owe an awesome debt to the slaves and their descendants, these people who were brought here in chains, treated worse than cattle, bred like draft horses, sold away from their spouses and children and parents, for generation upon generation, and whose humanity was challenged even after their owners lost a war that was intended to keep them in captivity. This nation grew out of that abomination, so it can be honestly said that all Americans living today owe a debt of gratitude to our enslaved progenitors.

More than that, those of us who are white owe them are shame. It takes an incredible act of ignorant denial to suggest that anything like "white pride" can exist. If White Americans feel anything about the color of our skin, it should be shame. Across the history of this nation, we have systematically persecuted, exploited, imprisoned, tortured, raped, and murdered persons of color, and not just those of African descent. It was Mexican workers who turned California into an agricultural powerhouse for sub-minimum wages, laboring long hours in dangerous conditions. It was Chinese workers who built the intercontinental railroad that turned the manifest destiny dream into a reality; and that coast-to-coast reality came at the expense of countless indigenous lives.

To know that this is our history and to, nevertheless, feel pride at being a member of this oppressive race is to be the worst kind of human being. I am ashamed to share physical characteristics with David Duke, Richard Spencer, and the white supremacist marchers of Charlottesville. I am ashamed of what my race has done to persons of every other skin tone, to those who had even a drop of non-white blood in their genetic makeup.

So to answer Tony's question: there is no legitimate white pride. Only white shame.

And that's just a beginning. It's not enough to grovel at the feet of those our race has persecuted. It's on us to dedicate ourselves to making amends for the misdeeds of our ancestors, to pay reparations to the descendants of their victims, to work toward a nation in which there really is no distinction between black and brown and white, and all enjoy every privilege of citizenship, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed.

So put out your stupid torches, you whiny racist bastards. And yes, I'm talking to you, too, Mr. President.

You all ought to be ashamed.

Two Minutes that Changed My Life

The Goldendale, Washington, eclipse, as photographed by me, February 26, 1979.

It took our school bus about four hours to reach Goldendale, Washington. Along the way, we stopped at the Bonneville Dam. This was a field trip for the physics class and the TAG program of Philomath High School. On our tour of the dam, we saw the fish ladders, visited the cavernous turbine room, and witnessed a barge moving through a ten-story tall lock.

All of this was impressive, probably worthy of its own field trip, like the one we'd taken earlier in the year to the Trojan nuclear plant in Rainier, Oregon. But it was really just a prelude, a way of squeezing more learning out of the two minute event we had traveled hundreds of miles to see: a total eclipse of the sun.

Geographically speaking, we could have traveled just to Portland, which would also be in the path of totality; but Mr. Gosser, our physics teacher, had lived in Oregon for most (probably not all--I remember him having a bit of a Southern drawl) of his life, and knew better than to count on clear skies in February. For that, we would need to travel east of the Cascades. Goldendale had advantages apart from being on the clear side of the mountains: of all the municipalities meeting that criterion, it was the closest geographically to Philomath. It was also home to an observatory, which was promoting an eclipse festival. Mr. Gosser made arrangements with the local high school, and we were able to sleep on the floor of the gymnasium.

I went to bed with a sore throat and congested sinuses--probably a winter cold--and upon waking up at 6 a.m., took a Contac. We had a cold breakfast of granola bars and orange juice, then headed out to the dark parking lot, where we groaned at what we found. It seemed all our travel had been for nought: it was cloudy over Goldendale. "The forecast says it'll clear up by 7:30," Mr. Gosser said optimistically. I expect he was silently praying for clear skies: the school Bible study met in his lab at lunchtime, and I knew him to be a creationist, despite his formidable (to me) knowledge of the hard sciences.

Whether it was Mr. Gosser's connection to the Almighty or just dumb luck, we all got our wish: the clouds obscuring the sun began to burn off. Many of us put pinhole sunviewers on our heads, boxes that enabled us to track to the progress of the eclipse without endangering our eyes. Here's a picture of my friend Bruce wearing his:

As the zero hour approached, rippling shadows began to race across the grass. Then with a rush that left us gasping, the edge of the moon's shadow passed over us at 1800 miles an hour (It's well-described in Annie Dillard's poetic account of the same eclipse, published in The Atlantic a few years later), and then it was there, a sight that drove generations of more primitive humans to madness: a smear of bright light with a perfectly round spot of darkness in its center. The sun was gone, replaced by a demon, a hole in the sky. I began snapping pictures with the 35mm camera I had borrowed from the yearbook teacher. None of them really turned out--you can see the best one at the top of this page--but that's beside the point.

I'd seen a lunar eclipse before--my father had set up my telescope in the back yard for that event, a few years earlier--so this was not my first experience of one world passing in front of another. I'd also spent many an hour staring, slack-jawed, into the depths of the night sky; and stayed up late at Scout camp for a meteor shower that was the best light show I'd ever seen. Even so, this was the hardest evidence I'd ever had that I, like everyone around me, was nothing more than a speck of matter, pinned by gravity to a spinning ball of rock as it swung around a much vaster ball of burning gas.

There were just two minutes of totality, give or take, and then the brilliant diamonds of Bailey's Beads announced that the sun was about to break away from the moon's disk. Moments later, we had to avert our eyes once more. As we did, we broke into applause, as if the sun had been a rock star performing our favorite song for us. This was much more than that, of course, but I have had similar experiences at concerts, and it's the main reason I want to be at a large gathering when next Monday's eclipse takes place.

Once the sun was back out, we gathered our things and were very soon on the bus, headed south once more. We stopped at Maryhill, Washington's Stonehenge, a replica of England's World Heritage site, fashioned from concrete rather than standing stones. There we encountered a different kind of spectacle: the site was teeming with pagans who'd journeyed there to watch the eclipse. As I walked up to the memorial, a woman was talking animatedly about the chicken she'd sacrificed earlier that morning, noting the irony of nonbelievers questioning the practice "as they eat their McDonald's hamburgers." I wondered if any of these pagans knew that the replica at which they'd been practicing their religion had been created as a World War I memorial, and had no real relation to whatever ancient religion had been observed at the original. (Although I did just learn from Wikipedia that the altar in the center is aligned with the position of the sun at summer solstice.) Afterward, we visited the Maryhill Museum, a charming facility well worth a field trip in its own right, but a major anti-climax after the life-changing event of the eclipse. Then it was home to Philomath, where we arrived in time for some afternoon classes.

On that morning in Goldendale, the world stopped revolving around me. That's a big thing for a teenager to realize: that there is much more to the world than his own personal drama, whether it's the disappointment of losing a peer election or the triumph of achieving a dream. Everything that had come thus far, that had made my life seem more tragic than any other human being's, shrank to insignificance as I watched the sun disappear, saw the corona bloom, ached to hang onto the moment, then all too soon had to give it up. I date my entry into adulthood from that date.

Ten and two months later, another watershed moment arrived, as on May 3, 1989, my world began revolving around a little girl. That's a wholly other story, on a much smaller cosmological scale, but of even greater significance to my identity as a human being. Both moments altered the path of my traverse through the world of human beings. The eclipse is a memory, a point seared into my brain like the sun is burned into the retina of an unprotected eye. Sarah's birth, on the other hand, was just the beginning of a relationship that will continue to affect my path until its end. And that is another story, one I will tell elsewhere and at another time.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Highway to Holocaust

Workers in New Orleans prepare to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Prejudice springs from two wells: ignorance and choice.

Every person alive has some degree of ignorant prejudice. It comes from hard-wired framing mechanisms, ways in which we understand the world. Until we've had some experience of something, we've got no way to know what its characteristics are. Once we've had some experience, our minds make assumptions that then affect the way we view other examples of that object. If my first experience of a bar is that it's loud and smoky (as was the case of every one of the few bars I visited in early adulthood), my mind judges all bars to be like that--until I'm pleasantly surprised by a British pub, or an Oregonian brewpub, and then I can begin to realize that there's plenty of variety in the world of drinking establishments.

It works the same way with people. Prior to my first experience of Catholic, Jewish, Asian, African-American, LGBTQ, and any other status a person might have, my frame of reference was limited to what I'd seen in the mass media--which is to say, broadly stereotypical. Actually meeting representatives of that category and, even better, developing relationships with them, I came to realize there were as many ways to be part of that group as there were members in the group.

I'm still an ignorant person with respect to many of the colors and creeds that make humanity such a beautiful crazy quilt, and I always will be. No life is long enough to experience all the different ways of being human. Owning that ignorance is, I believe, part of being a moral human being: admitting what I don't know, and choosing not to prejudge.

Which brings us to the second well of prejudice: choice.

Ignorant prejudice is, if not laudable, at least comprehensible. But to know the falsehood of stereotypes, to have met and interacted with individual representatives of a minority, to be aware of the truths of both common humanity and diverse ways of being human, and yet to remain prejudiced, is to choose to be prejudiced. This choice does not have moral equivalency with the choice to acknowledge one's ignorance and seek to keep one's mind open in the face of human diversity. In fact, I can say without any hesitation that informed prejudice is an immoral choice; and the name for that choice is bigotry.

And that is where we find our President.

Last Friday, a small army of extreme bigots marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, a college town that has been making informed moral choices with regard to its ugly history, choosing to remove statues that memorialized slavery and rename the park where they were located Emancipation Park. The bigots came from a variety of white supremacist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. They carried torches, gave stiff-armed fascist salutes, and chanted things like "Jews will not replace us" and "Heil Trump." They came heavily armed with assault weapons.

It must have been a terrifying sight to residents of Charlottesville. I know I would be intimidated by the sight of a neo-Nazi carrying a submachine gun. Even so, a much larger counter-demonstration turned out to resist the bigots. Fights broke out, and the superior weaponry of the Nazis resulted in many injuries to counter-protesters. One woman was killed, and many injured, when one of the bigots turned his car into a weapon, and drove it into a crowd.

The response from politicians across the political spectrum was almost unanimous in its condemnation of the bigots. There was one very major exception: the President of the United States.

You know this already, know the whole tragicomic story: how Trump began reading a statement of condemnation, but then watered it down with false equivalency, equating the violent deeds of the American Nazis with the mostly peaceful counter-protesters. "By all sides," he said several times, making sure the bigoted Americans who make up a significant portion of his remaining base heard what he said. For forty-eight hours, other members of the White House and Cabinet struggled to right the ship of state, insisting that the President had meant to decry the openly anti-Semitic and racist invective of the nationalists. But then, in a Tuesday press conference that was supposed to be about infrastructure, Trump embraced the bigots even more blatantly.

The fallout has just begun. Already, Trump has lost all the members of his two business advisory councils, as CEOs of the largest corporations in America resigned in protest. He's also been chastised by a statement from all four of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reaffirming their commitment to race-neutral staff policies. Senators and Representatives from his own party have spoken out vehemently about the need to call a Nazi a Nazi, and remind the nation of its involvement in a war fought to defeat Naziism. There have even been conservative Fox News commentators decrying Trump's embrace of racists.

Whether this will be the tipping point is still anyone's guess. Trump's bigotry is representative of a large portion of the Republican party, and if those voters choose to stay home in 2018, both houses of Congress could be easily flipped--not to mention the White House itself, come 2020. It is, sadly, still too early to read impeachment in the handwriting on the wall.

In the meantime, though, there is a shift happening: across the South, cities are taking down the "Lost Cause" statues, the Civil War statues erected, not as true memorials to the many who died in that war, but as visual representations of Jim Crow. As long as the South kept African-Americans in their places, uses "separate but equal" facilities, unable to exercise their right to vote, subjugated by the share-cropping system, and terrorized by torch-bearing, cross-burning, lynching Klansmen, white Southerners could claim some measure of triumph over the emancipating Union troops, and the Lost Cause statuary proclaimed this truth to all who encountered it. As voting rights have again come under assault, and disenfranchisement has become an electoral tool of the Republican party, it's no surprise that bigots who don't believe African-Americans should have ever been given the vote are turning out to object to the removal of these statues.

Much has been made in the progressive media of an additional layer of equivalency Trump delivered during his scandalous remarks Tuesday, as he asked whether statues to Washington and Jefferson, both slave-owners, would also be coming down. While this is a perfect example of the "what-aboutism" Trump and his minions picked up from Putin's regime--nothing deflects good reportage like playground whining--it does come uncomfortably close to a truth these commentators are not, themselves, willing to acknowledge: racism, prejudice, and bigotry have been a part of American history going back to the first colonists to arrive on these shores.

A few years ago in this space, I wrote about the direct line of anti-Judaism that ran from the Gospels to Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler. In their effort to make the good news of Jesus acceptable to Gentiles, the writers of those four books filled the story of his betrayal, trial, and death with polemic against the rabbinical and priestly classes of first-century Palestine. Drawing on these caricatures, centuries of European Christians justified their hatred of Jews with scriptural passages, frequently launching pogroms during Holy Week. Taking those passages to be God's Word, and frustrated with his inability to get 15th century Jews to convert to his new, Protestant version of Christianity, Martin Luther published an anti-Jewish polemic pamphlet of his own. Those words helped inspire the anti-Semitic movement of the 19th century and its direct offspring, the Final Solution.

I first became aware of this connection during my second semester of seminary. The source was the woman who would become my first wife, who had been a Jewish Studies major in college. When she told me there was anti-Jewish polemic in the gospels (particularly the gospel of John), I came back with a "What about..." that referenced the "good Jews" who appeared in the gospels. I didn't want to know that some of my favorite stories were propaganda designed to turn readers against the people who had given birth to Jesus and the Church. Over time, though, I realized there was no denying it: the New Testament is rife with anti-Judaism. Five years after I'd had my eyes opened to this unpleasant truth, I wrote my final seminary paper on a Christology of the Holocaust that asked the question, "Where is Jesus in the Holocaust?" and answered it, "With his people, dying in the ovens."

American history just a quarter the length of church history, but it's marked with two holocausts, each carried out, like that in which the Church is complicit, over the course of centuries. The first is the genocide committed against the First Americans, the native peoples who were systematically dispossessed of their land, enslaved, tortured, and murdered. Many of their nations, cultures, languages have ceased to exist. As with the heroes of the Lost Cause, the most brutal of these genocides are memorialized with statuary, town names, and even festivals. (Case in point: Oregon's Phil Sheridan Days, a town fair celebrating a Union general who came west to kill Indians.)

And then there's the peculiar institution: the enslavement, rape, torture, and murder of generations of Africans and their descendants, first through actual slavery, then the Jim Crow system that followed it. The founders of American democracy were all complicit in this social abomination. Not all of them were slave owners, but all of them signed off on a Constitution that preserved the practice, rather than ending it, as Great Britain did just a few decades later. There was a pragmatic understanding that the new nation could not come into being without the cooperation of the southern colonies, none of which was willing to emancipate its slaves. It must also be noted that there were plenty of businesspeople in the North who were not just complicit, but lined their pockets with profits from the slave trade, as well as its products, cheap cotton and sugar.

Just as with anti-Judaism, then, there is a direct line from the first arrivals on these shores by European colonists that runs through the founders of the republic to the Southern generals whose statues are now coming down; to the white-robed Klansmen lynching uppity sharecroppers and civil rights activists; to the torch-waving gun-toting bigots in Charlottesville and their vulgarian President.

Yes, the governmental nightmare we're immersed in needs to end. The statues must come down. Bigotry must be condemned. Republicans must come clean and denounce bigotry, even if it costs them what political power they'll have left once Trump is impeached.

But that won't be the end of it, not by a long shot. There will still be plenty of ignorantly prejudiced people in need of enlightenment; and even with their eyes open, there will still be bigots who intentionally choose hate over acceptance, clinging to their Confederate flags, brandishing their assault weapons, assaulting the peaceful counter-protesters who resist their evil.

But at least we'll have a President who knows the right side in this fight is not the white side.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Hail to the Troll

One of thousands of Trump Troll images I Googled.

It took just over six months for President Trump to fulfill the destiny foretold for him by generations of necromancers, seers, and pundits: utterly ignoring his printed talking points (which were about opioid addiction), in total disregard for the criticisms he had levied against his predecessor for drawing lines in the sand and then not acting on them, Trump promised to exercise the literal nuclear option if North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un makes any more threats of his own. Within hours, Kim called Trump's bluff, threatening to attack Guam, the American territory closest to North Korea's missile launchers.

Thus begins the Trumpocalypse.

All through the campaign, we joked about it. Slate Magazine summarized the speculations in its "Trump Apocalypse Watch," issuing a daily estimate on a scale of one to four horsemen of "how likely it is that Donald Trump will be elected president, thus triggering an apocalypse in which we all die." The day after the election, this was the graphic that accompanied its final edition:
We didn't think it could happen, but it did. We told ourselves the generals Trump was surrounding himself with would keep him in check, and yet his knee has now jerked dangerously close to the nuclear button, and for all the hemming and hawing and qualifying statements by his figurehead secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Trump is clinging stubbornly to the righteousness of his threat of "fire and fury."

This scares me. I was born at the end of the Baby Boom. By the time I got to middle school, preparedness for nuclear war had become a standard part of the health curriculum: brush your teeth, don't do drugs, in the event of a nuclear attack find the nearest fall out shelter. We watched filmstrips and movies that were packed with lurid images of mushroom clouds, learned terrifying statistics about blast zones, half-lives, and megatonnage. By the time I got to college, the debates about nuclear weapons were about accuracy: how many feet closer to the target could that MIRV get? These seemed irrelevant to me because, in my mind, a hole is a hole, and the precise placement of a mile-wide crater shouldn't matter that much when we're talking about vaporizing millions of people in an instant.

That threat hung over my head until that magical moment when the Berlin Wall came down. As much as Republicans want to give St. Reagan the credit for the end of the Cold War, I think it really belongs to his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, who single-handedly dismantled his own regime. It was simple common sense: the arms race was bankrupting his country, and authoritarian socialism had failed to create prosperity for the people. It was time for a different approach, one without the constant threat of annihilation hanging over the heads of every human being in existence.

Watching protesters chip away at the wall, I remember feeling that the human race had been holding its collective breath for forty years, and that all of us were simultaneously exhaling. Perhaps our lives would not, after all, end either as radioactive ash or as corpsicles in a nuclear winter.

For almost three decades, I rested easy in the knowledge that if any of these weapons was ever to be used, it would be because a terrorist organization got its hands on one. It would be a horrible thing, but it would be an isolated incident, a single bomb going off to be instantly followed by a global crackdown that would make the response to 9/11 look like a picnic. Common sense was ruling the global nuclear scene, disarmament was the guiding principle, and never again would nation lift bomb against nation.

Then we elected a monster who "improvises" (the New York Times's word, not mine) a nuclear threat that has, to my knowledge, never been explicitly delivered by any sitting President. During the Cold War, it was always a subtext, but the official language between Washington and Moscow was always diplomatic. It would've been uncivilized, barbaric even, to actually speak of raining nuclear fire on an enemy. These weapons were a last-ditch, worst-case alternative, devices so horrible they would almost certainly never be used. Having them was insurance: destroy us, and we destroy you. This is apart from the simple environmental reality that a devastating attack on any nation would have lethal long-term effects on every other nation from the radioactive debris and the alteration to the world climate brought on by the delivery of so much ash to the atmosphere. When Soviet and American leaders did talk about the possibility of attacking each other, it was in summits and on hot lines, and the main theme was always "how do we avoid doing this to each other?"

To put it bluntly, this was not a threat to be idly made, definitely not as an off-the-cuff remark.

More frightening than the remark itself is the perception that Trump might just do it: open up the "football," call in the codes, launch a nuclear strike, Guam be damned, it's worth it to teach North Korea (and, by extension, any other nation that might not be scared enough of the Fearless Leader) a lesson. This is a President who casually launched a strike on a Syrian air base over dessert at a resort restaurant he owns, with casual diners looking on. Making up policy as he goes is his bread and butter. Thinking things through first is for losers.

All right, so our fears are well-founded, despite anything Rex Tillerson might try to do to soothe them.

But what if this isn't a real threat? Trump's made empty threats before. He hasn't been particularly conscientious about keeping his promises, either. He throws out diktats and executive orders like confetti. Sometimes they stick; more often, White House aides, Pentagon officials, and members of Congress scramble to explain how he didn't really mean it, or how of course that can't happen without first being properly vetted through normal channels.

Let me rephrase that: what if the whole purpose of the threat is to scare us and keep our attention? Or, to put it differently: what if he's trolling?

Trolling is an internet phenomenon, a product of the instantaneous and anonymous nature of the message board. Trolls comment on posts using language that is engineered to enrage, casually dropping epithets and threats that, if taken seriously, should result in the immediate arrest of the perpetrator. Trolls joke about rape, murder, the Holocaust, then mock the offended reactions of the "snowflakes" who can't keep themselves from responding. The more outrage they generate, the better. It's not about winning arguments or writing perceived wrongs: all they really want is attention, and they don't care that most of it comes from people they've hurt.

We've had world leaders who were trolls before now, some of them predating the internet. I would argue, for instance, that when Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega waved a machete over his head during a 1989 news conference, he had no intention of triggering an invasion by the U.S. military. He was trolling, pushing buttons, seeing what he could get away with. He probably expected an international wrist-slapping, at worst. Instead, he wound up dying in an American prison.

Kim Jung-Un has been trolling for years, and has been able to get away with it. Like Noriega, he's the leader of a small, impoverished nation. While he doesn't control a trade route the disruption of which could decimate the global economy, he is in a position to wreak havoc with two economic powerhouses, South Korea and Japan, so he gets far more attention than a petty dictator usually would. But again, it's a small country he controls, with an economy smaller than that of any US state.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has just taken trolling into a sphere where it has never been.

Until Trump, it was understood that American Presidents had to be careful what they said, even off the record. Ronald Reagan once made a joke during a sound test about "outlawing Russia" and the bombs falling in minutes. It created an international incident. Barack Obama's off-the-cuff "red line" about Syria using chemical weapons haunted his foreign policy for the remainder of his Presidency. Presidential remarks can cause markets to rise and fall, costing ordinary citizens billions of dollars. Much of the work of a functional White House is in teaching the President what not to say, then cleaning up the mess when something unscripted slips out.

Or so it was, until now.

Now we have a President whose motivations and actions are those of a troll. Trump lives for attention. He loves to push buttons. Critical media reviews are furiously brushed off as "fake news." His taunts, jabs, push-backs, vocabulary, thin skin, flash anger, all smell more of the playground than the cloakroom. Promoted as a deal-maker during the election, it turns out he has just one weapon in his negotiating arsenal: threats.

We have elected a troll, and he has seized on the aptly-named bully pulpit to broadcast his venom to any who disagree with or critique his actions. The populist rallies he continues to front spread the content and tenor of his trolling among his most rabid followers. They, in turn, share the hate in their own communities, both virtual and tangible. I don't see a lot of these expressions in the places where I live and work (for which I'm thankful), but on my travels, I haven't been able to avoid them: visiting my kids in Boise; driving through eastern Washington and northern Idaho on vacation last month; and most likely in next week's eclipse-viewing trek to central Oregon, there is no avoiding the bumper stickers, signs, and attitudes. When I do see such things, I find myself responding in kind: my blood pressure may be going up, my blood feels like it's about to boil, and all I want is to rip down that sign and stomp it into the dirt. That I don't is a testimony to my civilized upbringing.

Even so, this is where our world is heading: sneering at the careful, polite, diplomatic etiquette of the past, our leaders now blurt out whatever's on their minds, make no apologies, and then stubbornly insist they meant to say it, and what's more, what they said needs to be taken up another notch. And of course this causes me to worry that the world is coming to an end, perhaps not with a bang, but with a sneer.

Even as Trump and Kim devolve, there are still world leaders who eschew the jerk of the knee, the sling of the mud, the punch to the gut. But even the likes of Angela Merkel cannot deny that the troll-rot is contagious, as nationalist groups throughout Europe try to emulate what Trump accomplished. This may be the direction we're all headed, into a global realm that's more Klingon than Federation. When I consider how much hope there was in the air following the collapse of the Wall, or the election of Obama, it grieves me to see civilization sliding toward anarchy and recrimination.

And then comes a glimmer of hope: perhaps this phenomenon is Hegelian. In the competent governmental model embraced by both the Clinton and Obama administrations, we had a thesis: that government in the service of citizens can improve the well-being of the nation as a whole. In the George W. Bush administration, there was an initial attempt at antithesis, particularly in proposals to privatize Social Security, but it foundered under the far more consistent drum beat of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Trump, we are seeing a return to the antithesis, but in spades: the regime is unabashedly devoted to overturning every good thing Trump's predecessors (including Bush) accomplished in Washington, while stomping around the delicate biosphere of the international stage in clodhoppers. 

Those who believe in the cyclical nature of history know that when a thesis meets its antithesis, conflict must ensue, ultimately giving rise to the synthesis that becomes the next thesis. I can picture a future governing ethos that synthesizes competent institutions with a populist concern for the ordinary individual, thus correcting the power imbalance that has made troll presidents like Trump inevitable. Without disempowering the elites, there can be now deescalation of proletarian anger. But I worry about how much crisis it will take for us to arrive at that synthesis, and whether this nation will emerge from it in one piece.

But those are the concerns of another essay. Just please don't troll me in your comments about this one.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Not My President

It's true: he doesn't care what you think.

He's not your President, either.

It dates back at least to the debates, when candidate Trump referred to Barack Obama as "your (meaning Hillary Clinton's) President." Of course, that attitude toward the 44th President grew out of years of single-handedly keeping the "birther" movement alive, as Trump refused to accept even the documentary evidence of a birth certificate that Obama was born an American citizen.

Many, including Trump, have criticized Clinton for engaging in identity politics: promoting the ways in which her policy goals would benefit women, persons of color, the LGBTQ community. In doing so, the critics forgot the essential truth, voiced by Tip O'Neill many decades ago, that "all politics is local." It's the job of government to address the needs not just of the whole populace, but of its fractions, even its individuals. The Constitution exists not to defend the tyranny of the majority, but to protect the rights of the minority, however few its members may be.

Setting that argument aside for the moment, the one thing that, above all else, has defined first the candidacy, and now the Presidency, of Donald Trump has been the identity of his base. He campaigned almost exclusively in states whose disaffected white populations could be counted on to turn out for someone who would not only represent their interests, but do so at whatever cost that representation might exact on the minorities with whom they associated their injuries: immigrants, intellectuals, the news media, scientists, environmentalists, women, persons of color. Since taking office, the list of losers has been expanded, and now includes sexual minorities, recreational marijuana users, the judiciary, and even the Republican establishment. The Trump regime is engaged in a constant circling of the wagons that grows narrower with each perceived threat to his authority.

Presidential campaigns have always slanted toward their bases, the voters they can count on to turn out on Election Day. Alienate base voters, and they may not show up to cast their ballots. Despite this real concern, once candidates emerge from the primaries, they have almost always sought to broaden their base, to appeal not only to the entirety of the party they represent, but also to the independent voters essential to winning a popular victory. Extremist rhetoric is discarded for the general election, as candidates insist that, as President, they will represent all the people, including those whose votes they did not win.

Until 2016, all candidates did this. And then came Trump.

Trump campaigned as if he was leading a revolt against the rest of the nation. His base was the angry white voters who were disenchanted with the elites of both parties. They were victim voters, mostly white, who blamed minorities for whatever difficulties the economy had dealt them. It was a significant, but not huge, slice of America. By itself, it would not have delivered the White House to him. But it had help: once the rest of the primary field had been eliminated, Republicans--even those appalled by Trump's boorishness, his irreligiosity, his disdain for the establishment of his own party, and his squishiness on entitlements--fell in line and cast their ballot for him. 

Since winning the electoral vote, despite losing the popular ballot by three million votes (the worst performance ever by a Presidential winner), Trump has stuck to his primary campaign persona, pandering only to the base who elected him. He panders to them with his retrograde policies, appeals to them in tweets and speeches, summons them to his aid when other politicians and media outlets speak the unflattering truth about him. His is a nationalist policy of identity: if you are not a Trump voter, he doesn't care how you think or feel about anything he's doing. He doesn't care that the Republican effort to repeal the ACA would have made insurance less accessible, and far less affordable, to almost all Americans: it mattered to his core (many of whom would've been among the most harmed by the changes), so when it collapsed, he wasted no time blaming the GOP establishment for its failure. He doesn't care that sea levels are rising due to climate change, so that at high tide, streets are now flooding in coastal Florida: his core wants coal jobs to come back, so he's reversing decades of environmental safeguards against the coal industry (even though no amount of deregulation will restore mining jobs lost to automation, not to mention the extent to which the energy sector has already moved on to cleaner and cheaper gas, solar, and wind power). He doesn't care that tens of thousands of transgendered persons already serve in the armed forces, and that their commanders (including the generals he claims to trust) have found no morale problems brought on by their continued service: his base thinks transgendered people are icky, so he issues a blanket ban on their recruitment and service in the armed forces.

I could go on detailing ways in which Trump is the panderer par excellence, but I think you get it: this man is not our President. Unless you're wearing a MAGA cap and waving a MAGA flag, Trump does not care what you think, and will not do anything to promote your wellbeing. He is not there for you. He's there for his base.

That's really not how representative politics is supposed to work. The founders envisioned a system in which voters chose from a menu of well-qualified politicians who possessed the education, experience, and wisdom to be servant leaders for all their constituents. Congress and the President were entrusted with a sacred duty, the solemnity of which was captured in their oaths of office. They were to be defenders and promoters of the Constitution, to uphold the rights it guaranteed, and to never forget that they served not just their voters, but also those who did not vote for them.

We have had fractious leaders, leaders who gloried a little too much in the power granted them by winning an election. Most recently, George W. Bush famously spoke of spending political capital to privatize social security--a statement and approach that cost his party control of Congress. And going back much further, I remember feeling very much that neither Ronald Reagan nor George H. W. Bush represented my beliefs while President. And yet, I would never have disowned either one of them. As an expatriate living in England for two years, I would speak of "my President" with a sigh and an eyeroll, much as I might have talked about a relative or in-law I was embarrassed to have. "Yeah, he's a jerk; but he's my jerk." The implication was that it was my job, as an American citizen, to seek to rein in the bad policies of my President, with the help of the legislators I had elected to represent me in Congress. And always, I knew that, even as my President enacted policies that offended me, he was doing it for what he perceived to be the best interests of the nation as a whole. I might vehemently disagree with him about how he saw those interests, but I never doubted that was his primary aim. Ronald Reagan built up the nuclear arsenal to protect the country. George H.W. Bush prosecuted the Gulf War to defend American interests. George W. Bush did his own version of this in Iraq and Afghanistan. Presidents Clinton and Obama also had policies with which I disagreed, and Clinton disappointed me horribly, but I never doubted that either of them took seriously his responsibility to be President to all Americans.

With Donald Trump, I can no longer say this. He is the first President in my lifetime whose ambition in seeking office was anything other than serving the nation as a whole. Trump was elected by voters who believe Making America Great Again means harming a substantial number of their fellow citizens, and since taking office, every policy he has enacted has been for the express purpose of pleasing those voters. No amount of lobbying on the behalf of the rest of America will move him from his single-minded pursuit of Trump voter approval.

He is not my President. He is not your President.

When the Constitution gave Congress the power of impeachment, it was with the explicit understanding that Presidents may commit crimes that are not defined by the law codes of states and nations. In fact, for the good of the nation, the President is immune from prosecution by any regional entity. He may, however, commit high crimes and misdemeanors that transcend these codes; crimes against the Constitution that have to be addressed by a criminal court higher than any other: the United States Senate.

In styling himself President solely of his base, Donald Trump has violated his most sacred responsibility. He has proven himself unfit to be President of the United States. He is not President to the majority of Americans. It is the solemn duty of Congress to hold him accountable to the oath he took at his inauguration, but has violated every single day he has been in office: to faithfully execute that office; and to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor and nature
The view this morning from Mt. Tabor, looking toward downtown Portland.

The Mt. Tabor summit is usually an easy climb, especially from the parking lot by the amphitheater. I made it from there to the top in about fifteen minutes this morning without...

Nope, can't say "breaking a sweat." Nor can I say "breathing hard." In fact, I did both, but not because I'm out of shape or the climb was tough.

It's just too damned hot--upper 90s by the time I made the climb (close to noon), 104 as I write this (6 p.m.).

It's also too damned hazy. With the heat came a plume of foreign smoke, carried by high winds all the way from wildfires in Banff National Park in Alberta, where we were a week ago and I took this picture:

We in the Pacific Northwest are experiencing--well, I can't call it "unseasonal" heat, since if we're going to have high temperatures, summer is the time for it to happen. So instead, I'll just say it's hotter than usual (in fact, we're setting records this week), the heat is lasting longer than it usually does. Summer is typically our dry season--the rest of the year runs from moist to sopping--but since we had an extremely wet winter, we were hoping for fewer wildfires this year than in previous years (two years ago, we were smoked out of an outdoor play at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival). Alas, the record heat took care of all that reserve moisture, at least up in Canada, and now the smoke from those distant conflagrations is settling over Portland.

That's made for some odd experiences. Last night, as I walked down the block to check the mail, I found my mind playing tricks on me. I was flashing back to trips I made to Southern California in the 1980s and '90s. The reason, I quickly realized, was the smell of the air, an odd tang my brain interprets as fresh, even though I know it's ozone trapped by smog. Yes, the combination of heat and smoke has Portland smelling like LA.

Amy and I went out last night (it was our anniversary), and as we traveled on the Sunset Highway, we read traffic signs requesting we limit driving due to a smog advisory.

At home, we benefit from air conditioning, as do more than two-thirds of Portland residents. We pride ourselves on only using it a few days a summer, and most years, we can get away with that. Given normal summer temperatures that top out in the 80s, we can keep the house comfortable by carefully coordinating the opening and closing of windows and blinds, with ceiling fans maintaining circulation. Once the temperature rises above 90, though, we seal the house up and turn on the noisy compressor. While the majority of homes in this area are now so equipped, this is the first air conditioned home I've lived in in my 33 years in the Willamette Valley. People living in older houses and apartments are not as fortunate: unless they've upgraded to air, many of them will be sweltering, pushing hot air from one room to another with fans that can only simulate cooling. Some will have suffer health consequences as a result.

If you live almost anywhere else in the United States (Alaska excepted), you may find it amusing that we Northwesterners are having frightened, even panicky reactions to this heat. I've been to school in Illinois and Texas, and have spent summers on the East Coast, so I know heat like this is nothing new to you. Please try to understand that what's happening here is an extreme that we're not equipped to handle. Oregonians are used to things being cool: we put on shorts (and some of us sunbathe) when the temperatures got into the upper 50s, and when it hits 80, we start to get out of our depth. Three digit temperatures are a shock to our entire culture. We just don't know what to do with it.

And yes, we're the same when it comes to snow. The reason is simple: this is a place of moderation. As rainy as it gets in the winter, it rarely approaches being torrential. Mostly it's just gray. And during the summer, we usually have cool enough nights that leaving the windows open can keep the house comfortable all day long.

People who move here from other places often complain about those temperate conditions. "I miss the seasons," they say. "Where I come from, you can ski to work all winter long!" "Back in Arizona, you could cook a whole dinner on the sidewalk." Stuff like that.

As humorous as it may be to the rest of America that we're having a hard time with the heat here in the upper left corner, this should be a sobering phenomenon to all of us. When even the most temperate of regions is too hot to handle, when the air is hazy with smoke from the far north, one has to wonder: how much hotter must it be in the sun belt? How much longer will summers be habitable in places where temperatures are now topping not just 100, but 110, even 120? Are we going to see a migration to the northwest? To Canada? Where will those people go when even Alberta is too hot to tolerate?

Climate change is as real as the tang in the air that made me think for a moment I'd died and gone to La La Land. And it's coming for every one of us.