The Myth of the White Race

children_holding_hands_iStock_000004544472SmallIn the past, I have tried to reach reasonable white people by writing about race. I know many wonderful white people who think they’re not racist, but they still have subconscious racism. (I deal with this in myself as well.) My hope was, that as “one of them,” maybe I could say something, anything, to help them acknowledge the reality that people of color face. I wrote specifically about racism here and here. I suspected I was preaching to the choir, but hey. It’s always worth a shot to win over hearts and minds.

In the age of Trump, however, I can see that a certain segment of the population is a lost cause, and that segment was larger than I originally thought. Indeed, there are many white people out there who are so delicate, so fragile, that a person of color cannot express their true feelings about their indifferent, thoughtless, or outright racist behavior without the white person feeling viciously attacked and provoked into responding with, “Reverse racism!” This response is the intellectual equivalent of, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Yes, it’s a clever little mind-fuck that the thin-skinned whites came up with to avoid ever having to deal with their own issues. A black person is clearly never supposed to even hint that a white person might be, a little, maybe, hurtful? rude? In the grown-up world, this is called being honest about your feelings. “When you do that, it hurts.” Healthy grown-ups can deal with this sort of dialogue when they’re on the receiving end. Interestingly, you know what kind of grown-up cannot deal with this at all, ever? A personality-disordered one. And when it comes to people of color, many whites respond narcissistically:  “Oh! How could you! I am SO not that, I am not a racist, I would never. I’m a very good person. Some of my best friends are…” This is what we call “blaming the victim” and “refusing to take responsibility for their actions.”

I have noticed, in my advocacy for people of color, that some whites love to tell me how sad it is that “I’ve turned against my own race” and other such bullshit. Yes, they reason, she must be a self-hating white person to take the wrong side on this issue. These people will argue that systemic racism is a figment, that no white person these days is ever racist, ever ever, and that the ONLY reason racial tension exists is because those uppity colored people just will not keep their place. Okay, they don’t put it that way, but in effect, that is what they mean. They should be quiet and suck it up, just like Elizabeth Warren. And yet they persist. Yes, there’s always an excuse ready to hand when a black person is unjustly and unlawfully killed.

So-called white people are extremely privileged in our society, but the mere act of saying that brings about the inevitable backlash: “Oh, you’re playing the race/privilege card.” If we claim it doesn’t exist, we don’t have to deal with it. The mental acrobatics involved with avoiding uncomfortable truths is an astonishing waste of energy, which belies the argument about being a “superior race.” Clearly, we are not.

But about this race thing. There is no “white race.” The (weird) term “Caucasian” that we check on questionnaires means “of European origin,” or more specificaully, “from the Caucasus.” The Caucasus lies between the Black and Caspian seas. In Asia. It includes Georgia and Azerbaijan. And that’s just a start.

English and most European languages are Indo-European. Finnish, Basque, and Hungarian are not; those languages are descended from the original European cultures who lived there before the Indo-Aryans came. The Picts occupied Scotland before the Celts arrived. The original inhabitants of Ireland are enshrined in myth as the Tuatha Dé Danan, who occupied the island before the Celts. The Indo-Aryans themselves came from, duh, the region of India. They interbred with the existing European tribes just as homo sapiens, as we know, interbred with Neanderthals. And it’s not like the mixing stopped there. Many a Spaniard has Moorish (African) blood, as does, no doubt, most of the population of the northern Mediterranean. The English are hardly “pure-blooded” anything. Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norsemen, and the French have all inhabited the island. Were these all “white?” They had profound cultural differences, some more than others. It wasn’t that long ago that none of these peoples would have laid claim to being a “common race” with one another.

Nowadays, the definition seems to be expanding. Russians, now, are becoming “white.” But Russia is a very big place, and it contains many different ethnic groups, including some Indo-Europeans, real Caucasians, Siberians, and those of Turkic or Mongolic origin. And of course, they have Jews, who may bear white skin, but keep getting locked out of the “white club.” (Semitic, by the way, applies to Arabs as well as Jews, ironically.)

So what is “whiteness?” It’s a social construct, a belief, much like a belief in the Tooth Fairy. “If you look like me, you’re white.” Unless, of course, you have a drop of black blood, but can “pass” for white. An octoroon, a person who was 1/8 black, was still black because apparently the 7/8 of their genetic makeup didn’t matter at that point. These white race rules get kinda complicated.

The truth is, most African-Americans have white blood in their veins. And the corollary is, there are a lot of “white” people out there with black, Native American, and Latino blood in their veins, too. Do they know it? Probably not. Is Barack Obama half-black or half-white? Do “whites” know that their European ancestors may well have had fairly recent African, Asian, or Middle Eastern influence? Probably not. Are they aware that all of humanity originated in Africa? Probably not, although if they really believe in the Adam and Eve thing, humanity only had two parents. Which makes us all related.

We know, scientifically, that the concept of “race” doesn’t make sense, because we can do DNA testing. One individual’s DNA may have ties to peoples and cultures all over the world. To me, that’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. It’s indicative of our Oneness. I get that thousands of years ago, we lived in tight tribes, basically extended family groups, and “other” tribes could be in-laws, friends, or foes. There’s some wiring there. But we don’t live like that anymore. Or at least, we don’t have to. It’s time to recognize ourselves in one another and give up the ego-protecting defense mechanisms that make us okay with another’s suffering. We really are one race, the human race. Some people won’t see it. I’m sorry for them. But the rest of us need to move forward now.

Watch this fantastic video about DNA testing and what it tells us about ourselves.

The Gaslighting of America

A scene from "Gaslight" about a narcissist's sadistic manipulation of his wife

A scene from “Gaslight” about a narcissist’s sadistic manipulation of his wife

There were these two couples who liked to spend time together and had been doing so for many years. They were good friends. They never discussed politics. They just enjoyed each other’s company.

Then one weekend at the beach, one of the women says something a bit political. The other couple raised their eyebrows and silently communicated, “let’s not go there.” Then later in the weekend, the woman’s husband dropped a political comment into the conversation. They were fishing, the other couple realized, and they let it go.

A few weeks later, the political woman calls her friend and says something along the lines of, “You can’t have been happy these past few years with Obama.” To which the other woman says, “In fact, I have.” And her old friend says, “Oh, my dear, but Trump’s going to make us so safe. We really do have to keep those people out.”

Now the other woman is flustered and can’t believe she’s having this conversation. She responds, “But if you watch the news…” And her friend says, “Oh, my dear, that’s all fake news.”

Will this friendship survive? Time will tell. But the nation may not. In fact, it will almost certainly be forever changed.

What emboldened the couple to bring up politics after so many years? It’s very similar to what hardcore Christians do:  they were trying to save their friends. Not religiously, mind you, but socially. You’re one of us, they think, and we love you. We want to make sure you understand what’s best for you. At the end of the struggle, or after the Rapture for those who go for that sort of thing, they want their friends to be there, alongside them. Not in the gulag.

Okay, they don’t consciously foresee a gulag. But, you know. You should be on our side, because it will affirm to us that we’re not racists/bad people for thinking this way…

And there’s the crux. Somewhere in the back of their mind, Jiminy Cricket is trying to shout at them, but they’ve applied a gag. They don’t want to hear him. They don’t want to think that they’re wrongfully judging and condemning whole groups of people. Trump’s narrative is so soothing, so appealing. Why, of course we want to be safe. Of course we don’t want Americans to be killed by terrorist attacks. This is the substance of the gag, and the more external validation they can get for it (by having their friends and family agree with them), the stronger it becomes.

Germans during the Reich were no worse than we are, fundamentally. Yes, there were the hard-core Nazis who fervently believed. There were liberals (socialists, communists). And there were good people in the middle who were also easily gaslighted, led along the path to think, “Maybe they’re right about those people, after all.”

Those people.

The moment you have an “Other,” you have a problem. The Other can be dehumanized (they’re more like animals than people; they’re subhuman), delegitimized (Islam is not a religion; it’s a political system), and stigmatized (they want to destroy us; they’re lazy; they steal our jobs). If you are afraid of the Other, if your so-called “safety” is endangered by the Other, you are more likely to do terrible things to the Other in the name of “self-defense.” This happens over and over, and still, we have not learned.

The people who are actively congratulating Trump and howling for the blood of the Other, in any form, are lost. Trump’s narrative is affirming their prejudices, and they are grateful to him that they can now attempt to elevate their piteous selves over people who have done them no harm. Microaggressions are now macroaggressions, once again, with mostly white men and some white women confronting minorities everywhere. And they have the gall to proclaim that they are not racists. They do not see themselves, and they probably never will.

But the real danger lies from the middle, from those who would never berate a Muslim person in public, but who quietly nod their heads in growing agreement that, yes, these people are a problem, and we should keep them out. Today it’s the Muslims and the Mexicans (the only illegal immigrants that seem to matter in this conversation). Tomorrow, though, the question will become:  why not the gays? Why not the Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists? Why not the disabled, who will be plainly visible on the streets if the GOP undercuts their safety net much more. Anyone who is different from the specified norm will be at risk, because once people start looking for the Other as a scapegoat, the target list only grows.

The Trump administration is playing the hand of an authoritarian demagogue. In true gaslighting style, they will push their narrative with, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lyin’ eyes?” And some people will believe that CNN is fake news, that real journalism cannot be trusted, that the Bowling Green Massacre really happened, and only Trump can keep them safe. Too many people have an insatiable need for a Messiah to save them, and Trump is happy to let them think he is The One.

The good news is that some Germans resisted. It is due to their efforts that some Jews and others escaped the Holocaust. Not every mind is easily gaslit. The would-be authoritarians know this, too, and dissent will be silenced as much as possible, either on social media, on the street, or on the floor of the Senate (hats off, Elizabeth Warren).

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear take heart and stand firm. It’s going to be a rough few years, but perhaps we can birth something better at the end of it. The only way we can do that is to stick together as one and give no energy to the idea of an Other. Remember, the founding fathers chose this for our motto:  E pluribus unum — Out of many, One.

What’s Next for the Resistance?

Woman's March on Washington 2017

By Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Woman’s March on January 21, 2017 cheered me up tremendously. Many of us are alarmed, as we should be, and our voices were heard. So what’s next?

There are two agendas that we must address. In some cases, there is overlap. To be blunt, there is the Republican agenda, and there is the Donald Trump agenda. Both are dangerous, and both are, in some ways, on opposing sides.

The Trump Agenda

Trump’s agenda, as much as anyone can tell, involves these primary points:

  • American protectionism: punishing countries and businesses who are “not fair” to the U.S. Whatever that means.
  • Curtailing immigration of Muslims and nonwhites
  • Yes, the “wall” or border fence
  • Funding infrastructure spending in America by giving huge tax cuts to corporations, who will then be free to impose tolls and other fees
  • Increasing the military state: channeling more military-grade weaponry to police departments and overlooking or flat-out ignoring civil-rights violations by police (it’s reasonable to suggest that as a corollary, the surveillance state will also be increased)
  • Ignoring civil rights issues altogether (in the name of “safety”)
  • Infringing on civil rights of some groups (see: Hispanics, Muslims, possibly LGBTQ and Jews)
  • Increasing executive authority
  • Suppressing dissent as much as possible
  • Aiding and reinforcing right-wing, nationalist agendas in other countries, in collusion with Russia (see: Steve Bannon)
  • Putting a right-wing extremist on the Supreme Court (see: William Pryor, Jr)
  • Repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (see: Republican agenda, below)
  • Increasing military spending and potentially allying with Russia (where? why?)
  • Abandon any pretense of helping or protecting our traditional allies in Europe (see: NATO comments, Vladimir Putin)
  • Reduce or eliminate federal support for education, placing a heavy burden on money-strapped states (see: Republican agenda. Also, Greek-style austerity may be coming to a state near you.)
  • Cut taxes, mostly for corporations and the higher brackets (see: Republican agenda since forever)
  • Completely dismantle any regulations that protect our environment or guard against climate change (see also: Republican agenda) and eliminate agencies such as:
    • Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
    • Office of Fossil Energy, which seeks to reduce CO emissions
  • Eliminating spending that does not serve the military state:
    • National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities
      (combined funding is less than .002% of the budget)
    • PBS and NPR (to be privatized)
    • Minority Business Development Agency and similar trade agencies
    • Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
    • Violence Against Women grants
    • Legal Services Corporation
    • Reduced funding for the Civil Rights and Environment and Natural Resources divisions

Much of this is bad enough. His penchant for authoritarian figures is already well documented. How much authority can he steal in the U.S.? That remains to be seen, although it was disturbing to watch Trump supporters boo Chuck Schumer for saying things like:

Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty, we are all exceptional in our commonly held, yet fierce devotion to our country, and in our willingness to sacrifice our time, energy, and even our lives to making it a more perfect union.

Today, we celebrate one of democracy’s core attributes, the peaceful transfer of power. And every day, we stand up for core democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution — the rule of law, equal protection for all under law, the freedom of speech, press, religion — the things that make America America.

Our institutions are fragile. They depend on the buy-in of the American public. It would seem that some of the American public does not agree. That’s not good.

The Republican Agenda

The GOP is positively giddy with glee that they have unfettered power now. Their silence and general lack of spine on matters Trumpian can be directly attributed to the fact that they need him to make sweeping changes to the very fabric of America, none of them good.

Some of the bullets above, as noted, are the same for Republicans in Congress, with a few differences, as noted below:

  • Repealing the Affordable Care Act
    Not so keen on replacing, though. What they propose is universal access, not coverage. Those with the wherewithal can continue their use of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), and they may raise the amount that you can put in during a year, but remember: that still comes out of your pretax income. It’s your money. Also, while the ACA specifies certain coverage that insurance must provide, their replacement will not. There will also be no limit on deductibles. So yes, your premiums might be cheaper, but your out-of-pocket expenses could be astronomical. And if you have a preexisting condition? Their answer is “high-risk pools,” which have already been proven to not work.
  • Kill Medicare and replace it with “vouchers,” which let you purchase your own insurance in the same unregulated market that the rest of the country has to suffer from.
  • Kill Social Security, suck up the money we all paid into it (they’ve already stolen, er, “borrowed,” a good deal, which is how they claim it’s insolvent), and give you… well, nothing. Happy retirement!
  • Kill SNAP benefits (food stamps), which, if you qualify gives a household of four $649 per month. Which is why, by the end of the month, a lot of people and children are hungry.
  • Kill WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) benefits, because you shouldn’t have an abortion, but so what if you want to feed your baby. (Note: I haven’t seen an actual proposal to do this, but given that they want to kill everything else… they will if they can.)
  • Reduce veteran’s benefits and possibly kill the VA (“vouchers” and “HSAs,” you know)
  • Open up everything to drilling and fracking, and ban local attempts to prevent them from doing so.
  • Cut funding for Planned Parenthood, because women’s health is unimportant.
  • Either a) Treat Russia as the global threat it is and back our western allies, or b) Follow Trump’s lead because they want to get reelected in two years (dependent on the person). I expect more of “b.”
  • Go along with all “discretionary” spending cuts that Trump/Pence propose, as long as it doesn’t affect the military budget, which is God.
  • As for civil rights, well… the GOP hasn’t been a fan of those in a long time.

While there is a fair bit of overlap in these agendas, Donald Trump has said he would preserve Medicare and Social Security. So there are areas of conflict. One thing to watch for:  the Republicans in Congress may try to do what they want anyway, and blame Trump. They could easily throw him under the bus if it suits them. We’ll see.

Donald Trump spoke of the “American carnage.” And it’s true that many people and places have lost their jobs and means of making a living. The great depression (which was not caused by Obama) of 2008 have made things worse for the average American. So I get the desire for a change. But the changes I’ve listed will decimate the social safety net, which millions of Americans need in order to live, not because they’re lazy or stupid, but because it’s incredibly difficult to get ahead in the economy that has evolved.  The phrase “the working poor” is apt because many poor people work two or three jobs, without benefits, just to get by. They are not lazy. And yet their children are hungry. This is not right. Automation is increasing, and more jobs will be lost. That’s a fact.

A better use of our tax money would be a Universal Basic Income, which some developed countries are experimenting with. It would provide a basic income for every adult citizen, enough to live on. Obviously, every citizen is also free to earn more as well, to increase their standard of living. I believe most people who could do so would. (Remember, some people are disabled or infirm and cannot work.) But obviously, at this point in time, the U.S. is not going to do that.

What we can do as we resist these wretched agendas is to educate people about the pain that is about to be inflicted on them. (Democrats: you’ve done a terrible job of this.) Liberals and progressives and even former Republicans have taken to the streets, but Trump voters will suffer with the rest of us, too. We cannot let Congress inflict this kind of pain on our country. We must stay in the streets, run for office, do whatever it takes. If we continue to hobble science and education, if we give into authoritarian voices because “safety” sounds good, this country will cease to be a world leader. It will cease to be a place of new ideas. It will likely even cease to be.

The Tightening Corridors of Privilege

be_this_guyWhen I left my husband for my the woman who would later become my wife, I did so in 2003 in a very liberal metropolitan area, where being gay, lesbian, trans, or anything in between is mostly accepted and unproblematic. We both know lesbian and gay couples who have lived it longer, however, and we were certainly not blind to their historical struggle to live freely, be accepted, and simply exist in the world. But we felt that attitudes were changing, even when we personally ran across the occasional bigot. In short, we lived with a great deal of privilege as a same-sex white couple.

This month’s American election, however, was a huge slap in the face, cold water washing over us and alerting us to the reality that many of our fellow citizens have no problem with throwing us under the bus. Because I am privileged, that feeling was new. And it hurts. It hurts to think of all the people I have known and liked who saw what Trump is and had no problem voting for him anyway. Yeah, he and Pence (in particular) may think that being LGBTQ is a “lifestyle choice” that you can “fix with therapy” and that so-called Christians should be allowed to discriminate against at will, but the ends justify the means! Whatever those ends are. Tellingly, I have yet to hear or read a solid reason why some people preferred Trump, except that they wanted “change.”

Of course, the LGBTQ population is hardly the only one with a problem right now. My fellow African-Americans are weary because discrimination and hate are not new to them. They greet my shock with a sigh borne of centuries of abuse, kindly revealing my own privilege in dealing with what is for them a very old problem. I see this. And this is the dangerous slope that we are slipping down:  the very privileged white people who voted for Trump do not see their own danger.

First it was the Muslims. Only a Muslim could be a terrorist. Certainly not the white Timothy McVeigh. Certainly not the white guy who flew an airplane into an IRS building. But then came the definition creep. Ecowarriors, those protesters who stood up for the health of the environment. Branding them as terrorists is politically convenient for the oil-owned politicians. Who else might be a terrorist, do you suppose? Latino protesters? Black Lives Matter activists? The right is already calling them this. Might gay pride parades one day be a provocative act, subject to increasingly militarized police intervention?

I’m seeing a great deal of denial even from white allies. They rationalize and seek out excuses. “Chill out, it’s not THAT bad!” Or, “you’ll be fine, it’s not that big a deal,” or “The media is blowing attacks out of proportion; very few people are causing problems.” I’m sure the Weimar Germans felt the same way. And sadly, even though this is looking way too familiar, my even comparing what is happening now with the fall of the democratic Weimar Republic makes people more likely to poo-poo the whole idea as a crazy overreach, because “it could never happen here.” Right.

In 1922, the New York Times did not take Hitler’s antisemitic rantings seriously. I say that if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and walks like a duck—it’s a fucking duck. Donald Trump has made his racist worldview very clear. He might have a soft spot for Jews, given his son-in-law, but his supporters don’t. Steve Bannon doesn’t. Jeff Sessions doesn’t. And when you start marking “them” as targets, the list never shrinks. It only gets bigger. Yes, Hitler killed 6 million Jews. He also killed 6 million other people:  gays, gypsies, communists, political enemies, and the disabled. In the attacks since Trump ascended his throne—, I  mean, the presidency, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, Asians, and the disabled have been targeted.

So far, the only white people in the vulnerable group are LGBTQ and the disabled. But if Muslims and Sikhs (just because they’re mistaken for Muslims) are open game, what about pagans and Wiccans? How long before they’re targeted? What about atheists? Pretty soon, anyone who holds any view that differs from the viewpoint of the people in power become vulnerable. This is what fascism looks like. This does not deserve excuses, normalizing, or Pollyannaesque “it will all be fine” magical thinking.

Tellingly, the normalization has begun. For example, the left is so focused on how reprehensible the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist is that they’ve forgotten the point that Donald J. Trump is himself reprehensible, and he’s president!

Trump’s emboldened followers don’t even bother to hide their deplorable views anymore. The KKK, American Nazi party, they’re all out and proud and singing “Sieg! Heil!” And yet, so many so-called “normal” white people aren’t worried. No, it’s not a problem for them. Today.

Fearmongering is insidious, and it’s enriching many who tell lies for a living. My own father reads and comments on these ridiculous lies, and he believes them all. The problem is that many people do. Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, would have loved it all. If you want to focus the population on a scapegoat (or two or ten), it’s remarkably easy. If you want to radicalize Christians to support a strong man, it’s remarkably easy. Here’s what my own father said in a comment on an “article” titled 200,000 Take to the Streets of Paris to Protest Sodomy-Based “Marriage”:

All churches are being infiltrated. All of them. You’ve heard how the Left wants to change the Catholic church. The United Methodists have recently elected a gay woman to be a BISHOP. Many Methodist churches have sent the United Conference a letter telling them that they do no recognize the authority of this new BISHOP…mine included. I’m still waiting to see what, if anything, my church plans to do besides their letter. It’s getting harder and harder to find a church that hasn’t been infiltrated to the point that it’s no longer a Christian church. These Catholics in France are doing the right thing, but they sadly may stand alone.

My father, like many before him, has graduated from the echo chamber of Fox News to the even narrower echo chamber and outright lies of the alt right. He is lost. His brainwashing is complete. The LGBTQ movement is a conspiracy, a “plot to infiltrate.” The problem is, he’s not the only one. And many of them have gone from simply commenting on articles to attacking people in the streets. Donald Trump has denounced none of them. Silence equals consent. This is our very real danger.

 

The Meritocracy Myth

homeless_man_during_morning_commute_iStock_000004136154XSmallMy father was an army officer, and my mother was a homemaker until I was 9. That’s when they bought property that required her to work. She was a receptionist. We were squarely lower middle class, doing well enough. It never occurred to me that we were underprivileged.

I ended up attending a ridiculously small, rural school (9 kids in my class) with few course offerings beyond the basics. I was Salutatorian of my class, but when I took the SAT and ACT, I felt that I had suffered in my math education, in particular. I made up for this lack by majoring in Liberal Arts and avoiding it entirely. My parents paid for my college. It was affordable then, and I’m grateful. My degree in English eventually led to a good career as a technical writer. I feel very fortunate.

My wife, Ahnna, by contrast, grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Her father was an MIT professor who built the first working electron microscope on the continent. He worked with the likes of Francis Crick and James Watson on their research. Ahnna’s mom hated Francis, whose hands were always where they shouldn’t be at cocktail parties. Ahnna’s mom was a beautiful woman. Her professor father, though, was also an alcoholic and ended up being dismissed by MIT years later, some time after Ahnna’s parents divorced. He died of lung cancer in rural Arkansas, where he spent most of his last years alone.

Most of Ahnna’s secondary education was spent at a private ivy-league prep school in Connecticut. Due to failing finances, her mother and stepfather had to take them out of the fancy school to finish their education. As the disabled child of one in four kids, Ahnna had to pay her way through much of her college. Her father, in Arkansas, could occasionally be persuaded to send her a check, but mostly she got by with a long-term babysitting gig. She still considers those girls to be “her kids.”

The difference between Ahnna’s upbringing and mine is pretty vast. Her parents were mostly liberal and well educated. Mine were extremely conservative and largely ignorant. But then, I have always felt that I was an apple that fell a long way from the tree.

A few years ago, an old school friend of Ahnna’s came to stay with us awhile. He had the ivy-league prep school advantage, his father’s money behind him, and went on to Emory to pursue a degree in law, like his father. Their fellow classmates included people like Tracy Chapman, the daughter of Martin Luther King’s lawyer, Mary Travers’ daughter, and other children of celebrities and well-to-do or influential people. In contrast, my classmates were the children of simple farmers, machinists, and factory workers—mostly blue collar. No one you’ve ever heard of. Worlds apart.

After the old prep school friend had been with us awhile, he determined that a composter would be useful. Indeed, I’d thought of getting one for some time, but they can be expensive, and I had other priorities. So I was absolutely flabbergasted when he called up his old friend from school, who was president of a garden supply company, and asked him to send us one. For free. And he did.

This illuminated me on why so much of meritocracy is a lie. By virtue of his birth to a well-off lawyer in New England who could send him to a fancy prep school, this man had made contacts that would serve him for the rest of his life. Company presidents, bankers, people who knew people. People who would be willing to do him the favor of a free composter. And here’s another difference:  it would never have occurred to me to ask a friend for something free from their company. Ever. But when you move in elite circles, there is a certain quid pro quo. It’s like being part of a secret club, and the members help each other out, because they know that they might need the favor returned down the line. With a job. A contact. A loan. Who knows?

Meritocracy is the belief that an individual makes it in life solely on their own merits. In other words, if you work hard, you will be successful and get ahead. While it is certainly true that you won’t get far if you don’t work hard and put your best effort into things, that alone does not guarantee success.

I witnessed the rise and fall of the best damn coffee company in the world in Austin, Texas. They made their own unique drink, literally the best I’ve ever had or will have. But they were competing with Starbucks. They did develop their own following, though, largely based on the personality of the owner, who had a star-like quality. They even expanded to four stores at one point. I invested in them. But uncontrollable shit happened, like construction around their newly opened downtown store that cut into their traffic. That location had to close. A misstep on the books. Another store closed. And it’s not like they didn’t work hard. The owner had a cot in the back room of his main store and often worked from 7am until close at 10pm. He worked hard, all right. And still, after a number of years, the business failed. Why? Because there are a lot of variables that you cannot control. Sometimes it’s just pure bad luck.

If the owner of this coffee shop had had an investor with the vision to help make it happen, I think they’d still be around today. It’s damn hard to start if your resources are meager to begin with. He didn’t have ivy league buddies.

Now, I’m not trying to disparage prep school kids or ivy leaguers. But they have a built-in advantage that all but guarantees their success. George W. Bush got into Yale because his father did. He made Cs. He had contacts to get him into high-powered businesses. Politics. You know the rest. Candidates for president seldom come from public schools.

And yet, the meritocracy myth endures. These people succeeded on the basis of “their own hard work.” Well, that isn’t the whole truth. Likewise, this myth is used to disparage the lower classes, but particularly minorities: poor black kids, the myth goes, don’t get ahead because they’re lazy and would rather live off welfare. But the poor black kid from the impoverished areas doesn’t have prep school buddies to leverage. They don’t have easy access to money and the other markers of privilege. Of course, every now and then a black kid (or Latino, etc) does break out of poverty and becomes successful. People might point to Ben Carson, for example, as “proof” that any black kid could achieve that if they only bothered to try. But the rare exception does not make the rule. It’s like comparing a horse race between a well-maintained and well-trained horse and one that has been undernourished and weighed down with 100 pounds on its back. The latter horse may indeed cross the finish line. It may also collapse under the weight on its back.

There is one other strand that winds its way through the meritocracy myth, and that is the current Prosperity Theology espoused by many American evangelicals. According to Prosperity Theology, God wants to bless his believers with financial prosperity, and if you are wealthy, then it is a sign that you have been worthy of this blessing. If you are not wealthy or are struggling, then God has not favored you, and you have fucked up. This is a very convenient belief, because it validates evangelical ministers for being ridiculously, obscenely wealthy (they “kept faith”). It is also a convenience to believe that if someone is poor, sick, or struggling, then that’s just too bad for them, because it’s their own fault. In short:  “I can wash my hands of your problems.”

It is astonishing that a religion based on belief in a man who healed the sick and tended the poor and who owned practically nothing, who exhorted his followers repeatedly to give to the poor, has produced this very American evangelical view that you can ignore the poor completely and still excuse your conscience about it. This is the spiritual version of the meritocracy:  if you are struggling, not only are you not working hard enough, but you’re clearly morally lacking as well, because God would have blessed you if you deserved it. Wow.

The white classes are more likely to believe these than minority classes. And why not? Why feel guilt about the plight of others if you have a handy excuse? Of course, even white people struggle with sickness and poverty. This isn’t a racial problem; it’s a class problem. Making excuses on the basis of DNA will not change that.

We must change how we think if we want to move ahead and create a just society. Life cannot be about “us vs. them.” We have to stop the automatic judgments based on birth, class, race, income, and material possessions. None of these matter in the end. We must care for one another, not throw each other under the bus. I have observed that those who do not care for others beyond themselves often end their lives alone. Ahnna’s father was nearly dead on the floor of his cabin when a neighbor found him and took him to the hospital, where he died. With no one there to love him. I would not wish this on anyone. Caring about others, helping others, these are actually acts of self-care. They enrich us, they increase the love for us. The alternative is grim.

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
~Matthew 8:20

Neighbors, But Not Friends? A Dark Morning in America

So our hateful 2016 election is done. Those of us who believed that America was truly great have to concede that there is a darkness, a rot in the body of the republic. The man who has belittled every “other” you can think of (Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ, Hispanics, women, the disabled, members of his own party) will now hold the ultimate power as President of the United States, with the full backing of a GOP-majority Congress. Oh, yes, it is morning in America, all right. And it is dark.

kkkBut some are celebrating. The KKK (see photo) are out and open and having a ball. The White Nationalists, which embody the alt right, have inserted their propaganda into mainstream conservative media. Antisemitic tropes straight from the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are openly spoken by our new president-elect. His voters wanted change. They’re about to get it.

Yes, there will be change, but not the kind that brings back the happy (white) middle-class days of the 1950s. That economy is gone, those days are gone, forever. All nonwhite nonChristian minorities are going to have it rough, but so will the Trump believers. Here’s a list of what you can expect from an empowered GOP:

  • Repealed/Degraded Environmental Protections
    Flint, Michigan’s crisis will be nothing compared with what happens next. Increased drilling, relaxed emissions standards, more fracking, more and bigger pipelines, with the inevitable degradation of land, air, and water and increased disasters induced by global warming.
  • Repealed/Degraded Equal Rights
    Muslims, LGBTQ, immigrants, and women, will lose rights in the name of the Evangelical right and “Homeland Security.” These communities will be harassed, and emboldened bigots of all kinds will feel free to set upon anyone they think doesn’t have a right to exist.
  • Obamacare Repealed and NOT Replaced
    Anyone who thinks the GOP has a plan to replace Obamacare is fooling themselves. God help anyone with a preexisting condition.
  • A Right-Tilting Supreme Court
    Don’t expect reasonable verdicts once the majority sympathizes with a conservative Christian viewpoint. The rights to abortion, gay marriage, and any number of privileges may well be revoked. Welcome to the theocracy.
  • A Recession
    That’s right. If Trump carries through with his trade battles, the world and the US in particular will likely fall into recession. This won’t be pretty, either. Remember 2008?
  • An Emboldened Russia
    The Russian government cheered at the news of Trump’s presidency. Why not? They worked hard for it. If Trump no longer sees America as a counterbalance, then Putin will likely “annex” the Baltic states. Will he stop there? Who the hell knows? The Ukraine is probably sweating bullets, though.
  • An Increase in Political Chaos Worldwide
    With the US turning inward, the rest of the world is on its own. That isn’t necessarily bad, but many democracies are facing the challenge of nationalist movements of their own. Which brings us to…
  • The Real Risk of Authoritarianism
    If a man keeps saying that he likes the way authoritarians do things, you should believe him. Trump has praised many dictators and despots. He has advocated for authoritarian changes, such as the right to make it easier to sue the press for libel. He is not in favor of a free press. He isn’t even in favor of due process, which is the belief that anyone charged of a crime should have the benefit of a legal process to prove or disprove the charge. How bad can this get? It depends on how much the feckless GOP in Congress are willing to collude or stand up to him. Given what we saw during the election, there isn’t a lot of spine there. And that’s scary.

This is all bad enough. But the primary reason Hillary supporters are scared to death isn’t because “our candidate lost.” It’s because Trump is, perhaps, a willing tool of the white nationalists who support him, and at whom he has winked in numerous speeches. Here are some of the things his nationalist supporters said of him (source: Mother Jones):

“Donald Trump’s campaign statements, if nothing else, have SHOWN that ‘our views’ are NOT so ‘unpopular’ as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are!”
~ Rocky J. Suhayda, Chair of the American Nazi Party

“‘African-American’ is pretty for ‘jungle savage. We normal whites move away from these jungle creatures whenever we can. But the murderous hands of government, guided by Big Jew, again and again and again push us back in with the savages.” 
~ Alex Linder, 2005, The Aryan Alternative

“Hitler, of course, has been demonized because he lost.”
~ Don Black, KKK Grand Dragon, to Business Insider

“White people are realizing they are becoming strangers in their own country and they do not have a major political voice speaking for them. Trump is one example of the alternative-right candidate Knights Party members and supporters have been looking for.”
~ Rachel Pendergraft, national organizer for the KKK-affiliated Knights Party

“Just know that we three percent, we militiamen, are standing at the ready across our nation. And when you strike, we will strike back. We will level and demolish every mosque across this country.”
~ Jon Ritzheimer, Anti-Islam activist & participant in the Oregon occupation

It is not unreasonable to assume that Donald Trump is not simply unconsciously parroting White Nationalist propaganda, but that he really believes it. His father, Fred Trump, was arrested at a KKK riot in 1927. Donald Trump was not only sued for refusing to rent to minorities in the 1970s, he refused to cooperate with the investigation, destroyed files, and when he was finally forced to settle, he promptly resumed his practice of not renting to minorities. In short, it is not a reach to conclude that Donald Trump is a racist of the worst kind.

So yes, on this depressing morning after, those of us who did not vote for Trump are scared, sad, and disappointed in our country. If you voted for Donald Trump in spite of the encyclopedic documentation of his dislike for all “others” already mentioned above, then by all means, enjoy your victory. But I, as your neighbor, wonder why, if you were truly my friend, you would support a man who will only do harm to me and mine. A man who would nullify the legality of my marriage, which undermines my wife and children’s legal rights. A man who would preemptively classify an entire community as terrorists, guilty until proven innocent. A man who has no problem with “shoot first and ask questions later” when it comes to dealing with American citizens on the street. A man who has no problem denying people of color a fair chance at housing. A man who has no problem with sexually assaulting any woman he’s attracted to. You wanted change. Well, you got it. But it comes at a very high price. God help us all.

Guns and Empathy

Asha, ready for Talent Round-Up day on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show

Asha, ready for Talent Round-Up day on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show

I got my first gun when I was 10 years old. It was a Daisy BB gun (not a Red Ryder, and I did not shoot my eye out). We had just moved to 76 acres in the middle of nowhere, Texas. It was nice land, maybe one-quarter plowed and the rest wild. I also got my first pair of cowboy boots, because only a fool walks through tall grass on a warm day in anything else. There were lots of snakes, and it’s far better that they bite into leather than your ankle.

When I was 11, Dad bought me a used 4-10 shotgun at a pawn shop. I think he bought his 12-gauge at the same time. Now, I know some people would think that we didn’t really need these guns, because I didn’t start deer hunting until I was 14 or so. And you don’t shoot deer with a shotgun—well, not with shot, anyway. Dad did hunt deer with 12-gauge slugs before he bought a 30/30, which is a good deer rifle. No, the shotguns were not for deer, but they were for wildlife. This is going to horrify some folks, I know. And I will be honest:  Dad shot animals he simply did not need to shoot, and he should have left alone. But there are times when you have to. For example, I woke up one morning before school and went out to Dad’s workshop on the porch in my bare feet and nightgown. We had a freezer in there, and I wanted a frozen waffle. The moment I walked into the shop, I heard a rattling noise. I froze. I looked around and could not see the source, so I high-tailed it out of there faster than you can say, “Leggo my Eggo.” My Dad got his .22 pistol (with shot bullets, which are effective against snakes at close range) and discovered that not one, but two rattlesnakes had bedded up in some old insulation he had in there. Mighty cozy. In circumstances like these, you are not going to try to catch the snakes and release them somewhere else. No, you’re going to shoot them. And he did.

Guns like these are excellent tools for hunting and protection from things like rattlesnakes and rabid animals (remember Old Yeller?). Over the years, I have eaten squirrel, rabbit, and even raccoon (which we did not like—too fatty). In general, I believe that if you kill an animal, you should eat it. I don’t have a lot of respect for killing for trophies. In my opinion, that’s something that insecure people do. And deer hunting, at this point, is probably necessary, because we’ve killed most of the big predators. Deer hunting is regulated to maintain a stable population. Hunters who follow the rules are good hunters. Unethical hunters kill out of season, poach, or don’t eat what they kill.

Right now, Americans are quite divided on the issue of guns, which is understandable. A shotgun can do a great deal of damage, but an AR-47 can cause carnage on a large scale. The liberal take is generally that we need some gun control. The conservative take is that the liberals are not going to take their guns away. And let’s be honest:  that will never happen. Constitutionally, it can’t happen, and practically, it can’t happen because you would face an uprising of some sort. Americans shooting Americans, episode 50,089. Ish.

Our nation’s founders did not envision what amounts to an arms race, however:  a man with a gun is met by a man with a cannon, who is then met by a man with a bazooka… Remember Bugs Bunny?

It’s all about who has the bigger, better weapon. In the days of single-shot muskets, they never envisioned something like the AR-47 which, let’s face it, was designed for one purpose, and one purpose only:  war and killing other people.

Some folks maintain that they need guns like the AR-47 to defend themselves from a potentially tyrannical government. Liberals scoff, but the government does have a lot of power to mess with people who don’t adhere to the status quo. They have done so, and the assumption that the government always operates in the interests of its citizens can be easily disproved (witness our current Congress, which continues to fail to advance legislation that the majority of people support). On the other hand, however, no AR-47 is going to protect someone from a drone and military-grade weaponry. The man who shot the police officers in Dallas, Texas recently was taken out by a drone. The shooter’s actions were horrific and deplorable, of course, but it is significant that an American citizen on American soil was executed by drone for the first time with no trial or jury. Even Charles Manson is still in prison…

So, what’s next? Should conservative gun-owners who fear the government start stocking up on drone warfare? I doubt they could, but you see my point. It’s escalation. Our governments have done it, and now we have a globe awash in weapons that can destroy the whole planet. And they’re working on “mini-nukes” for more tactical use. After all, what matter if an entire region is laid waste for countless generations, with God knows how much “collateral damage,” which is a nice way of saying, “dead people everywhere?” And in the middle of it all, a handful of companies profit from our desire to kill one another and be the last person standing on the wasteland that ensues. Remember Duck Dodgers?

There once was a day when, if you wanted to kill a man, you had to look him in the eyes and watch him die. You might use a knife, sword, battle axe, or rifle, but you could see what you had done. Murder, whether “unlawful” or state-sanctioned (war), is ugly. Now we can pull a trigger and spray hundreds of bullets in one go, or kill from afar with an unmanned drone. The whites of their eyes? No, targets on a screen.

Conservatives are correct when they say that guns aren’t the problem. (After Nice, no one is suggesting that we ban vans.) That being said, I don’t think that military weaponry has any place in a civilized society. I think the ban on semiautomatic and automatic weapons should be reinstated, not because it will prevent all mass shootings, but because it will lower the body count if one occurs. The real problem, as always, is our lack of compassion and empathy for one another, and our desire to solve problems using force instead of understanding.

Civilization—and I mean real Civilization, not “civilization” defined by tons of technology—is impossible without empathy and its cousin, compassion. In America today, there is a shortage of empathy. People who are diagnosed with personality disorders like narcissistic or borderline personality disorder are literally incapable of empathy. It’s part of their illness. They cannot relate to others. Likewise, people who were raised by someone like this, or were heavily influenced by someone like this, may struggle with empathy as well.

What is empathy? It is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is the ability to imagine life from their point of view. In our increasingly binary society (“I’m right, and you’re wrong”), we need this, desperately. Liberals, imagine for one moment that you are a white man living in rural America. Imagine that you have a high school education, because you stuck it out, and that maybe you found a good job at a nearby factory. Imagine that you had expectations:  marry, have children, buy a home, earn a pension. And then your job was outsourced to Mexico, or China, or Bangladesh. Imagine being jobless for 6 months, then a year, then maybe three. Your wife supports the family working a couple of jobs. How do you feel? Are you angry? Hopeless?

Now, conservatives, imagine for a moment that you are a black mother. You love your children. You have two teenage boys. They’re good kids, and they go to school, but it’s rough sometimes. They get called out for infractions that white kids seem to get a pass for. They’ve been called the N word a couple of times, by strangers. Your oldest has his driver’s license. You watch the news, and you are afraid. You’re afraid that he’ll get stopped, that he’ll do or say the wrong thing. You’re afraid of having to plan a funeral for your child. How do you feel? Helpless? Angry?

Here’s the thing:  if you simply cannot imagine either scenario, or similar ones, then you need to increase your empathy quotient. If the mere thought of placing yourself in the shoes of someone you think of, even unconsciously, as “other” or an ideological “enemy,” then you need this exercise badly. Everyone has a valid perspective. Everyone has feelings and fears and dreams. Everyone may act illogically or unkindly on the basis of their perceptions from time to time. But that doesn’t mean that their perspective is any less valid.

We need to be able to imagine ourselves from another person’s perspective, no matter who they are. In some cases, this may be extremely difficult. I get that. But if we don’t, then we can’t talk to one another without getting defensive. It’s the first thing that happens in an argument! A liberal says, “Your gun…” and the conservative instantly responds by feeling attacked:  “You’re not taking it!” And vice versa. If a person of color brings up race, most white people get defensive and respond, in some form with, “I’m not a racist!” And so forth.

We get defensive when we assume we know what the other person is saying, even if that is not what the other person means. It happens all the time. Our beliefs and judgments color these assumptions. For example, I have noticed that a conservative mindset reads some memes very differently than a liberal one. We can literally read the same meme and come away with two very different interpretations. And neither of them is wrong.

Getting defensive goes hand in hand with getting angry. Our anger sits right there, beneath the surface, ready to flare up at any moment. But here’s the thing:  a five-year-old may erupt into a tantrum over a perceived slight, but this is something we’re supposed to grow out of. We’re supposed to mature. Yet our political and social discourse seems to be degenerating back to a preschool state. It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to lash out at someone in anger, though. Would you give a gun to a five-year-old? I hope not. But I’ve seen a lot of emotional five-year-olds in grown-up bodies lately. Some of them kill people.

Do we want to talk to each other? Really? Then we need empathy and compassion for them before we begin. We need to listen before jumping to the pretaped conclusions and judgments that run through our heads on a regular basis. We need to be dedicated to finding mutual solutions, to compromise, to understanding. Compromise is essential:  trying to enforce our views with force has never worked, but it has created a lot of misery.

Alternatively, we can continue to scream at each other and hurt one another as though we’re in a macabre Argument Clinic sketch back in the Wild West:

The Homeless Are Our Canaries

homeless_man_during_morning_commute_iStock_000004136154XSmall

Do some people “deserve” compassion more than others? A lot of people mean well, but based on my conversations, there is definitely a filter being applied to the unfortunate. I know someone who volunteered once for Habitat for Humanity. He lasted a single day. He wouldn’t go back because he felt that the people whose house he was helping with had a car that was too nice. And so the Judgment Engine roared to life:  clearly, if they could have a car that nice, they didn’t need his help. They didn’t deserve his help.

The problem with judgment is that without accurate information, you start jumping to conclusions—which are probably incorrect. Their car could have been a hand-me-down. They may have bought the car new during a time when they were able to afford it, but they have come down in the world since then. Who’s to say?

Probably the most maligned group of people, however, are the homeless. I spoke recently with someone who believed that they should be put to work by the city to get help. There’s nothing wrong with the city providing jobs for those who can work, but he was assuming that the homeless were there because they were idle, and not because they might be mentally or physically ill, which is often the case.

My wife Ahnna worked with the homeless for many years, so we know that there are many reasons that people become homeless. Sometimes it’s as simple as gentrification:  one man became homeless for many years when his apartment building was knocked down to make way for some fancy condos. The price of housing keeps going up, and many people are being left behind. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a school bus stop at the night shelter. There aren’t enough family shelters, so often the kids would get into the parents car, where they would all sleep for the night. The children would hand over what food they had managed to get at school to share with their parents.

While whole families do become homeless, more people are working to house them. Single adult males are the last in line to be helped. Approximately 33% of these men are veterans.

Statistics are important, but stories are what help build compassion. Ahnna ran a nonprofit to help people who qualified for Social Security disability to get their benefits. This is harder than it sounds; the Social Security Administration does not just stand ready to hand out checks to those who apply. Their first (and second, third, fourth) response is:  “Prove it.”

One of Ahnna’s more memorable clients was brought into her office by another homeless man. She had seen “John” around the day shelter, but he never spoke to anyone. He also had the habit of living in a layer of his own shit, so he was definitely fragrant. At first, he didn’t want to work with Ahnna. She had the mark of the devil on her forehead, he said. It took a long time to gain enough of his trust to get him to sign a document allowing her to help him. She found his grateful mother, who had been looking for him for five years. John was schizophrenic. He had a 4.0 grade point average in college before his first psychotic break at age 22. No one had been able to help him since then. Eventually, he got his benefits, which meant that he could be housed in a medically supervised situation. He was able to be medicated.

When Ahnna saw John some time after that, she barely recognized the polite, clean, soft-spoken man who thanked her. Hopefully, he is still housed and still on his medication. Drugs for schizophrenia can have unpleasant side effects, and sometimes the sufferer decides to quit them (maybe because they “feel fine”), which brings back all of the symptoms of their psychosis.

About 20-25% of the homeless are severely mentally ill. Asking them to do anything resembling a regular job is impossible. They literally cannot “earn” your compassion through work.

Some people become homeless by simply struggling to get through life. “Richard” came to Ahnna in midlife. He was afraid she would not want to help him if she knew the truth about him. The truth was that he had served time in prison in his youth for killing a man in self-defense. It was a drug deal gone bad, and he admitted that he was a stupid kid. He killed the man who attacked him with a knife. When he was released, he found himself in the unenviable position of having a criminal record. If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ve probably seen that checkbox asking if you’ve ever committed a crime. Checking that automatically rules you out of most jobs.

Still, Richard did what he could. Although homeless, he started his own gardening business. He didn’t have a car, but he had a bike with a trailer and some tools. Richard was already disabled by severe dyslexia, but when a truck ran over his foot and broke it, that was the end. He could no longer ride his bike. Then, since he was living outside, someone stole his tools, effectively killing his business. JOIN, a local homeless outreach center, was able to get him housed because his broken foot made him vulnerable. Eventually, he was able to get on benefits and spend a few years inside before dying.

Some homeless people are physically ill as well. In the United States, most of us are only one serious illness away from bankruptcy. This plays out on our streets every day. It might look something like this:  person becomes very ill. Person cannot work. Person eventually loses job. Person then loses insurance. Person has to make hard choices.

One of Ahnna’s clients had to make this choice:  cancer treatment or her mortgage. She could not afford both. No doubt concluding that living was better than dying, she chose the cancer treatment and ended up on the street. By the time Ahnna met her, she had regretted her decision. She wished she had chosen to keep her house instead, even though it would mean her death.

I’m one of those people who give money to the homeless when I have it. I remember being downtown once, and a young girl came up to me and asked me for change. In that moment, I did something terrible:  I looked at her youth and judged her. There was change in my pocket, but I shook my head. As she walked away, I realized she wasn’t wearing shoes. It was 40 degrees. I felt sick. That was my lesson. Why was she homeless? She may have come from an abusive home. Maybe her parents kicked her out (40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT). I don’t know what her story was, but I’ll never judge another homeless person asking for help again.

Aside from being thought of as lazy, many people assume that most homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts. That is a problem. We don’t have universal healthcare, so the mentally ill self-medicate. Veterans with PTSD and other issues self-medicate as well. And frankly, I’ve always said that if I were homeless, I’d drink, too. (Technically, I’m not homeless and I drink a cocktail every evening, so who am I to judge?) Some people do become homeless because of their addiction, but one thing is certain:  there is no hope for recovery without some help getting housed. It’s impossible to get your act together when all you can think about is basic survival.

Here’s what a basic day looks like for a homeless person:  Wake up and secure your stuff. Hide it or take it with you. The first order of business is food and a bathroom. If you’ve ever had to ask for the key to a restroom, you’ve probably noticed that there aren’t many public bathrooms available to the homeless. Finding a place to take a shit can take half a day. One of Ahnna’s clients was obsessive about it:  he couldn’t do anything else until that one task was accomplished. As for food, maybe you have a little change to buy some. Maybe there’s a soup kitchen or church willing to offer some. Some businesses make food that they would otherwise throw out available. In order to eat, you have to have a map of your area in your head so that you know where you can find things:  breakfast. A possibility to pee or change a tampon. Or get a tampon. Or just wash your rags.

The rest of the day is yours to live through. If the weather is good, you’re in luck. If it’s wet and cold, maybe you can find a place to sit and shelter that doesn’t have spikes on it. Maybe the police won’t bother you today. Maybe they will. Hopefully they won’t take your stuff. The business owners think you’re bad for business. But the cops might find your camp in the park and take it away. It’s difficult.

At night, where are you going to sleep? What’s the weather like? If it’s freezing, better get to the shelter early to get a place in line. They only have so much room, and it’s first come, first serve. Do you know a good place to sleep where you won’t get beaten up or sexually assaulted?

I’ve known people who think that the homeless somehow “chose” it or “prefer to live that way.” There are definitely some who don’t know how to live any other way at this point. When you combine mental illness and years on the streets, you get a little feral. You forget how “inside” functions. Transitioning can be tricky, but it can be done.

More than anything, however, it’s important to remember that we are the homeless. They are people. They are us. There but for the grace of God go I. Judgment condemns, but compassion heals. It is our first and best resource. Let us all choose the path of compassion.

Why I Love Immigrants

 

By WorldAccent - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14695479

By WorldAccent – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14695479

I live in the U.S., and let me tell you, life is getting hard for immigrants here. I suspect that’s also the case in Europe, as the terrible war(s) in Syria exact their toll on an innocent population, who have no choice but to flee or die. Rhetoric from the right is angry and all too often racist. If you heard nothing else, you’d think everyone in America wanted anyone who looks or speaks differently than they do to stay out, period. This makes me sad.

I get that the anti-immigrant crowd are afraid and angry. The America that people my age grew up with is, quite frankly, gone. We have many challenges ahead, and change is the only way through. Of course, change itself is a very scary thing. And nothing is easier than finding a scapegoat for all your worries. “Those people” make handy scapegoats.

Here’s the thing, though. If my world really looked like a Neo-Nazi dream, all white and Christian, well… well, I wouldn’t be here. I admire the carpenter, but I don’t think he’s God with a big G. But aside from that, let’s say I were allowed to exist in this whitewashed world. Here’s what I would miss.

Skills

We take for granted many of the skills that come from somewhere else. My Taekwondo master is Korean. Taekwondo is Korean. No Koreans, no Taekwondo. No Japanese, no Aikido. No Chinese, no Kung Fu. Yes, there are white instructors. But they didn’t learn it from their European forebears, now did they?

Or maybe you like Yoga. That’s a Hindu practice. No Indians, no Yoga.

Speaking of skills, without the skills of the people already living on this continent, many early colonists would have died. Native Americans understood the flora, the fauna, and basically how to get along. Some of them generously shared their knowledge, giving Caucasians such wonderful new foods as corn and potatoes.

Art & Music

Imagine the world of art and music without input from other cultures. Most of the music Americans listen to these days derives from or was directly inspired by the music of black people. You know what pure white music looks like? Mostly classical (which is awesome, but still) and regional folk music. I love the bagpipes, the oom-pa-pa German folk songs, and Irish reels very much, but I’m glad they aren’t the only things I have to listen to. No black people, no jazz or rock ‘n roll.

Likewise, while the European artistic tradition is rich and fabulous, there’s an entire world of great art out there that we wouldn’t have access to, and that would be a real shame. African art, Oriental art, Islamic art, South American art, all wonderful and all equally valuable.

Food

I don’t even have to explain this, do I? Even so-called “American” foods (like pizza) were inspired by immigrants. Oh, but that’s Italian. White people. But not always. The Irish and Italians were not exactly welcome 100 years ago.

Back to food. I like French cuisine, German food, Italian food, even haggis. (Yes, really.) But it sure is nice to eat Asian cuisine (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, so much variety and goodness!), as well as Ethiopian, South American, Lebanese, and Mexican food. (Mexican food originated with those brown people down south that a certain someone wants to wall out.) No Mexicans, no burritos.

Ideas

I have worked in the high-tech industry for a long time now. It is probably the most diverse workforce in America, aside from science and academia. I have worked with, and continue to work with, immigrants from India, Singapore, China, Japan, Russia, Hungary, Central & South America, and the Middle East. Are they here taking all the white people’s jobs? No, because I work with a whole lot of homegrown Caucasians, too. So why do the tech companies hire people from all over the world? Quite simply because they are good at what they do and can inject new ideas into the creative process.

No immigrants, no new ideas. Stagnation.

Friends

If I stop and think about how many people I know are first-generation immigrants, it’s a big number! I can’t imagine not having them here. Their absence would diminish my world.

Aside from basic friendship, the presence of immigrants in our communities provides the catalyst for new and wonderful things. No immigrants in your town, no fusion cooking!

It is certainly true that all of these skills, ideas, food, and art would exist around the world even if we isolated ourselves in a sort of white Utopia. And that’s the way the world looked once upon a time, before people started to travel longer and longer distances. European heads of state financed explorers because the explorers brought back cool stuff. Tea, corn, potatoes, herbs & spices, unusual fruits. If Yoga only exists in India, then you don’t get the benefit. Immigrants bring the best of themselves with them.

Yeah, I can hear the folks who say, “And the worst!” Well, I personally don’t think immigrants have a monopoly on the worst of human behavior. As evidenced by the existence of right-wing hate groups, most of whom are…white.

Life is messy. There are never any guarantees. There is no such thing as security, really. So from my perspective, a white-walled palace “to keep them out” is a prison. A really boring, homogeneous prison. Immigrants bring us so many gifts, why would we want to turn them away? Come join the mixing pot. It’s where the party is.

Fighting Each Other, Fighting Ourselves

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We’re all in this together.

It was with a sort of macabre amusement that I noticed the Washington Post said of the San Bernadino mass shooting that it “might be terrorism related, but we don’t know.” Two people killed 14 others at a Christmas party. Personally, I call that terrorism, and I also call it terrorism when a white Christian man shoots up a Planned Parenthood or when white guys shoot at peaceful black protesters. But I guess the message here is that only certain brown people commit acts of terror. Right.

America now experiences terror, by my definition, almost daily. Mass killings are now normal. Got a grievance? Disagree with someone? Well, if you have a gun, you can sure fix them. They are the problem. But who are they?

Maybe they are Hispanic immigrants. They don’t speak English. They do things a little differently. They are suspicious. Or, maybe they are Middle-Eastern-looking-brown-skinned people who may or may not be Muslims (PSA: people who wear the turbans are Sikhs, not Muslims). They have different customs and beliefs and are therefore suspicious. Probably can’t trust them. Or maybe they are hoodie-wearing black gangsta-looking youths who are probably on welfare (my tax money!) and about to steal something. Or maybe it’s just your ex-wife, who has it coming.

Our society now overwhelmingly prefers to blame someone, anyone but ourselves, for our problems. And the best fit for that is a scapegoat. They are our scapegoats. (Struggling to keep your family solvent and healthy? Maybe it’s their fault.) But you know what? The people who actually exert the most control in this country prefer it this way. Because if we’re busy fighting each other, we’re not going to notice that man behind the curtain. That “man” who is destroying our environment, robbing us blind, and enslaving us with debt and growing poverty.

So, here we are, fueled by our own personal echo chambers (Fox News, MSNBC, etc., take your pick). We’re no longer content to merely disagree with one another. Force has become a viable alternative. Are you feeling powerless and enraged and you don’t like abortion? Kill some people. Don’t like the government? Blow up a government building.

Last night I dreamed that Nazis were coming. They had arrived at my house, and they were going to kill us unless we left. We were now the “Other,” the misfits, the scapegoats. We grabbed backpacks with a few belongings and set out on foot. We had to leave the pets behind. It was terrible. I was so relieved just to wake up. But listen well: fascism is not something that ended with World War II. The seeds are right here, in America, and demagogues like Donald Trump are watering them furiously. “There’s nothing wrong with you! Immigrants, Muslims, China! There’s your problem!” This kind of talk is how you incite a mob to violence. “Those people are misfits and don’t deserve to live.” We are not better people than the Germans in the 1930s, some of whom fought the Nazis to the best of their ability. We are just as susceptible to violence against “the Other” as they were. And right now, it ain’t pretty.

So what can we do?

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
~ Edmund Burke

It is very important not to let fear take over. Fear is the enemy, because all hate stems from fear. Fear of the Other, fear of the unknown, the need to feel “secure.” If that need for security and safety becomes too strong, people will give up a great deal to achieve it, even their own liberties. Fascists will tell you that they will take care of you and make you secure. There are no guarantees in this life. I’m more likely to die while driving than I am to be killed by a terrorist. Fear is a fascist’s currency. They will use it and manipulate it if they can.

It is also incredibly important to stay in the energy of love and compassion as much as possible. If watching or reading the news makes that difficult, then stop doing it! The purpose of the media is to make you afraid.

Most importantly, remind yourself that there is no “Other.” We are one humanity. We are One Being. The idea that we are somehow separate from each other is an illusion. So each day, do whatever is given to you to help. Pay someone a compliment. Tell someone you love them. Help a neighbor with a chore. Feed someone who doesn’t have enough to eat. Smile at a stranger.

Even though it seems like the world has gone completely mad, tell yourself, “It is healing.” Make this your mantra. “It is healing.” There are healing pains, yes. And you may feel powerless, but I assure you that you are not. Use your light. Use your compassion. When you gaze upon another face, know that you are looking at your brother or your sister. And then smile.