Black History, Black Present

I.

I am in the New South in a building that was once used as the cotton warehouse for the local plantations.  The host tells us that in the 1840s farmers brought cotton here to be sold and shipped.  I wonder what the enslaved who farmed the cotton would have thought of this benign title–farmers.  I wonder where in this town they were brought to be sold and shipped.

There is healing happening.  Young and old people are coming together to face the racism that persists in the schools.  They are swapping stories, trying to piece together a picture of the place they live in. Verbal violence and exclusion, rules about which door you could use and texts in the group chat about killing niggers. They struggle with making meaning of the broken things, of the silences and the southern hospitality.

What is this? Are the jagged edges of my world racist? Is my suspicion correct? Is my pain justified?

“Sure we had segregation, but that doesn’t mean it was racism.” That’s a quote.

We are a circle of black folk asking if the violence and oppression we experience is racism in a room where they stored cotton picked by our enslaved ancestors. 

That night I see a story on the local news.  A white boy uses an iPhone app to make whipping noises at a black classmate. They are not friends.

The year is 2020.

II.

The lesson Black History has to teach an America trembling on the edge of dictatorship is that history is not over.  The same white supremacy battled by all the heroes and sheroes of black history still burns hot at the heart of America.

It is both original sin and existential threat.

The last person who toiled in antebellum slavery died in my lifetime.  The last person likely to be caught in the school to prison pipeline hasn’t been born yet.

Not past, but a continuous line that leads to me, to you, and to our current state of affairs.

III.

Trump rolls out a line of hats and t-shirts for Black Trump supporters.  The word WOKE is stitched in huge black letters across the front of a white hat.  The man who rode a wave of racism into office and installed known white supremacists as his close advisors is taking the word used to describe the increased consciousness of racism and the need to fight for black liberation as his slogan to attract black people to support his election.

I used to end my blog posts with stay woke.  It was a whisper, a call to action, a reminder to look closely at the levers of power working around you.

He took my words.

IV.

Power never rests. Black history can attest to the kind of work needed to change systemic racism. Pull the chain of Black history and you will find a long line of people who remained unbowed under the behemoth system of racism designed to break them.  Those people still live today amongst us.  Malcolm’s fire burns in Alicia Garza.  Rosa sat, Colin knelt, and the conversation has changed little in the meantime. Those people are us. On the streets of Ferguson and dozens of other cities, hundreds of young people picked up history’s chain to move it forward into political office and sustained action.  Pick a day and hit twitter to see still people calling out the Oscars, the Democratic leadership and all the Karens of the world. Resistance takes sustained coordinated effort in the big and small places, hammering at the levers of power. And time. Like, glacial time.

V.

I am in the liberal north, black and free and buying expensive dog food on a Sunday.  A large black Ford F450 has parked next to me, the kind of truck that makes me feel like a rabbit seeing a hound.  He has backed into this spot and we come face to face as I get in my little truck.  I call my mini-SUV Panther because it is black and small and fierce and fast. His window is open and I can hear LL Cool J bumping out of his stereo.  I relax a little, I make eye contact and smile, laughing at my own stereotyping of him.

He scowls and winds up his window.

Disengage.  Don’t act nervous. Is he getting out? Don’t turn around. He’s behind me. I put my dog food in the back next to my big dog. He is waiting for me.  The dog, and the man.

I have to close my door to let him pass. For a moment we stand next to each other.

We appraise each other.

He is wearing a camo Baseball cap and a sweatshirt emblazoned with Trump 2020 The Sequel Make Liberals Cry Again.  I am wearing a Malcolm X t-shirt and a Dashiki jacket with a pair of shiny white Adidas. Wrapped in ideology ordered from online t-shirt shops we don’t have to say a word. We exchange a million ideas in a single glare. 

Fuck your LL Cool J listening Trump-supporting self.

If I had to guess he probably only thought one word. And it ended with an er.

We go our separate ways; it is dinnertime and we have hungry dogs to feed.

Beware the Fog of War-talk

The 2010s were the decade of the lie. Even though 2020 is shorthand for clear vision, so far this decade is shaping up to be the same as the old one. The life spring of the most consequential lies these days is, of course, our liar in chief.  Trump finished out 2019 topping over 15000 lies during his time in office, or an average of 13 times a day, ranging from the sublime art of election manipulation to the ridiculous claims about windmills. We’ve gotten used to his lying at best, and come to accept it from sheer exhaustion at worst.

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Now comes real trouble: war with Iran looms. Mobilized troops have yet to land but the half-truths are already doing major battle on the airwaves.  Wars rise or fall on their PR campaigns.  Shaping public perception of who and why you’re fighting is essential to maintaining support for war. 

The death count of American soldiers that played on the news during the dinner hour soured American appetite for war with Viet Nam.  Lesson learned, officials in the Gulf wars carefully constrained access to the war for journalists, “embedding” reporters in a move that looked like transparency but that allowed the brass the ability to control where journalists went and what they saw. Even as the war in Afghanistan drags on into another decade, American audiences don’t see flag-draped coffins or the tiny shoes of noncombatants killed on the ground, so there is little energy around stopping a war few of us even remember is happening.

Manufacturing consent—getting people to support your fuckery—is major keys for governments in a time of war.  Wars are won not only with bodies on the battlefield but more importantly with hearts and minds. Think about the powerful imagery from World War 1 or 2: Nazi propaganda was one of their greatest weapons, shaping the perception of Germans, while at home wartime propaganda created powerful American iconography that still stands strong to communicate American values today. 

During the Gulf War soldiers tossed Frisbees and candy from tanks to win over Iraqi residents, and at home, they tossed red meat phrases like Operation Iraqi freedom to American’s making us believe we were hero’s swooping not rescue.  Only later was the careful campaign of lies used to make the case for the Iraq War exposed when it was too late to take back the bombs that killed thousands of innocent non-combatants.

Already we can see the shape that Trump’s story: we didn’t start a war, we stopped a war; the phrases ‘imminent attack’ and ‘worlds greatest terrorist,’ and the claim that they saved hundreds, possibly “thousands of American lives”. These all sound like powerful reasons to support a preemptive attack and stir up the fear of Middle East terrorism that had us in the grip of fear much of this millennia. Is this real talk or more Trumpisms?

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We didn’t start a war. We stopped a war.

I mean this is catchy enough to embroider on a red hat, full of the punchiness with the balance of a great advertising motto.  I’m sure someone got props for writing this beautiful bite of rhetoric.  But what does that mean?  America was not at war when this assassination took place despite Iran’s aggressions. Iran’s steady stream of provocations over the many decades we’ve had beef has not resulted in all-out war—even during the Iran hostage crisis.  Now just a few days after the assassination, both America and Iran are signaling their willingness to get to fighting, each side boasting they already have targets picked out.  So actually, it is looking like they DID start a war. This handy catchphrase is about as true as any other Trump has trumpeted.

We killed the world’s greatest terrorist.

Was this General Soleimani a bad guy in Iran’s long-standing beef with Iran? Yup.  He certainly had his hand in thousands of deaths and was the architect of attacks on Americans.  But this was no Bin Laden, or Al-Baghdadi, no leader of a rogue terrorist group operating outside of the league of nations.  Soleimani was General and one that enjoyed some popularity among the Iranian people who are often at odds with the brutal behavior of their military. In fact, in Iran, one poll shows that Soliman enjoyed a 60% popularity rating in his home country of Iran as opposed to Trump’s own 38% polling in his home here in America.  While it is tempting to see us as Marvel-ready heroes that swoop in to stop bad guys, here in the real world we have rules for war.  Killing a duly appointed official on sovereign territory—in this case, our ally Iraq who did not get the heads up—is against the rules.  Imagine if someone from Iran killed one of the joint chiefs while he was traveling in England.  That’s a fight. If we are ever to win back any moral standing in the world, we can’t do it assassinating people at will.

We saved hundreds or thousands of lives.

How can you argue with protecting the lives of Americans? Anyone who did that could easily be branded a traitor, so it’s tricky to question this argument that can only be fact-checked by what doesn’t happen in the future.  With thousands of US troops shipping out, and Americans in Iran and Iraq evacuating the middle East it doesn’t sound like things are about to get safer there. 

Trump and his team assure us intelligence had then in the know. Except Trump has spent the better part of his presidency questioning the intelligence community, and ignoring the more reasoned advice of his own generals. Starting just a day after his inauguration and consistent throughout, Trump has derided the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department.  He has dismissed their dire warning about election interference, ignored their work around corruption in Ukraine, and denied their findings of his own shenanigans here at home. Trump is not known for taking his time with military briefings but pulled the trigger on the most extreme intervention with no input from Congress, not the Intelligence Committee or Committee on Foreign Affairs. In the few days since the assassination, already sources are sprinkling doubt on the strength of the story of an imminent threat, with one source saying it was a “normal Monday in the Middle East.”

And the impeachment isn’t even on anyone’s radar now.  Hmmm.

The drums of war tend to drown out more reasonable reasoning.  The importance of getting public opinion on your side means that words are your most powerful weapon at home. So how do you know what to believe? As always, you have to do your work to be informed and stay grounded. But beyond fact-checking, spend some time thinking about what you think about war and conflict. 

Don’t wait for one side or another to sell you a story you like—you can decide what you think in your own preemptive strike.  Do you think that assassinations make the world safer?  Do you cosign the killing of innocent people? Do you really honor our military when you send them to fight in a war of revenge? Do you truly believe killing each other solves international conflict?

You are the fact-checker of your own morality. As the fog of war roles in, you better get to work.

Semantics: When a Wall is a Fence

Word are houses built by the speaker, explored by the listener, and decorated with both their ideas, experiences cultural beliefs and ideologies.  Words matter tremendously.  Like lots of social constructs, they are not real things and yet they have massive real-world consequences.   

What is the difference between a wall and a fence?  These days the answer is party affiliation.  In the fight over security at the southern US border, both parties seem deadlocked with no solution in sight.  But recent political shows have been debating the meaning of the word wall–is it concrete like Trump first promised his base in campaign speech after speech, or is a fence with steel slats also a wall? This undercurrent to the debate is strong, though when pressed, both sides dismiss tinkering with the definition of the wall as semantics.  What better place than here at Smntks (pronounced semantics ) to demystify this semantic battle?

Semantics is the study of language and the way that we construct meaning from it, so when Trump says the difference between a wall and a fence is just semantics, he says in effect, “the difference between the words will be how I make sense out of each word, and the meanings I construct with them.” This is one of Trump’s favorite weapons. His manipulation of language endears him to his base and makes it hard for his opponents to nail down an argument with his ever-shifting lexicon.

Semantics helps us unpack the connections between objects or referents, words, and the thoughts, ideas, and concepts we attach to them. Words themselves are actually disconnected from the things they describe–that’s why different languages can refer to the same object with different words: cup, taza, and kikombe all refer to the same object. semantic triangle.004

We can use the same diagram (a semantic triangle) to see how Trump connects the word wall to racist and nationalist ideas.  It’s not about the bricks–it is about the narrative that others are invading our country, connecting the object to Trump’s nationalist ideology.

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Now Trump is swapping out words that are similar, and allowing for a change in the object, but he is doubling down on his racist rhetoric. If a fence can be defined as a wall, the symbol at the heart of his nationalist approach can stand intact, the meaning unchallenged even if the fence is steel instead of brick.

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On the other side of the aisle, if a fence can be a wall, the reverse is also true:  a wall can be a fence.  So when the Democrats agree to an outlay of cash for ‘border security’ instead of a ‘wall’, even knowing that Trump’s argument for the need is based on his demagoguery, they can still claim victory.  We didn’t give in to a wall but we do agree to a fence and sometimes a fence isn’t a wall, so our fence isn’t his wall.

The problem is there is not enough energy directed at challenging Trumps racist and xenophobic rhetoric.  Studies about where terrorists and drugs are really entering the US–hint: legal ports of entry and airports–show that a barrier at the southern border is not a priority.  A compromise bill will mean Democrats cave to Trump’s racist conception of Mexico. Trump has hammered this point from the moment he descended into the race for president on his golden escalator and is likely to keep crowing about the wall/fence victory straight through 2020.

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We may seem to just be playing word games, but the important thing that gets lost when we dismiss semantics is that what words mean matters tremendously. Both groups are using semantics to manipulate their bases into believing they have won a nonsensical battle in which all taxpayers will be the losers, paying for an unnecessary wall, and caving to imagined emergencies.  Instead, both teams will have fresh fodder to fling at dazed and confused voters meandering through the fog of words from both sides.

Communication is the way we construct reality, so the person who holds the power to define the words gets to define reality. This is the power of semantics–use wordplay to cement your power, use your power to redefine words–a vicious cycle that supercharges demagogues.  The further down the rabbit hole we go the more meaningless everything becomes, the more difficult for us to return to a normal that is daily redefined.

The technology we use also helps shape our words and the way we talk.  The brevity that came with the rise of the internet also leaves little room for specificity or complex definitions and long elocutions.  Our shorthand discursive environment has led to snippets of communication that leave lots of room for interpretation, letting audiences fill in our own ideas, making rhetoric a weapon that we sharpen on ourselves. Trump’s phrases “somethings going on”, or “we all know what will happen, folks” are examples of how he uses vagueries to fire up the base.  Supporters fill in his abstractions with their own fear, experiences, and prejudices.  Our shorthand culture helps people manipulate language and then hide behind misinterpretation.

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It may just be semantics, but in a culture that is obsessed with the semantic houses we build, words and the meaning we ascribe to them are everything.  Think about the words of late that have tilted our culture into the future:  me too, black lives matter, make America great again, yes we can.  These simple phrases now carry deep complex and layers meaning history and evocations.  Semantics helps us understand the way that a tear-filled victim statement or a die-in shivering in the snow become attached to these words. Moments in history that evoke strong emotion in us are triggered by phrases, like a pavlovian ding that molds us and into an ideological stance charged with emotion.  In some cases, we can scarcely articulate what these things mean to us as they are so broad, a few words that mark a destination far at the bottom of the iceberg of culture, where our deepest beliefs and values lurk beyond the parlance of the common man.

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Word are houses built by the speaker, explored by the listener, and decorated with both their ideas, experiences cultural beliefs and ideologies.  Words matter tremendously.  Like lots of social constructs, they are not real things and yet they have massive real-world consequences.  We move in a material world based on the words we use, and the meaning we assign them. Be careful how you move through the house of cards built of politicians’ words.  Don’t be fooled that you live in a meaningless world.  Be clear that semantics matter. Stay woke to the ways of words and the walls they build.

Privilege: Kavanaugh’s Cloak of Invisibility

America is gripped this week by the Supreme Court hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, a salacious episode of reality TV involving sex, power, and privilege. Tomorrow, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will testify that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when the pair were in high school in 1982.  Even as more accusers come forward–two three five as of this writing–tomorrow’s testimony is set up to be a battle of the he-said-she-said–but there is a third element to this story we can’t ignore: the power of privilege.

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Watch any crime show and you will see the weight we put on the world of the perpetrator to mold their criminal ways.  Shoot up a school? Let’s see what video games you played.  Black criminal? a product of the streets.   It’s not unusual–and in fact is too often standard to replace evidence with character and culture when adjudicating criminals. That is until it comes to those prep school boys and their boys-will-be-boys antics. The prep school of Kavanaugh’s narrative is a virginal version of academic heaven; surely no harm can happen there? The violence of power and control that is shaped by a competitive environment where privilege protects bad behavior could not possibly have any bearing on a man 30 years after, right?

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The world of frat boys gone bad is a familiar trope in American culture. Movies like Skull and Bones, Animal House, and Private School (released in 1983 during Kavanaugh’s school days) and TV shows feature a world where boyish behavior crimes are common but consequences and parents are absent.  Hidden behind the Ivies, violence becomes tradition and assault becomes kidding around.  This rapey frat boy thing is not mere fiction: a long litany of actual news events feature young men who used their power and privilege to get out of the consequences of sexual assault, their lives deemed more important to not disrupt than that of victims, forever disrupted by a justice system that refuses to let their wounds heal.  We are surrounded with a long tradition of tales that stage whisper to us that sexual assault is a normal, if not a traditional part of private school that frat boys believe are part of their rites of passage into toxic masculinity–also know as the old boy’s network.

Neither the overreliance on environmental factors–like the Marilyn Manson theory of school shooters–nor the erasure of anything from the past as some would like to see in Kavanaugh’s hearing provides for the complex factors that make any person who they are. When we examine someone’s integrity, the past is a part of who they are.  When we are validating accusations, circumstances matter. Brett Kavanaugh’s environment in addition to Ford’s testimony should factor into verifying–or denying–her claim. We should hear from others who were there and who say they are familiar with the incident.  Hmm, we need some way to gather all this information.  Wish we had an FBI–oh we do!  A full investigation will make sure that all voices are heard and we have a tapestry of voices, not just two.

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One trait of this trope that you may notice is that this is a long list of white men.  While the GOP is bending over backward to avoid investigating old accusations about Kavanaugh, Bill Cosby is sentenced to 3-10 years in prison and is labeled a sexual predator.  As powerful as Bill Cosby once was, it was not impossible for the court and the court of public opinion to see past years of Cosby’s family-friendly work and find him guilty:  he was after all a black man, and America has a long legal tradition of finding black men guilty of being sexual predators.  Cosby lacked a prep school to blame his behavior on.  Black fame without white privilege gave his accusers a chance to be heard, and, after enormous effort, justice will finally be done as Cosby enters jail.

There is no such legal legacy when it comes to white men.  Too often white men win in the court of public opinion long before they are held to legal account. Before a word of testimony regarding the Kavanaugh’s situation is heard under oath Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is promising to “get through this.” Kavanaugh’s accusers are denied an FBI investigation that would examine evidence related to their claims.  The best they can hope for is that the man that perpetrated their alleged assaults doesn’t also decide their healthcare rights. The cloak of whiteness protects the old boy’s network from scrutiny; crime is redefined as horseplay, jokes, hazing. It’s easy to bend the rules in favor of the old boys’ network because the old boys are by and large the ones who get to make and interpret the laws.

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Neither the age of the allegations nor Cosby’s massive fame and fortune stopped the accusations from negatively affecting his life–as justice would require.  To be clear, this is not a defense of Cosby. He is now a convicted sex offender, while Kavanaugh will not have any judgment rendered regarding the allegations themselves.  Instead, this is a chance to point out the often invisible way that privilege works to advantage those in power.  Even as Cosby was being labeled a sexual predator for drugging women and sexually assaulting them, Trump told the media that Ramirez’s accusations of Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault are not to be believed because she was inebriated. The difference between the narratives surrounding one case and another highlights the privilege protecting wealthy white men accused of sexual assault that prevents them from the scrutiny–and just process–of a trial.

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Look carefully not at the sordid details themselves, but the falling action, where boys lives are deemed relics of a past to be forgotten, where their behavior becomes an inconsequential drop in an ocean of what-boys-do.  Not only are these acts normalized by their sheer frequency, but they are excused with weak slaps, or condoned, simply a nod to tradition that remains unquestioned and un-consequenced.  We can and must do better.

America is designed to be a nation of laws, not (white) men. What’s good for the comedian is good for the supreme court judge who will make decisions that will affect women for years to come. Let Cosby’s conviction be tomorrow’s lesson: ignore the privileges that come with power. Believe the women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Country Of Origin Does Not Determine Your Humanity (Look At Us)

There are 54 countries on the continent of Africa with a population estimated at 1,273,131, 890.  There are 11,051,616 residents of Haiti  There are a total of 546,000 living in the United States. These 1,283,729,506 people, close to 20 percent of the world population, a group 4 times the population of the United States, cannot be dismissed with a single word.

Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?

–Donald Trump

Trump’s implication that people from countries Haiti and Africa and are undesirable while people from Norway are somehow deserving of immigration opportunities has the outrage machine working overtime, and rightfully so.  The President labels millions of people and dozens of countries with a single crass vulgarity, and once again, his comments clearly reinforce the same line of white supremacy he has drawn in the sand over and over.

It goes without saying, though Trump’s comments beg us to say it again:  Africa is a continent, huge and varied with every kind of climate, people of every color and faith. Haiti is a country that has made significant contributions to the world, including being the first country in the Western hemisphere to free itself from colonial rule (hmm, maybe that’s why he hates them…).

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What I’m not going to do is write a 1000 word defense of the countries he maligned.  Trump’s game of distraction and deflection sends us down the rabbit hole of racism every time he throws red meat to his base.  Haiti and Africa today, Mexico last year, some other country of black and brown people next month.  Instead, let’s question his underlying assumption–your country of origin determines your merit.

While different countries political and economic context certainly opens or closes opportunities and resources off for many, the humans in those countries are no less intelligent, capable or motivated to succeed.  When Trump maligns a whole people and when we line up to defend the countries he disrespects, we are debating whether a whole population, for good or bad, is deserving of opportunity.  Both sides of the argument are wrong: your country of birth does not determine your intelligence, your humanity, your potential or your ambition.

 

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Anders Breivik, neo-nazi terrorist killed 9 people in a bombing then went on to shoot 69 people in an armed attack on a children’s summer camp in Norway. 

 

No country on earth is made up of only good deserving smart people–even Norway.  There are killers and con men even in the greatest countries (side-eye, Don the con).  There are actual geniuses and super-rich people even in the most resource-strapped country.  When Trump’s comments are demonstrably not fact-based, we know we’re in coded-language territory. Trump’s latest comments are no more than just another racist do whistle in a long song of dog whistles he has been playing since he began his campaign. And me? I’m not running when he calls.

 

It’s 2018: You Survived the Apocalypse

As a kid, I had problems–bullying, a little racism, typical teen drama.  Sometimes when I would complain to my Dad he would impassively ruffle the pages of his newspaper and ask:

“Are you dead?”

Was he not listening to the blow by blow I just sobbed out?  What does being dead have to do with anything?  I would always spit out, “No,” with a pout.  I knew what came next.

“Then you’re fine.” He would offer from behind his paper.  Case closed.

What kind of bullshit was this?  Could he not see the angst and pain my personal battles were causing me? Didn’t he care?  I remember feeling that the simplicity of his answer was cold in light of the hard world outside our home.  As with all good lessons, only later I came to see I had it backward: the world was cold and he was helping me create a hardness inside me to protect against its chill.

Later, in my room, gnashing my teeth in anger at the exchange, what would make me most mad is that I could not deny that he was right.  No matter what anybody had said to me, no matter what emotional knots I tied myself up in over my battles, I was in fact, not dead, I was still here.  In the end, when I got out of my feelings, I found myself still alive.

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Over time this taught me no one’s taunts had the power to kill me, only to weaken me by pushing me off my mark, bending me out of integrity. Bullies were strongest when I let them push my buttons when I tried to go tit for tat.  The fear and anger I felt as a result of their harassment only clouded my ability to respond. Acknowledging that I survived each challenge I faced helped me see I could not control the actions of other people but I could control myself.  I could know that I was strong enough to face whatever was put in my way.  It was not really about being fine, it was about knowing that I had the power and fortitude to keep going and keep moving, motivated by a deep faith that I would persist.  I learned could thrive amongst difficulty.  Knowing this gave me the control I needed to face my bullies with courage and composure.

Over time, I began to ask myself that same question in times of difficulty.  When I thought I could not go on when the pain and misery of the world bent me out of integrity I would perform a quick gut check: am I dead? No? Then keep it pushing. I cannot control every monster but over time I learned I could control my own demons. This is the key to staying in the fight, to living to fight another day.

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Sometimes the world seems too much to bear.  I remember this time last year, seized with fear and uncertainty at the prospect of a Trump presidency,  at a country set to explode.  And then 2017 came. And we did blow up.

This year was a raging dumpster fire beginning to end.  A year of Trump driving America right over a cliff–killing Obamacare and net neutrality, defunding science, tax breaks for the rich, the immigration ban, appointing unqualified judges and championing racism and sexism and classism as patriotic values.  The country I love is on fire. The world is teetering on the brink of chaos. Our best hope seems to be a man with a rocket ship to Mars.   The details of 2017 read like a list of signs of the apocalypse right out of several Hollywood movies.

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And yet, we are not dead.

Even stranger, I feel wildly optimistic. The ground is razed and I’m in a mood to build. See, here’s a little secret I learned about the apocalypse.  The end is never the end, only a new beginning. The word apocalypse comes from the Greek apo–un and kaluptein–to cover–to uncover, to reveal.  An apocalypse isn’t an end, it’s an unveiling.

In the purest sense of the word, 2017 was a true apocalypse.  America had long slumbered in a self-congratulatory slump, shoving a big foam we’re-number-one-finger in the world’s face while racism and sexism seethed unseen beneath the mainstream’s gaze.  Globalization turned us into a nation of consumers, too proud to realize we were slipping behind in the knowledge economy. The untreated virus of white supremacy weakened our country for centuries and the only treatments rendered were to deny, destroy and disempower communities of color. Patriarchy kept one boot squarely on half the population, capitalism kept both boots on us all.  With all that going on, we were too busy buying shit and numbing out to the pap of spoon-fed pop culture to notice.

Then came 2017: the rise of the alt-right. The blossoming of the new black civil rights movement.  #Me Too. And Trump, Trump a pimple that exploded in all the ugliness beneath America’s skin. There are no more secrets here.

As a wise man once said, “if you don’t know, now you know…”

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The scabby underbelly has revealed itself, disallowing us the ability to ignore the contradictions at the heart of our country, contradictions that threaten to tear us all apart:  if we are the land of the free, why are we chained in debt? if this is the home of the brave, why have we ignored those who stand up to speak truth to power? if we are all created equal, then why are we so unequal? Can we ever be a more perfect union?

As painful as this year has been, we can see plainly what our country is.  Gone are our rose-colored glasses, numbness turned to rage and fear. The trick now is to not let the emotions of these times cloud our ability to think clearly, act cooperatively and build towards a new vision, not just defend against the daily onslaught. As difficult as it is to be woke, it is the only way forward.

The apocalypse is an end only to the status quo.  The upheaval is real, the chaos of old structures shaking to their core terrifying, but hush your fear and look for the opportunities to build.  Channel your anger to weather the upheaval. The apocalypse ushers in a new time, the next paradigm.  Don’t get lost in the distractions while new powerbrokers make new rules. The resistance is working, too, each of us in our own way. We have the knowledge, the technology, and–I know with every fiber of my being–the human compassion needed to build a better world, more perfect than our forefathers could imagine.

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So on this first day of 2018, I offer you this gut check:  if you are reading this, you’re not dead.  You’re still here. And 2017 was a bitch, so that’s really saying something. Strap on your helmet. Like Elon Musk’s rockets, we have explosions at each stage, shedding a firey ball of flame across the sky, but I assure you we are ascending. As we jettison the lies we had come to depend on, we will be free to evolve past our imperfect past.  As long as we don’t burn up in the process, we are entering the wider universe. We are transforming into something more.

 

 

 

Evil in Real Time

On the West Coast of Africa sits a gleaming white castle where over 300,000 Africans were tortured, raped and broken before being shipped to the Americas to work until they died. I anticipated I would be moved when I visited there, and even so was unprepared for the pulsating energy of this place, the feeling of a wound that would never heal.  The outside was so bright it hurt your eyes, but the dark dungeons where slaves waited months to be shipped overseas still smelled of blood and death and human fear.  The tiny window that afforded Africans their last view of home before enslavement–called the door of no return–was a heartbreakingly small sliver of Ghana’s riotous beauty beyond the iron bars.

What I remember most is a staircase.  It was a steep wooden staircase that was just outside of the door to the women’s dungeon.  At the top of the stairs a door through which you could directly access the Governer’s bedroom.  The Governor of the castle would call down to have women sent up the stairs to be raped, and then returned to the dungeon below.  The dungeon was cavern-like, windowless and low ceilinged where women were sometimes stacked like wood so the slavers could fit more in.  The sweat and piss and shit and fear of women leaked into the soil floor, and prisoners suffered in the squalor.  From this hell, a woman would have to climb the stairs.  To be raped. To be raped and returned to a dungeon.

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Standing at the bottom of the stairs I could see clearly how simple the evil at the heart of slavery was.  All the narratives I had been taught in school that framed slavery as a complicated economic transaction, born of naive ignorance of the humanity of Africans, or better still a Christian desire to help the less fortunate Africans live right in Christ was bullshit.  It simply was not possible for the people who held slaves to not know the brutal violence they were perpetrating–they lived in intimate quarters with the results of their evil actions.  They could see and hear and smell the suffering of their victims. They chose to redefine it instead of recognizing it. Every day they chose to watch death blossom around them–they were the gardeners after all.  It was not possible for the governor to open that door without hearing and smelling the suffering in the dungeon below.  It was not possible for him to rape captive Africans without feeling the humanity of his victims as he crushed them beneath his body, then sent them broken and battered back down to be stacked awaiting death. This evil is pure and palpable.

The great travesties of history seem unbelievable in their sheer monstrosity.  How could people of good conscious watch for hundreds of years as 400,000,000 Africans were enslaved and brutalized?  How could 6,000,000 Jews be shipped to concentration camps while villagers watched trains just roll by? How could 400,000 Syrians be slaughtered by their own government while the world stood down to a dictator?  We could add a handful, a dozen, a hundred events to this list where people watch brutal regimes destroy their own human brethren. There is no excusing these atrocities, no reason to wonder if slavery or genocide was anything other than just evil.  It is difficult looking back to accept bystanders who bore witness were innocents, free from guilt for not intervening. This seems so clear when we look at the past, but markedly less clear in our own time.

For months now Ameria has been a swirling cauldron of chaos, racism and rape allegations, North Korea nuclear brinksmanship and Trump tweets; the tweets, the tweets.  Hate crimes, gun sales, and taxes on the poor are all rising.  Each day brings a new attack: news media, protestors and every minority group in a never-ending rotating succession.  Each day there is a new topic worthy of debate at best, outrage at worst.  You could set your news cycle to fresh controversy like setting a watch.

While Trump feeds the chaos machine, the GOP has been busy trying to dismantle what we commonly think of as our democratic country: trying to repeal health care with no replacement, stacking government agencies with people on record for wanting to abolish said agencies, looming tax reform sure to line the pockets of the rich while the poor and middle class suffer and a deep recession is all but inevitable, and of course, Russia.

Remember when people thought Trump might pivot?  Do you recall people saying he needed time to learn, that Trump just didn’t know what he was doing because he was, after all, a businessman?  Have you listened to the mind-bending juggernaut of deception Sarah Huckabee Sanders redefine reality every day, telling us that what we have seen and heard in the observable physical world did not happen? It time to call a thing a thing.

This administration is evil.  Trump and the Senate and the House are willfully and intentionally dismantling our democracy.  They know what they are doing.  They know how bad it is,  Watch them twitch and swallow as they speak lies into the camera.  Watch them bend like contortionists twisting logic to support a child predator. See how they vote, quickly, without so much as a round of town halls in their districts for the constituents that this tax bill will affect most.

We are spending our time trying to figure out why. We put them on cable news panels to hear their point of view. We have magazine profiles to learn to sympathize with the Nazi next door, and the torch-wielding all-Americans willing to blame Mexicans rather that modernization for their unemployment.  We are hearing them out while they are burning our country to the ground.

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The blitz of bullshit is nearly impossible to ignore–how can the President of the United States use a racial slur in front of Native American vets without us responding?  We have to talk about it, there has to be a response.  At the same time, we are exhausted from responding to the barrage of crises.  Instead, I recommend you pick your battles.  You don’t have to respond to everything. Go hard on the issues, you care about most–dig deep to research, organize activities or events and write, share and speak about what you learn. Do the easy things you can do to support people when they need a signature, an attendee, a quick phone call or a share on an issue they’re staying up on.  In this way, we can build a community that can collectively address a broad array of issues and leave ourselves enough room for serious self-care and recovery time.

Be mindful of speaking the truth and calling out lies and attempts to redefine what is real.  The White House’s mania for deception seems bizarre in an era with so much fact-checking, but you may not be the target of their tall tales. Their dogged lies and their undermining of legitimate reporting leave Trump supporters in the Fox bubble completely misinformed and dangerous–both in the streets and at the polls.  Thirty percent of the Republican voting electorate is basically immune to reason or information, ready to rock with even the craziest and cruelest policies.  You may not be able to convince your drunk uncle at Christmas, but make sure you keep yourself convinced.  These days the path to truth is sometimes hard to find; better leave a breadcrumb trail so you don’t get turned around.

But most difficult of all, do not negotiate with their terror.  Resist the urge to make sense of any of it. Do not accept the narrative that this evil aimed at women and minorities and immigrants is merely a position that is equal, just different, from your own. This is not normal.  The destruction brought on by regulation rollbacks, tax breaks for the rich, and possible military intervention in North Korea will be real.  Real people will be hurt.  People have already died as a result of this administration’s policies. Lasting damage will happen to our nation. Someday someone will stand in the broken castle we leave behind and will see so clearly that it was simply evil that that plunged our nation into chaos, nothing more or less.  They will wonder about you and me, wonder how we felt watching this attack on our nation. They will wonder what we did.

I hope they will wonder, too, at the courage of our voice, at the thousand ways we resisted, we fought back, until we built a shining city on the hill of what could have been our darkest hour.