Washington State Considers a Commission on Domestic Terrorism

Testimony in Support of HB 1333

Randall Blazak, Ph.D.

January 24, 2023

Thank you for the opportunity to address this body regarding the great value in the formation of this commission on domestic terrorism.

My name is Dr. Randall Blazak. I am a sociology professor and I serve as the chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes and the vice chair of the Oregon Department of Justice Steering Committee on Bias Crimes and Incidents. I grew up in a Georgia Klan town and earned my PhD from Emory University in Atlanta after completing a study of right-wing extremism that included several years spent undercover in the white supremacist movement. I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1995 because this area, not the deep south, was the growing hotbed of domestic violent extremism.

The Pacific Northwest has a long history of cultivating fringe political movements, especially those in the racist right. The 1980s, saw a wave of terror from a neo-Nazi group called The Order, that fueled their call for a race war in America with a campaign of armed robbery and murder, which ended with a FBI shootout on Whidbey Island in 1984 that made the group’s leader, Robert Matthews, a martyr for many domestic terrorists to come.

More recently, we’ve seen patriot militia groups repopulate the region. Inspired by Timothy McVeigh’s deadly attack on Oklahoma City in 1995, they have rebranded their call for a race war as the Boogaloo. Militia groups like the Oath Keepers and the 3 Percenters were heavily present at the January 6th Capitol insurrection in 2021. Just yesterday three Oath Keepers and one compatriot were convicted of seditious conspiracy because of their role in the January 6th attack.

Beginning in the early 1980s, these groups began formulating a vision they labeled the Northwest Imperative. Since the white supremacist dream of making America “white again,” seemed increasingly unlikely in the face of demographic trends, racists felt they still had a shot at carving out a racial homeland in the Pacific Northwest. They began encouraging fellow racist patriots to move to Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, with the fantasy of driving out racial and religious minorities, LGBTQ people, liberals, and anyone they deemed to be a “race traitor.” This plan included sending members into the military, police, and local government to facilitate the revolution from within.

In 2004 I was interviewing the leader of Volksfront, one of the largest neo-Nazi skinhead groups in the world and I asked him how this racist fantasy was, in anyway, possible in the United States of America. He answered with one word and it still chills me to this day; Yugoslavia. In 2002 Yugoslavia ceased to exist as a nation. Because of racist hatred and fascist political movements, it had been balkanized into several more ethnically homogenous countries. That is the racist right’s dream of the Pacific Northwest in the near future.

The anti-government underground that waged a low grade terror campaign in the 1990s has exploded in the last six years. All the sociological factors have lined up in their favor. Massive demographic shifts that have undermined the long held authority of straight white men, the de-industrialization of the American work force that has replaced the job at the auto factory with a gig driving for Uber and evaporated the American dream, a technological explosion that has injected the most toxic conspiracy theories into everyone’s news feeds, and last, but hardly least, charismatic political leaders that fuel the anger for their own personal gain. This is not your father’s terrorist movement. There is now a massive inflow of everyday Americans who are being sucked into the rabbit hole of extremism and the calls for political violence from formerly mainstream Americans are getting louder by the day. They will use accelerationist tactics, like attacks on infrastructure, including the power grid, to create the chaos they hope to capitalize on.

The good news is we know not only how to break up domestic terrorist plots, but how to prevent people from falling into that rabbit hole in the first place. In the nearly 35 years I have been doing this work, I’ve found that the most effective agents in preventing right-wing extremist violence are former right-wing extremists themselves. Groups like Parallel Networks and Life After Hate have worked tirelessly to prevent Oklahoma City inspired attacks. The collection of real-time data by academics and civil rights groups, like the ADL,  helps us to monitor trends and target hotspots for intervention. And federally funded projects like mine, Cure-PDX, develop tools for community members to become credible messengers to extremists and serve to de-escalate political violence, utilizing a public health approach.

The formation of this state commission on domestic terrorism could serve to pull all these resources together. To the growing chorus of anti-government extremists, the Boogaloo is not just a racist fantasy to re-create Washington, the Pacific Northwest, and the nation. It is a well armed movement, with members in law enforcement and the military, with a very strategic plan to ethnically cleanse this land. This commission is vital to not only preserve the inclusive culture of Washington, but to keep its population safe from traumatizing terror.

Thank you.

“Colorblind” White People and MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

January 16, 2023

I’m not old enough to remember how badly white people hated Martin Luther King, Jr. during his lifetime. How they protested, en masse, his calls for racial integration and an end to Jim Crow. How they called him a communist and a terrorists. How they jailed him and threatened the life of he and his family on a daily basis. I was four years old that day in April when a white person put a bullet in his face on a Memphis hotel balcony. I only learned about that later in my white-authored schoolbooks.

But I am old enough to remember how white people fought tooth and nail to stop Dr. King’s a birthday being made a federal holiday. I was 19 when Ronald Reagan, who spent much of his presidency undoing the civil rights legislation that King fought for, bit his tongue and signed the holiday into law (after 90 white congressmen and 22 white senators voted against it). In my Georgia town, white people began calling the holiday, “Martin Luther Coon Day.”

So I’m leery of how so many white people now embrace Dr. King while ignoring his core messages. As a kid from a southern Klan town, I’m the last person to say that white people’s hearts cannot be changed. I’ve seen the most vicious racists transform into the most dedicated anti-racist activists. And I’ve seen that more than once. But if feels like every MLK Day we get the sanitized version of the black radical who white America despised.

The perfect example is the focus on one passage in King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that you will hear repeated on Fox News every January.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Taken out of context this sentence to gets white people off the hook. “Hey, I’ll just judge black people by the content of their character and we can be done with this whole race thing.” This lame assertion denies some very important facts.

  1. Doctor King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as pretty much everything he said, makes the exact opposite case. He was saying we will never get to the colorblind world UNTIL we deal with the engrained problems of structural and cultural racism. “White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society,” King later wrote. He had a dream of how things could be but we weren’t there in 1963 and we’re still not there in 2023. We have to do the work first. And the work is hard and the push back against the work is mighty. It’s just not from powerful white nationalists like Donald Trump. The pushback is felt in every white person that has ever said, “I’m not a racist, but…”
  2. “I was raised not to see color” is a lie. We live in a white supremacist society that sees white as “good” and “normal” and sees black as “bad” and “other.” We internalize these message throughout our entire lives. All of us internalize white supremacy. Numerous studies have shown that black kindergartners have already learned to value whiteness over blackness. Even if you are not a rabid Klansman, we know these messages about race are baked into your subconscious as implicit bias. Even the most woke-ass liberal notices the black guy standing by their car. Research shows again and again that implicit bias is a factor in why black and brown kids are disciplined more by teachers and why people of color are more likely to be shot by police. So when a white person says they are “colorblind,” they might think they are but they most definitely are not. We are trained to see color from the get-go.
  3. Black and brown people do not have the privilege of being colorblind. Seeing color is a matter of survival. If I’m an African-American man and I walk into a bank full of white people, I may have to adjust my behavior, appearance, and demeanor so the white people a) don’t think I’m there to rob the place, and b) maybe give me the same service that white people get. I had a black student who always wore a suit and tie to class everyday and when I commented on his dapper style he said, “I just got tired of everyone assuming I was here on an athletic scholarship.”
  4. The content of one’s character is most certainly shaped one’s environment and upbringing. If I’m facing the daily sledgehammer of racism and oppression, that’s gonna play a role in my character. Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of the seminal text, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, refers to the “ever present anger” black people experience because of the constant othering. If you are going to judge someone by their character, you better understand the forces that helped create it.

In Martin King’s famous “I Have Dream” speech, in a section rarely quoted by contemporary white people, he says:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

Last year there were over a thousand people killed by the police. African-Americans, who make up roughly 12 percent of the population represented 27 percent of those who were killed. George Floyd and every black police victim that has followed speak to the unspeakable horrors that persist. So why should those clamoring for basic human rights be satisfied?

Simplified history-telling has often portrayed white people as facing a perilous question sixty years ago; Either go with the kinder assimilationist rhetoric of Reverend King or face the revolutionary rage of Minister Malcolm X. King or X was a false choice. Underlying MLK’s rainbow vision was a fairly radical call for a power shift in America. The “I Have a Dream” line, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” was as much about the tables in the backrooms of congress and corporations as it was the tables in diners. Toward the end of his life, King’s message was much more explicitly class-based and anti-war (which must’ve made J.Edgar Hoover’s blood boil).

The white cherry-picking of MLK sentences from long, complex speeches and essays and the casting him as a “good negro” (in contrast to all the “bad” ones) erases the core message of King’s life. Yeah, there as been a little progress, but we ain’t there yet. We still have to explain to white people why black lives matter, because the facts on the table show they still don’t. Until there is fundamental structural change and black people, and other marginalized folks, have the EXACT same access to economic, political, and cultural power, we can dream about it, but we ain’t there yet.

So share the dream. It’s a good one. But action is required. That’s what Martin asked of us.

Can Cat Videos Prevent Power Grid Attacks?

January 8, 2023

On Christmas Day, four utility substations were knocked out in Pierce County, Washington, shutting off electricity to more than 14,000 homes on the holiday. The previous month, on Thanksgiving, there were similar attacks on utility substations in both Washington and Oregon. Officials and customers are concerned that these attacks, following a similar but larger attack in North Carolina, are part of a new trend of domestic terrorism.

The extreme right has long had the soft-targets of America’s infrastructure in its sights. For decades, their guidebook has been The Turner Diaries, a novel about a future fictional race war in America. It was a crucial part of Timothy McVeigh’s planning of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. The book, and subsequent right-wing manifestos, call for “patriots” to attack infrastructure to destabilize society and “accelerate” the chaos that will lead to a civil war. In the late 1990s, there were numerous militia plots to attack power stations and dams leading up to Y2K and the gang of extremists who plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer in 2020 also plotted to blow up a bridge.

With the advent of social media, shifts in demographics and the economy, and the influence of right-wing celebrities like Donald Trump and Alex Jones, more and more Americans have fallen into the conspiracy theory-driven counterculture of violent extremism. But each of those individuals is a person acting on the information and influence that surrounds them. Those forces can be countered and the subsequent violence can be prevented. According to the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, at the University of Chicago, 87% of the individuals arrested for attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 were not members of any identifiable group, like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. Most were just swept up in the moment.

This gives us a vector for intervention. If those ramping towards violence, either because they read The Turner Diaries or watched one too many episodes of Info Wars, as well as those MAGA followers who are angry the midterm elections didn’t go their way, can be reached, deescalation is possible. Nearly every future domestic terrorist has a person in their orbit that can talk them off the ledge of violence. These “credible messengers” might be friends, family members, co-workers, or neighbors, who just take the extra time to appeal to the individual who is inching toward violence. This intervention could be a heartfelt conversation about the real damage of violent actions, or it could just be grabbing a coffee and having a chat about the value on non-violence. According to research, even watching cat videos can reduce violent impulses.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a bulletin in late 2022 stating that infrastructure locations will be likely targets by extremists in the coming years. Attacks on the relatively accessible targets can have a massive impact on civilian populations. At least 2.5 million Americans rely on durable medical devices that can create life-threatening situations during power outages. Many millions more rely on the power grid for work, communication, and keeping the lights on in our homes. Extremists’ desire to create chaos to force their insurgent revolution make this issue, quite literally, one of life or death.

It’s time to activate the credible messengers in our communities. Instead of shying away from uncomfortable conversations with folks that seem to be “crazy radicals,” we can train people on how to better engage with those who are ramping up to violent action. The approach might not prevent every instance of domestic terrorism, but it can surely lower the body count. So if you’ve got a family member who loves guns and hates the government, invite them over to watch some cat videos. You might be saving lives.

2022 in Review: No Thanks

December 31, 2022

I knew this year was going to be hard, but it was a real test on all of us. From mass shootings in Buffalo, Ulavde, and over 600 others, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, there was death all around us. Throw in the carnage from the accelerating climate crisis and it felt like we were in last days of humanity. If it weren’t for the sizable wins by Democrats and the World Cup performance of Lionel Messi, the year might have been a complete write off.

The lowlight of 2022 was American women losing their right to choose but the highlight of the year was the hearings of January 6th Committee that deftly presented the case to the American people that Donald Trump employed multiple tactics to overthrow American democracy. It was must-see TV and we can only hope 2023 gives us indictments for the orange traitor and his inner circle of enablers. Watching him flail after his November 16 campaign announcement has bordered on high comedy. (Do you know anyone who has bought his “collectable” NFTs? I don’t.) Maybe he and Elon Musk can compete over who has the lamest social media platform.

All that informed my own year, which included heading to Ukraine to help resettle refugees, spending a day at Auschwitz, working on a federal DHS grant to find ways to interrupt extremist violence, and talking to the media about the rising threat of Kanye West. It was a great distraction from my personal life which I struggled to make sense of my domestic circumstance. I started the year in the depths of despair and I’m ending it with a healthy dose of “I don’t care.” A great somatic therapist allowed me to connect the dots from my childhood abuse to the problematic patterns in my history and finally take agency in my life. I know I’ll be fine.

The thread through this all has been the complete joy of watching my daughter move from being a silly second grader to a chess playing third grader (still pretty silly). Her growth as a person has been both challenging and inspiring. Particularly interesting has been watching her negotiate the encroaching gender norms and fairly successfully smashing them. Gen Z will have its own relationship with patriarchy, but it’s not your mother’s Riot Grrrl feminism.

I didn’t blog much in 2022. I got 26 posts out, mostly about my trip to Ukraine, which I am still processing. The posts about my separation reflect how hard I was working to fix things, but it takes two to tango and I’m starting to think I should find a better person to dance with. When I hosted poetry readings in Atlanta, I used to make fun of middle-agers who read poems about their divorces. I’m not going to be that guy. Besides, 2023 has much to offer. There will be baseball and birthdays (Disney turns 100). Russia getting the hell out of Ukraine and maybe the last Daylights Savings ever. Great music I don’t even know about yet. I have tickets to Springsteen’s February 25th show in Portland. (But who will I take?) And maybe I will blog about the Trump family in custody. Who knows?

I’m ending the year on a melancholy note but there has been immense joy in 2022 between the crushing moments of sadness. We can use the year push us to keep our children safer and our democracy stronger.

2022 WTW Posts

I Became a Teacher Because of Sydney Poitier (January 15, 2022)

Represent! Why We Need a Black Woman on the Supreme Court (January 30, 2022)

La Historia de Cómo Encontré mi Corazón (para el Día de San Valentín) (February 13, 2022)

My last hours of 57, when I grew up. (February 19, 2022)

In the Toilet Paper Tube of History: Watching the Battle for Ukraine in Real Time (February 27, 2022)

Psychoanalyzing the Attraction to Chaos, or Why I Want to Go to Ukraine (March 13, 2022)

On the Polish Border with Ukraine: Watching the World Change from Up Close (March 25, 2022)

The First Two Days on the Polish-Ukraine Border, as Bombs Fall on Lviv (March 26, 2022)

One Night in Lviv (Makes a Hard Man Humble) (March 28, 2022)

Panic in Auschwitz: Putting the Present Moment in Context (April 2, 2022)

Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Seen, Who I Am: A Brief Reflection of My Time in Ukraine/Poland (April 6, 2022)

The Rescue of the Girl in the Red Coat: Gratitude for One Ukrainian Dad (April 17, 2022)

Seriously, What’s Wrong with Men? Lighting Fires in Post-Roe America (May 12, 2022)

It’s All Too Much: You Don’t Want to Arm This Teacher at the Moment (June 6, 2022)

Talking to My 7-year-old Daughter About Abortion (June 25, 2022)

My Jim Crow Marriage: MAGA Co-dependency (July 21, 2022)

Gender – Nature vs Nurture 8: The Looking Glass Self (August 7, 2022)

To Escalate or De-escalate, That is the Question (August 23, 2022)

“Where did my friends go?” Wives as Unpaid Therapists (September 14, 2022)

The Catch-22 of Trump 2024, or, How Donald Trump’s Comical Death is Democracy’s Great Hope  (September 19, 2022)

Sept. 26, 2012: My 10-year Reconstruction Begins (September 26, 2022)

Ukraine Days: Reflections During a DakhaBrakha concert (October 1, 2022)

The Complexity of the Game: Making Sense of the World Series (October 28, 2022)

I Was a Third Grader (November 15, 2022)

Foreshadowing Fascism: The Spike in Anti-Semitism is Bigger than Trump and Kanye (December 7, 2022)

Dad’s Top Discs of 2022 (December 14, 2022)

A Room for Andi: Creating Space in the House of Patriarchy (December 25, 2022)

2022 in Review: No Thanks (December 31, 2022)

A Room for Andi: Creating Space in the House of Patriarchy

December 25, 2022

Christmas Eve

It was a challenge to come up with the right Christmas present last year for my wife, Andi. We were a month into our separation and I definitely couldn’t half-ass it. Half-assing it through the marriage is what got me in this horrible situation. I got her a LSAT study book (which she used) and a trip to Paris (which she didn’t use). So, a year later, I really wanted to show up. It was time to center her instead of my idea of her. We’re back under the same roof, but still separated. I want her to know I’ve learned something this year.

There are always “things” we want. (If I don’t get The Beatles Get Back DVD from Santa, I’m buying it myself.) But things are transitory. They matter and then they don’t. What if there was a gift that was both lasting and reflected a partner who pays attention? A gift that recognizes the personhood of the recipient, not just their role as a gift receiver.

One of the great works I read in grad school was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). If the home is a metaphor for society, it’s the man’s house. Rooms for women are assigned specific gendered tasks; the kitchen, the laundry room, the nursery, the sewing room. Men get their den to just exist in. What is women’s equivalent of the man cave? Woolf argued if women are to write fiction, they need a room of their own. If they want to live outside the constraints of their proscribed roles, they must have a safe space inside their own homes to explore their options. Like men do every day.

I bought my house in 1999 and turned every room into my own. That included a room for my vinyl collection and a separate room for my CDs. When Andi moved in in 2013, we had to shoehorn her life into my space. My closet for her clothes. My kitchen drawers for her pans. My walls for her paintings. She was a lodger in Randyland. How could she ever feel like she truly belonged here?

So that could be my gift; a room of her own. Andi plans on going to law school in the fall and will need a study space, or just a “be” space. My CD room was upstairs with big east-facing windows. It was the perfect candidate to be de-Randified and transformed into a comfy study. I had to build shelves in another room to store my thousands of CD. It had to be all her room, no Blazak artifacts. Since it was upstairs, I could work on in while she was at work or “out,” without her knowing what I was up to.

So I got to work, painting, fixing cracks in the wall, finding a desk and a comfy reading chair, and framing the book cover of Woolf’s classic for the wall. Cozy helped too, contributing a plant and a framed picture of her and her mother. Oh, and a white furry rug she found at IKEA. A bottle of mescal and a note in the desk and the job was done. I purposely under-decorated. It would defeat the entire idea if I filled her room with my ideas. She can create the space in her image.

I wrapped a copy of A Room of One’s Own (sans cover) after inscribing in it, “The rest of this gift is upstairs,” and placed it under the tree. I put Cozy to bed (after watching Home Alone) and hoped she’d be home in time to open presents in the morning.

Christmas Morning

Like Santa, Andi arrived in the wee hours and we opened presents. Cozy was most excited about the Minecraft Lego set. (Mr. Claus went through the ringer for that one.) Andi’s present for me was a Joni Mitchell biography. The last gift was her Woolf book and then Cozy and I led her upstairs to see the room I’ve been working on for several weeks.

I think she liked it. “It’s probably the most thoughtful gift you’ve ever given me,” she said. I want her to have her space in this male owned house. I want her to want to stay.

OK, now I have to go get my Beatles DVD.

Dad’s Top Discs of 2022

December 14, 2022

I’m not sure if there has been a musical theme this year. I’ve spent a lot of the year listening to Polish and Ukrainian music during and following my trip into the war zone. Replaying “Szal Niebieskich Cial” by Maanam in my Krakow hotel room, waiting for my ride to Auschwitz, or blasting “Бабушка” by the Russian rap artist L-Jane as we sped towards Lviv with the smoke from Russian rocket attacks in front us will always be powerful musical memories.

The best concert of the year was easily the DhakaBrakha show in Beaverton on September 30. The Ukrainian band enchanted us and compelled us to act. Their other-worldly sounds had Andi squeezing my arm and me in tears thinking of the people I left behind there. The images behind the quartet conveyed that this was more than just a concert. It was a desperate plea for global action. In Beaverton.

Like last year, I was devoted to making endless playlists on Spotify. This included 35 playlists for Andi while she was living in her apartment, with titles like, “Tied to the Whipping Post” and “So It’s Come to This, Barry Manilow.” Andi’s back home but we’re still not back together, so I will step up my playlist game in 2023.

As part of my Spotify playlist obsession, at the end of each month, I listened to at least one song of the 100 to 200 albums that were released that month (thanks to Wikipedia), making a playlist representing that month’s music. So I have quite literally listened to at least one song from each major release in 2022. That’s a lot of K-Pop and death metal. But it gave me a good overview of the year and lots of new discoveries, like Norway’s Blood Command. While I was looking for love lost songs, I found plenty of punk and metal albums that gave me the energy to swim forward.

So here is my annual “Top 20” list. Maybe not the twenty best albums, but the albums I enjoyed the most this year. The top three reflect the diversity on the list. Wet Leg’s debut album brought me back to the clever wordplay that I loved in 80s new wave music. The Smile’s A Light for Attraction Attention is essentially a Radiohead album and it transported me the to the ambient beep bop boop that helped be drift off on those endlessly lonely nights. At the top of the pile is the New Jersey punk band, Titus Andronicus. Their sweeping opus, The Will to Live, was joyous, earnest, and empowering. I played “I’m Screwed” a thousand times, always at full volume. It’s exactly what I needed to survive 2022.

The rest of the list has some old friends, like Harry Styles and Miranda Lambert, and releases I just lost myself in, like Soli’s beautiful tribute to Miriam Makeba. Giles Martin’s remix of The Beatles’ Revolver was orgasmic, especially when experienced with a gummy or two. I’m sure 2023 will have some favorite artists I don’t yet know exist. No doubt I will be listening to more music with my daughter who will turn nine in nine months. But here’s my soundtrack this year that has been like no other.

1. Titus Andronicus – The Will to Live

2. The Smile – A Light for Attraction Attention

3. Wet Leg – Wet Leg

4.  Blood Command  – Praise Armageddonism

5. Harry Styles – Harry’s House

6. The Linda Lindas – Growing Up

7. Somi – Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba

8. The Beatles – Revolver Super Deluxe Edition

9. Adrian Quesada – Jaguar Sound

10. Todd Rundgren – Down with the Ship

11. Viagra Boys – Cave World

12. Rosalía – Motomami

13. Natalia Lafourcade – De Todas las Flores

14. Drive-By-Truckers – Welcome to Club XIII

15. Miranda Labert – Palomino

16. Bebehoven – Light Moving Time

17. Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

18. Beyoncé – Renaissance

19. Father John Misty – Chloe and the Next 20th Century

20. Various Artists – Elvis (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Foreshadowing Fascism: The Spike in Anti-Semitism is Bigger than Trump and Kanye

December 7, 2022

Every December 7th, we remember the 1941 attack on Japan by imperialist Japan. December 7th, 1941 is also the date that Hitler made his “Nacht und Nebel” (Night and Fog) decree, the order that instructed the Gestapo to round up all the enemies of Nazism in the lands controlled by Berlin, and send them to concentration camps. Sadly, many of those who supported Hitler’s anti-Semitic vision were political activists in the United States. That included aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, spokesperson of the America First Committee, founded in 1940. Four days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States, declaring that Franklin Roosevelt was a spawn of the “eternal Jew.”

It’s important to remember that the Holocaust didn’t begin with gas chambers. It began with anti-Semitic hate speech. The fact that former president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump gleefully dines with anti-Semites like Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, tells Proud Boys to stand by, refers to the neo-Nazis of Charlottesville as “fine people,” and has routinely retweeted disinformation from white supremacist accounts should exclude him from any political credibility whatsoever. Instead, it places him in the center of right-wing politics that has always had its right foot in the mud of anti-Semitism. Blaming the Jews isn’t back. It never went away. It’s now just got a media platform so expansive it would make Father Coughlin drool on his frock.

First, let’s dispense with a crucial piece of bullcrap. Saying, “I can’t be anti-Semitic, I support Israel!” is like saying, “I can’t be racist, I support the Lakers!” Support for Israel is not the same as support for Jewish people (including Jews who are critical of the state of Israel). Evangelicals see Jews as “unsaved people,” who are just getting the Holy Land ready for the return of Jesus. MAGA support for Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the MAGA subculture has plenty of neo-Nazis, like Nick Fuentes, it its ranks.

This isn’t about Trump and “Ye.” There has been a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes and incidents over the last few years. The ADL reported that 2021 was the highest year on record for anti-Semitic incidents and 2022 looks like it could end up worse. Oregon has already logged 257 bias crimes and incidents with Jewish victims this year. Just last month, New York City saw a 125% increase in hate attacks targeting Jews over the previous November. Trump and Kanye just make it more acceptable for those people to come out of the shadows.

While the Jewish people have a long history of oppression, the Adolph Hitler/Kanye West version of anti-Semitism has a fairly recent starting point. The 1789 French Revolution not only brought the promise of democracy to Europe, and the end of the divine right of kings, it emancipated French Jews, making them full French citizens. So when the defenders of church and monarchy needed a convenient scapegoat to blame the revolutionary chaos on, the “anti-Christian” Jews were an easy target. Aside from the fact that European Jews had a fairly good reason to not be fans of the Catholic Church, Jewish participation in the French Revolution was fairly minimal. And yet a new myth was born; the pro-democracy/anti-church rule movements around the globe were the work of secret cabal of Jewish rabbis. The puppet masters; controllers of banks, media outlet, competing political parties, and all things liberal.

This new belief that Jews “control the world” spread like wildfire as the old empires began to crumble. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the bizarre conspiracy theory was codified in a supposedly real (but fully fabricated) document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was used to blame the Russian Revolution on Jews and used by Henry Ford to blame unionization efforts on the “international Jew” (the title of a series of booklets Ford wrote in the 1920s). The conspiracy theory became equally popular among jihadists and Neo-Nazis into the twenty-first century. We are almost a quarter of the way through the century and Trump acolyte Kanye West’s proclamation that “I like Hitler” on disgraced conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ show barely sparks a response from the Learned Elders of the Republican Party. That should make the world say, collectively, we’ve seen this movie before.

Volumes have been written on how the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump map on to other nations’ slide into fascist rule. American democracy is not guaranteed and Trump’s recent claim that the U.S. Constitution should be “terminated” is straight-up Germany 1933. All we need is an economic collapse to send the “stable middle” into a panicked blame-game and a charismatic figure to convince them that all their problems are because of George Soros/drag queens/woke bankers/deep state agents and we’ve got pogroms in the streets of America; the Proud Boys and their ilk, who have been on “standby,” leading the charge to “make America great again.”

This might seem like a lot of hysteria but let me conclude with two thoughts. Every single Jewish person has a deep personal connection to the violence of anti-Semitism. Every news story about a synagogue covered in swastika graffiti, or about Jewish people attacked just walking down the street, or another “crazy” claim about Jews by an popstar who has 16 million followers on Instagram is a reminder of the long history in the belief that the complete annihilation of the Jewish people is a good thing that is both dreamed about and acted upon. The trauma of living in that world must be immense and yet the Jewish people continue to contribute to a world that imagines destroying them.

Finally, as I’ve written, earlier this year, I spent a snowy April day at the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps in Poland. After walking though the gates that still read, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free), I suffered my first panic attack, realizing that it was all very real. A population, motivated by fear, was willing to commit mass genocide. Children, like my daughter, were ripped from their parents arms and thrown into the fire pits of Birkenau. Why? Because they were “dirty Jews.” I stood on that spot and wept. Because, unlike what certain guests at Mar-a-Lago believe, the Holocaust happened. And, like certain guests at Mar-a-Lago hope, it could happen again.

We must stand together against this insanity or it will be our children who will be thrown into the fire pits.

I Was a Third Grader

November 15, 2022

I guess it’s a normal thing to compare yourself to your kids. “When I was your age I had to walk three miles to school, in the snow, and barefoot, and uphill, and backwards!” I remember when I was in high school we all took our shoes off on a snowy Georgia day and walked to school so we could foist that same flex on our kids.

I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. There seems to be some clear differences between 3rd grade Randy and 3rd grade Cozy. In 1972, I loved to play outside in the woods, she loves to be inside playing Minecraft. I had brain-numbing Saturday morning cartoons, she has brain-numbing YouTube videos on demand. But much of it is the same. Our aversion to any food that is good for us, or to going to sleep, or to getting up. I loved Elvis Presley (“Burning Love” era), and she loves Dua Lipa (“Levitating” era), but other than that, not that dissimilar.

So, as I drop her off at school each day, I’ve been trying to remember what I remember from my 3rd grade experience at Atherton Elementary.

My teacher was Mrs. Weldon and we were supposed to get candy bars for completing our times tables, but I never got mine. I did a presentation on Boston by building a version of the U.S.S. Constitution from a huge cardboard box. The teacher read us James and Giant Peach and we had discussions about the 1972 presidential election. (I supported Nixon because I liked his funny-looking face.) My best friend was Keith Harrison and we focused our arguments on Elvis, Hank Aaron, and how to make the best go-cart. And I definitely thought girls had cooties.

For me, third grade was my introduction to Southern culture. Like many Slavic-rooted Americans, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. My family fled the rustbelt for the sunbelt after the steel industry crashed, and after year in Boca Raton, Florida, we ended up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (for reasons I still don’t understand). Red clay, black-eyed peas, thick accents, and one classmate who took a dead possum home for “supper” presented me with an alternate reality that was both dreamlike and hostile to a “damn Yankee” 8-year-old. A neighbor named Kenny called me “Polish monkey,” which I later figured out was because of my non-WASP name. Church was king in Stone Mountain, so that was the vehicle of assimilation, although it always felt unwelcoming.

So I wonder what my own 3rd grader is collecting to be reflected upon 50 years from now, in 2072. Will she remember the names of her friends and practicing make-up application, like I remember playing in the creek with Tico and Kip? Will she remember the insanity of MAGA, like I remember the madness of George Wallace and Lester Maddox? Will she remember binging on Takis, like I remember seeing how many Little Debbies I could shove into my mouth? Will she remember her parents living apart and then together again (but still apart), like I remember my father gone on extended sales trips?

Eight seems like such an in-between age. I see my daughter carry herself like she’s 5 minutes from college, but she’s still a child (who wants to set up a spy-cam to catch Santa in action this Christmas). Her peer culture has gained power. She just got her ears pierced and is starting to use slang, like “That’s suss, Dad.” She calls me, “bra” like I’m a bro. How do I tell her to eat her vegetables?  Was I that the age when I started separating myself from my parents? (I staged sit-ins in protest of their demand that I eat canned beets, I do remember that.)

If I could go do 8 again, there are certainly things I would do differently, besides buy stock in IBM. I would be kinder to my little brother, and pay more attention to the marginalized kids in my school. But much of 3rd grade seemed to not be about finding your direction, but finding that you could have a direction, any direction; that, at some point, you’d be able to do your own thing. I see that in Cozy, the potential to do really big things if she wants to.

What I needed from parents at 8 was a message of assurance, that they had my back even if I made mistakes. That they’d keep me safe but allow me to see how far I could walk across the ice. And I need encouragement to match the curiosity I had in myself with a curiosity in others. That’s the least I can do for my 3rd grader.

The Complexity of the Game: Making Sense of the World Series

October 28, 2022

Something happens to me in October. All that hipster rejection of professional sports as “redneck hyper masculine bullshit” flies out the window like a ball smacked out of the park by Aaron Judge. I become a baseball lunatic. Post-season brackets become my obsession and holding my breath for every pitch becomes my cardiac workout. Who am I?

The World Series starts today and, of course, I’m rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies. Yes, they beat my hometown Atlanta Braves, but I’m a National League loyalist. (Designated hitters are a weeny cop-out!). Plus the Phillies have a lot of weird looking players, like Brandon Marsh, who looks like Sasquatch hovering over home plate. Besides, we all understand why the Houston Astros suck (even if I want to pinch Jeremy Peña’s cheeks). So yeah, the only thing that matters in October is baseball, and I hope the Phillies lose a few games so we get the full seven-game series all the way to November 4th. I want to squeeze every minute of baseball joy out of the coming week.

All this began for me when my dad started taking me Braves games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1973. It was the reign of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron and I would wear my glove hoping to catch Homerun 714. I remember the racists screaming that a black man should not be allowed to top Babe Ruth’s record (Apparently, Aaron routinely got death threats), but Hank was my guy, my gateway into America’s pastime. I’ve loved tracking batting averages and ERA’s ever since.

So what’s the problem?

Baseball Boys

The most obvious issue is that Major League Baseball is a male only sport. Unlike U.S. soccer, where the women’s teams often outdraw the men’s team (at least in Portland), there is no female equivalent in MLB. And women’s Olympic softball doesn’t count. It’s a celebration of nut scratching maleness. There’s now an obligatory female interviewer on the field asking the male players and male coaches what the hell happened in the 6th inning, but other than her and the lucky lady on the Kiss Cam, that’s about it for women in baseball. But, as Andi reminded me, at least they don’t have cheerleaders.

I want my daughter to love baseball the way I did when I was a kid, but she doesn’t see anyone that looks like her on the field. Why should she care?

White Bread Sox

The complexion of MLB has changed dramatically over the years. When I was a kid, players of color were relegated to the outfield and the high profile infielders were lilly-white. Now it’s all We are the World (if the Dominican Republic was the biggest country on Earth). Black, brown and Asian players dominate. (Can I get a hell yeah for Cleveland Guardian Steven Kwan?) The Astros manager, Dusty Baker, who happens to be black, is a baseball legend. But the owners remain uber white. (And there is not a single African-American player in the Series this year.)

MLB still looks like a plantation system where white owners look to Caribbean islands for the next money maker. Lured with big salaries but short careers, they play their hearts out until their bodies are used up and they are retired to the field of dreams (typically a used car lot). The average career of a MLB player is only 5.6 years, so what’s a 30-year-old over-the-hill Puerto Rican to do? He’s been replaced and forgotten. 

Feeling sorry for seven-figure salaries?

The average salaries of major league players is $4.4 million. It’s hard to see them as victims. But they’re also workers struggling for agency. When MLB players went on strike in 1994, the whole game shut down for nearly two years. It looked like greedy players were just pissed over a proposed salary cap, but it was really about the economic exploitation of men whose likenesses were generating billions for others. The goal was the better share of the revenue, but players are still eaten up and spit out at will by the league machinery.

So being a modern baseball fan is a constant internal dialogue. I have to see that a lot of fandom each October is a performance of a fairly pedestrian form of masculinity. “Did you know Justin Verlander is the first pitcher to pitch in the World Series in three different decades?” he says as he thumps his chest. My father would be proud of me dropping everything to scream at the TV at every possible moment in the post season. But I’m also aware of the many contradictions this massive baseball machine represents. It’s both deeply problematic and infinitely beautiful.

Fortunately, there are increasing numbers of women who are baseball mad just like me (including Andi, whose head almost exploded when Houston shut out the Seattle Mariners). The sport is full of pathos, including watching players age out of the game before our eyes. There’s David and Goliath stories, like the (wildcard) Phillies against the Houston Yankees (i.e., the Astros). There’s the collective held breath as a well hit ball approaches the top of the back wall. The emotionality of baseball could be seen as essentially feminine as relationships work together to create a moment, not to destroy one. There is crying in baseball.

The ever-quotable Yogi Berra once said, “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.” The poets can argue about the metaphorical value of “America’s past time,” and the rest of us can settle in for the story wrapped up in each pitch and the thrill of the crack of a bat. I don’t have time to feel guilty, I have to review the stats for tonight’s roster.

Ukraine Days: Reflections During a DakhaBrakha concert

October 1, 2022

Last night Andi and I went to see the brilliant Ukrainian band, DakhaBrakha. They were playing a sold out concert at an art center in Beaverton, Oregon before they head back to Europe. (Their November 11 show in Krakow, Poland will be one for the ages.) They’ve chosen to tour the globe while their homeland burns under the continuous assault of Putin’s invasion to share the need for the world to act. Their music is so other-worldly, the best way I can describe it is, imagine Kate Bush joins Radiohead and they are kidnapped by Cossacks and taken to Neptune. They call it “ethno chaos.”

As Andi and I let the exotic sounds wash over us, animations of Russian missiles falling and photos of bombed out apartment buildings in Irpin and Mariupol filled the screen behind the four-piece band from Kyiv. Occasionally slogans, like “Russia is a terrorist state” and “Arm Ukraine” would flash across the screen as the music crescendoed. The one male in the band, Marko Halanevych, implored the audience to do what they could to support “Free Ukraine.” The audience, made up of Ukrainian-Americans, recent refugees, and Portland music fans, responded to his “Slava Ukraini” with “Heroyam slava!” – Glory to the heroes.

The message of the music was magnified that day because Putin had just held a dog & pony show in Moscow to declare the regions of eastern Ukraine as formally annexed into Russia, to be defended as a part of Russia. Adding to the significance of the day, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy submitted Ukraine’s application to NATO. It felt like the last moments before World War 3. Andi clutched my hand as the music and the moment consumed us. Children, like our daughter, were being killed or driven from their homes while we sat in a brand new arts center half a world away.

The concert is certainly in my top ten now, but also helped Andi understand why I had to go to Ukraine this past spring. “When white people are at war with each other, things are really serious,” she said, only half-joking. I bought us DakhaBrakha shirts after the show, proceeds going to Ukraine, and talked with some local Ukrainian residents about the power of the night’s performance.

I will always reflect on my trip into the war zone to provide what little help I could. Portland and Lviv, Ukraine are now “friendship cities,” soon to be sister cities, partially because my experience championing Ukrainian coffeeshops as air raid sirens blared in Lviv. I feel a deep connection to the local Ukrainian population and Andi, Cozy, and I often have our fill on pierogis in the basement of a local Ukrainian church most Saturday afternoons.

I wanted to post the eight blog posts I wrote before, during, and right after my trip to Poland and Ukraine in one place as a chronology. I was briefly a hot topic in the local news when I was there, but now, as we pass the 6 month mark, the war in Ukraine becomes just another story as the world seems to turn upside down. It’s still raging (although Ukraine is advancing and Russians are fleeing their country to avoid conscription) and the lessens I learned there still resonate.

UKRAINE BLOGS

Entry 1: In the Toilet Paper Tube of History: Watching the Battle for Ukraine in Real Time (February 27, 2022)

Entry 2: Psychoanalyzing the Attraction to Chaos, or Why I Want to Go to Ukraine (March 14, 2022)

Entry 3: On the Polish Border with Ukraine: Watching the World Change from Up Close (March 25, 2022)

Entry 4: The First Two Days on the Polish-Ukraine Border, as Bombs Fall on Lviv (March 26, 2022)

Entry 5: One Night in Lviv (Makes a Hard Man Humble) (March 28, 2022)

Entry 6: Panic in Auschwitz: Putting the Present Moment in Context (April 2, 2022)

Entry 7: Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Seen, Who I Am: A Brief Reflection of My Time in Ukraine/Poland (April 5, 2022)

Entry 8: The Rescue of the Girl in the Red Coat: Gratitude for One Ukrainian Dad (April 17, 2022)