Preparing for April 19th, 2021: Why We Need an International Approach to Domestic Terrorism

February 7, 2021

Watching the Wheels began as a parenting blog but it’s turning into a policy blog. My broader social commentary started with the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and exploded with the ascent of Donald J. Trump. I promise we’ll get back to the kid, but there is a pressing reason I’m spending some extra energy on right wing extremism: April 19.

April 19th is the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children, collapsing a federal office building, and has since been linked to “Patriots’ Day” by the right-wing underground. That underground is now very overground and the chatter in their world is that is that the January 6th Capitol attack was just the warm up. Fasten your seatbelts for April 19, 2021. We could see another wave of right-wing violence as they make their play for Civil War II.

It’s been encouraging to see the Biden Administration pivot to make the threat of domestic terrorism a priority, including ordering a nationwide assessment of the emerging threat, with the National Security Council responding in a way reminiscent of how the intelligence community responded after 9/11. The Biden team’s focus and the fact that capable experts like Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) will take the lead on the Counterterrorism Subcommittee are an encouraging start. There are plenty of challenges ahead, including our lack of a federal definition of “domestic terrorism” and the policing of such actions that also respects our first amendment protections.

But domestic terrorism is also an international issue.

I was having a conversation last week with a representative of a foreign consulate who was looking for ways that her government could navigate the post-January 6th world that the Biden Administration had inherited. (I won’t name her nation, but we’ve had a relationship with them since 1776.) As we spoke, it became clear that there are multiple international intersections in our efforts to confront right-wing extremism. The issues that came up revolved around three themes; intelligence, trade issues, and international relations. There are probably more but this is what came up in our hour-long talk.

White supremacy as a global movement

Over the last thirty years we’ve seen a decidedly internationalist trend in the nationalist responses to globalization. For me, this began in 1990s and charting how racist skinheads in America were looking to Serbian nationalism and the Balkanization of Yugoslavia as a roadmap to a race war in the United States. Notorious white supremacists like David Duke have cultivated large followings (and income flows) from Mother Russia. Any European nation that has struggled with an inflow of migrants has seen a surge in Neo-Nazi violence. In July 2018, I was in the UK to study British CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs and I worked my way into an English Defense League rally in London, under the shadow of Big Ben. Supporters of banned nationalist Tommy Robinson were laying out anti-immigrant tirades to a crowd of angry white men, many in Trump hats. In England. Two weeks ago, Germany handed a right-wing extremist a life sentence after he was found guilty of shooting a pro-immigration politician in the head at point-blank range, killing him. Racist nationalism is an international problem. The fact that mass casualty events in Oslo, Norway, lead to similar attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, which lead to similar attacks in El Paso, Texas is proof.

The specter of a pan-Aryan movement has long been a reality. I discussed it in my search on Odinist prison gangs in the 2000s. An international network of racist pagans shared plans for their racial holy war from behind prison walls. Before that, research on white power rock bands traveling to Europe, revealed the trafficking of Neo-Nazi paraphernalia and ideology across the Atlantic. In 1991, I was interviewing a skinhead in (what had just been East) Berlin, Germany, and told me, in broken English, “We have many friends in your country.”

Last summer, the U.S. Senate introduced S. 4080 – the Countering Global White Supremacist Terrorism Act. It’s a great start (if it ever passes) to assess the nature of the global connections to the domestic white supremacist call for a racial revolution. In the wake of the “dry run” on January 6th, the intelligence part of this effort needs to include four key elements.

  1. Foreign support for domestic extremists. While privacy rules make the work difficult, intrepid journalists have started following the money and unmasking the financial backers of the radical right, like the Mercer family. It is likely that money coming to back the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other groups hell bent on their “boogaloo” civil war is also coming from sources outside the United States, including Russia. The financial streams must be revealed and interrupted.
  2. Foreign disruption and misinformation. If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that a little disinformation dropped into your cousin’s Facebook feed can turn a country upside down. In 2015, few people (including Republicans)  thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming president. In January, 2017 he was sworn in. We know that Russia played a role in that campaign. Foreign interference that repeats tropes like “Black Lives Matter is a communist organization” are a part of our digital realities and serve to push “I’m not racist, but..” Americans into white supremacist worldviews.
  3. Encrypted communications. A lot of racist cross-national communication is right out there in the open, on Parler, Twitter, 4chan, and even Instagram. But white supremacists have long utilized encrypted communications. Whether they are sending messages on Telegram, Tox, through video game networks, or communicating in handmade codes on the deep deep web, the chat includes bomb making techniques, hit lists, and potential coordination on terrorist plots. They’ve looked to ISIS and other international terror groups for both mainstream recruitment techniques (ex. YouTube) as well as for tips on secretive channels of communication. We must work with our international partners to penetrate this information flow.
  4. Pan-Aryan movements. More must be done to understand the international connections of white supremacist terror organizations, like Atomwaffen Division. We’ve tended to think of these groups as “home grown” and disregarded their international connections. The internet has linked racist organizations in South Africa to similar groups in South Carolina. The role that Facebook live-streaming played in the 2019 Christchurch shooting that left 51 dead demonstrated that these so-called nationalists are playing to an international audience.

How trade policy impacts white nationalism

During my discussion with the consulate’s office, the issue of trade policy came up. It wasn’t a topic I was expecting or felt qualified to talk about, but it was clear there were some issues that were relevant. Much of racial nationalism is fueled by globalization. Globalization diminishes national identity (There’s an infinite number of McDonalds and Starbucks in Paris) and increases immigration. This was an obvious driver in Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote, the rise of Trump (“America first!”), as well as racialized nationalist movements in Poland, Germany, and Greece. Trade policies designed to reduce pushes into white supremacist movements and their calls for violence must be mindful of the following two questions:

  1. How does this policy impact agrarian or manufacturing labor segments? The very first of racist skinheads I studied in the late 1980s were racist skinheads because of deindustrialization. Their parents were being laid off of their manufacturing jobs which were being shipped to Mexico and China. And the only analysis they were getting was from the White Aryan Resistance who told them that it was a global Jewish cabal that was destroying their shot at the American dream. My 1990s skinheads added the giant sucking sound of NAFTA as the backdrop of their downward mobility. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that over 600,000 manufacturing jobs moved to Mexico after President Clinton signed NAFTA in 1994. Any trade policy must look at the impact on blue collar labor, whether in the factory or the field. An example of countering the trend, Samsung ovens are now made in Tennessee. The profits still flow to South Korea, but a lot of workers are getting to bank their money thanks to the push to revitalize our industrial labor force. This type of trade policy breaks the back of jingoism.
  2. How does this policy impact labor migration? Environmental policies will impact migration patterns as the planet warms. Refugees leaving drought ravaged lands where farming and access to clean water are stressed will become a fact of life unless international policies tackle climate change. Similarly, trade policies (which now often have an environmental component) can be mindful on the impact of the migration of labor. If a policy is likely to increase the migration into the United States, the benefit to Americans must be made clear. Otherwise, the policy (and the earnest foreign workforce that emerges because of it) becomes a white supremacist weapon for scapegoating, xenophobia, and hate crimes.

To work with America you must understand America

There is also a conversation going on from Philadelphia to the Philippines about what kind of country America is in 2021. Especially after four years of Trump. Our standing on the world stage has plummeted as our national interests were supplanted by Donald’s personal interests. As the Biden diplomatic team repairs the damage done to our international relationships, our global partners need to be mindful of four factors that drive activism in the extreme right.

Because each of these is a complex issue, worthy of pages of analysis, I’ll be incredibly brief.

  1. Understanding the split in the Republican Party. The symbolic division between the party of Representative Lynne Cheney (R-WY) and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) reflects the split between the “Grand Ol’ Party,” with it’s core conservative values, and the nut-job wing that remains loyal to Trump, QAnon and the calls for an uprising to defeat the “communist” Democrats.
  2. Understanding that nationalism is a response to globalization. Over one hundred years ago fervent calls to “(Your country here) first!” set the stage for the “war to end all wars” and paved the way for the rise of fascism. Without the strength of our international treaties (I’m looking at you, UK), we’re back to square one.
  3. Understanding paths to radicalism and access to resources for deradicalization. There’s more than enough scholarship on why people become extremists. Programs in Sweden (Exit) and Britain (Prevent) have pioneered excellent methods to deradicalize extremists. It’s time to share the wisdom. 
  4. Confronting extremism in the military. We are not the only nation whose militaries contain Neo-Nazis who dream of bombing Israel, African and Arab countries, and liberal metropolitan areas. A global strategy to confront this issue should be the first step in an international effort to prevent large scale attacks.

And now the work begins

We talked about a great deal in one hour. I can really squeeze a lot in when I think there’s a ticking time bomb, like April 19th. That day may come and go without event, which I desperately hope will be the case. (April 20th is Hitler’s birthday, so wait to exhale.) America is starting from less than zero because of the hole Donald Trump dug. But, with the help of our friends around the world, we can put our shoulders to the wheel and ensure our common dream to live in a safe and stable nation.

The Barbarians at the Gate: Confronting MAGA Terrorists Post Trump

January 12, 2021

I’m not one to say I told you so, but I told you so. Since 2015,  I’ve been writing and talking about how Donald Trump was leading a cult of personality that wanted to bring fascism to America. But I’m not here to take credit. I’m here to urge action.

History tells us that failed coup attempts are followed by successful coup attempts. The 1/6 siege on the Capitol Building was not the last gasp of the Trump base. It was first attack by so-called “patriots” who have been arming and training for their revolution to overthrow our duly elected government. It won’t end on Inauguration Day. In fact, January 20th could be one of the bloodiest days of American history. Trump has spent 5 years emboldening (God, I’ve used that word way too many times since 2015) his rabid right-wing base with veiled (and not-so-veiled) racist declarations, and calls to attack the media and anyone who is not 100% loyal to him (including former members of his administration). He took something that was a fringe political movement of “Wackos from Waco” to a mainstream social movement of self-imagined 1776 revolutionaries. He’s done his work and now can stand back and stand by while the chaos destroys America. His father/fatherland didn’t love him, so he’s going to burn it down.

It’s not a matter of when Trump’s civil war will start. The fact that his troops were roaming the halls of the U.S. Capitol with zip ties, chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” while the vice president was certifying Biden’s victory, is evidence that we’re at least in “soft” civil war that’s about to get very hard. So what do we do to save the country from sliding from democracy into totalitarianism, as so many nations have before?

Recognize the threat

There is a straight line that runs from the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to Wednesday’s insurgence. To the outside viewer, Wednesday’s mob might have seemed like a crowd of sub-moronic good ‘ol boys who just got caught up in their angst that their “manly man” (lol) lost the election. But there was a method to their madness.

A small band of similarly minded “patriots,” guided by the blueprint provided in a racist novel called The Turner Diaries, intended to start a civil war to rid the government of “Zionist” control. It was their conspiracy-fueled version of the “deep state.” In one moment on April 19, 1995, 168 people were killed, including 19 children. Timothy McVeigh and his cohorts were the product of the patriot militia movement. Twenty-five years ago it was a fringe underground that was largely squashed by public rejection and federal policing. Now it’s a massive overground, fueled by internet, right-wing news outlets, QAnon, and the President of the United States. But the end goal is the same, a right-wing revolution to purge America of any vestige of liberalism, multiculturalism, feminism, and religious tolerance. And it probably includes somebody in your family.

It’s not surprising that several white supremacist groups were involved in Wednesday’s attack, including the Oath Keepers, the Rise Above Movement, and, of course, the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys, Trump’s shock troops, have shed any pretense of not being a racist gang. The Oregon Capitol has been besieged by right-wing extremists, including one Proud Boy with a notorious past. Apparently, Kyle Brewster has been engaged in the actions in Salem. Brewster, besides an avowed Trump supporter, was one of the racist skinheads convicted of beating an Ethiopian man to death with a baseball bat in Portland in 1988. The white supremacist scene has rebranded itself as a “Western chauvinist movement” and invited a few men of color along to prove it’s not your grandfather’s Klavern.

I’ve written plenty in this blog about the “militia funnel” and the real threat of civil war. Just understand this. Some of these people are nut jobs. I mean the “Q Shaman”? Brother, please. But there is a core in the center of several concentric circles of anti-government fury that is heavily armed and has been training since the day they saw Timothy McVeigh take down a federal office building in Oklahoma.

This threat is domestic in nature but don’t think there is no foreign involvement. Numerous adversaries stand to benefit by pushing America into great discord, even if this soft civil war doesn’t go full Gettysburg. This includes Trump’s buddies (and creditors), the Russians. Don’t be surprised if we see Russian actors involved in the call for Trump loyalists to come to D.C. on January 6th, if not actually breaching the security at the capitol.

Now that the White House, and both houses of Congress will be in Democratic control, expect extremists to use Wednesday’s attack as a recruiting call for a national uprising. They know they have sympathizers on the inside who will open the doors for them. And we thought 2021 was going to be so chill.

Recognize the roots of the threat

Once we’ve come to terms with the threat level, it’s worth understanding the roots that got us here. Complex problems have complex causes, but Wednesday’s white riot has three factors (+1) that led to the destruction and death that occurred in the halls of Congress.

First is the massive social change that America has experienced in the last 50 years. The “natural” authority of the straight, white, cisgendered, Christian men is no longer assumed. Civil right movements to make equity a real thing have challenged (but not eliminated) their social position. Feminism, black lives matter, inclusion officers, and the rest has threatened their (male) God-given right. So Trump, a “macho” (stop) man, appears and says he’s going to make America “great again, ” speaking directly to their insecurity. Let’s make America 1950 again, before all this civil rights business. And quickest way that men gain authority is through violence. Just ask that “bitch who opened her mouth one too many times.”

This upsetting of white male power has occurred in the context of globalization. The manly factory jobs have all moved to non-white countries. In their place are low wage service sector jobs, with no union card and no benefits. Before COVID hit, there were actually more women working in America than men, and they were mostly working at Walmart, not at the plant. So what does the king of his castle do when the HR lady fires him for sexually harassing a co-worker? And then his job is sent to China?

The third factor is the coronavirus. It’s both turned everything upside down and magnified the race to the bottom. On the one hand, the virus has caused economic devastation, pushing formerly “king of the hill” white men further down into desperation. All this being blamed on, as Trump calls it, the China virus. On the other hand, the lockdown (and layoffs) has plopped people in front of their computers, looking for information and ending up in less than legitimate news sites like Newsmax, OANN, and Epoch Times, who traffic in endless conspiracy theories about the “stolen” election. (I can’t believe I’m going to put Fox News in the “legitimate” column.) And then here comes the web fad QAnon to tell you that the deep state is “communist” and controlled by baby-eating Democrats. Desperate people will believe pretty much anything that gives them a leg up on the uncertainty.

The fourth “bonus” factor is Trump. In a crisis like this, a leader would take on the task of bringing the nation together and steering those at risk away from the radical fringes. Instead, he has pushed these sad souls right into the militia rabbit hole because it suits his need for ego feeding. A bunch of yahoos who would never be let inside Mar-a-Lago are worthy props. They’ll be mowed down by the National Guard waving their stupid Trump flags, but it all serves substitute for the love he never got from his parents.

Neutralize the threat

What we do about this is a much larger discussion. The first order of business is to shut down the immediate threat. After the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno got in front of the militia threat and moved FBI resources to go after it. The bureau had its hands full shutting down terrorist plots, especially leading up to Y2K. (Ask your granddad about that one.) I don’t doubt that the Biden Administration, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, will take this issue seriously. The Trump Administration essentially ignored it, allowing it to fester. When members of the militia movement in Michigan plotted to kidnap and execute Governor Whitemer, AG Bill Barr acted like he had no knowledge of any of it. The difference between 1995 and 2021 is the anti-government threat is now massive. All 50 state capitals are facing assaults by right-wing extremists. Several Democratic governors have had armed extremists on the grounds of their homes. Shutting down these barbarians, who think they are on the brink of their promised white revolution, is going to take a well planned coordination between Homeland Security, local law enforcement agencies, and community groups.

The other strategy has nothing to with police and everything to addressing to the root causes of this wind that has blown so many Americans over the right-wing cliff. We’re probably not going to recreate a massive manufacturing sector to get men back into GM factories, but we can help those men learn to manage the social changes instead of freaking the F out. One of the best resources here are people who have actually been through the grinder and come out the other side. Groups like Life After Hate have created a place for former extremists to share their journey into the dark side and help pull other racists and extremists off the ledge. 

Rebuild the middle

America needs to have several hard conversations that deal with trauma and reconciliation. If we want to “smash the binary,” we can include the pointless division between red and blue. This isn’t 1861. We’re all shades of purple. There’s such a need for leadership to guide us to unity. That leadership can come from the White House or it came from the liberal who reaches out to Trump supporters and invites them over for dinner (when that’s safe again).

The first civil war didn’t really end in 1865. We remained divided, especially on the issue of race. Jim Crow and the electoral college were the South’s revenge. But we’ve learned a few things in the years since then. We are on the edge of something that will turn this county into ash (and delight Mr. Putin and Mr. Jinping). But we also have the capacity to create a second, better American century. This is the moment for bold, if not a bit desperate, action.

The Dream Life of 2020

December 16, 2020

When we wake from a dream, half remembering the details and then immediately losing them, we only know what we don’t know. Keith Richards once wrote in his detailed autobiography, “Memory is fiction” as a way of letting himself off the hook for constructing a picture of his life that may have diverted from facts. But all history is a construction. George Washington told a lie or two. When I remember something in my own life, am I remembering it as it happened, or merely remembering my last memory of it? A picture of a picture, losing sharpness with each copy.

That’s sort of how I reflect on 2020, a year of years, as if a dream that I am just now waking up from. Did all that happen? The clouds of CS gas may have affected my cognitive ability. If I’m not mistaken, everything collapsed. Reality as we know it ended and I’m a bit foggy on whether that was a bad or a good thing.

The year for me really began on March 11. Before that it was the usual drama; war in the Persian Gulf, Democratic debates, stock market and helicopter crashes, and me trying to get my kindergartner dressed for school. The news about the “novel coronavirus” had been spreading fast and I remember telling my students in February that this was probably going to be the story of the year. Little did I know it would be a tsunami that would wash over every person on the planet. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was also the day that we were supposed to see Patti Smith in concert. We had tickets for show at the Seattle Paramount and were going to drive up after my Wednesday classes. That afternoon the show was cancelled out of fear of the virus spreading (Washington was the first state to get hit) and I had a feeling that it was just getting started. The following day Tom Hanks was was sick. As goes Tom Hanks, so goes the world.

The year now exists in a series of half remembered moments that may have been scenes from a movie and not my life.

I remember fleeing Portland because the wildfires in Oregon and California had clogged the air with smoke, making breathing impossible. We headed as far west as possible, ending up in Newport, Oregon, which was a mixture of smoke and fog but at least you could breathe. You couldn’t see the ocean and the escape it promised. We camped out in the Sylvia writers’ hotel, where we found sanctuary in old books as our daughter played with Shelly the Cat. (I am back at the Sylvia Hotel now, sitting next to my wife who is writing her book that will change the world. I can see the Pacific Ocean and it can see me. I’m finally starting Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey.) When the rains came back to Oregon, Cozy and I danced in the streets, thanking Gaia for protecting our house.

I remember Andi and I being in the streets of Portland as the revolution ramped up. Trump’s federal troops had come in to quash the Black Lives Matter protests, which only brought more anti-fascist Americanos to the fight. By that week’s Battle of Portland, we already had a few tear-gassings under our belt. There was a moment this July night (really morning) when I was hiding behind a concrete pillar on SW 5th Avenue as the DHS troops fired rounds at unarmed protestors. Was this Argentina, 1979, Mexico City, 1968, Belfast, 1972, Cairo, 2013? What country was I in and would I be killed by a hastily assembled gang of federal forces whose only mandate was to show that Trump was tough on “antifa”? Andrea and I made a mad dash across the street to a safer alcove. In 1994 I had tried to get to Sarajevo from Austria and was blocked at the border. In 2020, I was in the middle of something equally as historic. A group of protestors came marching eastward, chanting “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA” and the federal forces fired rounds and them and then chased them down to attempt mass arrests. “Oh my God” Andi screamed. Was that America or was that a dream?

I remember having to move my college classes to a remote set-up and hoping my students, laid flat by deportations, lay offs, depression, and the virus itself, would show up. Weekly Zoom meetings became more like therapy sessions and I found myself longing to see their two-dimensional faces. Most typically kept their cameras on mute, making me wonder if I was dreaming them or they were dreaming me. Did they even exist? A name on a role and on a screen. Had the virus erased them, as well? While my daughter found community in a neighborhood “pod school” with four other first-graders, I was stuck in my living room, whiskey in my coffee, pretending I was a college professor.

I remember watching the body count. 1000 dead. 50,000 dead. 250,000 dead. 294,535 dead, just in the U.S.. All while the president played golf and held super-spreader rallies, proclaiming it would magically go away after election day. (Didn’t he get the virus? And his wife? And his kids? And his greasy-hands-in-pants lawyer?) I remember thinking that I had COVID more than once, including this morning. (That was just a hangover from drinking Gin Rickies in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room at the Sylvia.) I remember worrying I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Andi and Cozy with a ventilator down my throat. My parents, in their seventies in hard hit Georgia, stayed in my mind. Would I get to see them again? Would anything be anything again?

I remember a gameshow president trying to imitate his dictator pals, even after he lost the election BY A LOT. I think about his cult-like followers caravanning into Portland in pick-up trucks, shooting paintball guns (and real ones) at protesters, oblivious to the 1922 March on Rome that brought fascism to Italy wrapped in a national flag and the cry, “Kill the communists!” I wonder where those people are now. Training for Civil War II, I imagine, their orange lord encouraging to them face the bullets while he snorts Adderall in his last moments in the White House. Donald Trump was cancelled like Coachella, but the specter of his idiocy hovers like a toxic cloud from a sewage plant fire.

I remember a planet convulsing with the burden of having to carry the human race for another year. So many hurricanes they had to start the alphabet over again. Endless fires and floods and people wondered, “Is Tiger King on?”

And I remember black people begging for their lives to matter. Not begging, demanding. Tired of this shit 155 after the end of slavery and yet it continues. The signs said it all, “Enough is enough!,” “Black trans lives matter!” “Stop killing us!” and a thousand others. A hundred nights of protests in Portland. Americans being gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could hold a prop Bible. White People reading White Fragility and then looking in the mirror. A racial convulsion of a nation that had too long denied its sins. Was this an awakening or were we still asleep?

But I also remember the more personal moments, like my wife being awarded her masters degree and then landing a teaching gig at Reed College, or my daughter learning how to ride a bike or communing the the lemurs at the Zoo. Those moments seemed more real than watching the death throes of the American Century. Deep, quarantine-time conversations with my wife about how to make our marriage a friendship meant more than worrying about Melania and her celebrity apprentice.

With the vaccine and Inauguration Day on the way, I’m ready to wake up and see how this year will be remembered. But I’m happy to wait for the grand historical recap to be told. Or the post mortem. In 2021, when we open our eyes, there will be a dance where we once again embrace and celebrate the joy of life, vowing to not go back to sleep.

President Snowflake: How Trump’s fragile masculinity made me a better man.

November 19, 2020

If there was ever a time America needed a leader, it’s now as COVID deaths surge past a quarter million. But sad Donald Trump is in his bunker, tweeting madly that he won the election “by a lot.” No stimulus program for Americans falling into homelessness. No national mask mandate to save additional lives. Just Baby Donald having a temper tantrum and a circus of sycophants too afraid to tell the Emperor that the world is laughing at him.

The pathetic end of Donald J. Trump is not only a lesson in how not to be a president. It’s also a vital lesson in how not to be a man. Of course, Mr. “Grab’ em by the pussy” has provided that service for years.

The lockdowns of 2020 have certainly presented challenges for single people, but there have been challenges for those of us that are boo’d up as well. The pandemic has forced many of us married and “coupled up” (as they say on Love Island) to learn how to truly co-exist in a confined space, without the easy exit hatch of “let’s just go out.” There’s only so much Netflixing you can do. At some point, it gets real. And as if providing (finally) some kind of national service, there’s President Hissy-fit giving the men of America a perfect example of how not to handle this moment.

From the very beginning, Trump has made it all about him. From his word-salad lie-fests before his adoring cult crowds to his denial of the Biden victory, “America first” has always been code for “Trump first” and you almost feel sorry for the schleps that still fall for this con man. (“Quick! Donate to President Trump’s legal team so he prove those black votes in Detroit and Atlanta were illegal! We take PayPal!”) Trump always centers himself and you don’t have to look at Melania’s face to see that that’s his fatal flaw.

But this isn’t about Trump. It’s about all us men who do the same thing. We’ve been socialized to believe it’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world and women are there as our support system. (BEHIND every great man… is a woman who should be out in front.) The world is about our male hopes and plans and adventures and successes and failures and wet dreams. That’s why Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) resonated with so many women. It simply asked, but what about me? Arn’t I a person, too?

Sadly, the second wave feminist movement that Friedan helped launch did not fully humanize females in America. It made a lot of progress (Thank you, Title IX and hello Vice President Harris!), but it still looks like a penis-centered culture. At least American Ninja Warrior puts the the top two female contestants through to the finals. We can find plenty of reasons to find cracks in patriarchy. (I’ll credit Nancy Pelosi for keeping Trump’s nuts in a vice grip and the daughters of NFL fans for prioritizing Beyoncés BLM anthems over Go Daddy commercials and cheerleaders in halter tops.) We can see progress all around us (if we turn blind eye to the epidemic of rape in the country), but there are still people who want to make America “Father Knows Best” again.

We can talk about this on a societal level (RBG was right. We’ve had generations of all-male Supreme Courts. When do we get an all-female Supreme Court?) But this is about the personal journey of men stepping away from the destructive (including to men) effects of patriarchy.

More than that, this about me learning how to love my wife.

If patriarchy, on a macro-level, is about centering men’s voice and minds in society, on a personal level it’s about doing the same Goddamn thing in our relationships. Hi ladies, welcome to my world. Can you make me a sandwich? Feminist Dorothy E. Smith has written how women are given control of the “domestic sphere” so men can have pretty much everything else on earth. And that can include the space in a relationship.

Now, to be clear, I have claimed feminism as a core value in my life since the 1980s and proudly left my job to become a stay-at-home dad, inspired by my favorite househusband John Lennon. I can thrill you with stories of escorting women into abortion clinics past the screaming banshees of Operation Rescue and challenging students to accept that God is most likely female, but I still internalized patriarchy in the same sad way I internalized white supremacy.

That became most clear this year during long, under quarantine, conversations with my wife. Like most people, we’ve had our fair share of COVID-magnified conflicts; about money, about parenting, about who is going to wash the dishes. She was quick to point out how quickly I would go into defensive mode and try to “prove” my case, like we were on opposing debating teams. We’re on the same team! I forgot! But it became all about me and how I was somehow aggrieved.

What I should have been doing is asking questions. Why do you feel this way? What can I do to help? I should have centered her and put my amazing wife first in the discussion, but instead  I retreated into “Randyland,” wondering why she had a “well, fuck this shit” look on her face. Maybe if I slept downstairs I could comeback, refreshed with an even clearer articulation of my position, complete with PowerPoint slides. Meanwhile, my wife felt more and more alone as I plotted strategies in my head instead of re-coupling (also a term from Love Island).

This is going to sound completely basic to many people (and maybe a few men), but I have literally burned through every relationship by doing this. By making it about me. That’s not how love is supposed to work. You’re supposed to put your partner’s emotional well-being before your own, but in patriarchal America I didn’t get that role modeling, not from my father and not from Starsky & Hutch. The result was relationships crashing and burning and me thinking that I was just a “psycho-chick magnet.” If they were psycho, it was because I centered myself instead of them.

There is a parallel phenomenon here with regard to race called White Fragility. America has the handbook and is starting to figure that out. (Thanks, Robin!) It’s not about you, Karen, so stop centering yourself and start centering black voices. Maybe, we need a book called Male Fragility: Why Men Get Their Panties in a Wad.

My wife is strong as hell and sure enough doesn’t need a guy like me who doesn’t put his partner before himself. I should have gotten that lesson a long time ago. I’m not the king of my castle. But somewhere, between long, hard conversations with her and watching Baby Trump center himself instead of the nation we hired him to lead, I got it. Don’t be like Trump. Hey Donald, it’s not about you. It’s about America. She’s trying to tell you how she feels. Please listen.

“I wish I was alive in 2020.” Witnessing History from the Frontline

July 22, 2020

You’ve heard it a thousand times. “If I was around in the 1960s, I would have been marching with Dr. King!” Or how about this one, “If I was around in the 1930s or 1940s, I would have been fighting the Nazis!” As if the moment you’re in right now doesn’t require you to pony up and join the frontlines in the fight against oppression. Your time is now.

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One of the great twentieth century sociologists, C. Wright Mills, wrote in 1959 that we tend to see our biographies as separate from the moments in history that we live in. We focus on the, often mundane, day to day parts of our lives and not our lives as part of a larger historical moment. Very few of the people engaged in the vibrant protests in 1968 thought, “I’m in 1968, making history!” They might have thought, “I’m going to this protest with my friend and then I need to pick up some milk on the way home.” We are making history because every day we are making history by merely existing. But Karl Marx once wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” However, there are times, like now, where we can actually alter the course of events.

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Portland is again at the epicenter of national events. The media from around the world (including China and Canada) has been calling me to ask what to make of federal forces shooting “non-lethal munitions” into the faces of protestors and grabbing them off the street in actions that look more like Argentina in 1980 than anything America could ever be. And now President Trump has ordered federal police into Chicago, Kansas City, and Albuquerque in what he has branded, “Operation Legend.” (I won’t psychoanalyze how that title fits Trump’s delusions of grandeur.) State and local leaders and well as senators and congress members have demanded the federal forces leave. Oregon Senior Senator Ron Wyden tweeted, “@realDonaldTrump get your jackbooted goons out of my city.”

The arrival of federal forces has completely altered the dynamic of the conflict. The protests had been geared towards Black Lives Matter and the systemic racial injustices that were highlighted by the May 25th murder of George Floyd. Even in Portland they were beginning to lose steam, as they had in Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and other cities. We were trying to move to a sponsored dialogue phase of the conflict. I was working with the Department of Justice on a plan to get protestors and Portland police to the table together. Then, in a bizarre attempt at political theater (and perhaps a distraction from the unending COVID-19 headlines), Trump sends in federal forces to throw a tanker full of gasoline on to the fire. If it was his actual intention to quell the protests, he failed miserably. People who have never engaged in protests are now manning the barricades; grandmothers, veterans, dads with leaf blowers, all willing to take volleys of CS gas to the face to make a stand.

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This is now about a lot more than Black Lives Mattering. This is about a shockingly rapid slide into authoritarianism. We don’t have go back 80 years to Germany, or even 40 years to Argentina. The parallel is the Philippines, where the 2016 election of “law and order” candidate Rodrigo Duterte turned the country into a police dictatorship in which the media are regularly imprisoned. In 2017, Donald Trump praised the dictator and invited him to the White House. The people who are protesting in America understand how fragile democracy is. The Philippines was a democracy. It is not one now. Those who mocked Antifa activists for warning about the threat of fascism in America are witnessing something that looks a lot more like fascism than it does democracy rooted in constitutional due process. When Fox New’s Chris Wallace asked Trump this week if he would accept the results of the election in November if he loses, his response was that he’ll “have to see.”

So here America is at a turning point. Will we move to civil war or an era of peacemaking and healing? Are the protestors who are risking their lives to drive the federal forces out of Portland lawless anarchists, American patriots, or both? My wife and I (who were tear-gassed at an earlier protest) have stayed up into the morning hours watching the nightly mayhem in a small area of the city, wondering what’s happening to this country. Whatever it is, it’s history unfolding before our eyes. You missed Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 but you can show up to Chapman Square in Portland in 2020 for a front row seat for tomorrow’s American History textbook.

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I’m lucky to have a wide range of friends that run the gamut from U.S. Attorney’s Office civil rights lawyers and police officers to members of the “Wall of Moms” and some of those “lawless anarchists.” I have to imagine all of us are aware that this is a true crossroads in U.S. history. It’s both exciting and frightening. It reminds me of the end of the Cold War and being in London clubs as newly freed eastern Europeans danced their asses off. But it could easily go the other way as Trump’s America continues to flirt with our most dystopian dark fantasies. Police riots and “law and order” rhetoric got Richard Nixon elected in 1968, extending the Vietnam War into the mid-70s, but I think America is in a different place in 2020. At least I hope so.

This is history. Future generations will debate what happened in America in 2020. This great transformation could be a wonderful act reconciliation or the death of America itself. Pay attention. You are not required to participate in this moment, but you are required to bear witness to it.

Do We Have to Burn Down America to Save It? Rethinking Rioting

May 31, 2020

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As rioters ravaged Portland Friday night at 2 am, a local news anchor lamented how sad it was that the Louis Vuitton store was being looted. I thought Luis Vuitton Incorporated would survive, unlike the man named George Floyd.

There was a time when the lure of an exciting riot would have drawn me to the street. The belief that social justice could be advanced by screaming at authority would have inflamed my voice. Then I learned how deeply social evils, like racism, were woven into our society and how broadly complex anything approaching a solution would be.

Let’s start with the obvious, the murder of George Floyd on May 25th was a racial lynching by police. It took Minnesota authorities four days to arrest one murderer, Derek Chauvin, the officer who had his knee on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes, including three minutes in which Floyd was unconscious. The fact that in took law enforcement four days to arrest this murderer must have surprised a lot of black people that it was so hard to get arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers that participated in Floyd’s murder, well, we’ll see, I guess. And arrest does not equal conviction; the track record favors the murderers in these types of cases.

But we’re supposed to have faith in the system. After generations of George Floyds, I’m not 100% sure why.

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I’ve written so much about this issue and I want to write something now, but I’m glued to the TV watching another night of America convulsing as it tries to marshal that antibodies to fight the pandemic of racism that’s ravaged its body since its birth. I’m trying to explain this to my five-year-old and trying to find evidence that anything will be different this time. My thoughts are disjointed. Do I support the rioters? Do I invite a cop out for beer and race talk? Do I make a bid on Ebay on a looted Louis Vuitton bag, a souvenir of the great uprising of 2020?

So here are some random thoughts as America burns. Again.

  • America was founded by rioters and looters (read about the Stamp Act of 1765), when they are white and want freedom they are called “patriots.” When they are black and want freedom, they are called “thugs.”
  • This not about George Floyd or “honoring his memory.” This about the thousands and thousands and thousands of George Floyds and the inability of black people to have a right to just be alive in America.
  • White people act shocked when black people let them know they are sick of this shit.
  • The “coded” language the president is well understood by people of color even if his base pretends that “MAGA loves the black people.”
  • I had a brief fantasy that the protestors in Lafayette Park stormed the White House and dragged Donald Tump out by his ankles, but then I realized he was probably hiding in a vault, crapping in his diaper.
  • There should be no doubt that Trump is a white supremacist, no goddamn doubt. But racism is woven into complex systems, including the police.
  • The economic strain of this pandemic has added to suffering of those who are marginalized day after day, and are understandably at their breaking point.
  • The history of police officers who are arrested for murder rarely leads to police officers who are convicted of murder (less than a third of cases). The history of riots often lead to tangible results, including Watts (1965), DC (1968), LA (1992), and Ferguson (2014).
  • If you feel like your city doesn’t care about you, why would you care about your city?
  • It seems like a lot of privileged violent white protestors, who call themselves “allies,” think they are “smashing the system,” while simultaneously bringing the heat down on the peaceful black protesters they think they are defending.
  • I worry about how right-wing extremists might exploit this moment or even be working as agent provocateurs to push their racist agenda.
  • There are so many police officers that were disgusted by actions of Derek Chauvin and his three fellow Minneapolis officers. I wonder if any are currently engaged in the police assaults on protestors I am witnessing on TV right now.
  • As hard as this is to explain to my 5-year-old, I can’t imagine how hard it is for black parents who must prepare their children for life in a white supremacist country that refuses to do the work to change things.
  • It would be nice to hear local reporters and anchors express as much concern for the historical trauma of black people as they do for Chase Bank and the Apple Store.
  • Someone said lawsuits filed against abusive police departments should collect their awards from police pension funds. That might get their attention!

I’ve spent a career a partnering with law enforcement to work on issues like hate crimes and domestic terrorism. I’ve worked on trainings for law enforcement and helped to develop policies that help police understand the trauma experienced by crime victims. I went from “cops are pigs” to “police reform” as I matured and understood the social work aspects of law enforcement and the healthy communities well-intentioned peace officers can help create.

But now I’m not sure that’s enough.

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While we still have departments that allow various choke holds, and don’t immediately arrest officers who are accused of the murder of unarmed civilians, and defend a macho police subculture, it seems like Eric Garner, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and all the others will just be names on an ever-growing list that only magnifies the trauma of black America. The murder of black civilians by police has not significantly decreased since Ferguson even with the important changes that have been made. Maybe it’s the very structure of policing in America that’s the problem. Maybe we should start figuring out how other countries keep the peace and chase the crooks. Maybe we should burn the old system down. Out of the ashes…

I really don’t have the answer. I just know it’s up to white people to do the work to end racism.

What is the feminist position on the COVID-19 pandemic?

May 19, 2020

The nice thing about having a “paradigm” is that there’s a formula to plug in to when challenging issues emerge. Liberals and conservatives, religious fundamentalists and scientists all have “narratives” they can utilize to make sense of the world. Similarly, feminists have a good starting position, that elements in society work to uphold patriarchal male power structures or challenge them. That’s feminist thinking in a tiny nutshell.

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So what’s the feminist position on the coronavirus?

Feminism is not monolithic. There is as much debate within feminist circles. Just mention Hillary Clinton. A liberal feminist, a radical feminist, a Marxist feminist, and an eco feminist walk into a bar… So rushing to a feminist position on a global pandemic is harder than it looks. Even after three months of pondering the matter.

While no feminist would celebrate sickness and death (that’s a male thing), there could be a feminist “I told you so” element to this mess. Mother Earth might be offering humanity a time-out for the bad behavior of waging war and dumping killing pollution. Eco feminists highlight the importance of healing and with endless wars and traffic jams on pause for a minute, we get to experience the joy of a planetary healing. There are sea turtles on Miami Beach and dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice! Will we really want to return to the nasty business as usual after this micro-organism mandated retreat? Regardless, the lesson remains that man does not control this planet.

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And here’s a little “gender equality amid pandemic” point that my wife brought up; Zoom as a great equalizer. Zoom and other remote meeting platforms have become the new way to exist publicly. My classes have weekly Zoom meetings. On these platforms every person has an equal space, both in terms of the size of their video box and their volume. (“Everyone on mute?”) Since we are working and learning from home, the impression management is way down. Women don’t have to do their makeup and men don’t need a tie. We’re all equally casual in our Brady Bunch grids. I’ve done lecture videos after waking up from a nap and done interviews with a beer in my hand. There’s no judgement in a pandemic. We’re all in this bad hair day together. And if a woman is Zooming in to work with a toddler climbing on her neck, all respect for her for even bothering to unmute her video.

The other side of the ledger is less hopeful. There’s plenty of reasons to see this nightmare as another opportunity for patriarchal power grabs. The first thing to come across the wire when all this started was the impact that the lockdown was having on women who were in domestic violence situations, trapped in spaces with their abusers. By April, reports of calls spiking to domestic violence around the globe made the sad trend undeniable. Women began passing desperate messages in code to pharmacists, hoping for a lifeline away from the violence. Similarly, young LGBTQ people who are stuck at home with homophobic adults must be praying for the moment for this whole thing end.

The women on the frontline of the pandemic have taken the brunt of the risk. Working in health care and food services, taking care of the elderly, they are the most essential of workers, and the most expendable when the crisis hits the fan. They clean the bedpans of the infected, while Ivanka fixes her father’s make-up.

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As is the norm these days, Donald Trump simplifies things for us. Watching him puff up his chest in his daily performance as the manly man in charge (He don’t need no mask!), is just a lesson in the absurd limits of masculinity. (The fact that he’s claiming to take hydroxychloroquine just adds to his soft orange underbelly.) But it’s not his buffoonery that props up patriarchy, although if a female leader demonstrated such incompetence, with nearly 100,000 Americans (so far) dead, she would have been eaten alive.

It’s Trump’s “war-time president” rhetoric that’s the big gender reveal. While things are cooling down on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, look at how quickly we long to be going to war against something. And like those wars, it’s always futile. The War on Poverty, the War on Crime, and the War on Drugs didn’t end poverty, crime, or drugs either. And some would argue that they made those problems worse. Likewise, the war on Trump’s “invisible enemy” won’t “defeat” COVID-19. We learn to live with disease, and adapt to the coexistence. If you’ve ever gotten a flu shot or worn a condom, you have participated in that adaptation. Trump’s war has inflated the curve, not flattened it.

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When he refers to the “invasion” of the “Chinese virus,” (most infected folks entered the U.S. from Europe), he’s playing into the “Us vs. Them” binary that masks the naturally complex path diseases take. But he has to keep it simple for his simple base. This has involved the president of the United States of America sending tweets to quasi-domestic terrorists. His call to “liberate Michigan” (governed by “that woman,” as he calls her), and other states governed by Democrats, has triggered the anti-government militia men. Armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers (seriously) these “freedom” lovers in MAGA hats (and a handful of “their women”) have been seen on state capitals, spreading their germs and threatening to launch a civil war if they don’t get back their God-given right to go to the mall to buy camo wife-beaters.

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The “War on” rhetoric is tired but it works. It gets boys to men ginned up to go in to battle. And like all battles, there are casualties. The workers in the meat packing plants in Iowa who have died with ventilators down their throats are just abstract statistics to his base. And mostly brown statistics, at that. Ivanka is still healthy and the family stock price in hydroxychloroquine is only going up. As Sartre once wrote, “When the rich wage war it’s the poor who die.” Trump, the four-time draft dodger, is great at pretending to be a warrior (remember his celebration of “his generals”?), but the men, women, and children who will suffer and die because of his hubris are evidence of dire limitations of the blade and the perils of unchecked toxic masculinity.

So has this virus reinforced patriarchal power and the oppression that comes with it?

While we take a break from mass shootings and realize the great labor of all the women who stayed home with the kids without pay, I’m hoping we can use this moment to deflate the dumb puffed up chests of male rule. We have a moment to just talk to each other. Just think of all the conversations husbands are having with their wives because there is no basketball on TV. If ever there was a time to listen to women, it’s now. Maybe, anti-government/pro-Trump “protestors” aside, the earth is turning the corner. We’re ready for a paradigm shift.

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Protecting Our Children from the Trump Virus

March 24, 2020

I’m not sure what day of the self-quarantine this is. I know it’s the second day of Oregon’s “shelter in place” order but the streets of Portland have been increasingly empty for over the last ten days, since the governor ordered all the schools closed a week before spring break, dropping thousands of kids in the laps of trying-not-to-panic parents. We don’t know what’s happening. I wonder if they do.

Our Cozy, at 5 and a half, is pretty smart. She rides around the car with me, secretly listening to NPR (I thought she was staring out the window, thinking about unicorns). Like most, I’ve been a little too addicted to the news about the advancing Trump virus. “Hey, Coze, where do you think this coronavirus came from?” I asked, trying to gage her comprehension of the global slowdown.

“It’s from sick bats in China,” she calmly said. I was expecting some kindergarten-level theory about it coming from flying monkeys hiding inside rain clouds. She’s probably been checking the infection rates on the Johns Hopkins website.

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But the reality of the impending sense of doom as the Trump virus shuts down the world she knows lurks like a monster in the closet. Our spring break tradition includes a trip to the super weird and wonderful Enchanted Forest amusement park, south of Salem. Closed due to the virus. We had planned a trip to Joesph, Oregon to hike around the eastern part of the state. Prohibited. Play dates, ice cream shops, jungle gyms, The Old Spaghetti Factory, all her favorite things are off limits for now and we don’t know when they won’t be. She doesn’t care about the stock market, but the fact that she can’t hug her friends is a red flag that things have changed drastically.

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This might be every parents secondary concern right now (the first being how to protect their children from contracting the Trump virus). How do we keep the kids from being infected with our generalized anxiety? Things are about to get even worse, but I don’t want my small child to know. She’s got washing her hands to “Happy Birthday” twice down pat, but does she realize that she’s not returning to her kindergarten class? The next time she goes to school she will be a first grader (God, please) and everything will be different. I keep thinking of that 1997 movie, Life is Beautiful, where Roberto Benigni and his young son are in a Nazi concentration camp and he convinces his son that they are actually in an exciting game to keep him from being completely traumatized. Dad is murdered by the Nazis in the end.

I’ll be honest, this Dad has been struggling. The Trump virus has upended the economic stability I started to find in 2019. It’s put my 70-something parents at risk. I’ve got an old friend in the ICU in an Atlanta hospital with a COVID-19 infection, and the dumbass Spring Breakers at the beach are not exactly flattening the curve. I feel like I’m inside a Joy Division album. Cozy is frustrated that Dad spends so much time watching the news or checking in on line. What to do, as we slide deeper into the social distance?

As usual, my bad ass wife snapped me out of the funk. She reminded me of all the positive things that are happening in this moment, most importantly all the wonderful family time that we’ve been gifted that will have a huge impact on our daughter. We’ve gotten to be homeschoolers, play dates, and creative time passers. (Andi has already given Cozy a haircut, two (henna) cat tattoos, and lots of weekday attention.) We’re planning some family art projects and Cozy and I are committed to learning how to play chess before this thing is over. We’re also catching up on Disney movies (Thank you, Disney+ for releasing Frozen 2 three months early!) And we’ve got a daily calisthenics routine we do on the sidewalk, to the delight out our neighbors.

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I’ve been running daily (now that the gym is closed) and reconnecting with the music of my youth. (You can run really hard to Van Halen). In the process, I’ve noticed neighbors and strangers seem more friendly, waving from their bubbles. The explosion of live music coming in from my social media platforms has put me in the room with some of my favorite performers, including Patti Smith, Michelle Malone, and Ben Gibbard (every day at 4 pm!). Something is happening. It’s like a government imposed artist retreat (as Patti called it) that’s also producing some much needed civility. The Trump virus is the great equalizer, but beautiful things may emerge from it. Andi and I have even started on a screenplay project!

She was quick to remind that when all this is over, people might slip back to their 9 to 5 grooves, complaining about how they don’t have any time to do the things that they really want to do. As a sociologist, I’m hoping this is a paradigm shift. That once we taste this new version of our lives, we won’t want to go back to the rut. We’ll create a new synthesis, transformed by the quarantine into a new global community.

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So this is what we must share out with our children, that out of crisis comes opportunity. Not to make a fast buck, like those looking for a corporate bailout from the Trump virus aid package. The opportunity to create new things, that connect us in new and beautiful ways. Cozy wants to write postcards! The social organism is adapting. We might look on this moment in history like how we look at how the Black Plague in 1340s Italy paved the way for the Renaissance, as Europeans embraced a lust for life instead of endlessly pondering the afterlife. Let the Trump virus unleash our lust for life and let our children know all the beautiful things that are coming.

Let us come out of this a new version of us, connected and complete. And let the optimism of our children be our guide.

Love In The Time of Corona

March 15, 2020

IT WAS INEVITABLE: Society was due for a course correction. We’d settled into our accepted state of idiocracy, whining about our moron leaders while sipping our over-priced coffee drinks. Their delusions of nationalism were destined to bite all of us on the ass. Brexit, “America First,” Polish nationalism, and all the rest. Build a wall and crime will fall, they said. They were too stupid to know that germs don’t recognize man-made boundaries.

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In less than two weeks the fantasy of “national borders” was laid to waste by the creeping, then accelerating, coronavirus. We are the world, sneezing and coughing together, engaged in a collective fear that our inherent sociability is killing off our elders, one nursing home at a time. Our anti-science president thought he could employ his jingoism by placing his executive power in front of this “foreign virus” (his words). COVID-19 laughed at his hubris. It was already here, spreading like a kerosene fire.

So here we are, in lockdown, trying to “flatten the curve,” riding out the pandemic in our under-stocked bunkers, socially distancing ourselves from our neighbors. Thank the gods for Netflix and chilling. (We now know what will come after Gen Z, the Coronials. See ya in 9 months, babies!) What does this mean for our society, as food servers run out of grocery money and Trump thinks of another way to help his rich friends, again? (“Fed to pump in more than $1 trillion in dramatic ramping up of market intervention amid coronavirus meltdown”) It seems like once they closed down Disneyland, we were racing to a complete social collapse. At least my gym is still open, for now.

In times like this, people crave togetherness, something more than posting memes about empty toilet paper shelves at Costco. Older readers will remember how after 9/11 there was a strange sense of unity that fell over the country. We were all bonded by our grief and needed to be together, hugging strangers and lending handkerchiefs to wipe away others’ tears. Ah, those were the days. How can we accomplish this same cathartic social ritual with three feet between us at all times? I want to hug my elderly neighbors who are already “socially distanced,” but will that kill them?

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Our founding sociologist, Emile Durkheim, asked, over a hundred years ago, why we need religion. In a time of growing scientific explanation, it seemed like religion was less and less required to make sense of the world and yet people were still flocking to churches, synagogues, and mosques. What he found made a lot of sense. People’s need for religion didn’t have anything to do with needing “God,” but needing each other. We needed a sense of community, from the Amish to Zoroastrians. We needed to be in one place together, breaking bread and engaging in rituals that gave us a sense we were connecting the sacred mysteries and the profane reality.  Religion gave us the social cohesion needed grease the wheels of a functioning society. As a kid who grew up in the Bible Belt, you never asked where someone was on Sunday mornings. They were at church, with their friends.

In the twenty-first century, social media has given us much of that sense of community we used to find at our various worship services, but it’s still not the same. Even with online shopping, online dating, and online education, there is still an innate desire to be in a room together. Maybe it is tied to our tribal origins, the rule by consensus. Checking in with each other by taking stock of body languages. “Yeah, I get the feeling people don’t want to go the Chili’s after work.” We need to be reminded of the flesh and bones of us, that we are not a series of illuminated screens.

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So how will we get through this? My intellectual mind understands that limiting social contact will slow down the spread of the virus and put this thing in the dumpster with the swine flu, the bird flu, and various monkey-born illnesses. But my emotional mind wants to take my family out for dim sum to support our suffering Asian community and later grab a drink at my local bar in hopes a few shots of whiskey will immunize me. (Guilty of doing both this week.) Facebooking and ordering delivery just doesn’t cut it. Will my very human need to be in the world (and putting my money where my asymptomatic mouth is) extend this nightmare and maybe take out a few humans in the process? How can I be the needed citizen of the world and also stem the economic collapse in my little part of the world?

Durkheim believed that even horrible things can be functional for society. Maybe COVID-19 is functional as a great reset for the human race, to remind us that borders and nations are luxuries that quickly fade when we realize we’re all in this germ factory together. I’m wrapping my arms around the world. And then washing my hands.

My Old Face

January 18, 2020

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The life expectancy in the United States in 1920 was 58.8 years, so if you met someone who was sixty, they were “elderly” and living on borrowed time. In 2020, the American life expectancy is 78.9 and there are approximately 80,000 Americans who are over a hundred years old. I’m 55, so a hundred years ago I would have been ancient and now I’m wondering if I even qualify as “middle-aged.” Wilfrid Brambell, the actor who played Paul McCartney’s comical grandfather in The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was 52 at the time. Beatle Paul is now 77 and heads back on tour this spring, headlining the Glastonbury Festival on June 27.

So who’s old now? “Old.”

And when someone tells you to “act your age,” what does that even mean? What does it mean to a 17-year-old or a 55-year-old? I remember during the previous impeachment, there was a general feeling that 52-year-old Bill Clinton was not acting his age with Monica Lewinsky.  (Harvey Weinstein, 67, redefined the relationship between age and douchebaggery.) And if he were not the leader of the free world, the infantile antics of Donald Trump, 73, might be endearing. “He’s an old man, but he’s so childlike!”

As I write this with my reading glasses on, I can tell you there are a few clear markers of aging besides the fact that the smoothness of my skin seems to be evaporating. The aches and pains creep in and the extra pounds tend to hang on a bit longer, no matter how hard I hit the gym. And it’s just harder to hit the gym since there’s something awesome on TV tonight. I always hated when my elders would complain endlessly about the chronic pains of life so I’ll keep my mouth shut, but if I drive more than five miles, my right knee hurts!

There’s also the constant reminder of the passage of time. As a teacher, aging is particularly profound. The majority of my college students were born in the twenty-first century. I’ll say something like, “Remember how the nation reacted to 9/11?” and they’ll say, “OK, boomer, I was 3 days old.” And I’ll say, “I’m not a boomer, depending on how you chart birth rates. I’m a Generation X elder.” (My five-year-old daughter has taken to saying, “OK, boomer X.”) Regardless, I am constantly reminding my students what the world was like before the internet. Last week I was explaining what a “travel agent” was. “A travel asian?” one asked.

The value of all the mistakes I’ve made is that I can offer Generation Z endless pearls of wisdom, like “avoid credit card debt at all costs,” and “figure out ASAP that women are people,” and “don’t mix wine and whiskey,” and “take a literature class or something.” Then I can sit back and put all my hopes that the world doesn’t blow up on them. It is nice knowing a few things about how reality works even if I have no idea how I’ll be paying for the chronic health issues that are surely around the corner.

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The bottom line is that I don’t feel old. I still want to be at the front of the stage when a hot young band is blowing the doors off of some basement club. I was in the front when I was 17 seeing The Ramones and I was right up front seeing Velvet Q scream through a set in Seattle a few weeks ago. (Check them out, Grams.) I try not to wonder if the kids are thinking, “What’s that old guy doing here?” Because that’s what I would have thought back in the day. But, to be frank, the reality is that I find more comfort in spinning an old Yes album, than knowing the next big underground thing. (I’ve taken to consuming critics year-end lists to find music I should’ve already known about. Big Thief!)

The Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, got old. Boomers like Donald Trump and Dolly Parton, both born in 1946, are 73. The good news is that generation changed what it means to “get old.” If 73 is no longer “old,” 55 definitely is not. Ringo Starr will be on tour this summer for his 80th birthday, and Trump probably already has his sights on his post-indictment wife. (Sorry, Melania. Be best!) They made “thirty-something” cool in the eighties and they’ll probably make “eighty-something” cool in the 2030s.

So, lines on my face aside, there’s still a lot of life ahead. That includes mistakes, child-like moments of wonder, new paths, and nights pressed against the stage, remaining hair shaking to the beat.

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