Note: There is no information in this post about border crossings, NATO troop movement, or Ukrainian military support.
I don’t have much to complain about in life. My child is safe in Portland. I have a cute little hotel room in Rzeszów, Poland. And, as I write this, Russian rockets are slamming into Lviv, Ukraine, just across the border. I’m worn out from the last two days work, fixing up a safe house in Jaroslaw, and ferrying refugees up from the border, but I’m well-fed, wifi-ed, and out of harms way. Unlike so many. Tomorrow, I was to help deliver aid to Kyiv via Lviv. We’re re-thinking that plan.
I arrived Rzeszów Thursday evening to plug into my circle of helpers and went right to work packing up medical supplies (and “gear”) to get across the border. Friday morning we went to the house, ready to work. Our team leader, Sally, who is a human dynamo, got us on the road. There was a film crew from New York documenting her story, so the van ride felt a little like being in a reality TV show. The first stop was a hair salon to pick our Ukrainian contacts, Zenia and his very pregnant wife, Valentina. Then to the “Yellow House” (Żółty Dom) to get to work on the Polish HGTV version of Home Town.
The Yellow House was a wreck. It had been empty of years and smelled like it. So we got to work pulling weeds, hauling trash, storing random office furniture, and removing a ton of broken vodka bottles so the Ukrainian kids could play in the yard. Sally bought $550 worth of gardening and cleaning supplies and we started the transformation. The back-breaking labor was made easier by our amazing hosts. The Ukrainian women, whose husbands are across the border fighting the mighty Russian army, made us snacks, and the owner of the house gave me a bottle of whiskey and called anybody who refused to do shots with us a communist.
As I toiled away, I interacted with the kids, so much like my own daughter, and felt their trauma. They were in an unfamiliar country where they couldn’t read the words or understand the language. They were the new war refugee children. Many would never return home or see their fathers again. The weight was unbearable at times. All I had and all they were losing. But both Ukrainians and Poles kept smiling and remained full of love and hope. When you find yourself in hell, keep going. I bought sunflower seeds so they could turn that hope into a garden in their new home.
By the time we got back to our hotel in Rzeszow, I just passed out. Maybe it was the whiskey. I had time for a video chat with Cozy and wanted to climb through the screen to hug her. My knees shook. Then I drifted off and had a dream about Auschwitz.
This morning, I overslept because I forgot what day it was and set my alarm clock to Friday. After a quick breakfast, it was off the Yellow House to do more work. But after a few minutes of raking, Sally and Zenia let me know there was a family from eastern Ukraine at the border and I should come to help collect them. So we headed in the van down the road towards Lviv, Ukraine. But first we picked up an elderly Ukrainian woman who was staying in a youth hostel that had been converted into a refugee shelter. She missed her home in Lviv, which hadn’t been shelled in two weeks and seemed relatively safe. When we got to the Jaroslaw train station, I walked her to her platform for her train to Lviv, held her hand and wished her luck. I now regret that decision.
We didn’t have to cross the border because the family made it to Korzowa, where there is a massive shopping mall, called Centrum Handlu, that has become a refugee resettlement center. Thousands of lost souls. Some asleep on cots at noon. Others staring into space, wondering what their new reality had in store for them. Our family, one mother and six girls (and one Pekingese) seemed relieved to be going somewhere, anywhere. We loaded them into the van and headed away from the border. One girl, maybe 2, and I made faces and, as is now tradition, I showed her a picture of “moya dochka,” Cozy. Ukrainian children seem very frighted of strange men because of the carnage Russian soldiers have caused, so I try to lessen the trauma if I can.
The family seemed to adjust to their new digs at the Yellow House and I got back to work, aided by four incredible Amish volunteers from Montana. As we worked, word started to come in that Lviv was under attack. My mother, watching CNN back in the States, was texting me info. First a fuel station, then a communication tower, then a school. About 40 miles from where we had been. We headed back to Zreszow to adjust our plans to the news, including for tomorrow.
In time, I will be able to give a full accounting of what happened today. As crazy as it sounds, we got a very real lesson on the presence of Russian spies in our midst. I’m just trying to process the savagery of war on these people and the impact on the children of Ukraine. But I am glad I’m here. We’re about to be joined by a lot of people with no place to go. I can’t imagine I will be the same person after this. I can’t imagine any of us will.
We’re all gerbils crawling through an endless toilet paper tube. Most of the time we don’t notice the tube, because we’re focused on our forward motion. But every once in a while, we realize that we’re stuck in a freaking cardboard tube and it’s controlling everything about what we can see and where we can go.
History is that toilet paper tube. I remember how on a Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I realized the events I was watching on my father’s television in Roswell, Georgia would impact every aspect of my world. There were two realities, pre-9/11 and post-9/11. The tube was tight, preventing me from getting on a flight back to Portland. And it’s touched our reality ever since.
I feel that way again, watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I was focused on the tasks at hand, getting my students through winter quarter, adjusting to life as a single parent, waiting for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to start a new season. And then on Wednesday night all that changed as Putin sent tanks and troops across the border in an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation. I had a similar feeling when I was 15-years-old on New Year’s Eve 1979, watching Soviet tanks roll into Afghanistan. It felt like the whole world shifted on its axis a bit.
Now as Russian troops bomb Kyiv, it seems like the axis shift is massive. Thursday I took time to talk to my University of Oregon students and ask them to be present in this moment. They will likely talk to their grandchildren 50 years from now about the first days of the third world war. Rising gas prices, bread shortages, fear of conscription are surely weighing on their minds. But for these Generation Z students, most born after 9/11, this will all get very real when the Russian cyber hacks shut Instagram down.
Historical parallels aside (Hitler pulled the same stunt in 1939), it’s clear that we have entered a geo-political order where Russia is not our friend. (Sarah Palin must be smirking.) We will divide modern history into before 02/23/2022 and after 02/23/2022. Will this end up in the similar global turmoil that followed Hitler’s invasion of Poland? It seems entirely possible. Vladimir Putin is this generation’s murderous madmen with designs on expanding his empire by any means necessary. Putin’s statement Wednesday that nations that come to Ukraine’s defense will face “consequences you have never seen” is chilling given the fact that Russia holds 45% of the world’s nuclear weapons.
Maybe this will be a limited conflict and, well, sorry freedom-loving Ukrainians. Yeah, it went sideways with Hitler, but Putin is an ethnic nationalist of a different stripe. It will be fine. Let’s get back to the other existential crises, like COVID and global warming. Why should Russian tanks rolling through Chernobyl be an issue in suburban America? It will be OK. Have you seen the price of milk? Let’s riot!
Of course, the good people of Ukraine didn’t think Russian bombs would be falling on their suburban neighborhoods either. A child Cozy’s age was killed today on the westside of Kyiv. Global conflicts have the tendency to spread. Quickly. Watching the children heading for the Polish border makes me wonder where I would send my daughter if the war spreads to this part of the world. Hopefully we can get her to Mexico if things get hot here. The United States is not guaranteed to exist forever. Four years of Trumpism weakened our democracy and greatly inflated Russia. That could create a cascade of crises that puts the USA in the rear view mirror. You may not be safe as you think.
The reason of this concern is rooted what I did in the first 12 hours of the invasion. I spent it on the dark corners of the web in the places where white supremacists, Qanon believers, and Trump nuts dwell. They, to the one, threw their support to Putin, seeing Biden’s policies as part of a liberal Jewish plot to push Putin and Trump’s buttons and cheered Putin’s fascistic ethnic nationalism. They want that wider war to launch their “boogaloo” race war in America. And they are armed. Heavily. Timothy McVeigh is their hero. The ethnic cleansing of Yugoslavia is their game plan. And Putin and Trump are their leaders.
Fortunately, like those Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island who defiantly said, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” the majority of Americans have no tolerance for the anti-American “America First” con artists and their little boy soldiers. Yeah, 4.5 million viewers tune into white supremacist Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show each evening but that means that over 327 million Americans don’t. Hopefully, unlike Ukrainian citizens right now, we won’t all have to take crash courses in how to fire AR-15s. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and thoughtful mobilization. We’ll certainly have the time after Russian hackers take down Instagram. Maybe then we will see the toilet paper tube we are in.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I haven’t spoken to my father in six months. At the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, he posted on my Facebook page, “You can either support Antifa or be my son.” I replied, “You know I’ve worked to oppose fascism my entire adult life. I am, by definition Antifa – anti-fascist.” His response was to unfriend me on Facebook. Unfriended by my Trump-loving father.
I know this scenario has played out in thousands of ways in American families as the lines of division have been drawn up. “Trump cult” brother against “libtard” brother, QAnon daughter against “communist mother,” or in my case, Antifa son against “Anyone who listens to the mainstream media has drank the Kool Aid” father. I was going to call my dad after election day, and then after inauguration day. I keep putting it off because I don’t want to hear his fragile old white man “sky is falling/Joe Biden is too old” blather. (For the record, Joe is eight months younger than my father.) If I can’t heal my relationship with my old man, how can America heal this chasm that separates us? And is this how families felt before that last civil war?
Like a lot of Americans, while watching the January 6 storming of the capitol (It’s its own Wikipedia entry now) unfold on TV, I more than half-expected to see someone I knew (including my older-than-Biden father). We might have heard some great calls for unity on Inauguration Day but it feels like we’re more divided than ever. Trump still holds the reigns of the GOP from his gilded palace in Florida. A large percentage of the 74 million people who voted for Trump think that a large percentage of the 81 million people who voted for Biden were dead people. And complete nut jobs like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green are either seen as prophets or complete nut jobs.
It seems so hard to cross this divide. The mother of one of my childhood friends (who I had a mad crush on when I was 12) just posted something about Biden letting in “illegal immigrants who carry diseases.” My first response was to call out her racism. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But am I just driving her back into her fragile white castle? I’m good on a Facebook smackdown. I’ve got links to New York Times articles, persuasive statistics, hilarious memes, and, if all else fails, a facepalm gif.
Then I remember what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years, helping people leave the white supremacist movement (WSM). There are two ways to think of the WSM. The first is a fractured subculture of hate groups, white nationalists, and anti-immigrant organizations. The second way is to see the white supremacist movement is as America writ large. The real advocates of making America white again are not Klansmen and Proud Boys, they are people like my friend’s mom who would never own her own racism. “I’m not racist, but…” So maybe the things I learned about extracting Neo-Nazi skinheads could be helpful to talking to people stuck Trump’s in narrow nationalist vision of “patriotism.”
How has this improved your life?
One of the questions that has helped to get racist to rethink their commitment to racist activism is, “Has anything about this choice you’ve made made your life better?” They’ll sputter a bit and maybe parrot some line about finding “pride.” But then you push them with questions about their family relations, their economic prospects, their legal problems, their love lives and they’ll start to see they’ve painted themselves into a corner. The silly “white utopia” that they are physically fighting for isn’t coming and they are increasing socially isolated. I had one troubled young skinhead tell me, “It’s so hard to be racially pure and know what to eat. I love Mexican food but I can’t eat it anymore.” He left the movement shortly after that.
I wonder how my father’s life has changed with his devotion to this failed businessman from Queens. He chose that over a relationship with his son. It must be hard to be a Trump loyalist, having to believe so many things that are obviously untrue; that COVID-19 is “just the flu,” that the January 6 insurgence was a false flag plot by Antifa, that Trump won the election. The emotional labor it must take to ride the wave of disinformation while everyone around you watches you fall down the rabbit hole must be taxing. Just like the QAnon cult that saw their prophecy fail when the “Storm” failed to materialized to prevent Biden’s swearing in, Trumpists must have to expend a lot of energy to just not look crazy.
We’re always telling racists that life is better on the other side, with our wide open cuisine and limitless playlist. Maybe an open invitation to Trumpists to break bread at the mosque and talk about Jesus in a black church would work. When you take off your Giuliani-stained blinders, so much great comedy, music, and NPR is there to enjoy. All that Ted Nugent and Scott Baio must get old. There’s so much celebration of life over here. Invite a Proud Boy to a Gay Pride parade. They kinda seem like overlapping circles anyway.
The power of the open hand instead of the clenched fist
I get it. It’s fun to fight. I’m always up for a few rounds with my high school posse, most of whom have become pot-bellied Trumpies. Sarcastic insults worked in high school so let them fly. I have a 50-something classmate who still calls me “Ballsack.” I won’t say he’s been emboldened by Trump’s bullying. This guy was always a prick. The political banter can take on a sport-like quality. Who gets the best jibe and obscure historical fact in last? I have dialed down my social media time (at the request of my wife and humanity), so I get a lot of “He stopped responding. I won.” Cheerio, desktop gladiator.
But the stories of haters leaving their racist lives have a similar element. Most had someone who they were supposed to hate reach out to them. A Muslim, a gay bashing victim, a black man harassed by Klansmen. In The Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, former skinhead Frankie Meeink tells the story of a Jewish boss who helped him out of a tight jam and how he never wore another swastika after that act of undeserved act of kindness. I published a book chapter in 2004 after numerous interviews with former Neo-Nazis remarking on the pattern that females in their lives (girlfriends, teachers, daughters) had helped them out by showing the hate that they experienced as females was no different than the hurtful hate their men expressed as racists, opening the door to empathy.
I’m currently reading The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity by Sally Kohn. She describes how both sides of the political divide are pretty good at dehumanizing each other. Internet trolls can lay some pretty hateful rhetoric on their victims, but referring to them as trolls makes them less human as well. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” comment dehumanized Trump supporters who she accused of dehumanizing others. (We don’t put people in baskets, Hill.)
Remember when Barack Obama said in 2004 that. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states”? In fact we’re all shades of purple. We’re not so divided as we pretend to be and there’s more that unites us. As a life-long anti-racist, I can have a pretty good conversation with a racist skinhead about our common love of Slayer albums or classic WWF wrestling stars. Then, if we have time, we can get to the deeper stuff. I promise you this; no Nazi has ever stopped being a Nazi because they were told they were wrong just the right amount of times. You’ve got to win hearts and minds. I have to remind myself of this fact when I’m armoring up for a Facebook battle with my Georgia homies.
Being a part of something that matters
The teenage skinheads and the old white men who stormed the Capitol have one thing in common. They all want to belong to something that matters. The skinheads I studied wanted to save American from Jewish communists and the Trump loyalists want to save America from, well, Jewish communists. The both see a country that is about to “cease to exist” because of perceived enemies of “real Americans” and feel the rush of engaging in a great historic cause to the “save the country.”
The left has a similar raison d’etre, as we call others to, “Man the barricades!” and burst into lyrics from Les Miserables and Hamilton. “We’ll tell the story of tonight. Let’s have another round!” When I was getting teargassed by the police last summer at the George Floyd protests, I had a feeling that I was a part of something that really mattered, a page in American history. A younger version of me might have seen fit to hurl a projectile at the symbols of oppression. (Older me has several friends who are cops.) We want to feel like we are bigger than just our small one man/women shows. That we can change the world for the better.
The Trump loyalists and Nazi skinheads feel the same way. They see an injustice, however upside down or lie-based it might be, and they want to set it right. “Raise a glass to freedom. Something you will never see again!’ as they sing in Hamilton. What if they were brought into our great cause, the cause that expands the rights millions of Americans, not one that expands the right of one bloated con-artist to become America’s first dictator?
One of the best weapons against hate is an organization called Life After Hate, made up of former extremists, like Frankie Meeink. They use their time in the rabbit hole of racist violence to pull others out and advertise the waste of the dead-end world of hate. There are plenty of former Trumpies, Proud Boys, and QAnon cultists who can serve a similar function. I’ve interviewed militia members and former militia members, and the formers have all said the same thing, “I wish I could meet my younger self and talk some sense into him.” The Life After Hate members are a part of something that matters. Former racists make the best anti-racists, because they understand the humanity of the racist.
Adapting to these times
We’re in strange times. The uncertainty of life makes the comfort of a perfect conspiracy theory seem all that more appealing. It creates a world that is easily understandable. But unfortunately it also creates a world where half of the country thinks the other half is brainwashed, and vice versa. This may be the time to reach out.
My friend’s mom felt like I was picking on her on Facebook and I responded that I loved her and that her ignorant comments broke my heart. I forgot that calling a white person in the South “ignorant” is essentially calling them “black.” (The phrase “ignorant black” has long been a part of the racist Southern lexicon.) She immediately shut down and ended the conversation. I forgot how to talk to fragile white people. I should have said, “I don’t think YOU are ignorant, but I find some of your racial comments not based in fact.” I apologized for my poor approach hoping to have another opportunity to reach out to her. Nobody said this would be easy. Part of me wonders why I should waste any time with people whose thinking is so entrenched in fear and hate and conspiracy theories and just incorrect information. But another part of me thinks that nothing is ever going to change unless we try. As Axl Rose once sang, “I don’t want a civil war.”
I understand this approach centers the haters and doesn’t address the trauma caused by the hate itself. But one way to allow the victims of hate to heal is to stop the wounding done by the haters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seeing this weekend’s vote to remove the Confederate stars and bars from the Mississippi state flag gave me a moment of hope in the progress of this once violently divided nation. The Confederate battle flag was first added to the Magnolia State’s flag, not during the actual Confederate era, but in 1894, 29 years after the end of the Civil War. It was inserted as a pro-Jim Crow protest against the Reconstructionist federal forces who were trying to integrate southern states into a nation free of slavery. We had a similar moment in Georgia in 2001, when the state finally canned the rebel stars and bars that had been placed in the state flag in 1956 to stake Georgia’s claim in racial segregation. Change happens.
But so what? It’s just a piece of cloth. Yeah, a piece of cloth that has been a fixture at Ku Klux Klan rallies for over a hundred years. In probably the least expected “woke” move this year, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, but you’re still going to see it flying at NASCAR tailgate parties. Why are we so hung up on this red, white, and blue banner?
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Tick tock, time is up on the traitors who cling to the Confederate battle flag of the Northern Army of Virginia. (It’s not even the actual Confederate flag, but don’t expect ahistorical bigots to actually read history books.) All true-blue Americans should rip those flags off the Antebellum porches and mobile homes from across this great country and set them alight. And here’s why.
1. The Confederate Flag is the Flag of Treason
You would think that people who are still fighting the “war of Northern aggression” in their minds would actually know something about the Civil War. Without the replaying the entire bloody conflict that started before RACIST TERRORISTS attacked a United State military instillation called Fort Sumpter on April 12, 1861 and ended when Robert E. Lee surrendered his traitorous forces at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, there is just one thing to remember; the Confederate States waged war against the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. And the USA won. USA! USA!
To be pro-Confederacy is to be anti-USA. What do these rednecks not understand? America, love it or leave it, dumbass.
The South’s act of treason led to the death of 360,222 American soldiers from the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines. That’s a hell of lot more than on 9/11. How can you “support the troops” and fly the flag of the forces that killed over 360,000 of them? Do you also fly the ISIS flag?
There are those who claim the Confederate flag as a non-racial flag of rebellion, nothing more. I remember fairly decent white guy Tom Petty using the flag as a backdrop on his 1985 Southern Accents tour. In 2015, he declared the move “downright stupid.” “I wish I would have given it more thought, “ he told Rolling Stone magazine. A lot of people are giving it more thought right now. But if you want a true rebel flag, I’d like to suggest the rainbow flag. You wanna rebel against society, Johnny Reb? Fly that Pride flag. Be proud you’re a rebel! Let’s fill the stands at Talladega with rainbow flags! Yee-haw, girlfriend!
But it’s not a “rebel flag.” It’s a racist flag. I was doing a presentation at a high school in an unnamed town in Oregon (Hood River) and I noticed a ton of Confederate flags on backpacks and lockers and t-shirts. I asked the students why, so far from the Old South, the Confederate Flag was so ubiquitous. One young white student, said, “Well, the Mexicans have their flag. We want ours.” And when I said, “Wouldn’t the flag of the United States be your flag?” he said nothing. Because he wasn’t a rebel. He was a racist. Rebels rebel against white supremacy, they don’t wave a flag to uphold it.
2. The Confederate Flag Causes Americans Emotional and Psychological Trauma
There are approximately 42 million African-Americans in the United States (according to the 2010 Census). I’m guessing that every single one of them understands what the Confederate flag means. Well, maybe not black babies, but I bet that black toddler holding the “I matter” sign in the (Dixie) Chicks “March, March” video knows. It represents centuries of terror of white supremacy that didn’t magically end in 1865 when the traitor Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
Let’s be 100% clear, race does not exist as a scientific fact. It was created by white Europeans in the 17th century to justify their superiority over other people. The enslavement of Africans was cleared by Pope Nicholas V on June 18, 1452 when he declared the people of Africa to not have souls and therefore not be fully human. The history of racism was built on the dehumanization of people whose roots were in Africa. And the history of America was built on the brutal enslavement of those people.
And if you don’t know American history, let me tell you that that enslavement was brutal beyond belief. Rape and torture and kidnapping were “light” days in the slave trade. There’s a reason the true history of the slave trade is populated with stories of women who killed their own children to prevent them from becoming the white man’s slave. Whites love Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben and the Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah happy slave. “They were better off as slaves than living in Africa,” a white person recently told me. The violent savagery of the slave trade is the worst kept secret in America, but whites today are in mass denial. Like all that brutality was wiped clean at Appomattox.
“Slavery ended in 1865. What are they complaining about?” “I never owned a slave. Why are they angry at me?” “Get over it!” You hear white people say all kinds of things to get themselves off the hook of their white privilege. The truth is the savage brutality of slavery, became the savage brutality of Jim Crow, and then became the savage brutality of a criminal justice system that saw a uniformed officer of the law choke the life out of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while onlookers recorded the modern-day lynching.
To be black in America is to live with both the inherited trauma of the legacy of slavery that violently defined black men, women, and children as less than human and the present trauma of a white supremacist system that will murder you just for going on a jog. It will certainly pull you over, ticket you, deny to medical service, not give you a home loan at a good rate, make people get off an elevator that you get on, and cause Becky to dial 911 when you’re having a BBQ with your black friends. The numbers don’t lie. Racism is alive and well in every aspect of American culture, and if you forgot about it for a sweet second, there’s some idiot with a Confederate Flag decal on her Honda Accord to remind you that you can’t breathe in America.
The trauma of anti-black racism is real and deep and the Confederate flag does nothing to heal the pain of 42 million African-origined Americans. It only deepens the wound. Real Americans want to help their fellow Americans heal. We don’t support the flying of the Nazi flag because of the trauma that causes, so why do we tolerate the flying of the Confederate flag? And both the Nazis and the Confederacy had their asses kicked by the USA!
Let’s Be Clear About What This Flag Debate is About
Whenever someone says that tearing down a statue of a slave owner or removing a Confederate memorial is “destroying history,” I like to inform those people is that there is this thing called BOOKS. There’s a ton of good history alive and well in books. I just put “Robert E. Lee” in the search engine at Amazon and came back with over 8000 results. “Confederate States of America” generates over 4000 results. Confederate history is not dead, it’s growing exponentially in books.
But, but of course these people don’t read. They don’t actually care about history.
What they care about is preserving white supremacy. They will claim not to be racists but work desperately to block every local, state, and/or federal action that might serve to dismantle white supremacy. And they’ve got a president who has promised to defend Confederate memorials and make America (white) again. But nobody’s buying it anymore. Nobody is buying the honky shuck and jive that bleats, “It’s heritage not hate!” It’s a heritage of hate. And you better see the Mississippi flag’s death as the end of your plantation fantasy. Your “Southern culture” is on the skids. You wanna “preserve” it? Write a book.
Real Americans reject the racist divisiveness of that stupid flag. Real Americans know we have to work to heal thewounds from centuries of rape, murder, kidnaping, dismembering, and traumatizing of our black neighbors. Real Americans know anyone who flies the Confederate battle flag hates all that is good and possible about this country. Let’s have a mass flag burning and out of the ashes will rise the promise of America.
And to my fellow white people, now is the time step to the right side of history and be better people. Tom Petty and NASCAR did it. So can you. It’s only a flag. You can’t destroy history, you can only make it.
I guess I’ve been a crummy blogger this year. When Cozy was a baby, I could squeeze out a couple of blogposts a week on everything from housework to feminist cowboy movies. In 2019, I only managed 22 posts. To be fair, I actually taught full-time the entire year. It felt good to be back at work. My wonderful students got to be the recipients of my random thoughts about the state of the world. And now that Cozy is a kindergartener, typing up cohesive essays is more of a luxury. Plus, I’ve spent much of my spare time chasing squirrels out of our attic.
I was excited that my writing still had an audience even though every single post wasn’t about Trump’s racism. My tribute to my late friend (and Atlanta punk icon) David Dickens had the most reads (1,900). My piece on the Christchurch killings was reprinted in The Peace Chronicle, which was a great privilege.
2018 was a year of global travel. For 2019, I managed to stay mostly on the West Coast, with a few weeks in Mexico to give a couple of lectures in my favorite anthropology field school. I still managed plenty of world media appearances (especially CNN International), but my favorite media interview was when a rare tornado came right down our street. Under my name, instead of usual “HATE CRIME EXPERT” it said, “LIVES NEAR DOWNED TREE.” Much more exciting than an appearance in Turkish TV (which I also did in 2019).
Of course the driving theme of the year was growing blackhole being created by our idiot president, culminating in his impeachment on December 18. By that point I had written so many posts about his inevitable impeachment that the actual thing was anticlimactic and I didn’t even bother to comment on it. (I do wonder what will happen to all the ITMFA t-shirts that are so common here in Portland.) I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say as the divide widens even further in 2020, with Trump loyalists promising civil war if they don’t get their way. It’s like the country is being taken over by hordes of fascist babies.
For me, the focus of 2019 was on my family. Working steadily gave me a better foundation to be grounded in the real and not the endless yammering on social media. My classes Portland Community College and my CLE trainings for attorneys gave me the professional connections I craved and I got to work on a few murder cases that let me to put my skills to work in very important arenas. This allowed me to not worry too much about financial issues, and focus on being present for Andrea and Cozy. Maybe the best moment was taking Cozy on a surprise trip to Disney in LA that included a stop at their animation studios where a friend showed her the work he was completing on Frozen 2. There was also a trip to Las Vegas to see The Beatles’ LOVE, twice! Family times was its own reward.
The coming year will have plenty challenges. I imagine I will be commenting directly on the rise of anti-Semitic violence and the Trump cult’s threats to peace and equality. But my personal agenda will be focused on making good educational choices for my daughter, showing my wife how much I cherish her, and finally getting the squirrels out of the attic.
When I was a teenager in the late-1970s, I wished I had been a teenager in the 1960s, so I could have swum in the countercultural revolution. Of course, I was already in history. It was called the punk rock rebellion, and there are a million kids now who wished they could have been in my shoes, buying Ramones albums (on vinyl!) as they came out. I was just too close to it to see it as a moment in history. It was just my life.
The great sociologist C. Wright Mills argued that for people to start to understand how society works they have to understand their own biographies as history. When we read a biography, we see it as a reflection of the history that was unfolding around that person’s life, whether it’s the biography of George Washington or Judy Garland. My students are reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X this quarter and you can’t view the life of Malcolm Little/Malcolm X/Malik Shabazz outside of the context of the racially oppressive twentieth century. His biography is the history of hi century.
And so is yours. The goal of any individual should be to create a biography that both reflects the times and impacts the times. Live in the moment and shape the moment. You are living history. Most fascinating of all histories is the present.
This couldn’t be any truer than right now. This era will be analyzed for centuries. People are still debating whether or not the French Revolution worked. That won’t hold a candle to the late night conversations students, history buffs, and robots will have about the spectacular rise and fall of Donald J. Trump. We are in perhaps the most significant turning point in U.S. history since the test of World War II. This generation may be witnessing the end of the American Century or the birth of a global youth revolution to save the Earth, sparked by a Swedish kid with Aspergers who demonstrates more class and intelligence than our president does on his very best day (which, I know, isn’t saying much).
I cut my political teeth on the Watergate hearings in 1973. I was 9-years-old and watched it with rapt attention. When Nixon named Gerald Ford as his vice-president in 1974, I knew there was a quid pro quo that would lead to Ford’s pardon of Tricky Dick. My first trip to the White House was while Nixon was deciding to bug out instead of enduring impeachment proceedings. I probably could have stolen the china and they would have assumed Pat Nixon was looting the place before their shameful exodus.
It felt like history was happening and it feels that way again. The impeachment of Bill Clinton felt more like politics as usual. Bill’s shenanigan’s definitely sparked a national conversation about what constitutes “sex.” (To future generations, blow jobs are, in fact, sexual relations.) It all unfolded during my disastrous first marriage and I don’t doubt that couples across the country were having uncomfortable conversations about the nature of infidelity thanks to the Oval Office antics of Slick Willy. But it didn’t seem monumental, just sad. This feels monumental.
History is always happening and always has a soundtrack. Yeah, the upheaval of 1968 had the Beatles’ “Revolution” and the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” but you better believe the “look backs” 20 years from now will have Billie Eilish and Lizzo playing along. (“Why men great ’til they gotta be great? Don’t text me, tell it straight to my face.”) This moment in history is framed by news apps, bipartisan divides, and generational warfare. The old white men would rather die guns blazing and burn the house down on their way out than see young women (especially young women of color) even the playing field. Sorry Mitch McConnell, the future of America looks more and more like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez every day. We’re no longer being handed history by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, we’re finding it on our phones and Twitter feeds. And we’re sharing the news that the Orange Emperor has no clothes. (Cannot unsee!)
There’s a great 2011 Woody Allen film called Midnight in Paris all about how we over-romanticize the past. It was always better in some previous era. I’ve often thought about how great it would be to live in the Bohemia of 1840’s Paris or 1950’s San Francisco. No doubt the food would suck in both and no wi-fi to boot. The same is true for the Make America Great Again suckers who think the country was better off back in the days of Jim Crow. (Also no wifi.) This is the moment to be in. This crisis. This opportunity for transformation.
I’m committed to taking all this in, every presidential tweet storm, every unhinged Rudy Giuliani interview, every cabinet member indictment, every smirking Stephen Colbert monologue. Future generations will ask us what it was like to witness the compete collapse of America’s mad king. I’ll tell them I LMAO. They’ll have no idea what I’m talking about.
After this week, if you don’t think Donald Trump is a racist, you might be a white nationalist. I’ve been interviewing avowed white supremacistsfor over 30 years and when I do there is two things they ALWAYS say:
I’m not a racist. (I just love my people.)
If you don’t like the way things are you can go back to where you came from.
Only the most sub-moronic of rednecks and Trump apologists do not recognize Trump’s latest hissy fit about Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashid Tlaib is rooted in tried and true racist tropes. Ask any person of color (including Mitch McConnell’s wife) what they hear when a white person tells them to “go back where they came from.” Trump is a racist. Every free-thinking person knows it.
I started writing about Trump’s use of racist tactics in 2015 and it’s only gotten worse. I know plenty of former proudly white supremacist organizers who had a reckoning of conscience and are now the most bad-ass anti-racist activists.At 73, I won’t expect any moment of redemption from the current occupant of the White House. Don’t expect Donald Trump to sign up to be rescued by the good people at Life After Hate. He’s going to carry this diseased bone to his grave like the old dog that he is. It’s not worth trotting out the evidence to convince the unconvinced. Those people are idiots and/or racists themselves.
So we have a virulently racist president who will probably have the bully pulpit until he is sworn out of office on January 20, 2021. (I’m still hoping he’ll just quit like a bloated Nixon.) What do we do about it? How do we adapt to the fact that the office of the President of the United States of America is caked in hundred year old pig shit?
FIRST – There are real victims of Trump’s racism. There are traumatized children at the border because they have been ripped from their parents seeking to protect them from the violence of their home countries. There are families traumatized through prolonged separation because of his “Muslim ban.” There are increasing numbers of Americans traumatized by hate crimes, as the racists who worship Trump scream, “Go back to where you came from!” as they harass and beat and shoot them. The most important thing is to protect, defend, and heal these people until the source of Trumpism is confined to the trash heap of history.
I was a Boy Scout and we were taught to take care of the least among us. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” we’d say. We learned that from the American armed forces. I grew up thinking that was an American value. When I watch Trump throw red meat to his rabid base, I wonder if we’re still America or if we’ve become ancient Rome. This is not America. We have to defend those who are the targets of his fear mongering. We have to be willing to stand on the tracks of the Trump train and say, “No more!”
SECOND – Obviously, Trump is not a unifier. He has made America 1861 again. We have never been more divided. We need to resist the divide & conquer tactics. The new rebel finds common ground.
His moronic refrain is that if you have a problem with America, “you can just leave.” Does he really think that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not love this country? Or is that just what he thinks his cult of supporters want him to think? In the 1960s, right-wingers would chant, “America! Love it or leave it!” to civil rights marchers and anti-war protestors. The more rational reply was, “America! Love it and fix what’s broken!” I had a lot of fun ten years ago telling Tea Partiers, who where always complaining about President Obama, “America! Love it or leave it!” The irony sailed right over their thick skulls. It didn’t accomplish anything but it was fun.
I’ll admit the divisiveness can be fun. I can go all in for a good Facebook fight. But that only serves Trump and his Russian troll overlords. They want chaos. Remember when Jeb Bush called Trump the “chaos candidate”? Shocker: Jeb Bush was right. The antidote is political civility and unity. It was encouraging to see several Republicans sign on to the congressional condemnation of Trump’s most recent racist tirade. There may still be a shadow of a spine in the GOP. We need more of that. And just not unity in clapping back at the Dear Leader.
There is good research about political civility. It can happen. I know it seems impossible right now but we need to build bridges not walls. There’s a great Special AKA song from 1984 that goes, “If you’ve got a racist friend, now is the time for that friendship to end.” It’s wrong. As much as I want to unfriend people who blather about Trump not being racist (please stop), I want to keep them on board. Keep them engaged. Find ways in. Free them from their bigotry. Bring them to the light side of the Force.
THIRD – We need to remove Donald Trump by whatever constitutional means possible, including the ballot box. The damage this madman is causing our great nation will take generations to repair. 2020 can’t be about third parties and “voting your conscience.” Ross Perot is dead. There is too much at stake. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, you’re gonna have complaints. “He’s too old!” “She prosecuted too many people of color!” “I can’t pronounce his name!” Shut the fuck up. Get out your debit card and make a contribution. Put a bumper sticker on your Uber. Hold your nose and vote. There are kids in cages. If I meet a single “anarchist” in 2020 who tells me they are not voting because elections are bullshit, I will personally hand them over to their Russian troll puppetmasters. We need everyone, including frustrated Republicans and youth in Che Guevara t-shirts (Made in China, no doubt). We need the sophistics and the folks who never pay attention to politics. We need a massive rebuke of this very anti-American American president.
It’s not worth it to debate Trump’s racism. Too many credible people (Thank you, Don Lemon) have already done it. The question now is who are we as a nation? Are we going to tolerate a tinpot dictator who wants to make America Jim Crow again, or are we going to stand for the great promise of our country holds for all people in the world? You must choose.
Sometimes I think the whole thing about the “wisdom of our elders” is a lot of poppycock to make the aged feel better about their bodies sputtering out. Maybe among native tribal people, the old lady who remembered what plants not to eat was a needed resource, but now there’s an app for that. Sometimes I feel completely clueless in this fast moving culture. (So I can’t call myself an “ally,” right?) And then I see these Generation Z kids from Parkland, or the ones marching for the environment in Europe today, who seem straight up on top of it. What wisdom do I have to offer them?
I turned 55 this week. I was born in February 1964 as Beatlemania tried to heal the nation after the JFK assassination. (I was a 6 month old fetus on that dark day.) I was born into the light of the 60s, 1964 being a year when the world turned on a Roosevelt dime. I had a great birthday that started with my 4-year-old singing “Happy Birthday” to me, and included a rare sunny Portland winter day, two lectures on white collar crime, an interview with CNN about women escaping ISIS, an amazing concert by my old college friend Amy Ray (also born in 1964) and ending with a nightcap with my beautiful wife in our favorite local bar. What started in 1964 with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ended with “Life is good but I want to go to bed.”
What kernel of wisdom should be gleaned from all that in-between? What have I learned in those over 20,000 days? Lots, especially about race, gender, and the privilege I hold. But there is a newer insight born of the news cycle that I think my younger friends don’t know yet.
The Jussie Smollett story is heartbreaking. Lying about being a victim of hate crime to advance your career hurts every single legitimate victim of hate. The incident on the Washington mall with the Native American protestor and the MAGA-wearing hat boys was confusing. Those kids seemed like entitled little pricks. Here in Portland there is a scandal involving a police officer who was texting the leader of an alt-right group which has been frustrating. It sure seems like the cops were cozying up to the fascists.
Not so fast. Just not so fast to any news story. People were CONVINCED Smollett was an actual victim. They were convinced the MAGA kids were harassing the Native elder. Here in Portland they are convinced the police are in bed with Neo-Nazis. There is a rush to judgment when a news story fits our pre-existing narrative. It’s proof! We’re right! Just click this link!
So at 55, I’m pledging to reserving judgment until all the facts are in, even if it reduces the ammo for my side. My radical take on things will survive even if Smollett lied about his attack, the MAGA kids were not being malicious to that Native American, and the Portland officer was just conducting standard crowd control procedures. (He also texted an antifa protestor – gasp!)
Portland recently had another little drama with the city council deciding whether or not to stay on the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The JTTF emerged after 9/11 as a way for local and county law enforcement to have a relationship with the FBI on terrorism issues. The city has been on and off it depending on the political winds of the day. The task force doesn’t have a lot of success to boast about. There was a 2010 arrest of a Muslim kid who had been lured into a fake plot to blow up a downtown Christmas tree lighting. Last year a former FBI investigator testified to city council that the JTTF infringes on civil liberties, including of Muslim Americans. Seems like a mess.
My seasoned perspective is now to resist the temptation to jump into the fight, even when it feels like I am being forced to pick a side. I’m a social scientist. We like as much data as possible before we decide there if is evidence to demonstrate support for a theory. Scientists never prove anything. Never. We know reality is complexity and the only certainty is chaos. The simplistic “us vs. them” narratives on the left and right make for great protest posters, but the truth is that we’re all in this mess together. It’s worth taking a beat to get all the facts. Anyone who is 100% cocksure of their position is a fool. I’m a radical agnostic. I defend my right to say that I don’t know.
Older and wiser but still radical. I still want to transform the misogynistic, ableist, white supremacist foundation of all reality as we know it. But I’m going to lay back a bit and let the fuller picture to come in to focus. I still have time for that. When I was younger I thought anyone who didn’t immediately man the barricades was an enemy. There is another route to the same goal. Take a breath.