Witnessing the end of the American Century from the former British Empire

14 July 2018

All good/bad things come to an end. It was 229 years ago today that the French revolutionaries, fueled by the principles of The Enlightenment (and the American Revolution), stormed the Bastille Prison in Paris, marking the beginning of the end King Louis XVI of the old regime. I’m on a train to London, watching the ripples of the Trump visit, which includes his slamming the Prime Minister and almost running over the queen to get his photo op. At least 250,000 people filled the streets of London to protest Trump but it seems almost pointless. Nobody has done more to overthrow King Donald of Orange than Donald J. Trump. I have a meeting at the U.S. Embassy on Monday and I just hope they’ve steam-cleaned the carpets.

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As we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in November, we will also be marking the beginning of the American Century. Centuries last one hundred years, so ours seems to be winding down quite nicely. We should have it wrapped up by November 11. They used to say the sun never sets on the British Empire and now what have they got left? Bermuda? All empires end and the world is watching the fading of America. The only remaining question is whether or not Trump will salute Putin on Monday when they meet in Helsinki. (After all, he saluted a North Korean general so why the hell not?)

I may be being a bit overdramatic. I’ve just seen the U.S. president floating through the air as a giant baby in a diaper. My emotions might be more in charge than my insight as a political scientist, but there is a theory at work here.

My very first academic publication was in the area of World Systems Theory. WST looks at the impact of the rise and fall of the global economy over centuries. Before I began studying Nazi skinheads, I was studying the birth of the world market by running complex statistical analyses of Dutch shipping records from the early 1600s. (I can’t begin to tell you how boring that was – Thank you, Nazi skinheads!) This theory sees global economic class devisions. Imagine “third world” countries as the workers of the world, selling their labor in the earth’s great factory, making shit for the enjoyment of those in the first world, known as the “core.”

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At the top of the ladder is the global hegemon, the top dog of both wealth and political influence. The top dog changes about every 100 years. In the 1600s it was Spain. In the 1900s it was the USA. Fairly accurately, World Systems Theory predicts that a country gets about a century at the top and then there is some global economic shake-up. Suddenly there is a new sheriff in town. The end of WWI saw the demotion of Britain as America and her mighty industrial economy (driven by some serious “Gilded Age” corruption, by the way) stormed through the clouds like Eddie Rickenbacker.

The United States of America won’t last forever. Other than China, most nations have a relatively short life-span. Germany only goes back to 1871. Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 2003. Whether or not you think God likes you best, there is no guarantee of a nation’s permanence. Even less sure is a nation’s dominance on the world stage. With our current buffoonery creating a vacuum of world leadership and only division at home, it appears the writing is on the wall for the once exalted “land of the free.” America first!

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There is a feeling of doom in the United States but it’s even more depressing witnessing it from abroad. I was having a pint in a pub in Luton, England last night. A patron, hearing my accent, asked, “What the fuck’s happened to your country?” I could only cry in my beer and try to assure him that good people will rally against this tyrant like we did against theirs two centuries ago. (They’ve got their own questions to ask about the passage of Brexit, which is already dismantling their stability. Maybe we can be buddies as the world watches us go down the toilet.) Trump is an embarrassment to us Yanks abroad. There were plenty of Americans in the streets on London yesterday (and up in Scotland today). As I changed my dollars to pounds and saw the devaluing of the buck to the bob, I figured the end might come sooner than we expect. Economists have been predicting that the Obama recovery looks to implode into a Trump recession at any minute. America first! the said as the ship sank.

Who the next global hegemon will be is anyone’s guess. WST predicts that it’s typically the ascendent economic power, so we might best learn how to speak Chinese. But Russia is in the running and with the recent indictments further linking Trump’s presidency to Putin’s power, my money is on the Ruskies. What will Vlad and Don talk about in that closed door session in Finland? Maybe where Trump will leave the keys to the White House in exchange for his new job as a Russian oligarch (and wife #4!). Russia first!

Sociologists are fond of saying that a fish doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out. It’s hard for us to see the end of American dominance while the illusion of it still surrounds us. Both the Romans and the Nazis thought their reign was unbound by time. America might still have a few good years in it if we can replace the current kakistocracy with a vibrant participatory democracy, but odds are the Democrats will turn a cake walk into a mud bath. So you might be best served by thinking of options outside the USA! USA! Investing in rubles, perhaps.

When historians write about the madness of King Don, they will talk about how he drove a once great nation into the ditch, like a rich chauffeured brat who demands the keys to the car he has never driven. But he didn’t do it all by himself. We encouraged him because we thought it would be entertaining. And it was, until it wasn’t.

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America is Becoming a Dystopian Nightmare: What Do We Do Now???

June 28, 2018

I’m sick to my stomach. It doesn’t seem like a survivable idiocracy at this point. It feels like the drift into authoritarianism. Both my undergraduate and doctoral work focused on how fascist movements emerge. My professional work as a researcher has centered on the threat of right-wing extremism. I have to slap myself to make sure this is not a bad dream. Trade wars lead to depressions which lead to authoritarian strongmen willing to do whatever it takes to make their nation “great again.” Is this 1938 or 1968? Old straight white men don’t see it, but almost everyone else sees the writing on the wall.

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At least the summer of 1968 had just a few central issues to focus America’s rage on; the Vietnam War, institutional racism, would the Detroit Tigers make it to the World Series (yes). For us in 2018 it’s dizzying. Our president alienating our allies and playing footsies with dictators, then lying about about a member of Congress, children being ripped from their parents by government police forces, the Supreme Court rolling back reproductive rights, worker rights, and banning many Muslims from entering the country. And that’s just in the last two weeks! How are we supposed to get a footing to fight back?

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Or is that their plan?

The announcement of the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the Supreme Court should be taken as a monumental threat to our democracy but, jeez, it’s just another headline. There’ a protest about it, but I was going to go to the protest about the Supreme Court ending fair share support of public unions, and also those kids on the border, and what were we angry about this time last month? I can’t keep up. I’ve got Trump fatigue and that’s good for Trump and his cult of personality. Is this how Germans felt in 1929?

The Supreme Court situation is more than dire. George H.W. Bush recognized stacking the courts with his “yes-men” was the way to go 30 years ago. It’s an old tactic but it was raised to a new height of authoritarian rule in 2016 when Senate Leader and human turtle Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court pick until after the election. Most of us thought, Fine, then President Hillary will appoint someone who is actually a progressive.

Trump’s pick (which constitutionally should have been Obama’s but GOP + U.S. Constitution = meh), Neil Gorsuch has helped to swing the bench away from the center and to the hard right. The decisions this past week prove that hard fought victories for women, workers, and a sane anti-terrorism policy can be zeroed out by a single vote. Now that Kennedy, the last remaining (Reagan-appointed) centrist is leaving, Trump can recreate the court in his image. Do you think he’s going for judicial balance or for a rubber stamp for his destructive policies? Look for Don, Jr. to be his go to “judge.”

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It’s clear that Roe v. Wade’s days are numbered and women and girls will soon be dying again in back alley abortions. (If Donald J. Trump ever paid for your abortion, now would be the time to come forward.) Marriage equality is in the cross-hairs as President Pussy Grabber tries to appease his evangelical gay-hating “Christian” base. Border policy that rounds up the “infestation” (his word) of non-white immigrants will be expanded. Start looking for an expiration date on green cards. But most of all the Trump Court will hand more of the people’s rights over to corporations and destroy the democratic (that’s a small “d”) fiber that made this country the shining city on the hill.

Trump looks more and more like Saddam Hussein every day, pushing this country into a permanent one party rule. He’s been quietly appointing scores of judges to the lower courts, including white supremacists. And we’re focused on Roseanne Barr and whether or not Sarah Huckabee Sanders can eat a burrito in peace. Post-modern theorist Frederick Jameson warned us that late capitalism would be characterized by an obsession with “politics” while the rich and powerful consolidated their control over the masses. “Trump’s creating an authoritarian state!” “Yeah, but did you hear on Fox & Friends what Maxine Waters said?”

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Speaking of TV shows, as I’ve mentioned before, this all seems like a preview of season three of The Handmaid’s Tale. Every woman and gay person who voted for Trump (or didn’t vote for Clinton) will see their rights rolled back. It might not be the government that is lynching “gender traitors” en mass and forcing non-Christians to work in the wastelands, but the hate mongers who love Trump and hate those who don’t will have high octane fuel for their pogroms. I spent the hour after the Kennedy announcement on white supremacist discussion pages and the Neo-Nazis could not be more excited about where Trump could take this.

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Where I’m stuck is what to do. When I watch The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m cheering for the terrorists. Whoever said that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter was right on the money. King George III called the American revolutionaries “terrorists” because of their asymmetrical warfare. Our country was founded by terrorists/freedom fighters. But there are also the Timothy McVeigh-style terrorists who call for a “2nd American Revolution” to purge America of its control by the “global Zionist cabal.” The 2nd Amendment Trumpies are itching for a civil war and any excuse to unload their ammo on random “libtards.” So, I think blowing shit up is probably off the table.

Can we rally behind a corporately-funded Democratic Party to plug the holes of this sinking ship in November? They don’t have a very good track record as of late and have done a perfect job of blowing perfect opportunities. Of course, all those “progressives” who refused to vote for Hillary in 2016 pretty much handed America Trump on a Mir-a-Lago platter. Can the entrenched misogyny be overcome by the clarion call of an Elizabeth Warren or are we just doomed to have to follow whatever old white man can puff up his chest the biggest?

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I’m so torn. There’s a big part of me that believes Trump supporters are either complete morons or racists (recognizing that there is a third possibility, that they’re both). There’s also a big part of me that believes Trump supporters, like the Nazi skinheads I have spent thirty years studying, have just been misled by those speaking to their emotional distress and can be rescued. And therefore that America can be rescued from this abyss it stands on the edge of. It’s easier to say, “You’re wrong and you are being lied to” than it is to say, “Hey, let’s talk about our common values and how we can act on something other than fear.” Are we up for that challenge?

But right now fear is driving these people, like this ludicrous fear of MS-13. (I want “Angel Family” rallies for people killed by the police, or corporate malfeasance, or falling trees.) Trump’s “campaign events” look more and more like the fascist rallies of 80 years ago, full of scapegoating and dangerous conspiracy theories packaged in easily busted lies. Are his crowd paid actors (like they were at his campaign announcement) or are these people for real?

I don’t know what to do right now. A little angel is sitting on my shoulder and saying, “Randy, you’ve studied this phenomenon your entire adult life. You know what’s coming. Gather your family and get the fuck out.” But part of me wants to reason with these people one last time and remind them that we can be one nation again. That this politics of division will be the end of us. I’m ready to put my shoulder to the wheel to build bridges instead of walls. I’m ready to fight and recruit allies. Even old white men (and their “classy” (barf) women) can be reasoned with. It’s not over yet. America, I’m giving you until November.

 

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Watching America die, I sent a Statue of Liberty to Donald Trump

June 20, 2018

My wife crossed the border from Mexico into Texas when she was 8 years old. She was on foot with her mother in the middle of the night. An old man carried her across the desert because she had lost a shoe on a railroad track. Within 15 minutes of entering the country, her and her mother were picked up by a U.S. Boarder Patrol van. Welcome to America.

She was never separated from her mother, who was trying to lead her to a better life in the United States. But spending a night in jail together in a new country must have been frightening enough. The men were kept in one cell and women and children in another cell. After processing, the Border Patrol dumped them back at the Mexican border. Fortunately, the father of the coyote (the people that ferry migrants across the border) felt guilty that his group got caught and tried again the next night. He waived the additional $3000 per person price which was a good thing because my future mother-in-law barely any pesos left in her pocket.

Because of a provision in the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (authored by Senator Joe Biden), Andrea was awarded a green card in 2010.  The section allows the victims of domestic violence visas and a path to residency. It’s sad that women have to experience excruciating abuse to feel safe in this country. It’s also sad that Republicans tried to have the provision removed in 2012.

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As my wife and I watch the news stories of Donald Trump’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy that has resulted in thousands of children and babies being stripped from their parents’ arms, we wonder what happened to the country that passed VAWA 24 years ago. A father from Honduras Marco Muñoz, after having his 3-year-old son taken away from him by Homeland Security agents in Granjeno, Texas, was so distraught that he hung himself in his cell. These children look so much like our 3-year-old daughter and the thought of ICE agents taking Cozy from us to God-knows-where is unbearable. It’s like watching an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale but it’s the evening news. Even seasoned journalists are in tears. How is this happening in America?

This policy, created by Trump’s favorite in-house racist Stephen Miller and deemed “Biblically justified” by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has disgusted even Conservative voices like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan. In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, former First Lady Laura Bush compared Trump’s policy to the U.S. internment of the Japanese during World War 2. Even Tea Party rocker Cherie Currie (once of The Runaways) posted, “Bottom line is you don’t separate a helpless child from their parents. No matter what. Not ever.”

Beside the fact that somebody is making a lot of money off these private shelters that are now housing children and babies, including converted Walmart stores, the trauma these kids will face because of Trump’s irrational policy will last a life-time. Children screaming for their mothers won’t deter this White House from its “zero tolerance.” The majority of Americans oppose this draconian action as inherently counter to our values, but what can we do?

It’s not “your” country.

At the root of this problem is this binary thinking of “us and them.”  A lot of white people think this is “their” country and they have some sort of divine right to decide who gets in and that, somehow, their family came to America the “right way.”  There is so much ignorance here to unpack, it hurts. Before the The Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act) , there was no legal or illegal immigration into this country (unless you we coming from China). People just showed up. My great grandfather, Michael Blazak, arrived in 1891 from what is now the Czech Republic. He just got off the boat and started his life as an American. The 1924 law restricted immigration from non-European and non-Protestant countries (Only WASPs allowed) and has been praised by Jeff Sessions as a policy that was created to end “indiscriminate acceptance of all races.” My Catholic ancestor wouldn’t have made it in and Jews trying to escape Hitler in the 1930s were turned back.

When my great grandfather came into New York Harbor, he passed the very new Statue of Liberty (dedicated in 1886). He might have missed the poem at the base of the statue. “The New Colossus” was written by Emma Lazerus who had been aiding the refugees from the anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe, looking for safety and freedom in America. I hope someone translated the sonnet for him as he contemplated his uncertain future in this new land.

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Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The world looks to America for that freedom and but the golden door been shut and the lamp has been extinguished. It’s now a false promise of America as a baby is literally taken from its immigrant mother’s breast. I would like to point out that you will not see any undocumented immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, or Canada in any these Trump camps (and there are plenty undocumented whites in America). I have a friend from Ireland who over-stayed their visa but has no worries that ICE agents will come knocking. This is the great clampdown on brown people because it is not “their” country. Make America 1924 again.

We have been here before

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I have the privilege of having a friend who has been through this before. George Nakata was 9 years old, living in Portland, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. President Roosevelt signed an executive order ordering the “evacuation” of every Japanese person, alien or “non-alien” (aka U.S. citizen) on the West Coast, to be rounded up and placed in internment camps. 120,000 people, most American citizens, were ripped from their homes, losing everything. Young George spent the summer of ’42 in a converted animal stable on the outskirts of the city. The Oregonian proudly declared my town to be the first “Jap Free City” in America. George was then shipped off to a camp in arid Idaho where the soldiers pointed their guns in, not out. He rightly calls it a concentration camp.

No Japanese-Americans were ever found guilty of engaging in espionage or colluding with the enemy. In fact, the 442nd battalion, made up of all Japanese American soldiers, liberated Nazi death camps and is the most decorated battalion in U.S. military history. In 1988, President Reagan formerly apologized for the mass internment but as George is fond of saying, they never put a Statue of Liberty on the West Coast.

If you ever get the chance to hear a holocaust survivor speak, please do. There aren’t many left. I’ve heard several and inevitably someone will ask, “When Hitler was first elected, why didn’t you just leave?” The answer is always the same. People thought it was a temporary bout of political madness. That it would be corrected at the next election. But then there was no next election. A policy was instituted here and a new law was passed there. Like the frog in the slowly heated pot, all of a sudden there was no escape. Democracy seamlessly transitioned into authoritarianism.

This is where we are. We are in it. America is dying.

We have a president, not elected by the people, but by the electoral college who is having a love affair with dictators right before our eyes and we are unfazed. It’s as if we are watching a reality show and as long as the kids behind the chain-link fences are not white, it’s just a show and not reality. But these people are slowly raising the temperature and at some point there will be no escape. Childish Gambino might think this is America, but it won’t be on my watch. Trump has described undocumented immigrants as an “infestation” and hinted that legal immigrants who receive federal benefits could be next. If they will do this to babies and toddlers, what makes you think they won’t do it to you? Because you’re white?

There is much we can do. I’ve called my senators and asked them to make the security of these children a priority. We can appeal to the decency of the Trump supporters in our circles. The emperor has no clothes! Remember your values! We can make November 2018 a massive referendum on these lunatics who are trying to hijack this country. I envision a Revenge of the Jedi wave striking down Trump’s evil space force. But there is one thing that might be more direct.

Send Trump Lady Liberty

I’m not willing to let these “America first!” nutzis define the values of this country. Not while the Statue of Liberty remains above ground. Maybe Mr. Trump needs to be reminded of what this country stands for. We don’t tell immigrants that their children are being taken for “a bath” and then place them in “tender age shelters.” Does that sound revoltingly familiar to you?

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I just sent a miniature Statue of Liberty (that I bought for 12 bucks on Amazon) to President Trump at the White House. I have a dream that, in the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, every American, conservative, liberal, or otherwise does the same. I want the White House mailroom to have boxes and boxes of statuettes to deliver to the president. And maybe a few thousand copies of “The New Colossus” as well. Here’s the address:

President Donald Trump

c/o The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

 

And if that goes well, maybe we can commission statues of Lady Liberty to be erected in San Francisco Bay and the stretch of Texas desert where my wife crossed the border, missing one shoe, many years ago. Let’s lift our lamp beside the golden door.  Por favor. #LadyLibertyforTrump

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Jukebox Hero 3: Right Here, Right Now Watching the World Wake Up

I’m occasionally posting some chapters from my “rock memoir,” Jukebox Hero. This seemed like a relevant piece in the wake of Generation Z’s moment in history. Here are some others:

Jukebox Hero 1: Queens of Noise

Jukebox Hero 2: I Will Follow

Jukebox Hero: Bridge Chapter A– “Right Here, Right Now”

I took a break from my trips to Europe after 1987 when I got the job managing the Atlanta band drivn’n’cryin’. The Europe I knew was on the frontline of the cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Frankie Goes To Hollywood song, “Two Tribes” was more of a cautionary tale than a dance hit. “When two tribes go to war, one point is all that you can score.” I had marched in CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) parades in London and a cheered when 70,000 protestors blockaded the RAF Greenham Common nuclear missile base in Berkshire, England in 1983. The window of my squat in Brixton looked out at a massive mural of a nuclear holocaust. Western Europe was Ground Zero for the beginning of the end.

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I met a Russian kid named Yuri in Denmark in 1986 who had recently defected to Finland and told me that the Soviet people were deathly afraid of the madman living in the American White House, Ronald Reagan. In 1984, I had tried to see George Harrison’s English house in Henlely-on-the-Thames only to be told that Beatle George had moved his family to Australia out of fear of nuclear war. I made it to West Germany twice, only to witness a heavy presence of the American military and anger that American and Soviet egos were pushing Europe towards nuclear annihilation.

The U.S. policy that was just a budget item or back page news story to most Americans was more than life and death to Europeans. It was mass extinction.

By 1989, I had a good 7-years in protesting the Reagan-Bush arms race under my belt. In 1983, at the tender age of 19, I became a lobbyist in Washington DC for the nuclear freeze movement. When Mikhail Gorbachev began the Soviet period of Glasnost in the late 1980s, it seemed like World War III might be avoided and, more, importantly, that I could finally get into the Soviet Union with a duffle bag full of Levis.

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So it was with intense excitement that I watched the Iron Curtain begin to crack in the last minutes of the 1980s. I watched East and West Germans take sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall from a TV in my apartment in Atlanta with tears streaming down my face. People were escaping the oppressive regimes in Romania and Hungary and by 1991 the Soviet Union was collapsing.

I had to get back to Europe to be a part of this moment in history. Just like I had to be in London in 1985  for Live Aid, I had to be back at the frontline for the end of the Cold War. The door to Eastern Europe was finally open and their was a blank slate for the new decade. When I was offered a teaching assistantship in London for an Emory study abroad course, I packed my bags.

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In 1991, I was 27-years-old and fully invested in the rock-and-roll lifestyle. I had been teaching undergrads at Emory but spent most of my time on the road or in the studio with drivin’ n’ cryin’. With my long bleached hair and black stretch jeans, I probably didn’t look like the typical university TA.

Once in London, I tried to turn on the American students to the city I knew and loved; shopping in Camden Market, seeing bands at the Marquee Club, and endless pub crawls. While there, I got hooked on going to the theater in the West End, seeing Les Miserables four times. I sent a postcard to my girlfriend, back in Atlanta, that said, “I’m still straight but I LIVE for the musical theater!” And it wasn’t just American university kids in those seats. I started to notice a new subculture in the West End, Russian tourists.

One of the places I loved to take the students was my favorite dance club, the Camden Palace.  The hall opened in 1900 as the Camden Theater but had been the Palace since 1982. It was at the Palace in 1983 I had met a nice German girl at the bar. I was trying to chat her up when she realized the guy at the bar next to me was Limhal. Limhal was the poofy-haired singer of Kajagoogoo who were topping the pops that summer with the airy hit, “Too Shy.” Despite the rumors that he liked boys, Limhal scooped in and purloined my fraulein. Damn you, Limhal!

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In the summer of 1991, Thursdays were “guitar rock” nights at the Palace. Kids from around the globe met to dance to R.E.M., Happy Mondays, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. There was a song by The Wonder Stuff, “The Size of the Cow” that always filled the dance floor; Americans, French kids, Italians, and the ever-trendy London scenesters. I loved Thursday nights at the Palace because the music kicked ass and you didn’t need a partner to dance with. It was like being at a rock concert. You just hit the floor of the old theater and felt the energy of the crowd.

One particular night in late July, I dragged a few students to the ornate club. I wanted to share the fun of dancing to the new music of the decade with the youth of the world. London always felt like the center of the hipster planet. In London, you can find the best African music, the coolest Middle Eastern late night cafés, and the most over-the-top South American dancers. Going to London, was never like going to “Merry Old England.” It was always like being present in all that was important to the world.

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On that night, the floor was particularly rocking. There was a new wave of kids making it to London from the newly free Eastern European countries. You could identify the “Easterners” because they grew up completely removed from any black culture and danced like it. It didn’t matter. For the first time since before Hitler fucked everything up, Europe felt truly united. The next song was Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now,” which was inspired by the fall of communism. The Russian kids and the Czech kids crammed on to the dance floor. Taking their lead, the German kids and the Swedish kids followed.

There were so many people on the dance floor for this song, no one could move. Instead, everyone hugged and jumped up and down and wept. This is what freedom felt like. We weren’t East and West anymore. We were kids who wanted to dance and not get nuked. I had danced at the Palace in 1982 amid fear of atomic bombs. In 1991, I danced in love with the world. We had all survived the long war. You know it feels good to be alive.

I was alive and I waited for this

Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be

Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.

I still get chills every time I hear that song. I’m sure there are Baby Boomers who have one song that crystallizes what it meant to be a part of that generation, but for me it’s that Jesus Jones song that finally plugged me in to my time on Earth; a song that would later become a K-Mart ad and a Ford commercial.

Later that summer, while traveling through Eastern Europe, I was on a train pulling into a station in East Berlin. It was 3:30 in the morning and there was one East German kid on the platform with a beat up boombox. He was playing a tape of the Scorpions’ new song “Winds of Change” over and over. I just listened to the lyrics about the new Europe bounce around the crumbling old regime. Music had the power to ferry us through massive historical shifts. For the rest of our human existence, historians would muse about this massive global right turn, but, in the moment it occurred, it all came down to a song.

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In 2003, Vladimir Putin told Paul McCartney that it wasn’t Ronald Reagan that ended the Cold War, it was The Beatles – that once Russian kids heard that sound, they stopped caring about the Communist Party and just wanted to join the world party. When they grew up, they pulled the plug on the USSR and came out to dance.

 

America is eating its young. Maybe it’s time to get the hell out.

February 15, 2018

As parent, my gut instinct is to get my family out of America as soon as possible. There are lots of places this doesn’t happen. This country is fundamentally broken. If we didn’t address American males’ obsession with gun violence and the “right” to own weapons of mass carnage after the Sandy Hook massacre, we never will. That 2012 Connecticut shooting left 20 six and seven-year olds dead. Is my three-year-old safe in daycare today, or will find out on the news that some boy or man exercised his 2nd Amendment right by blowing her and her little classmates heads off?

Yesterday’s carnage in Lakeland, Florida is just the latest. Seventeen dead. People are offering the “thoughts and prayers” (accomplishes nothing) and #GunReformNow is trending on Twitter (accomplishes nothing). Pundits and presidents talk about how the shooter was “deranged” (accomplishes nothing) and it will be open season on anyone with a mental health issue (accomplishes oppression, because people suffering from mental health issues are actually less violent than the general population.) It’s the same circle jerk that will dominate the news cycle until the next “big story.” Stormy Daniels? Trump’s tweet? Another shooting? Does anybody remember the Las Vegas shooting? 2017? Hello?

When my co-authored book about suburban delinquency and gun violence, Teenage Renegades, Suburban Outlaws, came out in 2001 we were (like now) picking up the pieces of young gun casualties. The book addressed the lessons learned from the cluster of school shootings at the turn of the century that peaked with the 1999 slaughter at Columbine (13 killed). I was honored to be a part of the national discussion about toxic masculinity, bullying, and the easy availability of high powered weapons. We licked our wounds and went to work and school shootings declined.

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The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday dwarfed Columbine, something young males have been promising for 19 years. We’ve averaged about one of these events a week in 2018. (I wonder how bad next week’s shooting will be.) That this teenage shooter was linked to a white supremacist group also connects the body count to the elevated racist climate in Donald Trump’s alt-right America, where violent white males have become emboldened (God, I’m sick of using that word). But while we focus on the race of the shooter, we will miss the more important discussion about the gender of the shooter.

All these mass shootings are committed by males. There was a school shooting earlier this month in Los Angeles by a 12-year-girl but it was ruled unintentional. Except for the Brenda “I don’t like Mondays” Spencer case in 1979 (2 dead), girls don’t go on shooting sprees. I’ve written endlessly about the connection between masculinity and gun violence, including in this blog. Let me bring the message home.

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The same toxic masculinity that allows a boy or man to take an AR-15 to school and vent his rage at the world on some “soft targets” is displayed by our elected officials who think they are defending something by allowing that boy or man access to an AR-15 in the first place. There is a reason that women (and female politicians) are at the front of the sensible gun law cause. Women don’t need AR-15’s to make their dicks hard. Women, and men not suffering from EPE (Extreme Penis Envy), want sensible gun laws to reduce (not eliminate) the regularity of this horror. When it was black children being shot in America’s cities, their solution was just to lock everyone up (for anything possible) and put them to work in the prison labor industry. When the juvenile shooter demographic flipped to white, well, they must be crazy and you can’t really do anything about that. Do not expect men to fix this gun problem. Do not. It will be women who get this done.  But they have a mountain of patriarchal bull to remove first.

I’m sick of the gun “debate.”

I’m sick of hearing about “deranged individuals.”

As parent, I’m thinking it might be time to get out while we still can. America is sinking under the weight of its own testosterone. Our male politicians, funded by the gun lobby, have gerrymandered political boundaries to such an extreme that there is no longer much hope of compromise. Districts are permanently Republican or Democratic and moderates are jumping ship. We’re in permeant deadlock with a president who only cares about his ratings and applause from his sub-moronic base. Welcome to Idiocracy. You can pick up your kid after school at the morgue.

On the bright side, the contentious Baby Boom generation is dying off. If the Millennials can put down their phones (and their guns) long enough, this country might survive to its tricentennial. Your “thoughts and prayers” make me sick, but your action plans have my full attention. In the meantime, I’m exploring my options.

“America when will we end the human war?” – Allen Ginsberg (1956).

HOW TO TALK RATIONALLY ABOUT GUN CONTROL

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER MASS SHOOTING IN AMERICA

 

 

Let’s End Duality: Make America Grey Again

January 4, 2018

To start off 2018, I’d like to take us back to a moment in 2004 when Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama said these words:

“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

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It seemed like a shift away a from the Bush-era divisiveness and surely played a role in Obama’s election in 2008. It’s worth pointing out that 14 percent of registered Republicans voted for a black Democrat in that election. It seems unimaginable now as we tweet and post from our red and blue state fortresses, rejecting anything that requires acknowledging the complexity of these issues. Remember Donald Trump in February saying,  “Nobody knew that healed care could be this complicated.” Oh, they knew.

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Queer Theory has been instrumental in helping people break through their binary thinking. When we are young we are taught that the sexes are “opposite.”  We are brainwashed in gender attributes that are mirror reflections. Boys are strong, girls are weak. Boys are stoic, girls are emotional. Boys are active, girls are passive. And on and on. It continues into adulthood. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Men care about foreign policy and women care about education. Most adults figure out that we have more in common that in opposition. “You have a pancreas? So do I!” Gender is not black and white. It’s many shades of grey. (A little bird told me that Vice President Mike Pence wears frilly pink panties and Donald Trump actually has a mangina.)

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I was thinking about the persistence of this bullshit dichotomy over the holidays when I read my old pal Bono kavetching that today’s music was “very girly;” that there wasn’t enough loud rock ’n’ roll like when he was a teenage boy. I flashed to the moment that a local Atlanta rock star I worked with in 1981 described the first U2 album as “whiney.” He should try saying music is too girly to Joan Jett’s face. Bono might turn off the Taylor Swift and check out bands like Savages, Diet Cig, Daddy Issues, and War on Women. There’s an explosion of women in rock right now. When I was 13-years-old I thought Kiss rocked and then I heard The Runaways’ Queens of Noise album. I’d put “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin” against any of U2’s “guitar rock” without hesitation. If that’s girly music, give me more. The girls I know love the loud guitar. I’m a huge U2 fan but Bono is stuck in an antiquated binary.

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We don’t live a black and white world of evil doers and God’s pious peeps. We’re all sinners. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Context matters. The yin-yang symbol makes for a cool tattoo, but Buddhism does not reduce the world into a simple duality. Taoism is based on the paradox of simultaneous duality and unity. God vs. man? The Gnostic Texts excised from the Christian Bible, make the case that Christ ends that duality. The kingdom of heaven is within you. But you don’t get that message from the Christian Church. Man keeps constructing boundaries. Here’s how you get through heaven’s gate…

Duality makes sense in the abstract world of Boolean algebra, but here in reality things are rarely occurring in opposites. It’s only freaking Thursday?? And yet it’s 2018 already! Time can move fast and slow simultaneously. Even the distinction between life and death is a blurry line at best. We let those man-made boundaries define us. A person can be born with a penis, see themselves as a female identified person, AND be attracted to women. And maybe men occasionally.

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The issue of gender queer persons makes binary thinkers’ heads explode. You have to fit into a nice socially constructed category. It’s either/or not whatever. You have a penis? You belong in the heterosexual male box. Anything else is a “transgression” against nature, or God, or that old Oxford English dictionary your grandmother gave you for your ninth birthday. Those boys and men who stray into the pink zone must be punished. You’re watching The Crown instead of the Sugar Bowl? Smear the queer! I remember it well.

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The same is true with race. You’ve got a box to fit in and that’s who you are. You are either white or non-white. Again, reality has other plans. In the 2010 U.S. Census, 2 percent of Americans identified as two or more races. That’s 9 million people. In fact, multiple-race Americans grew at a faster pace than single-race Americans (32% vs. 9.2%). More and more Americans do not fit nicely into a demographic box. Is my half-Mexican daughter “white” or “brown”? Well, when she is applying for college scholarships, she’s gonna be “Latina” when it helps. But her light skin will privilege her the majority of her “white” life.

But here we are are, in a world where the President of the United States tells transgender Americans they are not allowed to serve in the military. (Another of his many failures in 2017.) Lower-level dualistic simple thinking rules the day. Either you are with us or against us. America, love it (our way) or leave it.  Sorry, simple people; it’s just not that simple.

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The reason this is the first post of the year is that I’ve noticed a creeping problem in 2017. Both sides are stuck in a binary deadlock. If you are a conservative, anyone who identifies themselves as liberal is just a “libtard” and anything they say will be dismissed out of hand. The other side is not much better. “You voted for Trump? You must be a complete moron and incapable of rational thought.”

Americans are not red or blue. They are mostly purple. Numerous surveys show that, despite political polarization, most Americans hold both liberal AND conservative opinions about things. Not only is it a scale, it’s a sliding scale. I imagine people get more conservative as April 15th approaches and more liberal over the holidays. Some people are socially liberal and economically conservative or vice versa. Some may change their political position after a good movie or a bad arrest. I spent much of my college years hanging out with Marxists, but I don’t want to live anywhere that looks like North Korea. I think capitalism is inherently corrosive but I appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit of my local Portland businesses. I even bought something in a Wal-Mart last year. (Long story.) Am I a hypocrite or just a complex person? Most people are complex. People who voted for Obama also voted for Trump and might vote for Elizabeth Warren in 2020. My dad likes to say he’s a “Republicrat.” Make your case. He’ll listen.

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I’ve written about the need for political civility in this blog. But this is something bigger. This is about breaking away from the us vs. them lie that’s been fed to us. I’m a post-modernist. I want to destroy these artificial barriers that confine us politically, sexually, spiritually, and any other way. We are trapped in our dogmatic partisan perspectives, fearful of the natural complexity of things. This is nothing new in this country. Our founders divided themselves into federalist and anti-federalist camps. Surprise, surprise – the best reality was somewhere in the middle.

There are things we can do to break through this artificial dichotomy. Ask questions of people making opposing arguments. Find the shades of grey you can work with. Keep an eye out for polarizing language. I tell anyone who uses the word “libtard” in a Facebook debate that there is no point to engage after that. Others should do the same when I use the word “moron.” Don’t make assumptions about people in different camps. You probably have more in common than you know. Instead of trying to “beat” them, help them to understand your position. Break out of your bubble. Diversity is good for plant life and party conversations. Don’t be afraid of encountering strong arguments that undermine the position you’ve taken. Don’t be afraid.

2018 is going to be a hell year. Perhaps the most important mid-term election in this nation’s history is only eleven months away. It’s going to be emotional and people are going to be combative, defensive, and needlessly inflammatory. We could divide ourselves into two opposing factions, a new civil war. Or we could reject the red and blue traps we’ve created for ourselves and make America fully human for the first time. “Hi, I’m Ying Yang, Yeah, it’s complicated. Get to know me.”

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The emotional fatigue of liberation work

October 13, 2017

Sometimes I have to remind myself of my own advice. When we are trying to be allies or accomplices in liberation movements that are not about our liberation, there’s gonna be some big bumps in the road. It you’re a man who cares about smashing sexism or a white person who wants to dismantle racism, don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms as the great savior. I advise people to be prepared for uncomfortable situations and let folks know that they’re going to be mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Just stay on the path.

Most of my classmates at Emory University went off to Wall Street, or law school, or medical school and are now making six and seven figure incomes and probably vote Republican. I chose a different path. My road has been to dedicate my life to unmasking and upturning forms of oppression in my world. It started the day I turned my back on the Klan town I grew up in and really took off when I began my undercover research in the white supremacist subculture. That path may have earned me a PhD and some media notoriety, but I’ve also got over 30 years of committed racists threatening to kill me and attacking me in ways that have severely impacted my family.

A white activist friend recently said we do this anti-racism work because we have to and she was exactly right. This work is woven into my being now, but I still have a lot to learn. For my senior high school ring I chose Mother of Pearl for the stone as a subtle nod to the “white power” vibes in my school. That was 1981. By 1984, I was working on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. I just needed that first sociology class to help me understand how I had become an agent of others’ oppression. I cast off that yoke but all these years later, there is still more to learn and it gets hard at times. I can’t count the number of racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, agist, classist (and whatever the body-shaming “ist” is) things I’ve done or said over the years.

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To do this work is to deal with emotional fatigue because you never “win.” There’s always another battle and you wonder (especially with a president who today is speaking at a conference of an actual hate group) if any progress has been made. I was at the Portland Max train station last a May after the brutal attack by an alt-right racist that left two men dead and a third clinging to life. I was taking in the candles, flowers, and messages in what had become a makeshift memorial to these three Portland heroes. I suddenly was overwhelmed with desperation. What was the point of my decades of work on this issue if people are still being murdered by Nazis? Had I wasted all this effort? I was going to be a dentist. It was 2017 and the hate mongers were stronger than ever with an ally in the White House. I walked towards some shadows so I could bawl my eyes out.

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I do regular educational tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. We put a bunch of people on big Blue Star bus and drag them on a tragical history tour of Portland. Here’s where the black community was redlined, then displaced by “urban renewal” and gentrification. Here’s where Japanese-American men, women, children, and babies were imprisoned as “enemy aliens” after Pearl Harbor. Here’s where a community of working class people were wiped out by a catastrophic flood. We visit the spot where Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by racist skinheads in 1988, and around the corner is the Hollywood Max station, site of the 2017 version of the same damn thing. We finish at Clyde’s Prime Rib, the great jazz bar and restaurant that in the 1940s was the Coon Chicken Inn. After the four hour tour, half of the bus riders look like they want to slit their wrists. It’s draining and deflating.

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In this work, I’m used to being attacked by people on the right. It comes with the territory. White supremacists have labeled be a “race traitor” and were doxxing me long before that was even a word. Conservatives call me a “libtard,” and a communist and are convinced that white privilege is a hoax and that discussions of implicit bias is a liberal tool to generate a false white guilt.

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It’s the attacks from the left that are more debilitating. It’s very in vogue for self-proclaimed radicals to bash “white liberals” these days, and much of it (as a self-proclaimed radical) I must say is deserved. As James Baldwin once said, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” But my work is about bringing people into liberation movements, so I worry attacking the people who are trying to be part of the solution will have an opposite effect. The (young) left can be very dogmatic and humorless, not allowing people to find the most effective path for themselves on this collective path. “Oh, you made an inappropriate comment? You’re out and I’m going to get my righteous posse to kick your ass out the door. Whose streets? Not yours.”

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I was on a panel this week for an amazing program called Race Talks; monthly community conversations about issues related to race and racism. This month’s talk was about how to be a white ally. The organizer called me and asked me to participate and who else should be on the panel. I suggested a young African-American activist who had recently been on my podcast. His position on the issue was provocative but important. My interview with him really helped me grow. So I was excited when we were all up on the stage together in front of a crowd so big they had to create an overflow room. I was prepared to talk about lessons learned about being a white ally and how to take a back seat in others’ liberation movements. I even wrote some notes. I never got to use them.

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Instead of the the woman who organized the panel moderating the discussion (as she had planned), our one black panelist decided he would ask the questions (in what could be framed as an act of male privilege). Questions like how the white people on the panel had burned people of color with their efforts to “help” and what reparations were we paying to make amends for our white privilege. I told you he was provocative. And these were important, valid questions. I’m not sure how it helped the standing-room-only crowd learn to be racial allies (in fact it probably scared a few folks away from the whole idea), but it certainly gave me one of those uncomfortable situations I encourage people to put themselves in.

One of his points is that his time is valuable and he should not be expected to help white people with their racism without compensation. I totally agree. Before the event, I messaged him and said I was looking forward to the panel. I wanted to thank him for taking the time to  be on my podcast. In the South we do that by buying folks beer.

Me: I owe you a beer. Let me buy you one tonight.

Him: I don’t drink.

Me: How about a salad. LOL

Him: I find salads offensive.

I made a joke about the salad. Apparently, I offended him. He trotted out this interchange to the packed room (and streaming on line) about “this white man” offering him a salad. I apologized for the offending comment and took it as a cue that I should probably think about my use of humor, something that has gotten me in trouble before. (I tried to acknowledge his point by getting out my wallet that only contained 3 bucks, which I placed on the table in front of him. In retrospect, that was probably seen as being a bit rude.) I really do think his point about being compensated for his efforts is valid. As the crowd thinned, some of the older African-Americans in the audience asked if I was okay. One said it was unfair that I had been ambushed like that. But I want to grow on these issues, so I’m trying to not go into a defensive mode and take everything as a learning experience.

I was still bruising when I got home and in true Trump fashion turned to Twitter and posted something that I would have not posted if I’d gone straight to bed.

“Tonight I learned what my white guilt cost”

Tweets don’t die quietly (just ask Donald). But I engaged in the conversation that lasted into the following morning. I learned a lot, including about the meaningful discussion of reparations. The income gap between whites and blacks due to generations of oppression is real and continues to widen. I believe that any reparations should come from the government (the collective “us”). It’s unfair to expect some poor white person to shoulder the responsibility. But there are lots of ways white people can participate that are meaningful.

Reparations site asks people to ‘offset your privilege’ with acts of kindness

I mentioned that I would address this issue in my blog and included a link to a recent blogpost on white privilege. I desperately wanted these fellow ant-racist activists to see I was not the enemy, just in a parallel lane on this journey. I got accused of invading a “black space” to promote my blog. It seemed anything I did or said, I was already convicted of being the bad guy. I was trying to understand their landscape, but I was somehow now the enemy. I offered to link my interview with this young activist to his PayPal account in hopes that people that listened would consider supporting his work through contributions. He said no. “I have been severely traumatized by your self-promotion over the last few days,” he wrote.

Sometimes you feel like you just can’t win. It sucks not being perfect in the eyes of others who apparently are perfect. Sometimes you are tempted to give up and let others do the work. When I was in grad school, I almost did my masters thesis on Appalachian quilt makers instead of Nazi skinheads. Think how different my life would be. Think of all the quilts I would have! But this is my life’s work, so I soldier on, learning from my mistakes.

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In the last few years I’ve learned the concept of “self care” and that it’s okay to be mindful of how hard this work can be and sometimes it’s okay to take a day off the fight and gorge on ice cream. One of the other panelists from that night, No Hate Zone founder Sam Sachs, called me to make sure I was alright after the panel/Twitter/Facebook public thrashing I got from my friends on the left. He told me my work is vitally important and has changed lives. It was just what I needed to hear.

To all those engaged in the struggle for human liberation, it is important that we keep each other’s feet to the fire, so we come from a place of empathy and not ego. It is also important to remember that we are all imperfect in our humanity and in our path to our common goals of equality, so treating each other with kindness and love is key. I am not one to suffers fools gladly, even when that fool is me. We can be hard on ourselves for our imperfections and mistakes and our failures. The moral arc of the universe is long, but we’ll get there. Give us a break.

And since this will likely be picked up by some of those young radicals who will confidently accuse me of being a “self-promoting” asshole, let me just say I love you and will see you a little further down the road.

Super important endnote: No matter how much fatigue a white person feels doing this work, it’s always going to be more fatiguing to be black in America. People of color don’t get to take a “self-care” day off.

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