Bridging the Great American Divide: Stepping back from the cliff that is Civil War II

February 1, 2021

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.

OK, I’ll call my dad. 

2018 in Review – Grow up and see the world

December 31, 2018

It’s a universal truth – time passes more quickly as you get older. The span from 1970 to 1978 seemed to be a millennia when I was a kid. The jump from 2010 to 2018 was just a minute. And it doesn’t seem much has changed in those years (other than the fact we had a sane intelligent grown-up in the White House). The #1 song the first week of 2010 was Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK.” Think about the change of music from the beginning of 1960 to the end of 1968 – Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” What was new in 2018?

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It’s hard to sum up a block of 365 days. When I think of every stupid thing Donald Trump has done in 2018, I also think of Black Panther, the March for Our Lives, and the massive blue wave that brought the grown-ups back to Congress in November. It seemed like this would be the year that Mueller brought down Baby Trump, but let the man take his time and do it right. There are currently 17 (known) investigations related to Trump. There have been numerous indictments, guilty pleas, and prison sentences so far in this “witch hunt.” Trump is the guy who famously said, “I surround myself with the best people. I know the best people.” 2019 will be fun.

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The madness of King Donald aside, 2018 on the home-front has been an exciting year that has seen my feet stepping on to more airplanes than ever. My work on extremism has taken me all over the world, including a UN workshop in Abu Dhabi, UAE, as well as scholarly meetings in Oslo, Norway and Washington DC. There were a few presentations in NYC, one in Chicago, and a ten-day community leader exchange to the UK to study countering violent extremism programs. My participation in DC on a congressional panel on hate groups was covered live on C-SPAN. And I did dozens of local presentations and trainings. Andrea came with me for the Oslo (via London) trip and I had a blast bringing Cozy with me on one of the New York trips. (That girl can now hail a cab.) So many highlights.

Every time I left the USA, people wanted to understand what’s happened to America? How could we let something like Donald Trump happen? I had to remind them that all countries have problems with isolationist nationalist demagogues. We just happened to end up with one who was a TV star. This also weighed heavily when Andrea and Cozy went to Mexico this year and we had to have multiple plans in case the racist Trump immigration policy (You don’t hear about any Canadians being deported) separated mother and child at the border.

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On a personal level, the search for full time work continues. But I seemed to be working a lot, regardless. I clocked in a full year of teaching at Portland Community College with some of the most amazing and dedicated students I’ve ever had in my almost 30 years of teaching. I conducted numerous diversity trainings and led workshops for teachers. This year saw the birth of Randy Blazak Consulting LLC, to facilitate the work I do on criminal cases and consulting projects for the city. And of course, there were the weekly educational bus tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. The best part was the fact that Andrea began her teaching work at Portland State and we could grade papers together.

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I don’t know how to summarize a year. It seems like we started the year with a government shutdown and here we are again. I do know that Cozy went from 3 to 4, and that’s a light year in child development. She started the year ballet dancing in the living room and she’s ending 2018 by teaching us how to hula dance. My favorite new thing has been Andrea and my YouTube channel, Vinyl Fetish, where you can find us (often after too many drinks) discussing records. 2018 whizzed by like a whir of images; Finding Andrea in a record store in Oslo, Cozy heading off to see a Broadway musical (Frozen), me seeing Donald Trump in the back of his presidential limo, tweeting as he pulled into the White House. I have a feeling 2019 will be much more real, especially after the Democrats set up shop in the House.

I didn’t keep up my furious blogging schedule in 2019, but I did get some good pieces out (along with a piece for Huffington Post). Of the 43 articles on a wide variety of topics, my piece on Brett Kavanaugh and bro culture was the most popular post, followed by my Handmaid’s Tale-inspired “America is Becoming a Dystopian Nightmare: What Do We Do Now???” There will be plenty to write about in 2019 as Trump’s house of cards caves in, Cozy turns 5, Andrea and I settle into our roles as teachers, and patriarchy tries to desperately hold on to its violent reign of terror.

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Let me revisit one of my favorite moments of 2018, meeting Gloria Steinem at a event I was speaking at in Manhattan. I asked her how she was explaining the whole Trump thing. She said, very clearly, that the moment a women is most at risk of being murdered by her abuser is when she is finally breaking free of him. We won’t be murdered. Let’s break free in 2019.

 

2018 WTW Posts

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Let’s End Duality: Make America Grey Again (January 4, 2018)

In Defense of the Classroom (January 12, 2018)

Our White Supremacist President (January 16, 2018)

Gender – Nature vs. Nurture 7: Baby – Toddler – Girl (January 25, 2018)

Confronting Ableism by “Looking” in the Mirror (February 5, 2018)

On becoming the working poor or How I robbed Peter to pay Paul (February 9, 2018)

The Vinyl Fetish Club is here for your sexy music needs (February 14, 2018)

America is eating its young. Maybe it’s time to get the hell out. (February 15, 2018)

Generation Z will turn this gunship around (February 23, 2018)

My Conversation with Gloria Steinem (March 2, 2018)

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Masculinity Isn’t Toxic. Toxic Masculinity Is (March 9, 2018)

Dad Love: An Open Letter to Non-Breeders (March 19, 2018)

What Do We Give the World? (March 29, 2018)

Jukebox Hero 3: Right Here, Right Now Watching the World Wake Up (April 5, 2018)

Dropping F Bombs and White Privilege (April 12, 2018)

Talking About Gender and Violence in the Middle East (April 19, 2018)

Incels: Just the latest chapter in the war on women (April 26, 2018)

Jukebox Hero 4: I’m Wide Awake – U2 (Part 2) (April 29, 2018)

Get out of your country! (May 15, 2018)

Entering the Phallic Phase: Psychoanalytic Feminists, Help! (May 24, 2018)

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Guest Essay: The Status of Women by Andi Barrios (May 31, 2018)

Thinking about Racial Reparations (June 10, 2018)

Watching America die, I sent a Statue of Liberty to Donald Trump (June 20, 2018)

America is Becoming a Dystopian Nightmare: What Do We Do Now??? (June 28, 2018)

We’re all intersectional (just some more than others) (July 6, 2018)

Witnessing the end of the American Century from the former British Empire (July 14, 2018)

Imagining a Time After Nations (July 20, 2018)

What I’ve Learned about Countering Violent Extremism (is the opposite of what I’ve been told to believe) (August 3, 2018)

What Do We Do About the Nazis After Charlottesville? (August 11, 2018)

My best friend is 4 (August 17, 2018)

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Can I be a feminist, too? (August 24, 2018)

She ain’t heavy, she’s my daughter: Trying to understand child abuse (August 31, 2018)

Are you “friends” with a Russian bot? Taking a stand against idiocracy (September 13, 2018)

Stop saying racists are bad people (September 21, 2018)

Brett Kavanaugh and Bro Culture: Let’s Look in the Mirror (September 28, 2018)

Columbus Day: Celebrating child rapists (October 7, 2018)

Taking Manhattan with a 4-year old (October 23, 2018)

President Trump is not smart enough not to throw America into a civil war (October 29, 2018)

At which mass shooting will your loved ones be killed? (November 8, 2018)

I’ve been given a small space, against the wall (November 19, 2018)

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Stone Mountain is a rock with a lot of racial baggage: Finding solutions (November 22, 2018)

“I just had to let it go…” On Parenting and Mortality (December 8, 2018)

Dad’s Top 10 Favorite New LPs of 2018 (December 20, 2018)

2018 in Review – Grow up and see the world (December 31, 2018)