Imagining a Time After Nations

July 20, 2018

“Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do.” – John Lennon

I was sitting in a refugee center in Leeds, England yesterday, listening to the story of migrants from many places, including Syria, Slovakia, and Kenya. Most are in a bind as the British nation decides what to do with the disastrous Brexit decision. The United Kingdom had been a part of the European Union, allowing Europeans to move freely about the continent. In 2016, while just enough Americans were voting (motivated, in part, by racist fears) for Donald “Would/wouldn’t” Trump, just enough Brits were voting (motivated, in part, by racist fears) to leave the EU.

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Would Polish migrants have to leave friends and family and move back to Poland? Italians? Slovaks? Is the Britain just for the British? And what about the Syrian dentist who now has to work as London cab driver because his dental school credentials were no longer valid after he fled the war zone with his family? Who was “English” in a nation that proclaimed the global empire of Britannia? The black Jamaican? The brown Hindu? Racist groups like the English Defense League chant “Britain first!” (and Trump retweets their Islamaphobic posts), but who is “English” in the land invaded by Romans and Anglo-Saxons?

There was a time when there were no countries. Dinosaurs didn’t live in “Switzerland.” There was no Switzerland (formed in 1291 C.E.). Humans have walked the earth for 100,000 years and countries have barely been around for 2000 of those years. We had “tribes” and “lands,” but nations didn’t begin to appear until Japan was founded in 660 B.C.E., then San Marino (in what is now Italy) was founded in 301 B.C.E., and China was founded in 221 B.C.E.. People didn’t need passports 2000 years ago or even 200 years ago.

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When I want to start my classroom discussion of the African slave trade, I draw on the chalkboard a picture of the Earth “upside down,” with Africa and South America on the top. The students are always confused and then I tell them that the little land mass pointing upward is Florida. They get it and laugh. The point is that white people created maps with their countries on top and black and brown people are “below.” North is “up.”

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I’m old enough to remember the pictures of Earth from Apollo 8, fifty years ago. I was Cozy’s age and wondered where all the lines were that divided states and countries. My state was the pink one. Where was “Pacific Ocean” imprinted in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Was this a picture of Earth before men built walls and declared the people on the other side to be “murderers and rapists?” Or was this a picture from our future, after nations became obsolete?

In science fiction, aliens live on planets, not in countries. Spock was from Vulcan, not some country on Vulcan. Luke Skywalker was Tatooine, and all Tatooinoids hung together. What do they know that we don’t? If the Klingons can have planetary unity, why can’t we? But there we go planting American flags on the moon. God knows what Trump’s SPACE FORCE is going to do to Uranus.

As I wrote last week, no nation is guaranteed permanence. There will be a time when the United States of America ceases to exist. (It feels like that might be sooner than later.) There is also a time coming when no nations, in general, will exist. The question is – will we be here to enjoy that evolution in human existence, when there is no need for man made borders? Nation states? Meh.

This work I’m doing in Europe has reminded me of the limitation of these political inventions called “nations.” It seems like we should be smarter than this by now. While fascists clamor for a new nationalism so they can push some group out, more people see themselves as global citizens. A 2016 survey of 20,000 people in 18 countries found that half saw themselves as global, instead of national, citizens (30% of Germans and 73% of Nigerians). As Cozy recently told me, “Daddy, we don’t live in America, we live in Portland!”

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So many of our problems are caused by the existence of these silly things called countries. That includes wars and economic exploitation. It’s OK that people suffer in factories to make our smart phones and other “can’t live without” items because they’re in other countries. It’s not like they’re real people. It’s us verses them, people (and non-people). Maybe we should go back to a time when there was only the various peoples of the Planet Earth.  Would that be such a bad thing? The Vulcans would deem it logical.

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Butterflies for the Children of Aleppo

December 1, 2016

What can we do? Can we dance while the children of Aleppo are being slaughtered? Can we smile while the last doctors pull the ball bearings from Russian-backed Syrian regime cluster bombs out of the spines of toddlers? The monarch butterfly only lives for six months. Do we have a right to enjoy its beauty knowing that its wings will soon be broken against the wheel? What can we do? What did you when you saw little Omran in the ambulance? What will we do now that we have seen him?

Wounded Syrian Kid Omran Daqneesh

The siege of Aleppo continues unabated. The once bustling city has been hollowed out by Syrian and Russian jets dropping barrel bombs that spread explosions of shrapnel which decapitate children every single day. The innocent civilians cry to the sky. “Where are you, world? How are you letting this happen to our loved ones?” And the world Tweets something clever, indifferent. #WeirdBathroomConvos

History will ask where we were in 2016 while this horror happened. Just like it asked where where were in 1994 during the Rawandan genocide and where we were in 1975 during the mass killings in Cambodia. We are always in the same place; dancing with our eyes closed.

In 1993, I was in eastern Europe, doing my dissertation work on new fascist youth movements. The civil war in Yugoslavia was in full swing and Bosnian refugees were streaming out of the country with horror stories beyond belief. I tried to make it to Sarajevo, but the city was under a murderous siege and all travel in was closed.

It was a sunny day in Prague so I went to Josefov, the old Jewish quarter, to soak up the sun and some relevant history. There was an exhibit about the internment of Jews in the German concentration camp in nearby Terezin. Toward the end of the war, Hitler didn’t want the world to think his camps were so bad, so he invited the Red Cross to tour the camp in Terezin. The barracks were cleaned, prisoners that were sickly were quickly shipped off to Auschwitz, and the children were given art supplies to show the kindness of the Nazis.

What kind of art would children in a Nazi death camp create?

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The exhibit had some of their art preserved over the decades. The art was their escape. Amid certain death they drew pictures of red birds and green butterflies flying though perfectly blue skies.

Later that day I was in the Old Town Square in the Staré Mesto part of Prague. In an abandoned storefront people had created an exhibit about the war in Yugoslavia to raise awareness about the violence nearby in the Balkans. The exhibit included art by Bosnian Muslim refugee children whose parents had been killed by Serbian soldiers.

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When kind of art would the children of ethnic cleansing create?

Crayola crayon drawings of red birds and green butterflies flying through perfectly blue skies.

I walked outside and wept that this was happening again. And this time it was happening on my watch. I sat down in the Charles Bridge over the Vlatava River and wrote this.

Terezin Revisited

Kids in cages, kids in camps

Kids on TV, kids on maps

Crayon dreams of simple pleasures

A blue bird and a yellow sun

cross with grey sketches

of a brother being hung

Playground mortar shell

interrupts an afternoon soccer match

Late night round up

Out of bed shouting family snatch

The innocent monsters of childhood

are traded for the nightmare monsters of mankind

Kids in cages, kids in camps

Kids on TV, kids on maps

Twinkle, twinkle, night lights off so far

Doomed by the brands of moons and stars

Red rockets fly from mountain tops

Yellow bayonets from ghetto cop cars

When I grow up I want to be alive

I want to be married to a brave prince

with Mommy and Daddy smiling

But instead I go to Srebrenica or Auschwitz

“Never again” is an empty cry as Sarajevo’s children

relive the genocide plans of the ruling mind.

I wonder what type of art the children of Aleppo are creating now, in those precious moments between bombings and siblings dying. I imagine drawings of red birds and green butterflies flying through perfectly blue skies.

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Andrea and I have been crippled by the images of Syrian children creeping into our mundane lives as parents in America. How can we look away? We are somehow complicit as “strong leader” Putin continues to bomb civilians. What can we do? Could butterflies help?

Andrea made the decision to use her artistic shoulder to slow the wheel. She is doing a series of  paintings of Monarch butterflies, the symbol of her home in Michoacan, Mexico and symbolic of the great migrations we make to live and reproduce. She will be debuting them at my reading at Music Millennium on Saturday. All proceeds go to UNICEF Aleppo Relief. They will also be available on her website (andreabarriosart.com) for only $40 (they come with a little easel). It’s one way relieve an ounce of the suffering of children who do not deserve the hell of adult politics.

In addition, 10% of the sales for my new novel, The Dream Police, are going to UNICEF Aleppo Relief. It’s not much but if the book does well, it might be.

I think of all the places that children suffer from the actions of adults; Syria, South Sudan, Chicago. I think about food contaminated with plastics and guns in schools and lead in water. I think about how much we don’t think about our children and I want to turn into a butterfly and fly away.

Please help UNICEF help Syrian children by donating here: UNICEF

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What would you do to save your child? #Weareallimmigrants

WARNING: This article contains an image of dead child. It is an important picture but be ready.

Sept. 7, 2015

I was looking forward to writing something a little less intense this week after pissing off Trumpies and frat boys and Trumpie frat boys. I was going to write a piece about having a one-year-old walking around the house. Then a news story came up about the on-going refugee crisis in Europe as people escape North Africa and the Middle East. A small child’s family was trying to escape the war zone in Syria and had drowned in the Mediterranean. His little body washed ashore in Bodrum, Turkey. His name was Aylan Kurdi. Please remember that name. Aylan Kurdi.

When I first read the story, it said he was believed to be one, the same age as my daughter, Cozette. I immediately exploded into a fit of tears. The thought of losing my beloved child in such a horrible and desperate way turned me inside out. How is this happening?  Apparently there was a picture of the dead toddler but I refused to see it. But this being the internet age, it popped up anyway and I fell to me knees. His corpse was face down in the sand, similar to the way Cozy often sleeps. His little shoes, probably put on by his father, reminded me of how I put Cozy’s shoes on for her big day. Aylan’s big day was his last.

I wondered why everyone in the world wasn’t being forced to look at this picture. We are forced to look at Kim Kardashian’s selfies on a regular basis. This picture is a mirror of the world in 2015. It is the denial of the humanity of immigrants and, therefore, the denial of our humanity. The “news” distracts us with celebrity gossip or what stupid lie Donald Trump has told his flock this week, or how some bigot in Kentucky looks like Kathy Bates in Misery. This one image says everything you need to know about life on Earth right now. I wasn’t going to include it in this blog, but, AS PARENT, I HAVE TO.

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If this is your first time seeing it, please take some time to weep. I’m weeping as I write this and then I will tell you why we need to look at this image.

This post is not about Donald Trump. It is about the hateful xenophobia he represents. When he talks about “illegals” and Mexican immigrants being “rapists and killers,” he is denying three very important truths. 1) Repeated studies show that immigrants COMMIT LESS CRIME than non-immigrants. But racists want to believe this lie and Trump and various versions of him in Europe hand it over to bigots looking for an excuse to build walls. 2) Those “illegals” do most of the dirty work in America (and Europe) in this marketplace of labor that nobody else will do. They are not taking jobs away from anybody. And, on top of the hellish conditions they often work in, they are paying taxes (including sales, property, Social Security taxes that they may never get back). 3) Most importantly, they are human beings, just like Donald Trump and you and I. They are not beaners, wetbacks, hajis, rapists or jihadists. They are people who just want a safe and secure home. If you have ever had a child and you see this picture of Aylan, you understand that.

Many of you know my wife was an “illegal alien.” She came from Mexico and crossed from Piedras Negras into Arizona in the middle of the night with the help of two “Coyotes,” like the smugglers who promised to ferry Aylan’s family across the sea. She did not come here to kill or rape anybody. She was eight-years-old. Her mother brought her here because she thought she could give her daughter a better life in the USA. It wasn’t easy, she lost a shoe on a train track and had to hide in caves. When she finally made it across the border, carried by an older man, her group was caught by the border patrol and little Andrea spent her first night in America in jail before being deported. Fortunately, she and her mother had better luck the next night.

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I tell this very true story for two reasons. Despite the conspiracy stories that Trump and other fascist hate mongers spin (“The clever Mexican government is sending their worst people…”), the reality is that most people are just trying to make a better life for themselves and especially their children.  If you were a parent living in the Congo or Honduras or Syria, you would do everything possible to get your family to a safe place, where you could work and your children might not be murdered or be forced to become soldiers or sold into sex slavery. You might even break a law. Do not say you would not.

The second point is that so many of the these immigrants around the world are children. A 2010 Pew Center study found that of the 11.1 undocumented immigrants in the United States, over one million are children (much different from Trump’s image). Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 9.30.16 AMThe number of refugees displaced by the war in Syria is growing. The current count is 12 million Syrians who have been displaced by the fighting and 4 million of those are now in other countries. Half of those are children under 18. These are not terrorists or jihadists. They are children who want what all children want, a warm bed, food and to know their parents are OK.

The comments of presidential candidate Donald Trump and Hungarian president Viktor Orban lead me to believe either they have some bizarre misinformation about who all these immigrants are or they are deeply evil men. Deeply evil men followed by either ignorant or equally evil people. To see a parent trying to bring a child to safe stable environment and see “rapist” or “jihadist” is nothing short of sociopathic.

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The reality is that we are all immigrants. Ever since Homo erectus walked out of eastern Africa 2 million years ago we have been on the move. We walked across continents and sailed across oceans. Over 20,000 years ago the first Americans arrived along the west coast and down to Chile. And we are still moving. The Blazaks were Czech, but we were probably Polish before that. Europeans moved as much as anybody else. Some, like Native Americans and Latinos in the Southwest moved and then were colonized by other migrants. The same thing happened to the British when the Vikings showed up. And if you’ve ever moved across county lines to find a better life somewhere else, you are an immigrant. If it’s not you, it’s probably your parents.

As a parent, I am ready to move for a better school or a better job to provide for my child. I may emigrate to Georgia or Mexico or Southern Oregon. Each place has it’s unique laws and culture. We will be outsiders and not “real (insert geographic identity here)” and because we are from Portland, they may think we are pot heads or music snobs or, horror of horrors, Vegan liberals. We tend to think anybody who comes to a place after us are lowly interlopers. “I’ve lived in this Portland neighborhood since 1999, before all these lame ass hipsters and gentrifiers moved in! This is MY neighborhood!!!” said I, more than once.

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The horrific scenes coming out of Europe have dominated the news there all summer. Here it was more about Duggar sex scandals and “Is Rachel Dolezal black???” Even the American media downplays the crisis by referring to refugees as “migrants,” like they just want to move to Germany to work at McDonalds. These people are fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; wars that we had a significant role in ramping up. Just as Obama continued George W. Bush’s wars in the Middle East, Clinton signed George H.W. Bush’s NAFTA legislation, creating the economic situation that has driven so many Latin Americans northward. The point is whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you can share in the blame for the misery that forces families to risk life and limb to find a better life for their children.

So, immigrants and children of immigrants (that includes my Native American friends and Aboriginal people around the world), lets do something. Let’s recognize the common love and dedication parents have for their children.

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Aylan Kurdi was a three-year-old boy who, with his five-year-old brother and mother, drowned when their small overcrowded boat capsized. They had been on a tortuous journey from their home in Kobani, Syria, destroyed by the duel tyranny of Bashar and ISIS, and were trying to get to a family member in Vancouver, B.C.. Alyan’s father, Abdullah, tried to hold on to his family but lost them in the high waves. He was just trying to give them a secure future but he lost everything. I have to believe that I would have made many of the same decisions as Abdullah for my family in that situation, as well as the parents who cross the border to work (not to commit crimes) in America and send their wages back to their family. When I see those children, I see my child and myself.

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So let’s reject the stereotypes and the fear-mongering. Europeans (Christians, Muslims and others), including in Hungary, have been coming to the refugee camps with food and clothes and begging to help. (Of course, others want to build a new wall in Europe.) On U2’s opening European show in Italy last week, Bono asked the audience, “What do you want? A Europe with its heart and its borders closed to mercy? Or a Europe with its heart open? What do you want? A place called home.” Sunday, Pope Francis asked European Catholics to open their doors. “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe host a family, starting from my diocese of Rome,” he said.

Can you imagine conservative Christians coming to the Mexican border with food and blankets in true spirit of Jesus and saying, “Welcome to your new home. You’re safe now. What can we do to help?”  Mike Huckabee might burst into flames.

The images are too much, you have to do something. Andrea was reading the news from Europe in tears. She was thinking of her own journey, but most of all of our daughter. Aylan looked like Cozy and the kids getting tear gassed in Hungarian camps look like Cozy. We’re both not working but we made a $100 contribution to Mercy Corps’ Syrian Refugee Fund. It’s just a little something, but it’s something. Andrea is going to volunteer with Mercy Corps and I’m looking into other ways to spread the word.

If you are a parent and you are moved by the picture of little Aylan, I would ask you to do two things after reading this. First, think about what you would do to keep your family safe and secure. And second, I would ask you to do something to help immigrants and refugees somewhere in the world. That child could be your child.

Ways to help (They need more than prayers):

Mercy Corps

Save the Children

World Vision

These 6 groups you may not know are doing important work to help Syrian refugees.

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