I Think Something Similar Happened with Ivan the Terrible

I’ve lately heard some friends talk about how low the Trumpers will go in their tolerance for their president. And I’m afraid it doesn’t matter how morally repugnant Trump is as long as he can stock the courts and give hell to the “illegals.” To his supporters, the ends justify the means. Dearies. Have you ever been in an argument with somebody like that? You realize, at some point, that they seek to win at any cost—even if it means sacrificing any mutual respect, trust, or goodwill that has ever grown between you. And this suggests that although, in the end, they may win their fight, they’ll have lost the relationship. In this case, of course, it will be a relationship with half the country (and possibly a large portion of the world). And if I were a Trumper, I would think very carefully before accepting a sacrifice like that.

A friend once said she wondered what would happen to the arch right if they finally succeeded in mangling the courts to the point where they toppled Roe v. Wade and marriage equality. What would the conservatives have left to rally around? Who would be their grand enemy then?

I’m guessing it would be immigrants, seeing that Trump is already promising to “save ICE.” That will be his battlecry for the midterm elections. We liberals need to be very cautious about how much we let him frame that contest.

And as for the Republicans, I suggest (again) that they reconsider who they’ve let into their bed. Trump rallies people behind him by pointing to enemy after enemy. That’s what bullies do. The trouble is that there always has to be an enemy. And this means that if you let Trump do everything he wants to quash women’s rights, gay rights, and immigrant rights, you better have some other scapegoats to feed him after he’s done. If you don’t, his enemy might well become you. And then, because you’ll have driven off everyone else in the meantime, there will be no one left to spare you from the very country you saved.

New Year’s Eve, 2017

This year, I lost my grandfather. I reckoned with the possibility that my thousand-page novel is a failure that could push me toward surrendering my vocation for a more useful line of work. And in Trump, I have watched the equivalent of a maniac locking himself in my centuries-old family home, and using my great-great-grandmother’s cello to smash everything in the house. I have never felt so ineffective in my life.

If you’re like me, you’re tired. Even just perceived ineffectiveness is exhausting. And honestly, I don’t even know if I’ll stay awake until midnight. But I also know that those who oppose us—both personally and politically—want us to be tired. They want us to perceive our ineffectiveness. And as far as Trump is concerned, I deeply believe he breaks some things in that house, just because it harms us to do so.

So, in pondering all this, I’ve begun to treat it as a kind of depression. People call depression the noonday demon, and I suppose this is because depression can possess. Or at the very least, it can dispossess us of our best sense of self. And in this case, I think our best sense resides in our identity as Americans. That is, we are people who live in a functional democracy where the will of the majority matters. We are educated folk who live in a reality where facts matter. We build our entire justice system on the basis of reason and proof. But suddenly we are at the hands of a government who has abandoned those things, and we’re left wondering where the justice will come from now. We have a president and a Congress who, say in passing a wildly unpopular tax law, have asserted time and again that the majority doesn’t matter. More than that, the facts don’t matter. And all that seems to matter is strength and deceit. 

But I’m here to tell you that this is the lie. Despite what they tell us, we are effective. We have sustained an investigation that may well lead to impeachment. We have stopped a bigoted sexual criminal from holding power in Alabama. We continue to punch holes through Trump’s travel ban. We have built no wall. We have seen our states implement laws that address climate change, even when Trump will not. We’ve seen our cities designate themselves as immigration sanctuaries. We’ve seen businesses—from Cards Against Humanity to 84 Lumber—plant their flag against xenophobia. We’ve donated more to the ACLU than ever before. On television, we devote hours and hours to truth telling. We publish whole magazines that criticize Trump—and I’m talking about TIME, sure, but also Business Insider and the Economist. By our talking, by our writing, and by our comedy, we provoke Trump to lie—which is to say we provoke him to squirm—and that means, dearies, that we are effective. Don’t listen to those who tell you otherwise. That’s how they take hold.

Keep writing; you never know who’s reading. I say this both to you and to myself. Once, a little Russian bot showed up one of my posts. Another time, a Trumpite threatened me physical harm. Both times, I whooped with vindication. If nothing else—if nothing else ever—someone acknowledged the fact of my own resistance. Keep reading; the bad news pelts us to the point where it’s easy to turtle up, but the truth is in the details—which means that justice is in the details—and anyway, our opponents eschew details in favor of the propagandist’s slogan, and we cannot let them control the conversation. Keep reading scripture. Please. It doesn’t matter if you believe it– because our opponents do. It matters to them more than fact. Their interpretation of it is more self-serving than it is comprehensive—and this means that if you argue it with any ability at all, you can maybe change minds. Keep marching. There’s an impeachment demonstration on Jan. 20. Keep active. One of the advantages of our facing such widespread threats, is that we don’t have to look hard to find ways to be of use. Work in a soup kitchen, or a phone bank, or a legal aid group. Speak up at work. Write—again, write. Especially if you live in a conservative area, write letters to the editor. Use what you’re good at. Grab something and pull. You’ll keep from feeling ineffective this way. You’ll warm yourself with your own light. And that means you won’t get as tired while you fight.

The grandfather I lost: He was an American history teacher. He was, among other things, a corpsman on a medical ship during WWII. When he wrote his master’s thesis, he was such an advocate for African American rights that his readers thought he was black himself. One of the last things he gave me was a check—of $100—to “go help the Indians” at Standing Rock. The man fought for his country. And I believe that to honor him—and those millions like him—we have to fight too, in 2017 and 2018, and probably right on up until our grandkids remember what we did. They will remember what we did. So keep doing.

I admit that despite all this, there’s a part of me that would risk basic human ingratitude to say, “Begone, 2017, and take your stink with you.” And maybe, for reasons both shared and personal, you’d say the same. We’d probably also agree that a new month of a new year won’t so much change anything. Broken things won’t reassemble—and Trump won’t turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, no matter how much we hope. But I like the idea of renewal just the same: Something that rolls over in the night—something as smooth and cool and whole as the moon. Tonight, for as late as I stay up, I’ll remember you, my friends. I’ll give you the kiss of hope and peace. You and I are still here. And those of us who aren’t still urge us—now more than ever—to carry the fight.

(Originally posted December 31, 2017)

Child Sacrifice

Well, the tax scam just became law, and I’m left thinking of the Canaanite god, Moloch. This creature was shaped like a man with bull’s horns, and it demanded child sacrifice. To curry his favor, his followers ritually burned their children to death. They beat drums to drown out their screams. Yeah, happy holidays to you.

As far as we can tell, this cult was real; the Moloch sacrifices persist in ancient literature, and some scholars tie him to Cronus. (Honestly, I wonder if there’s some attachment to the minotaur, on account of the bull head, child-killing thing.) At any rate, it happens that the Bible is extremely harsh on the Moloch cult. If you sacrificed your kid to Moloch, you were supposed to die. The Ammonites were a neighboring tribe that worshipped an incarnation of Moloch, and because of this—and maybe some other things—God basically commanded a genocide against these guys. (Disquieting, yes. But actually, the massacre doesn’t really happen, because despite all the biblical tales of conquest, the Ammonites keep coming back chapter after chapter. And this makes me think the genocide command was maybe a figurative description of God’s hatred, in part, of child sacrifice. ie. I never want you kill your children for me; no really, wipe out that practice entirely.) So.

Why am I saying this? Trump’s tax law. It is true that under this law, the tax credit for each child is doubled. Also, if you want to send your kid to a private—say, Christian—school, or even a home school, you’ll get subsidies for that. But by capping state and local tax deductions at $10,000 per household, there is a very real possibility that local taxes that protect public schools will become horridly unpopular. (Mostly because the deduction cap will make them cost more.) In addition to addling K-12, this unpopularity will likely reach into the public university system where, to compensate, tuition will probably rise. And mind you, this deduction cap affects government-funded initiatives across the board. So if your high school is in trouble, so is, say, your state-run home for disabled adults, to speak nothing of free health clinics. (Hmm…) Now in addition to all this, let’s consider the killing of the health-insurance mandate, which experts say will cause premium rates to soar. Furthermore, the CBO estimates that thanks to this plan, 13 million people will go without health insurance. And as a cherry on top of all that, the cuts will raise our deficit by $1.5 trillion. How does the GOP plan to tackle some of this deficit? Here’s Paul Ryan, earlier in December: “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit … Frankly, it’s the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health care entitlements — because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.” Health care entitlements. For… CEOs maybe? Well, business just enjoyed the largest tax cut in history. And the super rich now have a 35 percent tax rate instead of 39.6. So maybe not. So are the entitled those who can’t afford insurance? Like maybe single, working mothers? Or those on a fixed income? Or maybe our children, who, in any event, will have to bear the bloated deficit? Oh yeah. The children. That’s where we started. Congress has already shown their hand here, by ignoring the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which starts to run out of money on Jan. 21. Twenty-five states will lose CHIP funding by then, resulting in a healthcare lapse for 1.9 million kids. For those of us keeping score, both parts of Congress will be in session on January 3-5, 8-11, 16-19, and 29-31. So they have eleven days to stop the lapse from happening. If Congress does not renew CHIP by the time all the money runs out, one in eight children will go without health insurance.

I’ve written such a long post that comparatively few people will read, because 1) I’m procrastinating on the last part of my book, 2) because I’m trying to get my head around the tax bamboozle, and 3) because I’m looking for ways to talk to our countrymen who have shut out so much reality in the name of fake news. Scripture has more authority for them than the press, or the universities, or really the public in general. (This might be another reason why they’re taking from the public schools to run their own.) So, with some fear and trembling, I suggest we use scripture too. In fact, I think all of us liberals should strap on the Bible, and become experts at it, and overcome our very-well justified reluctance to use scripture as a tool for argument. Our opponents might listen to us then. And if we don’t start listening to one another, my God we are looking at a civil war. So to the religious Republicans, I say this: If one of them sacrifices our children for his prosperity, then God will turn “against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit whoredom with Molech, from among their people*.” They’ll have committed a crime that should be blotted from the earth. It’s all in the reading. According to their own scriptures, the Republican Christians have used this tax plan to resort to demonism.

*You could say, “Hang on. That whore bit sounds as if what God is really peeved about is the idolatry.” And there’s something to that, the way that homosexuality was seen as a crime of idolatry. But God hates child sacrifice. See that little business with Isaac. See Micah. You can probably see other scripture too. My Bible well goes only so deep.

(Originally published December 22, 2017)


Raceriotism: 1. The practice of passing off one’s disgust for one segment of the population as love for the country that most of said population was born in. 2. The tendency to extend such practice into public gatherings, while wielding tiki torches and other yard implements, in hopes of starting mob violence against the target population. 3. (Rare) The occasional but irresistible urge to use words, during even serious conversations, that allow one to sound like Scooby Doo.

(Originally posted October 9, 2017)

Puerto Rico

When I was twelve, I went on a medical mission to Puerto Rico. I remember the crowds in San Juan—the people leaning against the airport windows. I remember the mishmash of traffic, of how because there was no regulation on what horns you could use, regular drivers blared police sirens. Outside the city, there was the jungled roll of the mountains. There was the sudden delight of a Baskin Robins. And there was the little restaurant in the middle of nowhere that we walked to when our bus broke down—a place that served the best chicken I had ever tasted (because, I later deduced, it had just been killed). 

Our clinic was in the mountains. But we stayed in a cinderblock bunkhouse that was on the beach. It was low. It had dorm rooms and a community shower. It had no outer doors. At night, when I stumbled across the hall to the bathroom, a crab skittered in the corridor. What I realize now that this structure was built to survive hurricanes. The wind would blow, the tides would rise, the building would flood, and then dry out. I imagine that in the mid century, folks had built bunkers like this throughout the island. You and I have lived in a hurricane lull since the 1960s. But those old islanders had grown up with the reality that when the storms came, you couldn’t ever keep them out.

In the mountains, we worked in a building that sat on stilts on account of the mudslides. I was the pharmacist’s assistant. My job was to sit by the stairs that led from the dentists (who made camp under the house) to the medical doctors (who had their exam rooms up top). At twelve, I couldn’t really handle medicine, so I gave packets of Tylenol and Fibertrim to people who didn’t need anything else. I made friends with a stray dog. I watched the fog in the valley. I listened to the cries of the dentist patients who endured tooth extractions with nothing more than novocain. I ate beans and rice in my medical scrubs. When I got home, my mother hugged me and treated me for lice. Then we missionaries had a potluck for our families, where we showed our commemorative slides.

The thrust of this trip waited to reveal itself to me until some point when I was in high school. During some dream, or day dream, or moment during a French test, I made the realization that among all the people who stood in line for my Fibertrim—among all the elderly, and the new mothers, and the soft-spoken men—some of them were, in fact, very sick. Despite what the pharmacist told me, I wasn’t giving all of our patients party favors. I was giving some of them consolation. I was giving Tylenol to people who had diabetes, and cancer, and heart disease—to people our penicillin and novocain could never help. And while I didn’t know that then, I’m sure that they did.

The truth of our helplessness in Puerto Rico came upon me late, like the spread of a burn. But like a burn, it has marked me. And I feel it all over again when I see how, in the wake of Maria, we continue to neglect that island. It enrages me that just this weekend Trump tweeted 17 times about the NFL, and not once about Maria. It enrages me that in front of the Spanish Prime Minister, Trump gave his administration’s storm response “tremendous reviews,” as he called it, while in the same week, he blamed Puerto Rico’s “massive debt” and “broken infrastructure” for the reason that Maria would put that island in “deep trouble.” It enrages me that a dozen years after Katrina, 3.5 million Americans wait in Puerto Rico, while the nursing homes have non-functioning elevators, and the stores have lines for blocks, and nearly half the populace still waits for clean water. It enrages me that our so-called president says that the reason it’s taking so long for us to help our brethren is because “you can’t just drive to Puerto Rico.” It has been a week since Maria hit—and may I remind you that being a hurricane, we knew for days ahead of time, where Maria would generally fall. It has been a week, and the mayor of San Juan has sent us what she calls an SOS. And it wasn’t until yesterday that we deployed our largest hospital ship from Norfolk to Puerto Rico. It will leave port in the next three days. It will reach Puerto Rico another five days after that. In the meantime, according to the mayor, medics have been on the island for two days, and still don’t know where they’re supposed to go. 

It enrages me that we Americans couldn’t do more to help one of our territories when I was twelve, and that we simply will not do more to help them now–and that both of those instances probably stem from the same colonialist reason. Trump says he’ll arrive in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, which is around the same day that the hospital ship will depart. I hope the Puerto Ricans don’t cheer him. I hope we don’t cheer when he comes home. With his malice, negligence and incompetence, he has already found a variety of ways to put blood on his hands. But over the next few days, he could could add the death of thousands.

(Originally posted September 27, 2017)

Activist Strategies

I’ve just read Rules for Resistance: Advice from Around the Globe for the Age of Trump. And I can’t recommend it highly enough. The majority of the book is a collection of articles that came out between November 2016 and January 2017, by authors who have lived in autocracies throughout the world. They recognize what Trump is trying to do; apparently it’s not all that original. They draw some unsettling parallels between him and especially Italy’s Berlusconi and India’s Thackeray. And they give some advice. (Note that this this is a long post—as it’s a kind of book report. But as it marches along, it tries to detail some basic things we can do as we face the latest episode of what is a long tradition of political manipulation.) TO RESIST TRUMP, THE WORLD SAYS WE MUST DO THE FOLLOWING:

1. WE MUST NOTICE THE PATTERN. People like Trump rise to power by convincing a large portion of the population that they suffer from a problem—or a set of problems. (The economy is bad. We face untold terror threats. Our cities are devouring themselves.) People like Trump say that they alone hold the solution to the problem. (I’m a businessman who can fix the money. Not even the generals know ISIS like I do. We have to get tougher on crime.) And people like Trump cap their movement by identifying enemies of the cause. (She’s a nasty woman. Elites have forgotten you. Mexicans are rapists. We need more loyalty.)

2. WE MUST NOTICE THE KILLING OF THE TRUTH. As they lodge their accusations, autocrats attack the truth-tellers almost at the start. They shut out news carriers from certain press events. (Consider the March 10 meeting with Russia, where Trump let Russian media in but not our own). They monkey with social media. (Consider Trump’s blocking people on Twitter). They accuse news outlets of spreading fake news. (Consider the Times and the Post.) They threaten reprisals (such as seeking to soften the libel strictures). And they even make noises about leaks and media treason (by referring to the 1917 Espionage Act). Autocrats usually replace fake news with their own brand—such as Fox and Breitbart. They typically appeal to emotions instead of reason. They lie and lie—and they don’t care that they get caught in the lie, but keep repeating the lie like a mantra or a slogan. And they do all of this in service to the pattern I mentioned above. 

3. WE MUST NOTICE OUR ROLE IN SAVING THE TRUTH. Journalists will continue to become enemies of the state as long they continue to expose the truth. In light of all that, the press should strengthen its union, set aside some kind of legal-aid fund for especially the smaller outlets, stop competing in service of the scoop and to start cooperating in service to the country. That’s good advice, but perhaps not immediately applicable to those of us who work only through social media. But the next suggestion gets us all: Amid umpteen accusations about fake news, you better be sure that your news is real. It doesn’t matter if you’re circulating a meme, or telling about what happened at a protest, or writing about a corporate policy. Do the work of checking the story’s source, and the story’s date, and the story’s details, and the facts that are especially the most appalling. Fall for any propaganda—on our side our theirs—and you become part of the propaganda. And the autocrat will happily label you as such.

4. WE MUST NOTICE OUR ROLE AS THE ENEMY. Journalist or not, you are what’s wrong with your country. That’s what the pattern says. You oppose the autocrat’s agenda, and he will therefore paint you as opposing both him and the victims he’s working to “save.” Now the reality is that as long as you stand up for the truth, you will oppose the autocrat. And that’s good. But as soon as you start to denigrate his victims, you play only deeper into the autocrat’s hands. This is so hard, because there are so many things—such as bigotry—that we must oppose at every turn. But this book asserts that as soon as we point at the other group of people, and blame them for all this mess, we are feeding the autocrat’s own narrative. He’s been telling them all along that we hate them. 

5. WE MUST NOTICE THE ROLE OF THE SOLUTION. The trick, God help us, is somehow to protect those endangered by the autocrat’s policies while not condemning the average dude who’s fallen for the guy who passes the policies themselves. And honestly, I don’t know how we do that. I once read about a village in France that saved 3000 Jewish children from the Nazis, all while never harming a Nazi. Instead they just prayed for the Nazis to stop ruining their own souls. Maybe the saints among us can do that. But for the rest, the book simply tells us to be the solution to the issue that the autocrat has identified as our country’s gravest threat. The autocrat’s pattern hinges on a problem—poverty, terror, crime. We have to make those things better—not just for us, but for the other guys. Harder still, we have to show the other guys we are part of the solution. And we have to overcome their prejudice enough for them to see it. This sounds nearly impossible—but here’s what happens if we fail: The autocrat will keep the ability to determine when the problem is “solved.” And that means it will never be solved, because 1) the autocrat really has no idea how to solve it and 2) he has no desire ever to solve it, because the struggle against the problem is what gives him his power. That’s why the problems are usually sweeping and abstract: The war on terror. The war on crime. The war on fiscal irresponsibility. “Our enemies are waging war on Christmas!” “Our enemies are waging war on Family Values!” “Our enemies are waging war on the American worker!” Those who oppose the autocrat have to find concrete, workable resolutions in the face of this baloney: maybe better cooperation with Muslims as a means of defeating extremists; better solutions to poverty and better policing of guns; better control of corporate interests in government; better distribution of wages. Or if you don’t like these ideas, come up with some of your own. We can debate the solutions all day. The point is that we have to come up with something real. Because if we don’t, the abstraction of the problem will only broaden its definition of those who cause the problem. War on terror = war on Muslims. War on drugs = war on blacks. War on fiscal irresponsibility = war on Democrats. “Our (progressive) enemies are waging war on Christmas!” “Our (LGBTQ) enemies are waging war on Family Values!” “Our (educated) enemies are waging war on the American worker!” Some of these problems, such as terror and poverty, will never entirely change. But the resolutions do. And either you and I find a way to reach them, or the autocrat will manipulate his followers until they might eventually reach what was once called the final solution.

(Originally posted August 18, 2017)