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)


What good is a march? Critics will say it’s just a ritual that a century of activism has taught authorities to control. The state looks tolerant—even open minded—when it provides space for a march. And in the meantime the government—especially this government—goes about its business.

But there is, in fact, nothing empty about a ritual. Ritual brings unification. It points to a shared history. It symbolizes a dense and thoughtful conviction. It allows for physical affection, even if that comes only from the press of the crowd. It lets the ministers take their stoles for a walk. It lets people declare, in public, their love for both home and neighbor. “I love Cedar Rapids!” said a Congolese immigrant at yesterday’s march. “And I’m running for mayor!” Marches are congregations. And at this time in our lives, they show there are more of us then there are of them. They show this so handily, in fact, that our opponents like to lie about them.

(Originally posted August 14, 2017)


Nevertheless She Persisted.jpg

Through a string of errands, I ended up at an out-of-the-way coffee and fudge shop. Not a bad place to be on a Monday. The clerk was the only other person in the store. She was maybe sixty, and had a soft, serious face. She told me, quietly, that she liked my She Persisted shirt. We talked some politics then, as she mixed the espresso. As I left, I told her to take care—and I realized that I really meant it. I mean, more than usual, I meant it. And I realized, further, that there is a consolation in all these Trumposities. And that is the fact that we’re building a community—a camaraderie, even—among those of us who would otherwise be total strangers.

(Originally posted May 15, 2017)

Trumpence of Doom

So there’s a religious-right magazine called Trumpeters that talks, somewhat fittingly, of the rise of Trump. My mother read this magazine while she was in a waiting room, because she does her best to learn what motivates such a dangerous portion of the population. Trumpeters says that God is using Trump to bring about the End Times. That is, Trump is an instrument of God’s punishment to a world that, through liberal hypocrisy, has fallen away from the Truth.

Let’s shelve the dispute over whether liberals or conservatives are more hypocritical. Even if we could agree on a measuring stick, the data bends whichever way you squeeze it. So instead, let’s look at the spirit behind Trumpeters’ theology. First off, Trumpeters’ very name evokes the End Times. At best this shows that the magazine springs from a faithful stance. But that faith itself should point to the difference between accepting God’s will and accepting destruction. One thing that liberal and conservative Christians overlook is their agreement that people are supposed to love those who oppose them–to feed them, to heal them, to forgive them, and to grant them justice. Under no circumstance are we supposed to aid their destruction. In fact, we aren’t even supposed to turn away from it. If we cling too hard to the idea that the Trump era is the time when our enemies are going to get it, we adopt a mindset that grants the world permission to harm our enemies. That means that we have judged our enemies by leaving them to the harm that we’ve decided God has meant for them. And once we’ve reached this threshold, only semantic and degree distinguish our religion from ISIS.

ISIS has been hoping for the End Times, for years. They want us baddies to bring about annihilation, so we can have a big war, until Jesus (yes, Jesus) can rescue the true Muslims by brandishing a spear. Poor Jesus. Make way for the new Caliphate. Make way for the new City. Such stances are so exclusive and so identical—which is to say that they’re all so very tragic.

It would be reasonable to think that if the only thing two fanatics can agree on is the hope for destruction, then our chances of that destruction essentially double. But I suspect that the End Times will come only when they’re supposed to. Rushing them seems as fruitless as it seems self-righteous and selfish. It is a stance that hates the very world who, despite all, has held us like a womb. The mutual hope for the world’s end might not create the Apocalypse, but it can inflict enormous suffering. This progression  from adulation of God, to adulation of ourselves, to condemnation of our enemy is the worst we have to guard against. It is the most dangerous thing. Because how sad—and how human—it would be for us to maim our world, but not kill it, so that we could all persist in a way even darker and farther fallen, for having decided that our enemies weren’t worth their place upon it.

(Originally posted December 20, 2016)