Her War: The day the dream died

What goes through the mind of a parent in the moment when they find out that their child's difficulties are not "a phase" or something she'll grow out of? What are the thoughts of the captain of a tiny vessel with a crew of four struck by a hurricane? 

This mother sat in a park outside City Hall to hear the verdict of the specialist over the phone. The child, who she called Chickadee in moments of tenderness because she came one spring eight years ago to save the mother's grieving and broken heart, was with her. The mother made Chickadee sit on a bench a little distance away and gave her a tablet with games to play--a rare treat to keep her occupied during the call with the psychologist.

Creative Commons image by Paul Stainthorp

Creative Commons image by Paul Stainthorp

She was too young to overhear her own fate.

"I disagree with the findings of the previous report on her intelligence." Those were nearly the first words spoken over the cell phone.

The mother's heart leapt with momentary hope. She held her breath, waiting to hear that the child who had brought such joy and then so much chaos and conflict, was troubled, learning disabled, hyperactive BUT exceptionally bright. How many times do you hear such stories. She would fight for such a child, fight with every last reserve and--by all that is holy--they two would win. 

The next words hit her like a sucker punch. "In some areas she has average intelligence, but in many areas she is far below average. She may have the symptoms, but to be diagnosed with dyslexia, there has to be a certain minimum intelligence."

The mother kept notes, scratching at a notebook, frantically trying to record the specialized terminology, even though she would receive a written report. It felt like the only thing to do. She knew most of the terms. She had done piles of research already. She was one of those parents, the kind that take a threat to a child as a call to arms. She would document, read, discuss, advocate anything into submission.

"Very low scores in visual/spacial skills. Very low auditory processing, and short term memory is far below normal. That goes along with the attention disorder," the psychologist is not dry on purpose. She is hurrying between meetings, giving this mother as much information as she can in a short space. Her interjections are friendly, checking to see that the mother is following and not drowning in the information.

She says she is fine. She has the notes down, and she understands the terms from her research. 

But she is drowning. She doesn't know it yet, but she is drowning as sure as the captain of the tiny swamped vessel at sea--gulping in mouthfuls of brine and salt spray.

"She is very immature, half her chronological age. If she was four or five and she behaved this way it would be fine. She is very impulsive. She will need constant attention, careful monitoring at every moment."

The mother looks up and sure enough the child is not on the bench where she was supposed to wait. She gets up, turning around in the dappled sunlight of the park. The light and shadows blur before her eyes. She feels sick.

"She will have great difficulty copying from a blackboard. She cannot understand auditory instructions or information of any significant length. She will not understand lectures or audio books. She will always have difficulty reading. Yes, she should be tested for dyslexia anyway, but she may not have the intelligence for that diagnosis." 

The mother wonders if she herself will fall to the ground, but she doesn't. She walks by instinct. She knows where the child's impulses will take her. She has spent eight years connected symbiotically to this child. She knows her better than anyone else. She notices the path the child's distractable brain would grasp at and she goes down it. She finds the child on the steps by the rushing traffic. 

Safe. For now. No one picked her up this time.

"I recommend a psychiatrist, special education services, testing for reading disabilities. There may be medication for ADHD. You may be able to apply for educational accommodations.. The one positive thing is that she has some episodic memory. Sometimes I see individuals who can't remember much of anything. She can remember those things she experiences, but she will not understand anything abstract."

The call ends politely with tasks assigned to both sides and assurances of further contact. The mother takes the child's hand and they hurry from the park with promises of ice cream. 

That very afternoon, the school holds a ceremony, graduating the first graders as "readers." A local children's author visits and places wide turquoise ribbons over the children's heads. The children sing and the parents clap. Chickadee does not perform a poem alone, but a friend helps. They have developed hand motions to go along with it. 

Then the results of a standardized test are put up on the screen in the classroom. Reading and comprehension scores. The class is one gentle curve--some a bit below average but more than half well established as strong readers. Only one is the far outlier, far behind the others. 

She's a pretty girl with striking eyes. She stands in the middle of the class with their proud reading ribbons. But she cannot read much. She may never get beyond that stuttering, gasping pace. 

Only the mother knows which child the outlier is, silent in the crowd of parents. Most are quietly relieved. It is not their child left behind. Some are vocally disappointed, their children below the average line. They promise extra rigor at home. They are troubled and motivated to work harder. No one wants to think about the outlier. 

What goes through this mother's mind?

Grief.

I looked forward to showing her the wonders of facts, history and geography. She has no interest and cannot grasp even the beginnings. I dreamed that we would do art projects together. She grabs the supplies and smears them in a random mess, shouting, “Look! Isn’t it great? Clap for me!”

The dreams are gone. The chipper, inspirational quotes about overcoming disability are lies told to absolve the rest of the world of the need to feel compassion.

Despair.

I love to read stories to my children. She doesn’t want stories. She doesn’t understand and has no interest in anything with depth. I can’t read to my son because she is screaming and destroying the house. My son isn’t disabled and yet his bedtime stories are curtailed.

Aching boredom.

Endless days of baby talk and the toddler in a child’s body that changes far too slowly if at all. Teaching the same simple things over and over day after day for years and years and years--knowing it is futile and that very little you do will ever make any difference.

Heavy exhaustion.

Serving and supporting her incessant, second-by-second needs means both parents are in deteriorating health and the second child, who is six, is mostly on his own. He has to be better than other kids, take care of himself, do with far less attention and grow up fast.

Utter isolation.

I’m supposed to be positive and “inspirational” as a parent of a child with this kind of disability. I will only be judged. No one has any interest in the reality.

I will never be one of those parents with older kids who can get back to their own life. I will never have time for myself again.

Fear.

“Dysmaturity” will mean she will never grow up but she isn’t disabled enough to be recognized as developmentally disabled and so protected as an adult. Extreme impulsivity will make her very vulnerable and a target for every scammer and abuser. She will be in debt. She may well be homeless unless she lives with me. She has no mental ability to plan even the most simple steps. She will never be able to plan how to prepare for school or get transportation to a job or cook a meal with more than one step.

The chaos of our daily life is not “a phase.” It is the way it will always be. It is unbearable and it will never stop.

Terror.

I know the fashionable thinking in the circles of disability rights is that disabilities, particularly neurological disabilities, should not be considered negative. They just exist, neither good nor bad. In a better world, we would all be "normal,"despite our differences.

Chickadee is a girl. She is not bad. She is not to be pitied. It is not her fault or a shameful thing.

But this is a disability. She cannot do all things. Without the blocks and missed neuro-pathways, she would have many more choices in her life. She may well have plenty of joy, if she is well sheltered by a family that designs an insular world to fit her needs. But let's face it, she will not have the choices others have.

Let us be honest about this. When a parent learns that a child has such curtailed choices a dream dies.

Don't become what you resist

As a journalist in the war-torn Balkans, one of my closest relationships was with a "fixer." That's an all-around term for driver, interpreter, cultural consultant and impromptu investigator. 

My fixer was a 50-something Albanian taxi-driver with mild manners and a pleasant grandfatherly face. We went through plenty of scrapes together, walking in single file to avoid landmines, driving fast down sniper-seeded roads, crossing the front-lines from one warring camp to another.

My fixer's sympathies could have been with the Albanian rebels and against the Macedonian home guard they were fighting at the time. He agreed that Albanians faced discrimination.

But he refused to take a side and felt that the rebels' violent radicalism would only harm his people. He could speak fluent Macedonian and often passed as Macedonian to keep us safe when we encountered pro-government patrols.

I recall how we once narrowly made it across the front, only to find that the first rebel sentry was a boy from my fixer's old neighborhood. Joy at meeting a good neighbor kid wrestled in his tone and expression with shock that someone he knew well had taken up violence. 

But after only six months of war with a few hundred dead on both sides, I sat in a baklava shop with the old man and he told me that he was now ready to support the rebels. Too much hurt had been done. He was depressed, having been pushed beyond some limit that allowed him to contemplate acting in a way he once saw as wrong.

Three years later, I too had been pushed, though not that far. My journalism job had evaporated with most others of my  generation. I was on the streets of Prague holding a hand-drawn sign to protest the invasion of Iraq.

By my side, was another man in the process of being pushed--an Iraqi refugee who had helped our international peace group on several occasions. His younger brother had been shot and killed by American soldiers in Iraq a few days earlier and I was one of the first people he called, an honor I wasn't sure I deserved.

These are the memories that come back to me when I watch clashes in American streets, neighborhoods universities and town hall meetings today.

Two lines of demonstrators facing off, spitting curse words at each other, fists clenched. One group has t-shirts with the name of Trump emblazoned on them and stars and stripes across their shoulders. The other group has a motley array of colorful clothing and scarves over their mouths. 

One of the Trump supporters gets particularly excited, yelling insults and inching ahead of his fellows. Faster than thought, a silver snake lashes out from the rank of colorful protesters and blood wells from a lash on the man's head. He cuts off a howl of pain and curls in on himself retreating back behind the lines.

The cell phone camera follows and his friends cry out for an ambulance. The buzz of anger is at fever pitch. In the camp of the Trump supporters there is injured solidarity and iron conviction. 

How many times have I seen this animosity play out? in different cultures and contexts, in different languages, and yet it's all the same. Hate on both sides.

I'm not a saint myself. I can hate if pushed far enough. I can feel it surge up inside me. And then I force myself to stop and to ask who is really doing the pushing. Those I am pushed against, are they really the ones I should hate?

In the days after the election I caught the brunt of just such hate. A friend from my days as a journalist covering inter-ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe turned on me on social media, ripping me for being "white" and declaring "You have been told your voice is not welcome here! Do not speak to me." 

We were both devastated by the election of Donald Trump. My friend had been pushed hard and long. I saw that and I didn't strike back. But the pushers of hate won anyway because the divide between us is still there.

I can't blame others because I have been there. As a child with a somewhat visible disability, I was heavily ostracized in public schools. Most of my friends had to pretend not to be my friends in school to avoid the same physical and verbal abuse that I endured. 

I remember one day in seventh grade with painful clarity. I had found a place where I could withdraw into myself during the lunch period. I would huddle on the steps of a stage set up in the cafeteria and draw with my treasured set of colored pencils. It may seem pitiful to describe, but to me it was solace and a delightful respite from the rest of the day. 

I sat there most days, ignoring the saliva, random kicks and insults hurled my way by other kids who had been ingrained with the idea that what is different or outside the herd is both disgusting and threatening. But on this particular day, my drawing was interrupted abruptly when someone came flying down the steps above me and landed on top of me, scattering and breaking my expensive colored pencils. 

I had ignored it. I had let the insults roll off my shoulders. All year I had kept my head down. And then I snapped. I was a tough kid, brought up with hard physical work and most days outdoors in the mountains. I grabbed the skinny town kid by the collar and hit him and hit him and hit him. 

It was the first and the last time I ever did such a thing and I pummeled his bent back, until a teacher hauled me away. The kid, a quiet, physically weak nerd, was bruised on his back. He had been seized by several bullies and thrown down the steps onto me. 

I don't know the boy's name. What I know is that we should have been friends. We were natural allies, set against one another by those who push hate. 

In the wider world today, I see this happening all the time. One group of the defrauded and abused is thrown against another group of the oppressed and beaten. And it is hard to stop and think. Very hard. You've been ignoring it and letting it roll off your shoulders for decades, not just one day. 

It is very hard to stop.

But what if I had been paying better attention in seventh grade? What if I had stopped to find out what happened and offered friendship instead of retaliation?

What if supporters of Bernie Sanders listened to Trump-voting coal miners the way Bernie did at one town hall that ended with both sides agreeing that single-payer health care is in their common interest? What if white women who desperately wanted a female president took the time to see how similar their needs are to women and even men of color? 

No matter which examples I give, someone is likely to feel put upon. Both sides have a choice but the biggest opportunity for resisting bullies lies with the one who is about to strike back, the one who currently feels most wronged. If you feel pushed around, silenced and beaten down, then it is likely that you are currently the one with the greatest chance to reach out a hand in friendship to someone who has been pushed on top of you by a bully. 

Resist the burning desire to strike back. Yes, resist. Stop and make sure you are not striking a potential ally--someone who is not winning in today's system, even if they appear better off then you. 

The bullies are pushing us around and as much as we talk about resistance, we are still striking at each other as often as we strike at the bullies.

First, we must know what is our core need, that which goes beyond politics. We need a way to live and relieve suffering. Second, we must avoid becoming like the bullies at all cost.

Interconnection: A child's encounter with new life


My normally hyperactive, constant-motion child sits for hours by the box on the back veranda--cuddling, cooing, coaxing. 

Once in a long while, I predict a parenting moment correctly. I decided to take on the responsibility of a litter of kittens during my kids' middle childhood. And it took planning. 

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Some might ask why i would plan to contribute to the overpopulation of small furry creatures. My first reason is that I always felt a measure of guilt that I had my first beloved cat spayed fourteen years ago, before she had a chance to have even one kitten.

I watched her pine and grieve over other kittens. She almost adopted a kitten who came to live at our neighbor's house. He followed her around a bit, but didn't stay attached to her.

All this was made extra poignant by the fact that I was struggling with unexplained infertility at the time and it eventually led to adoption. Some small part of me wondered if my inability to have children wasn't a kind of karmic retribution, even though I know all the theories claiming that spaying is the kindest thing we can do for our pets. 

I will get my cat spayed and I already have more prospective adoptive homes lined up than I have  kittens to fill them. But I feel a sense of relief having gone through with it.

My second reason has to do with my children, who I finally did find at the end of my own long road. Having a litter of kittens at home was one of my great childhood dreams (which went unfulfilled along with the shiny black dress shoes I coveted).  Beyond that, I believe that watching birth and the bonding between a mother and her young is a fundamental part of education that is often missed by human children today. 

If I could persuade my ducks or hens to exercise their parenting instincts I would have baby chicks as well. But the only easily observable mother around turns out to be our new cat, a flighty year-old adolescent herself. She was abandoned as a kitten and we adopted her after my first cat died. 

We waited to allow her a litter of kittens before being spayed--for her sake and for the education of our next human generation. 

The kids watched her grow heavy with a drooping belly. They wondered as her behavior changed, while she searched for security and struggled with the pain of birth. They ran to me at least twenty times, calling out that the kittens were being born. And each time it was a false alarm.

Finally one afternoon, my six-year-old son came to me with round, solemn eyes. "The kittens are there," he said. "They are already born."

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

I hurried to look and sure enough the cat, who in retrospect I realized had been strangely quiet that day, lay with four tiny vaguely rat-shaped bundles attached to the tits on her underside. 

Still it was my older child who was most overwhelmed. Though she usually has great difficulty controlling her impulses, she took to heart admonitions against picking up the newborns and sat occasionally stroking their backs with one tentative finger for as long as we would let her in the evening. 

Getting her to sleep that night was as difficult as it has ever been on the eve of a major holiday. She lay in bed wriggling with delight and anticipation, believing the tiny beings in the cat's basket would be running and romping with her the very next day.

Kittens do grow quickly, but not instantly. In fact, their timing is well calibrated to teach small humans--who can conceive of about a week but no more--the rudiments of patience. 

The children observed the chewed off remnants of umbilical cords on the kitten's bellies. Now they watch as the kittens totter about and open their eyes. They learned amazing amounts from this, so much more than they absorb from school or books. 

And the thought that so many children today never get to closely observe this process of new life gives me pause. No wonder we are so disconnected from life and our interdependence with the natural world. This seems to me to be such a fundamental building block--as crucial as reading or addition. 

The simple awe-inspiring beauty of kittens is nigh unto to universal. An acquaintance passing by on a bike ride thanked me profusely after my children showed her the kittens. I was momentarily perplexed, but she explained that seeing them was just what she had needed.

The calming and centering effect on children for whom every day at school is a struggle is clear. I do hope this time I have done right by all.

The real-world test of Ayn Rand's theories

Here's that moment when we realize--thirty years on--that an ideological icon was actually a sellout. 

When I was in college Ayn Rand was huge. Everyone was obsessed with her work and her insistence that people should never ask for or accept help from society. She equated even the most conservative "social programs," such as Social Security and Medicare for retirees, with "slow rot" and stepping stones on the road to Soviet-style communism.

Her theory was that if your disability or illness is so great that you can't be completely independent, you simply "lack value." And implicitly you should allow yourself to die without complaint.

Creative Commons image by Elvert Barnes

Creative Commons image by Elvert Barnes

Yet unknown to us at that time, Rand had already accepted social help to cover medical expenses. Her poisonous theory is still spread as gospel and she never publicized the fact that she realized she was wrong in the end.

A social worker revealed in an interview that Ayn Rand was brought to financial hardship toward the end of her life due to huge health care costs for lung cancer--almost certainly linked to her life-long addiction to cigarettes.

Though the social worker said Rand resisted the decision for some time, she eventually gave in and accepted Social Security and Medicare as a means to keep her household afloat. She never publicly admitted this or recanted her public shaming of those who made similar decisions. She also never rescinded her vehement denial that cigarettes cause cancer. 

If you delve deeply into Rand's theory you find that her main objection to Social Security and Medicare as well as other social programs is the fact that they are considered a right. She repeatedly labeled all those who accept any sort of mandated social assistance as "parasites." While she agreed that charity is possible and not evil in and of itself, she insisted that anyone in need must simply wait for random charity and no one should ever be given sustenance simply because they are a human being.

Your ability to "produce" was to Rand the entirety of your "value."

In some ways, Rand may have been naive. While she experienced some hardship early in life, the period of misfortune was brief and not marked by illness or disability in her family. In fact, she rarely addressed the issues of illness or disability in her writing. On one rare occasion she wrote only, "The small minority of adults who are unable rather than unwilling to work, have to rely on voluntary charity;"

One reason Rand's theories are still so popular today is that they have a cohesive internal logic. If you accept the tenets of her theory--that only humans have any value as living beings and that all people of value can produce enough to satisfy their own needs despite any difficult circumstances or discrimination against them--then the theory is well-laid out and seems to lead to inevitable conclusions.

Creative Commons image by DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

One thing Rand never seemed to understand, but perhaps finally did grasp as she lay receiving tax-payer funded cancer treatment is that there is no great difference between government road construction and Medicare. Sure, the Medicare beneficiary is an individual receiving something, while a road seems to be something everyone benefits from all at once.

But when you get right down to it, the individual driver driving down that road is only different from the Medicare recipient in that a car can drive over anyone who stands in the way--for instance, the men, women and children who stood on the roads in Honduras asking for tips from drivers for having filled in gaping potholes after Rand's theories were explicitly adopted in that country and no "social program" was around to fix the roads.. 

Had Rand simply written some books and been quoted by some intellectuals this might all have been something to laugh about, but her influence has been far reaching. Companies--such as Sears--have adopted her philosophy as a management blueprint and been devastated within a few years. Whole countries, including Honduras, have been brought to poverty and devastation by her theories.

I cannot count the times  I have seen Rand's theories used to shame or dismiss people facing disability or illness, environmental concerns or racial prejudice. Over the past twenty years, since my college days, Rand's theories have migrated from upper-middle-class intellectual circles to the halls of power., especially in the United States. 

Representatives Steve King (R-IA), Mike Mulvaney (R-SC) and Rep. Allen West (R-FL) became her devotees. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) promoted her book on the Senate floor. Alan Greenspan slipped her theories into economic policy. The list of senators and representatives--mostly Republican--who give Rand credit for inspiring their careers is long and she has in no small part inspired the current right-wing take-over of that party..

The most dire problems of the United States--from climate change to authoritarianism and vast economic inequity--stem directly from the lifestyles and corporate policies of the wealthiest ten percent (or even one percent) of the nation. For many years, this group considered Rand's philosophy to be a kind of secret pleasure--a way to congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness and yet something that probably shouldn't be widely circulated to avoid embarrassment.

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Rand tantalizes young adults with the dream that satisfying momentary whims and ignoring burdensome ethics can be considered heroic. She still gifts college students in expensive liberal arts schools with an imagined identity as guardians of virtue and justifies a moralistic way to look down on people who take a long-term or interconnected view. 

Not only did Rand make it “moral” for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she “liberated” millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.

The continuing influence of Rand's work and her lack of openness about her own use of social programs takes her beyond hypocrisy into another realm entirely.  She took the benefits and allowed people with disabilities and illnesses to be ridiculed and humiliated in her name for decades (and likely generations) to come. Today it is difficult to say how much suffering has been caused by policies she inspired. 

That said, there are days when I wish the wealthiest one percent who largely control corporate policies in the United States would take a closer look at her theories. If we are to take Rand literally, she would have us believe that her theory is not wrong but her actions were a mistake. She should have saved more of her wealth earlier in life in order to be able to cover her medical expenses or she should have invested in better private insurance. Her concept is that selfishness coupled with forethought and intelligence will always lead to the best results.

So, each person should save (i.e. conserve) according to their possible future needs. It should follow that a person should conserve other things besides money. If trapped on a desert island, Rand would surely advise conserving one's resources of food and fresh water. 

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

However, today corporate leaders continue in a spending spree--throwing money, fuel and non-renewable resources into the system as fast as they can in order to generate momentary wealth without regard to the disasters of debt, resource depletion and  climate change they are creating for themselves. 

Rand made it known in no uncertain terms, that she didn't believe in anything like "the common good." She stated several times that she didn't believe environmental concerns were very serious. Once she wrote, "Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death."

At the time when she wrote this, the wealthy could easily pay more to live far from environmental pollution and Rand would no doubt have considered that to be the ethical response. But just as lung cancer caught up with her, climate change is now catching up to the wealthiest in our world. The internal documents of large oil and coal companies, when leaked, have shown that those who set corporate policy know the truth, even while they fund denialist campaigns to spread disinformation to the public. 

It is eerily similar to how tobacco companies hid scientific proof that cigarettes contribute significantly to the risk of lung cancer but denied such knowledge to the public in Rand's day. Rand was fond of saying that knowledge is key to exercising good self interest and many tobacco leaders at the time realized smoking wasn't in their best interest, while Rand herself believed their propaganda. Knowledge was in that case a viable defense. 

But today even the wealthiest have little hope of escaping the effects of climate change, which are unlikely to be as simple as a gradual trend of warming in which buying real estate further north might be considered a solution. It is in things like this that Rand's theory begins to unravel.

The one percent know of--or at least their hired scientists have documented--the threats to their own security posed by climate change, and yet their self-interest does not goad them in the right direction. Similarly no purveyor of Rand's theories--not even Rand herself--is willing to die of preventable causes rather than accept Medicare to pay the  bills.

When these tenets of the theory fall, the internal logic disintegrates and each part of it falls in a line of dominoes. Self-interest does not lead to the good of the individual, and the good of the individual is inextricably interconnected with others. 

Randism has been proved to be a false and hollow economic theory as surely as Marxism. And if Karl Marx can be blamed for a host of horrors brought about by those who used and abused his theories, then by the same token Ayn Rand leaves a similar legacy. to that which she most despised 

In the spiral toward Fascism: White resentment and identity crisis

When Donald J. Trump spoke of "the forgotten men and the forgotten women" of America the morning after the election, I sensed instantly that he was dividing the country based on race. 

There was plenty in his campaign to lead both supporters and opponents to the conclusion that his message is intended to separate people along racial lines. He often protested that he has "a great relationship with the blacks" or that he loves Hispanics. Yet he made statements describing Mexican immigrants as a group of criminals and rapists and he depicted black neighborhoods as unending hells of crime and poverty. He argued that a Hispanic-American judge shouldn’t hear a case involving Trump businesses simply because of the judge’s background.

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

A professor at the University of California Irvine by the name of Michael Tesler decided to take a statistical look at the racial trend of Trump's support in the summer of 2016. He compared the voting preferences of Republican primary voters in 2008, 2012 and 2016 with the voter's scores on a "racial resentment" survey. The study found that the more  resentment against people of color a voter expressed, the more likely that voter was to vote for Trump in the primary. Interestingly these same voters had mostly voted for failed Republican primary contestants in 2008 and 2012. They had simmered with resentment and frustration because even the Republican nominees who lost to Barack Obama were unsatisfactory to this group.

Despite his protestations that he is "the least racist person," the terms and focus of Trumps speeches make it clear that there is a norm, which is white and Christian. Trump's repetitions of the slogans "America first!" and "Make America great again" are placed so as to imply white America. 

It has become fashionable in intellectual circles to contend that support for Donald Trump stems primarily from economic, rather than racial, tension. Yet an analysis by USA Today's Brad Heath shows that Hilary Clinton lost most unexpectedly in counties where unemployment had fallen during the Obama administration. And now everything Trump actually does harms the working class and enriches a handful of the wealthiest.

If it was about class, Trump's appeal would be very thin indeed. His support comes primarily from the frustrations and identity crisis of a group that is defined both by race and by class--that is the white, mostly Christian core of small town and suburban America.

If we want to call this group "working class" we have to reassess the term. "Working class" tends to evoke images of coal miners and line operators, but that isn't the mainstay anymore. If you look at the income distribution graphs for the US, the "working class" could conceivably be considered everyone who is not in the bottom ten percent (the very poor) and not in the top ten percent (the extremely rich). 

That gives you 80 percent of the nation, a group of people in which the top 10 percent is only ten times wealthier than than their poorest group members. That may sound like a big internal difference for a group, but in the scheme of things--when compared to the astronomical wealth of those Americans who are too wealthy to be in the group--this middle 80 percent really is a class in itself and largely they are people who actually work in one form or another for a living--thus working class. 

And if you take that middle 80 percent and divide it by race, singling out the white Christian majority of it, you have the group targeted by Trump's message. They work, they struggle, they look at the boggling wealth of the wealthy and feel the fear and the siren's pull of the mostly non-white poor. They have been told in a myriad ways in recent years that they have no culture or that their culture is shallow and silly. They have been told that they once had a divine destiny, but that was deemed morally wrong and now they are not special, not ordained in any way. They live reasonably well but feel stifled and frustrated.

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

I doubt Trump or even his speech writers looked much into the historical references of the "forgotten men and forgotten women" phrase, but I did. The first widely known figure to use "the forgotten man" gimmick was William Graham Summer in 1883. Summer was a social Darwinist, meaning that he promoted the idea that survival of the fittest should dictate which humans get to survive to adulthood in society. It was kind of a precursor to eugenics I suppose, the idea that they could breed "better" humans by letting the weak die of hunger and disease. 

In a speech titled "The Forgotton Man," Summer made a case that could easily have been a template for Trump's campaign strategy, claiming that hard-working people needed to be freed from the dead weight of useless poor people. 

Summer divided society into the hard-working "forgotten man" type and the "nasty, shiftless, criminal, whining, crawling, and good-for-nothing people." The second category was supposed to be that bottom ten percent that Trump degrades as well, but like Trump, Summer inflated it to appear much larger and more threatening without actually including his target audience in it.

Since Summer's day, several American presidents have played with the rhetorical concept that there is some group of Americans who do not complain, who work hard quietly and ask nothing of society, a mythical deserving class. Reagan's "silent majority" was one of the more blatant but that never reached the level of Trump's appeal to white people in small towns and suburbs to see themselves as the unsung victims in society. 

One world leader did go this far and built a fast-rising, brilliant and brutal regime based on exactly this concept. He started it with a book entitled in translation "My Struggle," which sought to teach his fellow white citizens to see themselves as wronged and to instill a righteous thirst for revolutionary vengeance.

That was, of course, Adolf Hitler. And while I'm sure,. you've probably seen Trump compared to Hitler so many times in the past few months that you find this predictable and even boring, I want to call your focused attention to something that is NOT merely a rhetorical comparison, using exaggerated connections. 

I have been watching the reactions of white Americans and others of similar Caucasian-Christian background around the world with growing unease. 

A year ago, it was a dull throbbing drumbeat, occasionally mentioned but generally ignored. Since the election it has been steadily ramping up. That is the modern concept of white people as silent social victims. And it is not limited to the United States.

Last year I might have seen a comment along the lines of, "You say 'prejudice' but you're just virtue signalling," once every week or so.  Now a day doesn't go by when I don't run across some version of the argument: "So called 'white privilege' is an quitter's excuse. When you get right down to it everyone has some sort of disadvantage. The only question is who tries harder." 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blue 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blue 

The trend is easily observable both on-line and in the real world. Even my ESL students in a small Bohemian backwater have heard the arguments and some nod along with them and say that Trump has finally allowed people to say "what everyone was thinking all along."

On a few occasions, I joined one of these discussions and laid out the host of facts demonstrating that white privilege is alive and well. I cited statistics showing systematic disadvantages that still plague people of color. I gave my own personal experience as a white woman with a significant disability. I have experienced both sides of the privilege paradigm. I know what it is like to not have the privileges of others. And I have seen white privilege work even for me in many situations, including when I fervently wished it wouldn't.

I never see any indication that my reasoned arguments sway anyone who has already fallen under the spell of this rhetoric. And I rarely go to the mat over it anymore, though I do make a point of speaking up against it. The eventual exhausted silence of people who know better is one of the the things this kind of propaganda counts on. 

But the other thing it counts on is our lack of understanding for the identity crisis of the white working class. I am certainly not going to subscribe to a doctrine that says they are the victims of the past fifty years of domination by mythical "liberals" and people of color grabbing all the hard-earned spoils. But they do have grievances against the corporate-tilted economy which leave them vulnerable to scapegoating propaganda.

Across the board, that middle 80 percent of Americans have lost wealth and income in recent decades. Even the top bracket-the 80th to 90th percentile of the US economy, the people just poorer than the top ten percent of all Americans--has declined in wealth. Their financial strength has seeped toward the wealthiest ten percent.

To say this may seem like whining. The top half of this middle 80 percent is not suffering terribly in material terms. They have large homes, on average several vehicles, security, travel, health care, college education...

Why would they complain?

Because their fortunes are declining, not growing and the American ethos is all about growth and making sure one's children have it better and easier than the current generation. And for decades that has clearly been impossible for the middle 80 percent... especially for those who are white.

Why do I say "especially for those who were white?" Again, I'm not talking about the poor white victims.

The white people were in that middle 80 percent and they lost ground. But with the growth of populations of color as well as civil rights laws and expanded educational opportunities for two generations, some people of color have seen improvement in their circumstances over the past few decades. Not the majority of people of color, but a few.. It isn't improvement of their wealth bracket but rather that some individuals have climbed the ladder of wealth brackets to take their places along side those white members who were already there. 

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore 

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore 

White people did not lose ground to people of color. The white middle 80 percent lost ground to the white top 10 percent. But if you're living in a suburb where you can't see the top 10 percent and you can see the newly well-off black people next door as well as your own slowly eroding security, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions. 

Add to that several harsh generation gaps that have cut white Americans off from cultural roots and created a sense of empty identity. Pile on top the misinterpretation of integrated history to be a litany of white collective guilt. And there is a recipe for resentment, anger and frustration that we are now seeing rise like an unstoppable chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar.

Trump has been elected and some have taken his election as a sign that it is now more possible to vent racial resentments. But instead of releasing tension this has only intensified the tenor of the frustration. In the end, we may find that Trump is the least of our worries and that a much greater danger threatens the nation and the rest of the western world. 

In the study of ethnic conflicts around the world, it has becomeclear that violence between ordinary people stems most often from the resentment of a privileged portion of the society when it sees its monopoly on power slipping. According to a paper in World Politics in 2010, a statistical analysis of 157 cases of ethnic violence--including that in Chad, Lebanon and the Balkans in the 1990s--showed that the decline of privileged groups is highly correlated to extreme violence.

Most unfortunately Trump is only a symptom of a disease--one that has spread well beyond the borders of the United States. It is past time, we acknowledged this. Simple suppression of racial tension and resentment will likely result in a more explosive reaction. It will take much more to avert violence and strengthen our open, multi-racial society to meet the challenges of climate change and resource shift. 

It is time to listen to one another. It is time to seek allies across racial lines. If Trump and his ilk wish to divide us by race, that is the first thing we must resist. 

The good things about hard labor

The sun's going down through the budding trees on the ridge. It's nearly time for a well-deserved break. Come join me for a cup of tea--mint, wild oregano, maybe a pinch of echinacea smelling of last year's honey bees.

The last rays dazzle gold through the greenhouse walls. I pat the final arugula starts under the rich soil. Then I lug a full watering can from the rain barrel to sprinkle the seedlings, greens and herbs. The last frost may not have come yet and it is still just a tad early for the drip lines.

Public domain image

Public domain image

My steps are slow. My arms and legs feel like heavy weights. But the animals are fed and the rest of the starts watered. The only thing left is to read a story to the kids.. This evening we read a story about a rain forest frog and several poems on cats as the light fades in the sky.

My hands are dry from the soil. Lavender, pine and sage salve with olive oil is good for that. I sit rubbing it on in the dim kitchen. The only light comes from my husband's video screen, a Beltane candle in the shape of a leaf and the dying light of the sky.

I have to handle my mug carefully now--with hands slick from a thick layer of salve. A sip of tea, then another. Relaxation flows down my back.

Spring days are long, filled with digging in the earth, hauling water, separating fighting kids and cooking meals. My neighbors largely don't live this way. They are exhausted too, but more likely from screens, meetings, offices and shopping. Not a day passes when I don't hear someone question my different way or call it some form of "extreme."

Extreme? To cook one's own meals? To grow a garden for food and medicine? To insist on food made from raw materials? To expect that children's play should mostly be active? Even to insist that children have tasks to help with at home? 

In some places people love the idea of "the simple life," but rarely do more than make token passes at it. It isn't simple. Not that I've seen. But neither is it extreme. 

It is a conscious way of living, a choice to make--not once but in every moment of every day. You have to know why you're doing it each moment. Otherwise, how can you keep making that choice?

Here are some few of the advantages of the conscious life:

  • Self-respect
  • Moments of beauty
  • Less chemicals
  • The ability to take the problems of the world less personally
  • More healthy days
  • Satisfaction of the primal instinct for food security
  • Muscles that ache in a good way
  • Happy taste buds
  • Confidence and competence 
  • A sense of the ground beneath your feet as living being
  • Peace within

There is nothing quite so good as that moment of peace at the end of a day that was as much physical as intellectual, where a job with modern technology is balanced by the sheer physicality of growing one's own food and medicine and where physical labor is balanced with space for creativity. It is too easy to take the world's brokenness personally, unless  you have your own grounding.

A spring in dry country: Should we saddle our kids with the burden of saving the world?

I was fourteen when I went on my first overnight wilderness trip without an adult. And my only companion was eleven. We were unlikely best friends--an awkward, socially failed, legally blind teenage girl and an relatively normal eleven-year-old boy. But I like to think we had more fun than most.

On this particular occasion, we hiked to the top of Mount Emily on the western side of the Grande Ronde Valley in northeastern Oregon. The steep mountainside happened to extend directly from my friend Ethan's backyard 2,500 feet into the air. We did ask permission to do the overnight hike, but none of our parents believed we would go through with it... until we were gone.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

We climbed the mountain and emerged  on the breathtaking ridge line topped by a dusty road around midday only to find a water jug tied to a forlorn trail marker with a note from our mothers on it. They had driven the significant distance winding around the back side of the mountain to try to find us once they realized we were serious. We joyfully guzzled the water and walked giddily through the sage brush to the massive overlook rocks and sat swinging our legs over hundreds of feet of empty space. 

Then we headed for the campground. Ethan's eccentric artist/scientist father (the only adult we had really consulted with very much) had promised that the campground would have more water. When we arrived, we found the campground long abandoned and the hard, semi-desert rocks bone dry in the afternoon sun. A broken pipe was the only evidence that water had ever come to the surface there. We had not rationed either our original water supply or the gift dropped off by our worrying mothers nearly as much as we would have if we had known there was no water at the deserted, so-called campground. 

Now we had only a few swallows left, the afternoon was long and hot and we hadn't seen another human since we started up the trail early that morning. Quickly we scanned the outline of the mountain around us, looking for the tell-tale  dip of the horizon that could signal a water source... in theory at least. As I recall it, we spotted several dips and settled on one more or less at random. Then we set out for it, walking another forty-five minutes or so toward our selected goal. 

When we reached the place where the dusty wilderness trail we were following crossed the dip, we found to our relief and joy, a damp patch of mud and moss. We scrambled off the trail and up the shallow draw until we found a clear trickle of water that became "our spring." It was a moment of triumph, almost a coming of age for mountain kids. We had gone into the wilderness alone, encountered difficulty and found water in the semi-desert of northeastern Oregon. We had proved our survival skills and were elated and empowered. 

We camped at the spring that night under the stars. And returned home conquering heroes the next day.

But when we told adults about our water troubles and the spring we had found, someone callously mentioned that the spring would soon be dead and dried up, just like the water at the campground. There was a clear-cut logging project planned that would decimate that little draw and the mountainside around it. In this dry country, the spring, which was already no more than a seasonal seep, would almost certainly dry up.

I was shocked but still newly empowered by my experience. I grew up in an activist family and had already been to several anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1980s as a child. So, I got out paper and pen and wrote a letter of protest to the local newspaper. In many situations that would have been the end of it. But in this case, someone wanted to prove a point. A few months later, I found myself back at the little draw on the mountain in the company of two Forest Service employees. They had invited me along to view the aftermath of the logging.

I'm not sure what they meant to prove. They said they wanted to show me that I was wrong and that the clear-cut was fine. But clear-cuts are never pretty and this one was no exception. We never could find exactly where the seasonal spring had been. The landscape of devastated branches and torn top-soil was distinctly depressing. It was late summer by then and there was no water, but there wouldn't have been any water, even without the logging. The question was more about whether it would return the next spring. 

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

I knew I had lost that round. I was a kid and they were adults. I was just one individual, and they represented a state agency. They wanted me to prove there had been a spring or else be quiet.

For the moment, I was quiet... but I learned and I remembered.

Today I'm a mother and I have my own kids to bring up. In the years, since my first activist letter to the newspaper, I have immigrated to a new country, led a national anti-war movement there, participated in a Greenpeace blockade camp that successfully stopped a foreign military installation in a traumatized country, made a anti-racist documentary film, organized and negotiated with political parties and activists of many stripes from all over the world, and written thousands of articles and letters. 

I've seen a few small successes in my time. The Greenpeace camp and the campaign that surrounded it was a highlight. But I've also seen a lot of passion and work go for naught--or so it seemed. My kids are astute--apparently more so than I was--and they ask me if writing letters and going to protests works. 

We pick up litter in our little town. I volunteer at the school to do inter-ethnic coexistence workshops in an area with a lot of racial tension. I still write letters and have sign building materials on hand. Recently I published Shanna and the Water Fairy, a children's book for earth warriors and water protectors. The book essentially takes my experience as a teenager trying to defend a vulnerable spring and gives it a better ending. It's still realistic though. It could have happened that way.

Sometimes we do win. But mostly we don't win quite so overtly. 

There are some today who argue that I shouldn't even tell my children about social justice and environmental issues, that it is unfair to fill their heads with a desire to make a difference and supposedly "save the world." In my generation it was more common for parents to teach their children these things. Today in the twenty-first century, we are supposed to be beyond all that--a savvier,  brainier generation focused on kids being "gifted" and learning rare martial arts and musical instruments at younger and younger ages.  

But there is an emptiness I feel in my children's generation, something beyond the regular angst I knew as a child. Sure, I suffered because I championed lost causes. I cried over my little spring. But it never set me back. It is only as an adult that I have ever considered whether the struggle for a better future is worth the sweat and heartache of activism. As a child, I knew that it gave me hope and that was enough.

And so I tell my kids activist stories and show them little things we can do. I shield them from graphic images of violence and despair to some extent, but I do tell them about the horrors of today in terms that a six-year-old and an eight-year-old can grasp. I live my values in the small stuff as well as the big issues and that will have to do.

Ten real reasons for hope

You get a rare evening off but fall asleep before you can do anything fun. Then you wake up in the morning at the beginning of a predictably rugged week with the beginnings of a headache. 

Will it never end? Will nothing ever get easier? They used to tell me it would, when I was a kid. They lied. Now they even admit it was just to keep me going.

Creative Commons image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Photostream 

Creative Commons image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Photostream 

A morning like this--that's the time to think of the real reasons for hope. Because on mornings without the strain, the crying kids the headache or the harsh world news it's too easy to think of unicorns and rainbows with fluffy white clouds on both ends.

Those things don't last and we need something a lot more substantial than Wheaties to carry us through. That's why I'll take advantage of a heavy morning to write out the reasons for hope that still have some power at times like this.

It's an exercise I encourage you to try. Consider it to be one of the uses of adversity. Hard days have the potential to help you differentiate between fantasy and what truly gives you sustenance. 

Here then are some of my "real reasons to hope" from one too many mornings:

  1. When technology goes berserk, it helps surprisingly often if you speak gently, reassure the device and give it one solid whack on a corner. It doesn't always work of course, but the times it does save a lot of headache.
  2. Even when I'm ready to strangle my kids, my hormones still work their magic. Even without the ties of genetics--I am ready to try again to be endlessly patient, once I have been out of their presence for at least six hours.
  3. After chemical spills and other ecological disasters, many natural ecosystems recover faster than scientists predict and the first plants to return are usually medicinal herbs. For example, while ocean corals are dying due to global warming, scientists have found that if temperatures are brought back under control, coral has a remarkable capacity to bounce back from near death experiences, if it is not entirely killed. 
  4. I argue with my closest family members and we'll never agree on some things, but we always keep coming back, working through hurt feelings and continuing the relationship. It isn't a lack of conflict that makes a strong family. It is the coming back afterwards.
  5. Even though animals were once thought to be all about draconian survival of the fittest, scientists have found that compassion and empathy are integral to many species. It isn't that difficult to capture on film instances of an animal aiding another animal in distress, even an animal of a different species.
  6. No matter how many times I've been hurt or disappointed, I still feel everything intensely. I am still not numb.
  7. Despite all the hype about borders and ideologies, rural people from different countries can still understand one another without words. When I worked on a subsistence farm in Zimbabwe for a week, I didn't always know how they did things, but having grown up that way myself I did understand the values--the thrift, the work, the hard playing, the bonds that make family more than just about genes.
  8. If you cut an apple in half horizontally, it has a five-pointed star (or a magical pentacle) inside.
  9. I am never bored. I always have something necessary, useful, interesting, beautiful or helpful to do. I may have to do quite a few boring tasks but not for boring reasons.
  10. The earth turns. Everything in the universe makes a circle. Everything dies. But new life is always born, somewhere somehow. Life will out.