Reality check: There but for a last-minute cancellation go I

Last week twenty-six-year-old Reality Winner was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking a classified document to the press.

The document in question--the nature of which was tellingly left out of the official criminal case against her and out of most media coverage--was a report on an NSA investigation into specific actions of the Russian government aimed at influencing the 2016 election in the United States.

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat here. Russia and the United States have been meddling in each other's elections for half a century--at the very least. This is not earth-shattering news to people in intelligence and media circles. 

Reality Winner.jpg

The thing about this particular document is that the report was warranted, but it was being suppressed. Essentially, you have a report saying that the Russians hacked into voting systems to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump, who then won and has since fired or threatened to fire multiple persons involved in investigations of the meddling. 

So, this young woman is going to prison for leaking a report that was being suppressed for clearly corrupt and unethical reasons. It was a timely and necessary warning of danger to the nation. 

People look at the baby-faced pictures of this pretty young woman and some say she's a traitor who broke the necessary code of secrecy she swore to. Others see a hero who put her life on the line to protect her country and is now willing to pay the price, even if it is unjust. 

I just see a young woman who could so easily have been me. And my stomach seizes up. 

May 1998

The phone on my dorm-room desk rang. When I answered a man's voice was on the line. He gave a name but it went right out of my head when he said the next words "from the CIA."

A thrill of adrenaline shot through me and intensified as he continued to speak. Yes, it was that CIA and he specifically wanted to talk to me, a senior in linguistics at a small university in the Midwest known for only one thing of note--having been a quiet training ground for intelligence operatives during the Cold War. 

I'd heard the stories from our old professor, a former CIA agent himself. The students in our tiny Old Church Slavonic classes loved it when he tossed the xeroxed grammar pages, lit a cigarette and proclaimed that today he'd tell stories about adventures in the old Soviet Union instead. 

But that was all in fun. This was the late 90's, and no one knew that the Cold War was over better than we did. 

And yet, the CIA was calling me. 

Creative Commons image by Jamie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Jamie of Flickr.com

I wasn't fooled the year before when our professors told us we would now be studying Arabic in the Slavic linguistics department and it would be marked down vaguely as "a Slavic language" on our transcripts.

I snickered with my fellow students. Oh, how secret it all was. 

None of us was planning to work for intelligence or national security agencies as far as I knew. Least of all me. 

I was politically progressive, a scholarship kid from the backwoods of Eastern Oregon. I planned to go into journalism, travel Eastern Europe and write gritty magazine stories about social justice and war. I didn't care that such jobs don't pay. I was in it for the adventure.

And a discussion with a CIA recruiter was just that to my twenty-two-year-old self--an adventure. 

So, I'll admit that I led him on a little. He wanted to meet me at a Chicago job fair I had signed up for because Reuters was scheduled to be there. Thinking it might be an interesting experience, I agreed to stop by the CIA booth--though it was hilarious news to me that they had such a thing. 

The next day the DIA called. 

The Defense Intelligence Agency is a less famous cousin of the CIA. Most lay people don't realize it but there are more than a dozen US intelligence agencies. 

A few days after that Reuters cancelled. 

The trip to Chicago for the job fair would cost me about $70 and as I mentioned I was a scholarship kid. Before I came to that university four years earlier I hadn't even held that much money in my hand at one time. So, fun as it might have been, without a real reason to go, I cancelled too.

And the CIA--and the DIA--called again... and again. By this time the adrenaline was no longer fun. There was some gentle recruiting pressure. They each offered to pay for my trip. I'd heard of people being trapped by recruiters back home, where several of my peers had taken the military route out of poverty. 

My tune changed abruptly and I told them simply and in no uncertain terms that I wasn't interested and that I was going into journalism.

In one last-ditch effort the CIA recruiter said, "We have plenty of journalists working for us."

My hand was shaking. Yes, I knew they did even then.

And I would come to bitterly resent that fact when I did become an international journalist. Once I was kicked off of a bus on a remote and freezing mountain road in South America because someone suspected I might be just such a CIA agent mascarading as a journalist and a reporter friend was killed in Afghanistan on similar suspicion. 

I didn't go to Chicago and while I did learn to get along quite well with some intelligence people as sources once i was an reporter with a wide variety of contacts, I never went down that road.

2018

But Reality Winner did. She too was a thinker and a linguistics student. I can't know her reasons but her published comments lead me to believe that national security work wasn't always her plan. In media interviews her family sounds hauntingly like mine. 

Even her name, which may sound odd to many people, reminds me of my roots. My middle name is Meadowlark. One brother is Forest and the other is Skye. We had that kind of parents too. 

And I know one thing without a doubt. If I had taken that road and if I had come across such clearly damning evidence of corruption and crime threatening the very bedrock of our democracy, I certainly hope I would have done something about it. 

It could so easily have been me in those fetters and it could easily have been my mother holding back tears on the news. 

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.

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. 

Fifty years from now: Standing Rock in historical context

In fifty years, what will they think of 2017? With all our frantic concerns about the state of our country and the world, what will be considered most crucial to history?

Certainly there will be a mention of President Donald J. Trump’s stormy first few weeks in office. But in a world fifty years from now, whether fossil-fuel-driven climate change is in full swing or it has been averted at the last minute, a far more important historical drama than the Trump presidency will dominate the histories. 

Creative Commons image by Dark Sevier of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Dark Sevier of Flickr.com

And it will center on North Dakota. Until now it was hard to imagine a place more remote from the center of power and history. But in the past six months, something happened there that will mark history one way or another. I don’t mean "merely" the gathering and unity of the Native American tribes at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

That is significant and surely will be mentioned. But more important still was the unprecedented feat of indigenous and grassroots activists who defeated (even if only for a time) the Goliath of the fossil fuel industry, culminating in the decision by the Obama administration to deny permits for the pipeline last December. 

US military analysts have joined the vast majority of scientists in stating that human-induced climate change is a greater security threat to our country than terrorism. And whether we counter it or let it overwhelm us, the stand off in North Dakota will be a key moment. It may the beginning of the last-minute sea change toward a sane and sustainable future or it may mark one of the last stands of that sanity in a world quickly descending into the chaos of massive drought, famine and huge migrations of refugees. 

Last week, militarized police evicted protesters from the Standing Rock camps protesting DAPL. Dozens of officers in riot gear descended on the camps with weapons drawn and helicopters in the sky, pointing guns at people at prayer and arresting forty-seven. 

Right now the political climate is such that the event was primarily reported by foreign newspapers such as The Guardian in the UK and most US media were silent. But history will have harsher words for this reactionary act of corporate government. 

This may well be one of those times our grandchildren will ask us about someday. Where were you and what did you do? Did you wring your hands or were you one of those who had the courage to stand up for our lives? 

Creative Commons image by Dark Sevier of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Dark Sevier of Flickr.com

Most of us feel helpless to stop such disastrous events, but even in the most difficult circumstances there are things we can do. They may not stop the injustice and destruction, but they will be an answer--of sorts--to those questions. We can attend protests, write letters, organize, speak out constantly about climate change even amid momentary concerns and call our political representatives.

We can demand that public officials step in or at least speak out with the enhanced voice of their offices. And this does not mean only Republican officials who may have backed the demolition of the protest camps. In many ways, it may be more important to call the Democrats. 

Even if they are too few to stop what is happening here and now, they can speak and work toward solutions to the crisis of climate and fossil fuel. 

And the message for them is essentially the same as the message for us. Another era will come and they will look back on the treatment of these Native American activists fighting for all of our futures today much the way we now look on the beating of civil rights protesters in the 1950s. 

Every public official today will be historically defined by where they stood on this issue. 
 

Surviving Trumpland: Is it possible to be a realist and idealist?

In October 2015, my husband and I were sitting in front of one of the first fires of the season after the kids were in bed--the fir logs snapping and popping behind smoky glass.

"So, this guy Donald Trump sounds like trouble," my Czech husband said as he leaned over to show me an article with some of Trump's first stats on popular support and media influence.

Creative Commons image by futureatlas.com

Creative Commons image by futureatlas.com

My heart lurched when I saw the evidence, my hands and feet going cold. 

I've never been considered a political analyst, but I saw it all clearly in that moment--the combination of rhetoric, some devoted media and the fomenting stew of rural and suburban American frustration and resentment. It all slid into place like puzzle pieces in my mind.

I shook my head. Trying to deny it. 

"He'll win," my husband--who spent all of eight months in a conservative American backwater fifteen years previously--stated with certainty. "He's going to win, isn't he?" 

"I hope not," I said. "But he's the most likely to win."

Now a month after the inauguration the only thing that is really astounding to me is that most white liberals in America are declaring how stunned they are and going around asking, "How did this happen?" 

My husband and I are really not that sophisticated in our fireside political analysis, but I do listen to the waves of noise and emotion that large masses of people emit. I never considered any other Republican primary candidate a serious contender. And knowing how the American campaign finance system, two-party state, electoral college, corporate governance, military, media and everything else works, it looked nearly inevitable that Donald Trump would win the general election as well.

Sure, in the final days before the election, I hoped the party elites had acquired cold feet and decided to back Clinton more vigorously. But it was fleeting and the cold dread that settled deeper into my stomach as the results came in elicited no tears or shrieks, despite the fact that I saw Donald Trump as a dangerous presence as early as 1994, when I was a freshman in college.

I remember being struck by his aura of threat, hate and sleaze even as a young, politically inexperienced adult. 

"You were never as idealistic as the rest of us," my mom says of my dire warnings about Donald Trump a year ago. 

Hey! Wait just one blessed minute!

Is this more of that theory claiming idealists can't be realistic in their assessment of a threat?

I have always been told that I am the one who is too idealistic. My lifetime of activism has centered around demanding the protection of the earth and the rights to health care and equal opportunity for everyone. Basic idealism stuff.

And given what is happening now, I certainly hope people don't decide to throw out idealism in favor of some sort of apathetic "realism" that implies acceptance of the worst sides of humanity as supreme.

The fact is that a realistic view of the world and idealism in action are not mutually exclusive at all. 

Solidarity with Standing Rock - Creative Commons image by Jeffrey Putney 

Solidarity with Standing Rock - Creative Commons image by Jeffrey Putney 

Just consider this. Is it more idealistic to become bitter when reality comes down hard or to face the worst realities and refuse to give up a belief in ethics?

It is important to recognize and foster idealism--that passionate belief that we can and should do better in our society.

What I fear most is what will happen when all of those who now protest get outrage fatigue and go back to business as usual in the "new normal" that includes rampant public racism, denial of climate change, corporate whims as law and white, Christian, cookie-cutter America "first." 

Because believe me, that's where we're headed if we lose the "idealism" of the current movement. People can get used to anything and the most terrible state of affairs can come to seem "normal." 

I would argue that true idealism is clear-eyed and real. Look at the situation for what it is. Call out injustice in all forms, the great and the small. Demand justice. And go on demanding it, so that your grandchildren can still go on demanding it. That's the idealist goal. Nothing so unrealistic.

Realistic idealists don't secretly harbor the hope of a perfect, "ideal" world emerging. You don't have to buy into faith in the "steady progress" of humanity toward peace, equality and freedom. You don't even have to believe that your one life will do any lasting good..

No, idealism is only persistence. You keep protesting injustice and demanding justice, peace and equality, no matter the odds, no matter how long and no matter the response, because if you don't, the situation would be that much worse and the silence would be that much deeper. The act of protest--the lack of silence over injustice--is often the actual goal.

Now we all know it is going to be a long hard road for as long as Donald Trump is president of the United States. It has only been a month and we already feel shell-shocked. If it is naivete that got us into this mess, let's turn it  into a realistic idealism that persists.

Do not accept the "new normal." Do not go back to your kitchen sinks and cubicle jobs. At least don't go quietly. 

Be a realist because you see what is happening and be an idealist because you don't let it break you.

"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

Stand with those under attack: A simple gift you can give for free

There are a lot of messages out there at this time of year aimed at getting you to give to good causes. And many of those causes really do help people--ensuring that hungry people eat, refugees receive shelter and sick people get care. 

It is very gratifying to have enough to give materially. But maybe you are not one of the people who can. Or if you do give materially, you may want to give in other ways as well.

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of Flickr.com

Right at the moment, many people are feeling that the future is bleak. There is sorrow at every turn and a looming sense of potential disaster. It is easy to become pessimistic and resort to hunkering down in our own homes, hoping the storm will pass us by.

I've been feeling that way myself and fighting for inspiration in my writing. It's humbling that the answer came to me from my younger brother.  And he probably has no idea he proposed something so actionable. 

Here's how it happened. My brother said he was going to write a letter to the local newspaper. I'd heard him saying how concerned he is about the rise in vocal racism and the apathy of many others to respond. He used to be quite idealistic and recent events had brought him nearly to tears. He's also living out in a rural area that voted nearly 70 percent for Trump, so what options did he have?

I thought I knew what to expect of his letter to a local paper. He's diplomatic, but still I thought he would try to talk some sense into his neighbors one way or another.

He did a bit but he also put something else in his letter: "I invite immigrants into this community. I will protect you physically and emotionally... People of color, people who look different, act different, are different are welcome here in this valley."

I've heard many people say they want to stand by immigrants, people of color or Muslims. And that's nice and all. But mostly we are saying these things in our bubble, whether it's on Facebook or among friends. 

We're not only not persuading anyone not to be racist, we aren't even telling the people in need of support about this. But my brother hit on a good idea, a new spin on writing letters to local newspapers. Don't write to persuade people who probably won't listen to an opposing view. Don't write to officials who aren't going to change their policies.

Instead write your letters to the people who are now living with the greatest uncertainty and fear. Address them directly.

Think of Christian refugees from Syria celebrating their first Christmas in the United States while being harassed for being Arabs. Imagine a Muslim child learning to read English opening up the local paper for homework and finding your letter. Then write with that audience in mind.

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Tell your friends and imagine a flood of such letters. 

I welcome you. I stand by you. I am a friend. I want to have people of color, people speaking different languages, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Pagans. Hindus, people of varied gender identities and people of all shapes, sizes and talents in my community. We would miss out, if you were not here. We would be poorer and our town would lack its interest and sparkle. I want you here and I will say it openly. I won't be silent if there is hate speech or hateful policies. I am sorry for these terrifying times. I, for one, stand with you. 

There are a great many of us who agree with these statements, but we mostly say them to each other. Let's say them to the people who feel excluded and attacked. Let's start a campaign of letters to our communities, rather than to officials. 

Go ahead and make it specific. Write to foreign students or immigrants or women who have undergone an abortion or people with visible and invisible disabilities or the quiet people of non-Christian faiths who repeat "Merry Christmas" cheerily without ever hearing their own holidays mentioned. 

You will touch someone deeply, almost certainly make someone's day or week. And if enough of us do it, you will also open the hearts of others who may need to look beyond their personal experience to believe in good people of every kind. It doesn't matter if you are also personally one of the people affected by the uncertainty. There is still someone out there who will be glad to hear you stand with them.

A holiday letter seems like an overly simple thing to give. But under some circumstances it can be a great gift.

And thank you for reading my writing this year. I wish you comfort, simple joy and shared love in this season.