Courage from wherever you stand

If there is one thing I wish I could give my readers these days it is the feeling that the climate crisis is like a war.

For some it is easy to see it as a war of us against them—us, the ordinary people who mostly want to do something about it, against them, the greedy one-percenters who run most of the industry and make most of the political decisions. But it isn’t at its core an us-versus-them war.

It’s an us-versus-ignorance war. Slowly the ignorance is falling away and we will focus more and more on fighting to mitigate the collapse of our ecological life-support system. But still it will be an us-versus-ignorance war. It will just be against the effects created by the ignorance of the past.

Even the wealthy have to eat and even if they may have bunkers, there is no possible future in which climate collapse goes forward unchecked and they don’t seriously regret not paying attention earlier. It is still primarily about ignorance. “Ignor-ance” has its roots in willfully ignoring and denying reality. That is what we are up against—the denial ignorance of the wealthy, the misled ignorance of the poor and the despairing and apathetic ignorance of everyone in between.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Plenty of people are saying that we need to respond to the climate crisis the way we responded to World War Two. It’s true on so many levels. The climate emergency is already claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and it will soon claim millions and then billions, if we do nothing. The scale is at least as massive as the second world war was and it will reach into every person’s life just as that war did. It will require many personal sacrifices, political focus, economic manipulation and social solidarity, just as that war did.

It already requires a great deal of courage.

Of course, there is the courage of people protesting and putting their bodies in the way of fossil fuel extraction, processing and transport. There are the people chained or glued to government or corporate doorways. There are those sitting down in front of police wielding chemical weapons and people standing in the middle of intersections, demanding that other humans do indeed stop business as usual, stop driving, pay attention and treat science as a real-world matter.

Some people look at these protesters, often dressed up or in a excited, bonded group, and assume it must be fun or they must be in it for the adventure. And there may be some who are in it for adventure the first time around. But a lot of people are doing it again and again. They are willing to be roughed up by irritable police on extra shifts and willing to spend long, cold nights in improvised cells. They know what they are in for.

That is courage. I’ve seen a lot of people grasping courage these days, more than I think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

There’s the courage of a young mother, so scared she’s trembling, who he accepts the role of press spokesperson for an action anyway, because all the people without babies are either on the blockade line or doing risky conflict deescalation work. There is no one else who can address the TV cameras. So she does it, even though she’s never been an activist before.

There’s the fourteen-year-old girl who signed up to learn to be a field medic with her parents’ consent, willing to wade into fields of tear gas and distribute clothes soaked in antacid to people gasping for breath. There’s the courage of those worried parents who know this is something she has to do.

There’s the woman who I watched stumble through a workshop presentation for new climate action volunteers in which two young men decided to pick apart her every statement. Walking to the subway together after I helped her lock up the office in the evening, she confessed that it wasn’t just her first workshop presentation but the first time she had ever spoken in front of a group of people in her life.

I have not chained myself to anything strategic or refused to move under police orders. Not yet at least. Some of my rebel friends are willing to forgive me this reticence because I have a disability and a disabled child. “Well, that’s why Arie isn’t out there getting arrested.” I’m the one teaching the medics and the deescalation teams. I’m the one holding the hands of new volunteers, giving a dozen pep talks a day.

But I’ve had to poke deep into my own reserves of courage. When I first signed up my family and close friends were all warning me to be careful, even asking me not to join Extinction Rebellion because whenever I have joined community organizations before it has always ended in pain, social rejection and deep depression. The fact is that, especially where I live in the Czech Republic, a disabled. middle aged woman with strange-looking eyes and awkward social communication is not well accepted. My family didn’t want me to go through all that again.

When I go into groups, I can’t make eye contact or play out the little exchanges of non-verbal communication. Mostly people don’t realize this or understand what it means. They just get the feeling that I’m aloof or uncool, or most oddly, calculating and competitive. The inevitable result has been a lot of social isolation. I join groups enthusiastically, get a lot of confused reactions and soon find myself mysteriously dropped off the invitation list.

So joining Extinction Rebellion, I was so scared that I lay awake all night shaking after every meeting in the beginning. But I knew I had to go anyway.

I wish I could tell you those fears were entirely unfounded. I will say that Extinction Rebellion tries hard to be open to all—people with disabilities, older people and people with children included. It’s a real topic of discussion and those discussions matter. I’ve never found a group where I did feel this welcome. But I have run into people who reject me out-of-hand, even in the consciously inclusive culture of XR.

Facing fears doesn’t mean facing down only illusion. Much of the fear is real. Those protesters in France really did get viciously attacked by police while sitting calmly and quietly. Some people really did needlessly torment that first-time workshop presenter. And every time I play the role of social greeter at an XR event, I will get some hard looks and some cold shoulders, which cut deep because of the social context of long-term ostracism.

It’s a time for courage. Whatever terrors you have to face, now is the time.

And there is another part of courage we all have to seize together. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me some version of the question, “Isn’t it too late and hopeless anyway?”

There are a hundred arguments why the key strategies to mitigate climate disaster won’t work. Most solar panels are made in China using minerals mined at great environmental cost and then there’s the methane in the arctic lakes, all the tipping points we may have already crossed, And that’s just the science part. We have only just begun to demand real political and economic change and those systems don’t want to change. We may well not be able to bring our society to change quickly enough. And if we manage it here, will we be able to get China and India to join us? The odds seem awfully long on stopping CO2 emissions in the time frame scientists have said we must, if we want to avoid global calamity .

In 1938, when the allies signed the Munich agreement with Hitler to allow the Nazis to take Czechoslovakia in an attempt to deny the inevitable, people who warned of the encroaching tide of fascism were called “alarmists.” And then when the allied forces did go up against fascism, it looked hopeless. It looked like we had waited too long.

That’s what Hollywood portrayals of World War Two don’t show. They say they’re showing courage, the heroic battles in which good conquers evil in the real world. But the reality is that those French resistance fighters, those nurses in Blitz-torn London, those teenage girls holding the Eastern front in some Russian town, those Romani prisoners rebelling in a concentration camp, those boys on the Normandy beaches, those fighter pilots over the North Sea and those victory gardeners on the other side of the Atlantic waiting for husbands, sons and fathers to come home did not have good odds. We look back at them through the lens of what did happen. They fought and they won, so of course they had the courage to fight.

But it wasn’t an easy choice for many of them. There were times during the war when it looked very bleak. In our struggle now, it looks bleak. It looks like the risks we take and the sacrifices we make may be for nothing.

In that too, we need courage—not because we know we’ll win but because the only way to live well now is to fight this war against ignorance,

When "no politics" isn't neutral

Imagine if a miraculous alien was suddenly transported into our polite, neighborly conversations, to our dinner tables or into our schools, workplaces and places of faith. The alien is miraculous because it can speak English perfectly and can physically participate in our activities without much difference.

The alien wishes to be polite and diplomatic, so it observes table manners and learns to say "please" and "thank you," but its understanding of social niceties is limited. Imagine then that you are appointed as a cultural ambassador charged with guiding the guest through our world.

And because it is 2018, people ask you to above all else avoid involving the alien in the contentious politics of the times. We want to give the alien a good impression of earth's development and human society after all. 

But unfortunately for you, the alien is very observant. First, you offer the alien something to eat and the alien asks what the dish served is. 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

"Chicken," you reply.

"Ah, an animal," the alien says, tasting politely. "You humans eat these animals. It's the way your world works."

"Many people eat only plants," you say, feeling a bit uncomfortable. The other guests at dinner also look disturbed. "Would you prefer something vegetarian?"

And someone mutters. "Getting political already." 

The alien raises its equivalent of an eyebrow at you. "Oh, do some humans think it is better to eat plants than animals? Did you ask the plants how they feel about it?"

Someone mentions factory farming and the alien checks its research about earth.

"Oh dear, you're quite right," it remarks. "Factory farming is one of the things killing your planet. Those greenhouse emissions are causing wild fluctuations in your atmosphere. If you don't stop this type of agriculture and your use of fossil fuels, you'll be hard pressed to grow any food in a few decades. I hope those of you here are among the humans who don't contribute to such devastation."

Everyone stares at the alien and then down at their plates. The politicization of lunch isn't welcome.

After lunch you are ready to show the alien around. You go out to get into your car but the alien stops, staring at the vehicle. "Is there no other way to get there? Can't we walk or take one of your trains? This vehicle is contributing to the devastation of your planet."

The rest of the human delegation grumbles. More politics. 

Somehow you persuade the alien to get into the car and you drive to a local high school. At this point the alien needs to go to the bathroom. They do that on their planet too, apparently. So you take the alien to the restrooms. But of course, there are two restrooms. 

"Can I just use whichever one I want?" the alien asks. 

"No!" you reach out a hand urgently to stop the alien. It is your job to keep the alien out of controversy after all and this is a school. There are few places where people are more concerned about gender separation at the toilet bowl. You explain about human gender, a bit about reproduction and that the bathrooms are segregated.

"Oh dear," the alien mutters. "Do you do reproduction in restrooms? Is it necessary to keep the young ones apart to prevent premature reproduction?"

"No no," you explain. "It just makes humans uncomfortable to share a restroom with the opposite gender. So, which are you? Female or male? Do  you... er... grow the babies or fertilize the babies on your world?"

"Both," the alien replies. "We are a species with both of those parts in one individual."

It's hopelessly political to get your alien to the toilet, but you manage it (possibly by clearing everyone out of one of the bathrooms and declaring it temporarily genderfree). 

The alien then follows you into a classroom and sits quietly for a while, listening to the teacher talk about the ten most important authors of the past century. When the teacher opens the class up for questions, the alien raises its hand (or equivalent appendage) and asks how the teacher determined that those were the most important authors of the previous century. 

The teacher points to history books, popularity, cultural impacts and the wealth and fame of the authors. She is proud to point out that the list of ten authors includes one author of color and two women. 

"But I just learned that your female gender makes up half of the population. Are they mostly too busy growing babies to write?" the alien asks innocently. 

The teacher explains about historical inequalities and claims that we are now much more equal. She lists several more well-known female authors, though the alien is confused about why half of them use male pen names. 

Then the alien asks why only one of the authors on the list is a person of color. The teacher tries the same method of explanation, but the alien stops her. "The vast majority of your planet is populated by people of color. Surely, they wrote things, even if you didn't know about it at the time."

The teacher explains about borders and nations and says that while she didn't actually say it, she meant this was a list of the most important authors from your country and... er... well, your allies, which are mostly white.

"Is this why you put so much of your resources into war and killing the humans on other parts of your planet?" the alien asks. 

The teacher glares at you and the alien and states sternly that this is a discussion of literature, not politics, and you need to take your political rants elsewhere. 

You leave school and head toward your workplace. On the way, the alien seeks to clarify its understanding. "These divisions are very important on your planet, I see. You divide people up into two genders and you have all these lines on the ground that divide people and it is very important what color your epidermis is. Why is this? Do different kinds of humans need very different things or have very different abilities?"

"No," you admit. "We don't. But people used to think that we were very different. We now know that we aren't. But some of the divisions remain."

"Even you were concerned about which restroom I should use," the alien says. "So you have not abandoned the divisions."

"That's true," you say. "I was trying not to get political."

"So, keeping one gender out of the other restroom is not political?" the alien asks. "And keeping hungry and endangered humans on the other side of a border is not political and letting them in would be? Bombing other humans is not political but talking about it is? Killing and eating either plants or animals isn't political but talking about it is? And killing your planet isn't political, but mentioning it is?"

"Yes, you're getting the idea," you sigh, already exhausted. 

"You humans don't like it when something is about power or politics. I can tell that," the alien says. "I really want to be polite. How can I avoid political topics when it seems like they crop up everywhere?" 

"You probably should avoid criticizing what we do," you mention hopefully.

The alien nods. This is good diplomatic advice.

At your workplace, you show the alien how the company you work for functions, all of the different jobs and you get into economics and how people work for money in order to then buy those things they need to survive.

The alien is quiet during a lot of this. Finally, it nods and does its equivalent of a smile. "I think I see now. You divide people into these groups by color and nation and gender, so that you know that mostly brown humans should do the hard jobs that get paid very little. Then they can pay to live in places that are broken, polluted and unsafe and eat food treated with chemicals that are destroying your planet. Some paler humans are also doing these hard jobs and living in these unsafe areas too and that causes a lot of strife. I can see now why you try to pay attention to the divisions."

Your colleagues stare at the alien with open-mouthed shock.

The alien continues. "I see that the pale females can do very busy jobs that get paid a bit more than the hard jobs. They are also close to the pale males, so that they can provide pleasure to the males.. Mostly the pale males make much more money and they do jobs that you feel are very important, but they mostly consist of sitting and telling the brown and female humans what to do."

Your superior who asked you to keep the alien out of politics gives you a meaningful glower.

You gently take the alien by something like a shoulder and move away from your colleagues. "I told you not to criticize us," you say with some irritation.

"I wasn't criticizing," the alien says, with a bewildered look in it's ocular nodes. "I was just checking to see that I understand these important realities of your world. I wouldn't want to wander into the wrong restroom or job."

"All right, whatever," you say. "Let's go someplace even you can't make political." 

You take the alien to your community of faith. You belong to a spiritual path that is very tolerant, open-minded and apolitical. Surely, the alien can't find anything to criticize here. 

You walk in and you are greeted by many different kinds of people. Everyone is friendly and loves meeting the alien. They all exchange pleasantries. It's true that mostly the white people are in the center of the room, talking loudly. People of color are there though. They are happy and fairly quiet. The leadership is shared between women and men. The female spiritual leader even does a lot of the talking, while the male leader sits, looking dignified. 

The only person who cannot come in is your friend who uses a wheelchair, but several of the people in your faith community visit him at home. And there is a blind woman who sits at the back of the space. She is included by being there and she is well liked because she mostly smiles quietly.

You listen to an uplifting service about divine love and acceptance, about hope and reassurance for your purpose in life. What a relief! You are glad you came. 

You look around to see how your alien friend liked this apolitical inspiration. The alien is doing the equivalent of putting its head in its hands and sobbing. 

"I thought you said you didn't like being political!" the alien cries.

"This wasn't political. It wasn't about who is in power and who isn't," you explain. "This is a place where we find hope and peace." 

"You find hope by continuing to destroy your planet at an alarming rate without mentioning it? You find peace by enforcing silence about the divisions and inequities in your daily lives?" The alien looks utterly confused. "This is all about power and politics."

---

There are infinite variations of what might happen in that scenario with the miraculous alien. But the bottom line is that what we consider to be political is all about who and what has the power to destroy or gain in our world. That is the heart of politics. 

To stay silent on the most pressing issues of today, the divisions, injustices and destruction in our world is a brazenly political act. It is an open declaration of support for the existing divisions and the ongoing injustices and destruction. 

Many institutions and groups today say they want members to refrain from bringing politics into the group or activity to avoid strife. Whether this is done in a community of faith, a school or other institution or a commercial enterprise, it is not politically neutral. Instead it is a declaration of a political position protecting the status quo. 

Due to toxic rhetoric and events, many of us are exhausted. And this leads to many well-meaning calls for certain spaces to be apolitical, places where injustice, race-relations, environmental problems, human rights issues and war won't be discussed. These topics are stressful and painful for a lot of us.

The problem is that silence is not "neutral." And in fact there is often no "neutral." When the lives of vulnerable refugees, black boys on the streets or any other people are at stake and one side is engaged in killing them and another side is trying to stop the killing, there is no such thing as "neutral." You either defend those being harmed or you are supporting the injustice.

Likewise when one group is being publicly maligned and trashed because of characteristics they could not choose for themselves and that group is either absent or not strong enough to respond, there are no bystanders. 

There is no neutral. If I do not speak up I become part of the bullying and so I have sometimes spoken up in spaces declared apolitical because to remain silent would be a political act. 

How sure are you of right and wrong?

Thirty years after the war was over, a young father and history buff bought the shell of a house in the hills near a hotly contested border. He was a poor factory worker, but it cost only the equivalent of a month's salary because the old stone and timber dwelling was in desolate disrepair and the local fire department had been planning to destroy it in a practice drill. 

The new owner started to rebuild the house bit by bit. He wanted his children to grow up in the beautiful natural surroundings and he loved to learn about the tragic history of the land. He saved to buy new tools and materials and slowly over many years he rebuilt the old house to look like the pre-war photographs in the village archives. 

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Then one day after the border was reopened, a middle-aged woman approached the house. She said she had lived there as a child, that the house belonged to her parents. Forty five years earlier when she was a child, militia men had come with guns and forced her family to flee. The armed men had stolen the family's bicycle, their only means of transportation, and forced them to walk over the mountains into the neighboring country with only those few things they could take with fifteen minutes warning. 

This is a real story. I knew both the man and the woman. They are real people. It's the kind of story that happens on contested borders. 

Ordinary people looking for a place of home and safety buy or stake a claim to land and homes. Other ordinary people are caught on the wrong side of a political, national, linguistic, racial, religious or economic divide are killed or forced to leave their homes. And so it goes.

And now tell me this. Who should own that house?

Should the man own it? He bought it with his hard earned wages, worked on it with his own hands and saved it from destruction. 

Should the woman own it? She was an innocent child forced to flee her home and she still has the birth certificates, deeds and other documents to prove that she should have inherited it. 

Your answer will probably depend on which border, which side of that border and which war you think I'm talking about. This isn't ancient history but a relatively modern and well-documented situation in which most of the questions can be answered. 

Take note of your instinctive answer and then consider whether the following facts change it.

The woman was part of a German-speaking minority and the house stands in the border region of the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. The war was World War Two. Hitler annexed this border region of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the war and the German-speaking minority was noted for significantly supporting the Nazis. 

That was the reason for their mass expulsion. Many, probably most, of the woman's group supported and cheered on the Nazis. And so--brutal and indiscriminate as it may have been--some people justify the forced expulsion of German-speaking people from Czechoslovakia.

But this woman was a child at the time, living in a remote rural cabin, no more to blame than any other child and less powerful than some.

I tell this story not to win sympathy for the Sudetten Germans. But rather to promote the practice of skeptical, mindful ethics.

If you were sure in the beginning of the story that the new owner should be compensated but the house should be returned to the old owner and then you changed your mind based on the added facts, you must admit that moral certainty is hard to come by. 

We want children of about ten years old to "know right from wrong." And yet educated and caring adults often find it difficult to say exactly what is right or wrong in a complex situation and which way the scales turn can depend on details that require an understanding of social, political, economic and historical forces. 

I don't personally have a definite answer for which is right or wrong in this real-life story that I stumbled upon as a teenager new to Czechoslovakia twenty-five years ago. The law here has retained the rights of new owners in that case. The man's claim is upheld by the law. But if the house had been confiscated by the Communist authorities and the family expelled after the Soviet invasion in 1968, the law would favored the old owners.

The law is not ethics. It's just the law. And one would be naive to believe that laws are consistent. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I am happy to say that this woman did not demand her house returned or even seem bitter about the law. Instead she was thankful that the house had been preserved and reconstructed, so that it looked much like her beloved childhood home. The man invited her to come and stay and lovingly helped her to reclaim her memories and a family treasure buried on the property. Theirs was a story with a happy ending.

But so many similar stories are not. 

The past few weeks have had me thinking a lot about ethical dilemmas. The news has hit on story after story in which passions run high and there is more than one side with a claim. 

It isn't that I don't have strong opinions. I can clearly say that the killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers is wrong, even a crime against humanity. But what exactly should be done to solve the situation? Whose homes should be sacrificed in a small country with limited land and water? 

That isn't so simple. One way or another in our crowded world, there are people in need without homes, often with a valid right to the land or homes where others, including those innocent and unaware of any injustice, are now living.

My entire native country is based on stolen land. And yes, we can say that those who have been wronged should be compensated, but by whom? Some of the descendants of those who stole from or enslaved others are wealthy from the profits of exploitation. Others are barely scraping by. And yet if there is a debt to pay, shouldn't everyone be required to pay all the same?

Even the question of the infamous Chinese prom dress leaves me befuddled. A white girl decided to go to the prom in a traditional Chinese dress, which she wore in inappropriate ways and seemed to mock in one photo. Many people are furious over this. It's called cultural appropriation, taking something from another culture, particularly one that has been exploited by your own in the past or present, and either claiming it as your own or using it inappropriately or mockingly.

Don't get me wrong, I can't abide people who set up shop as a "Shaman" or pen books on Native American spirituality who have no legitimate connection to either Siberian or Native American culture. Making a profit off of a stereotyped fakery poached from the struggling remnants of cultures nearly destroyed by exploitation is clearly wrong. 

But as I put Vietnamese spring rolls made with my own fresh garden greens down on the table for my children, while wearing a shirt with Guatamalan patterns, I am not so sure where the line is. I know where these things come from. I love them and treat them with respect. I want those cultures which have been endangered to be represented and kept alive. And I simply prefer the cuisine and color coordination of some cultures over others. But I can't say in every instance what is right and what is wrong.

If the girl with the Chinese prom dress had not publicly shared a mocking photograph of her dress, would it still have been wrong? Western prom dresses are, in my not-so-humble opinion, a fashion travesty of modern times. Please any culture that is willing to save us from them, please  step forward! Despite the problems, I still say the Chinese dress was the--hands down--prettiest in those photos.

Looking at all these less-than-clear-cut situations and modern problems, one is tempted to say that it all depends. Certainly, we should be critical thinkers and respect the opinions of others. It is tempting to say that there is no absolute right or wrong. Even when we teach children right from wrong when they are ten years old, we end up pointing out that a child in a storybook who steals food to survive is not really so bad. 

But these are terrible times to abandon ethics and claim moral relativism. Are the opinions of Neonazis equal to all other political opinions in political discourse? And if not theirs, then where is the line? 

We live in a time when political leaders preach an extreme religious doctrine and claim to be for high morals, while dallying with pornography, blatantly lying, taking and giving out huge bribes, poisoning their rivals, fixing elections and claiming it's legal, and abusing anyone vulnerable they can touch--without the scandals even making a large ripple. Gods help us, if we don't even know what is right and wrong anymore ourselves. 

Many intellectuals I have discussed this with say that an opinion is valid in so far as it is not against someone else or does not harm someone else. That seems like a good rule, but it is easier to to say than to apply.

Among the most vicious arguments I have seen in the past few days have been over the silent and non-violent actions of people protesting what they saw as deeply wrong. A week ago, dozens of graduates and their family members silently stood up and walked out of their own graduation ceremony at Notre Dame in protest as Mike Pence gave a graduation address.

When questioned, the protesters specifically mentioned Pence's support for extreme racist organizations and for Donald Trump's rabidly anti-Muslim policies. Pence is also noted for pushing extreme religious agendas and promoting the interests of large corporations, specifically the Koch brothers, in public policy. But regardless of whether one agrees with the reasons the protesting students walked out, the vicious verbal attacks and threats against them imply a certainty of the wrongness of protest. 

Pence himself called the banning of athletes who kneel to mourn the killing of unarmed African Americans during the National Anthem "winning." There is no question of right or wrong in that statement. It implies a game with winners and losers 

The actions taken to penalize the protesting and mourning athletes and their teams and the words often deployed against them are extreme, while their actions are mild, respectful and silent. 

I can understand a parent being upset if their child walked out of graduation to protest something the parent didn't understand or feel is important. I can even understand people brought up to believe that the National Anthem is sacred disagreeing with someone kneeling during it. But none of these are violent acts that harm another, and yet violence is threatened against those who take quiet actions in defense of their ethics. 

There are plenty of situations where I cannot say with certainty that I am right and another is wrong. Ddetails and historical context do matter. But I hope we will not lose the most basic concepts of right and wrong through this. If a person quietly stands, sits, walks or kneels to protest violence and hatred, they should have that right. I may not always agree with their side of the story, but I can always respect a quiet statement of ethical concern.

A word about restraint in the race wars

I first heard about the death of Heather Heyer on the radio and I could tell from half a world away that it was big news, like shake-to-the-core big. The sorrow and anger I felt inside was actually mirrored in the mainstream media.

And in the first minutes before I went to turn on my computer to actually see for myself, I thought privately, "I bet she was white." Okay, not a bad guess based on her last name, but I hadn't even thought about that. I was going purely on the tone of the media reaction.

Creative Commons image by Thomas Altfather Good

Creative Commons image by Thomas Altfather Good

For a quick, self-recriminating second part of me even hoped she was white. Not because I would rather people who look like me should die, or because I thought race riots would erupt in the US if she was black.

Quite the opposite. I had a sneaking suspicion that if a white activist died, the outcry would be greater and the political and media backlash against white supremacists larger.

I wish this peaceful, intelligent, beautiful young woman hadn't died. But as much as I'd scream "Black lives matter!" if she had been black and the reaction of the mainstream media had been muted, resigned and brief, I would rather not see anymore people die from racist violence. If this is what it takes to wake up the media and established politicians, well, I would rather they woke up.

A week after the white supremacist march, I watched a televised interview with two of confederate general Stonewall Jackson's great grandsons calling for his and all confederate monuments to be dismantled. We've seen business leaders, mainstream media and Republican politicians abandon Trump and denounce white nationalism in no uncertain terms. 

A local business, a dry cleaner, in my home town of La Grande, Oregon, a small rural town where 67 percent of voters voted for Trump in the presidential election, placed a sign on their front door that reads, "If you still support Trump, your business is not welcome here." That will hit the owner in the pocketbook. It's a small, highly conservative town. 

Would that all have happened if Heather Heyer had been black? I hope so. I really really hope so. But I wouldn't bet a hundred bucks on it.

A white nationalist leader from the Charlottesville rally, Christopher Cantwell said in a Vice documentary specifically that the murder of Heather Heyer was "more than justified." He said that the event was a success partly because he believed no one on his side had killed anyone unjustly and went on to say, "The amount of restraint that our people showed out there, I think, was astounding."

I suppose, sitting with the arsenal he had just showed off to the film makers, he meant that the white supremacists have plenty of guns and if they wished, they could make the terrorist attack in Barcelona look like a picnic. That's their version of restraint.

I can't help but think of all the black journalists, lawyers and professionals I have seen face blatant racial slurs and never even twitch an eye. I can't help thinking of the African American woman calling the police officer "sir" after he had just gunned down her peacefully compliant boyfriend right in front of her and her toddler.

I can't help thinking of the many other acts of incredible restraint that black people have treated us to in recent years. Sure, there have been exceptions. But the sheer volume of restraint is staggering. 

In all the vast amounts of commentary I have read and heard since Heather Heyer was killed, I have heard many outraged, angry and hurting black activists. And not one of them asked the question I know must have occurred to many of them: would the country care this much if she was black? 

That, my friends, is restraint. 

It would not have been kind or diplomatic to say it. So they didn't. But it's there. I'm saying it because it is something we white people need to look at in ourselves and we should be asking the right questions.

As a mother and as a risk-taking, activist daughter, the image that remains with me is that of Heather Heyer's mother--her strength, her incredible grief, her unbelievable generosity in speaking out to help the world rather than retreating into the healing she no doubt needs. Her words and demeanor have been the epitome of restraint, given the loss she has suffered. 

Whatever the reason this event has taken the nation by storm, I agree with her mourning words, "By golly, if I have to give her up, we're going to make it count." 

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. 
 

You belong on the earth

I doubt there has ever been a time in history when more people in more varied walks of life have been labeled and told they are unwanted or don't belong. 

I know many people are hurting deeply right now for reasons of life and death, separation from family and elimination of basic freedom. It can feel like other groups who have merely been mocked, degraded or threatened are not in the same boat and that they do not understand the gravity of the situation. 

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

We don't all understand every part. We don't all know what it is to stand in one another's shoes. But we do have more in common than we have misunderstandings. 

Your experiences are real and you are not alone. 

And yet it has become unfashionable to have a group identity. We love individuals and we don't like being pigeon-holed. We may be part of one culture, ethnicity, faith, group or class but we are rarely "typical"  of that label and we simultaneously belong to others.

Our media culture idolizes the person who refuses to associate with a group. We have also become educated enough to know that each identity is unique.

I love non-conformity as much as the next person, but too much exceptionalism has its costs. Now when so many of us are truly threatened, we spend precious energy arguing among ourselves and debating who has a greater right to outrage.  We disagree about trivial things or the specific solutions to our problems and thus we don't address immediate threats together. 

At least that's how it has gone down in the past.

Right now there are many groups forming and fluctuating. Membership in both the KKK and the ACLU have skyrocketed. Lines are being drawn and often they are based on an ideology or a particular identity. I personally support the ACLU and other organizations like Greenpeace, the NAACP and Doctors Without Borders. But the point isn't exactly which groups I want to support (as long as it isn't a racist, terrorist or otherwise harmful group)..

We also need broader places where all those who have common interests can belong. 

It isn't so much the strength in numbers that I want. We need a sense of common cause and solidarity. True belonging comes not from the accident of your birth, culture or label, but rather from your choices, values and convictions.

It is time to set down the most basic tenants of what we belong to, the lines which we won't cross and which enclose all of us. This must be at once broad enough for all and clear enough to mean something.

Here are some ideas of where we belong:: 

  • We are open to all races, religions, ability types, sexual orientations, nationalities, ages and appearances.
  • We recognize the right of people to express their identity and culture, to have a voice in public and a connection to their land and people.
  • We know that power entails responsibility.
  • We speak up when we or others are prejudicially attacked or stereotyped.
  • We are concerned about ecological issues and we respect the earth which we depend on for our lives.
  • We take whatever action is feasible and effective in our personal situations to protect the earth, water, air, other species and one another.
  • We recognize that facts exist and can be documented, while context can consist of many facts.
  • We believe that people have a right to true information and that money and incorporation should not accord greater rights to any individual or group. 
  • We insist that the resources of the earth are held in common and must not be exploited for the profit of a few.
  • We believe each person has the right to freedom that does not harm or restrict others.
  • We strive to be kind and welcoming toward newcomers and to work out differences respectfully.
creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

There will necessarily be some who haven't explored all of these issues in-depth. But we should be able to agree on the basic values of inclusion and protection of that which sustains our lives.

Still there will be some who choose to reject these values. I have been part of many ecological or earth-based groups and some of them do not hold the same values of openness toward people of different paths and backgrounds that I demand. On the other hand, there are also many groups that are concerned with social justice but don't take the immediate crisis of climate change seriously.

:Environmental concern and the love of diversity are deal breakers for me--two things I simply cannot do without.

Don't get me wrong. Groups can specialize. Not every parenting group must be focused on environmental issues as well as parenting. But I can't feel truly loyal to a group that openly expresses their disregard for environmental concerns, anymore than I can feel welcome in a group with borderline racist statements, no matter how good they are on something else. These are life and death issues that can't be compromised. 

I have no problem with the fact that Facebook groups connected to Black Lives Matter are unlikely to be regularly posting about climate change. Many groups accept these values but focus on one particular need.

I don't demand that environmental groups spend time and attention on anti-racism stuff. However, I could not very well put my loyalty in a multicultural group that irrelevantly professed disdain for tree-huggers and climate scientists, anymore than I can feel comfortable in an earth-centered group that occasionally throws up closet racist posts.

This isn't to say that I will only join groups that agree with all of my opinions. Far from it.

I have an abundance of opinions. I still love Star Trek after all these years, my favorite pizza involves lots of really hot peppers and seared garlic, I think J. K. Rowling is a damned good writer but the seventh book had some issues, And I think dish rags should be changed about every three days.

Those are opinions. And I don't expect members of a group I'm in to agree with them. And that extends to more relevant opinions too. I have my views on economic systems, health care and electoral processes. But these are things we can work out. What level of gun regulation we should have is debatable. I can and have had informative discussions with people who disagree on things like that. 

Therein lies the distinction perhaps. I don't think there is room to casually debate whether or not we'll believe in science and facts or whether we will accept all people of every religion and color. Those who agree on these things need a place to belong where we can learn from the rest of our differences without being constantly bogged down by an inability to agree on ground rules.

That is why I have founded a group called Belonging on the Earth. It is small and not diverse enough as of yet. I hope you will join and find it a welcoming community. Currently the group is starting on Facebook. You can join it here. I am the administrator for now and I can ensure that it is a safe and respectful place. This is a group for those who agree on fundamental values but may not agree on many other things. As the group grows other administrators will be added who can help to foster the openness of the group.

Not everyone is into Facebook and eventually there will be other ways to belong to this community. If you can't join the Facebook group, I encourage yo to join my hearth-side email circles below and keep in touch through the comments on this webpage.

You belong on the earth. Your experiences are real and you are not alone.

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!

Surviving the new reality

Rain drums on the roof as I write. I am on enforced rest. Doctor's orders. I could cry for joy over the rest, except that the eye surgeon has forbidden me to express intense emotions. 

But you get the idea. I don't feel sick but I'm supposed to stay inside, keep warm, not work much and be at peace. I know, I wish I could spread it around a little too.

The only downside of this is a feeling of vulnerability that comes with the isolation.  I hesitate to venture out much, even on-line. I am a bit breakable and the world has suddenly become doubly harsh.

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

I saw a post from an old work colleague about attacks against people of color in the US. I wrote in a quick reply of support and bittersweet humor. And instead of solidarity, my old office-mate lashed out at me, labeling me an "sheltered white expat." 

I instantly had the urge to fight back. I'm not one who takes things lying down or turns the other cheek. Sure, I'm white and I know better than many white people what privileges and protections that entails. I am highly aware when I meet police officers that I am wearing the backpack of white privilege--then and many other times. I also know that when any country is in the grip of fear that there is an understandable anger toward emigres--those who left, no matter how good their reasons. 

On the other hand, I'm also a person with a significant physical disability. I'm up against the wall in this too. My children are not white and they are newly naturalized citizens. Will we ever be able to go back to visit my home and family again? That is not an idle question in these post-election days. We are also in a country (the Czech Republic) that Donald Trump has pledged to put a military base in. We are isolated for the moment, but far from off the hook. 

Still, I bit my lip and said none of that. I know well the furious emotions raging in my colleague's post. I replied only to express more simple and direct support for her. I told her I am an ally and I understand her words. She and another friend continued to express anger and rejection toward me. There was no reconciliation. 

I am worried.

I'm saddened to lose a connection to someone I enjoy simply due to these terrible times. But I am even more worried by what this negative interaction among allies means for our people--the people of our country, citizens and non-citizens, all cultures and all backgrounds. We're stuck in this together, after all. 

My home county in Oregon reportedly voted 67 percent for Trump. There are people I call friends who did and likely even a few only moderately distant relatives. And if I cannot meet a friend who agrees with me in support and solidarity, if we are so divided that I am the enemy even when I am not across the political divide, how... oh gods, how will we live with those who really do hate and choose a hateful leader? 

Let's take a moment to forget that Trump even exists. 

Sigh. Now doesn't that feel better? 

But wait a minute. There's a problem. We've made Trump disappear but we haven't made the many people who vehemently support him disappear. Sure, we can say they are a minority, as few as 20 percent of the nation and not even most of the voters. But they are enough and we have to live with them, Trump or no Trump.

I have always felt this because of where I grew up, far from the cosmopolitan and high-thinking coasts. I love visiting Portland, Seattle, New York or Francisco for precisely this reason. Our bubble of acceptance and freedom feels so good. 

But we forget that this is not all of the nation at our peril. We ignore rage at our peril. We belittle politically incorrect antagonism at our peril. We've seen that now.

I know it is hard to think about surviving the next four years. But we will... most of us at least. And here is how I propose to do it:

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

  • If there is a registry for Muslims, get on it. I'll be a Muslim on paper.  If we're all on the list, the list will have no teeth.
  • Talk to Trump supporters. Really talk and listen. Listen to what motivates them, what they are upset about. Share your thoughts with respect and without contempt.  They are people and most people are susceptible to change, even if slow change.
  • Promote facts, everywhere, over and over again. The media will not help, so we have to do it. Talk about facts, post them, remember them, make lists. Don't let up about climate change.
  • Explain white privilege, primarily if you're white. Explain it again and again and again until you're sick of it and then explain it to more people. There is no way we're as sick of explaining it as Black, Hispanic and Native American people are.
  • Talk to the person no one is talking to at a gathering. Invite the disabled colleague or classmate to whatever. Connect. 
  • Make your circle bigger. Whatever it is you can give easily, put it in. Got a neighbor with younger kids who could use some of your nicer used clothes? Got extra veggies from the garden? Got wood or materials or whatever? Buy less, trade more, reuse more. Gain your security from community.
  • Take care of your own basic needs with as little resources as possible. Reduce plastics and fossil fuels in whatever ways you can. And remember you'll do more and better if you're rested, healthy and fed. Don't wait to be taken care of. Stand strong, think ahead, link arms.

My hope is with you.