Putting hope back into the holidays

It has been a particularly rough week here and a particularly rough year everywhere. Looking through my records I notice that last year at the winter solstice (a month and a half after the election of Donald Trump), the image I led my post with was that of a dying, red sun in a gray and gloomy forest.

We knew we were headed for hard times then, and now hard times have come. Wild fires raged across dry areas all autumn and areas that are not usually dry were parched with unusual thirst. More innocent people were shot down. Racism became more brazen and public. Several countries started violently fending off waves of refugees from worse-hit regions. 

The state of the outer world mirrors my intimate life this week. As many of my readers know, one of my children struggles with neuro-diversity that takes a toll on the health of the whole household. This week was particularly difficult--a lot of screaming, meltdowns multiple times per day, extreme stress and a lot of glass shards.

Yule necessary hope holiday wish meme.jpg

I feel like I'm fighting for my life and the only thing I can fight is a person even more vulnerable than myself, who is not to blame. If that is not a mirror of the outside world, I don't know what it is. 

I hear the stealthy "scritch!" of a match struck across the table while I'm getting dinner and my hand automatically lashes out, ready to grab, knock something out of her hand if necessary, defend the home...

My hand freezes with inches to spare. The tiny flame catches on the wick of first candle in the Yule wreath. Anxiety wars with guilt within me and nearly drowns my little sigh of gladness. I am so tired of fighting disasters moment by moment and of being on guard every second in between.

I stifle the yell in my throat and say, my voice shaking a bit, "Thank you for lighting the candles, honey. Please be gentle." 

And for once she is. I watch closely, pausing in the midst of loading plates. There are moments like this. That's one reason I have to be on guard. I never know what to expect. I can no more relax in my home than we can let our guard down in the world beyond these four snow-proof walls.

It is trite to take such a small, glowing thing--a literal candle flame moment--and expound upon it to fabricate a message of hope. "Don't despair for even a struggling child lit a candle." 

But it does bring me a moment of gladness. It is more in the noticing that there are such moments, not the act itself. 

After a morning of getting the kids to school for one of the last days before break, I walk up the hill to let the chickens out. Snow crunches under my boots and I have to give the door an extra tug against the frost.

I turn back to the trail down the ridge and take a long breath of crisp, cold air. The solstice sun is still below the horizon but pink and gold light sparkles on the ice crystals that adorn the bare branches of the fruit trees. A moment of beauty.

I give thanks for the cold. It will help a bit to beat back the climate-change-exacerbated invasive pests that plague our region. And I hope against hope that this is a good and natural cold snap, not one created by melting ice and shifting currents. I pray for more snow, ballast against another summer of drought. 

In dark times, you never know when the next moment of beauty or respite will come again. It's about noticing--taking that breath and noticing. 

The winter solstice is about hope. It always has been in northern lands. Here on the 50th parallel where we get only seven short hours of real daylight at this time of year, the return of the light is a big deal. 

But we won't see much difference for weeks yet. The hope of this season is symbolic and a bit forced.

That's okay. We hope because we must. 

My friends, many of you write that you are certain that climate change has already passed the crucial tipping points. Many of you are aghast at how bigotry and hate have sprouted like mushrooms after rain, proving that the relative civility of years past was a result of suppression rather than deep social change. Many of you despair of finding common ground, even with those you love, let alone with people in other regions of the country or the world. 

And there is no denying this darkness. I will not try to tell you it is not real or that I can promise some sort of supernatural hope. I do not know for sure that the light will return in these areas, as it does in the sky. 

I know only that without hope, you fall and die or become so angry or jaded that you feed the roots of pain and suffering. 

The winter solstice and essentially every holiday modeled after it by various religions--Yule, Christmas, Hanukkah, Dong Zhi et al--they are all at the core about hope--not because it is real, but because it is necessary.

Hope because the alternatives are not feasible. 

Embrace those near you who are willing to embrace. May the holidays you hold dear bring you joy and peace and some much needed comfort. 

But above all may they strengthen your most necessary capacity for hope.

The first reason for outrage: Living with climate change

Your grown children scrape at the rock-hard ground with salvaged hand tools, trying to turn the baked mud. They have realized their dreams and they have professional careers but today—in 2050—everyone has to keep a garden to supplement the limited food they can buy at exorbitant prices.

A torrential flood came through last winter and took away what was left of the homes built in better times. But the water didn’t stay.

When the three-day storm was spent, all that was left was stinking mud on everything—tainted with the bodies of people and animals and with chemical spills. Now the drought has returned with a vengeance. It hasn’t rained in weeks and early spring looks like late summer used to look, at least in the sky.

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

There are no trees left. Those were cut long ago for fires and to build makeshift shelters when houses were destroyed by winter floods and summer brush fires. What is left are mostly the hardier sort of weeds. Even if they can plant the seeds they have left, your children won’t see much of a harvest. Just like last year, the insects are the only life that is flourishing and they swarm in clouds that can make breathing difficult on some days.

Even with their career jobs, they need this garden. Your youngest grandchildren—which you may well not be alive to meet, if you were in your twenties in 2018—sit listlessly in the dust beside the garden. The low-nutrient diet and grinding stress of survival takes its toll on both mind and body, especially for the youngest ones. They can barely muster the energy to cry, let alone play. They are wracked by sicknesses that your generation believed banished from your wealthy country forever.

They are still better off than the wretches your children see along the road outside, refugees from the south. Long lines of refugees were something you saw on the news. They are now something your children and grandchildren see on their doorstep and all along the high fences your children built to protect their scrubby garden.

The lines of people trudging by never end and they look like walking skeletons. They don’t beg as much as they used to. By now they know that your children don’t have enough for their own and they go on, hoping against all the facts to find a place with some rain… but not too much rain.

This is what famine and drought look like and it’s what life will likely resemble in 2050 in the US Midwest and Southern Europe, if carbon emissions from coal, gas or oil burning and factory farming continue apace. According to the recent report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this is the kind of impact we can expect from a 2°C rise in global average temperature, a level we’ll reach by around 2050 if we continue as we are and by 2100 even if we implement the more widely accepted agreements on emissions reduction.

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

A 2°C temperature rise doesn’t sound bad to many people in northern climates. The problem is that it is an average and it isn’t equally distributed. It also is a lot more drastic than it sounds for the earth’s climate. Even such a small-sounding temperature change would mean widespread drought.

Extreme weather events would hit temperate areas the way they are now hitting desert areas such as the Middle East. The areas hit today will become uninhabitable.

Still many people don’t register the realities of such impacts. Scientists often call out people who predict the collapse of civilization due to climate change. A 2°C temperature rise may be bad but it would probably not mean the complete destruction of modern industrial and consumer society. And most people in wealthy countries will still live, just poorer and shorter lives.

Scientists deal in probabilities and theories. They aren't supposed to look at impacts personally or allow emotion in. That prevents them from extrapolating out what their data would actually mean for their own family as I have done here. And even so, many climate scientists are suffering from clinical levels of anxiety and depression due to their understanding of what is coming and the lack of response from the wider population or the outright denial of many in positions with the power to change it.

If you are over thirty and your children are already half grown, this may be the fate in store for your grandchildren and great grandchildren instead. But he fact still remains, that this is the life we are creating. On paper the predictions don’t sound that bad for people in temperate climates. Most predictions focus on the fact that some more vulnerable areas which are already very hot will become uninhabitable either by flooding or extreme drought. Many people in the equatorial countries may die outright.

But those countries are far from the English-speaking world. And the predictions scientists put forward about us sound dry and theoretical. “Decreases in crop yields, increases in pest infestations and extreme weather events, increases in disease, spreading drought in certain areas and increases in coastal flooding.”

If you have never been bothered by any of these things and do not currently raise food from the land, it all sounds distant and like someone else’s problem. Many people assume it will simply mean that food is more expensive. But I have spent a fair amount of time in countries where this type of weather is common today, the countries likely to be hit hardest and earliest by climate change, such as Bangladesh. The weather that scientists predict for much of the American west and the Midwest and for large parts of Central Europe is the weather these vulnerable places already have and their dismal economic realities may be a crystal ball in which we can see our own future.

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Food is likely to become so expensive that many more people will have to be engaged in growing or attempting to grow food, even if it is only to supplement what they can buy.

The lackadaisical view of climate change so common in society today isn’t really surprising. On the one hand, we have dry predictions which give little indication of the wrenching realities they factually describe.

On the other hand, there are the more fictionalized predictions of the collapse of civilization as we know it and the death of whole swaths of the population.

One sounds incremental and abstract. The other is easy to dismiss as unrealistic and if it were actually likely, many people would decide it’s better to live with all comforts now than struggle to be one of the few miserable survivors in such a world. Better to die quickly is the trendy, distanced logic, so why try to fight it if we’re doomed anyway?

But neither of these is a real depiction of what climate change means for us and our families. The reality isn’t total annihilation and neither is it merely a matter of higher prices. It means a lot of real hardship and heartbreak. Life will go on unless global average temperatures reach the 4°-5°C-above-pre-industrial-temperatures range. But it will be a much harder life than it needs to be.

Climate change is currently the umpteenth reason for outrage. Many of us are so exhausted by poverty, discrimination, racism, sexual assault, war, ableism, denial of health care, general bullying and immediate environmental pollution that climate change gets put on the back burner or at least low on the activist’s list of grievances.

It should be the first reason for outrage and the rallying cry. Climate change effects everyone and it is the thing that across all underprivileged groups we have contributed to least but which harms us most. It is caused only slightly by individual actions and more by corporations and heavy industry. It is the most essential injustice and those who will suffer most from it are those who have no voice at all—small children and those not yet born.

At the new moon, I will paint another word picture about climate change—this time about the sort of effort and lifestyle it would take to prevent this level of climate change. Outrage is necessary and so is hope.

Exclusion: The abled-privilege knapsack

Shutting down "the privilege Olympics"  should not be code for "screw the disabled"

You too are wearing an invisible knapsack. 

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh explained white privilege in terms of an invisible knapsack filled with unearned benefits and assets that white people carry with them almost entirely regardless of class, economic status, citizenship or other conditions.

It's a good analogy. I am now much more aware of my knapsack of white privilege and I can observe the effects of its contents on a daily basis. 

I have never seen a similar analogy used to describe abled privilege, but it is time someone did. In the last few years the necessity of acknowledging abled privilege has been shoved in my face ever more frequently. Even in social justice circles where such things are typically read, people with disabilities are continually being marginalized and silenced.

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

It is worth noting from the beginning that people carrying the white-privilege knapsack but not the abled-privilege knapsack or visa versa might well enjoy some of the benefits of the one they do hold, but there are assets in both of these knapsacks that are very difficult to enjoy if you don't have the corresponding assets in the other knapsack.

So, as a white woman brought up to be aware of white privilege, I can pick out instances of white privilege that I enjoy. These are not so much unearned privileges as they are privileges earned by every human but accorded only to those who are white--the privilege of driving or walking without a well-founded fear of being accosted by law enforcement for trivial or non-existant reasons or the privilege of relaxing into a social situation in which my race and culture is in the majority most of the time.

Having children who are not white has taught me even more about my own privilege and a few privileges I gave up by being part of a racially mixed family, such as losing the ability to shelter my children from the societal realities of racism and the very real dangers they face because of it. 

However, there are some assets in the white knapsack that I have pulled out broken or severely dented because of my disability. Unlike most white people, I am beset daily by the assumptions and prejudices of others, both unconscious and conscious. I rarely to through a day without being yelled at in public and someone pushes my "difference" in my face at every turn. 

I was once told explicitly that I was denied a job that I was qualified for because of my disability and I have wondered about the reasons behind many other rejections. I have faced social isolation, rejecting neighbors and hostile school teachers as well as accusations of stealing in stores.

I do not claim that it is the same as what people of color face. In fact, I know it is not the same. But people of color who are not disabled do also enjoy privileges that I cannot.

Please note that this inventory has very little to do with the actual health problems people with disabilities may have. It has everything to do with society’s reaction to and ultimate rejection of us. The benefits of privilege represent the minimum of respect earned by every human being from birth and this is true of abled privilege as well. It is our right to be treated with respect and dignity, to have opportunities and to be judged by our actions rather than by attributes we cannot choose.

So, here is an inventory of the abled-privilege knapsack with some prompts drawn from McIntosh's essay and the writings of Emestine Hayes.

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

If you are temporarily abled, you are wearing an invisible knapsack and in it you will find:

  • You can, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people who view your physical body and neurological setup as normal and acceptable pretty much all the time.

  • You can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper or open a random Google search and see people of your shape or appearance widely represented.

  • You can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people that look vaguely like you.

  • Your body shape is reflected in media, movies, books, magazines, online and in most people's imagination as good and capable, even if sometimes not perfect. As a result, while you may have insecurities or anxieties about your looks, they are not a barrier to social interaction.

  • Beauty, handsomeness, masculinity and femininity are personified by people of your general appearance and body shape. 

  • You can be fairly sure of having your voice heard in a group, even if most of the group has different abilities, body shape and speech from yours.

  • Authority most often rests in people who look like, speak like and perceive the world like you.

  • You do not need to make an in-depth study of the social habits and customary communication methods of your immediate neighbors in order to avoid daily conflicts of misunderstanding and unintended offense. 

  • You can criticize the government and talk about how difficult it is to access basic services without being seen as a moocher, a whiner, ungrateful or a burden. 

  • You can go home from most meetings of organizations you belong to and social gatherings you attend feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, rejected, unwanted, unheard, barred at a distance, or dismissed.

  • You can attire yourself, if you choose, in a way that most people in your community seeing you and hearing you speak will assume that you are capable, responsible and trustworthy until proven otherwise. If you happen to belong to a group where this is not always true, a community of people who do look and sound like you and where you would be respected and trusted does exist somewhere in the world. Even if you don't live there, the knowledge that such a community exists bolsters your courage and self-confidence and in most cases you could move to such a community if outside pressure became too intense.

  • People make eye-contact with you and you are able to make eye contact with them. People make small-talk with you and you are able to make small talk with them. This initial social contact often leads to social connections, builds bridges and defuses potential conflicts. 

  • While you may have been teased at school, your chances of suffering from extreme bullying or complete social isolation in childhood are dramatically reduced. Your chances of suffering from PTSD and other acquired barriers to communication with others are significantly reduced.

  • Teachers at schools and universities almost always look like, speak like and perceive the world like you do.

  • The vast majority of students and teachers all through the education system sense the world, communicate and access textual materials in the same way that you do.

  • The entire education system is custom made and designed with scientific precision to benefit your type of brain and calibrated to meet the needs of your particular senses.

  • The language and writing system of your culture was designed by and for people who communicate and perceive language in the same ways that you do.

  • Public buildings, including schools, were built using models of your body, to make them comfortable and easily accessible to you.

  • You have probably not been called a burden. You were not called a burden to your school while you pursued your education.

  • If you are denied employment for which you are qualified, you can be pretty sure it isn't because of an attribute you did not choose and which does not affect your job performance.

  • If you are given an award, you can be pretty sure it is something you deserved rather than a publicity stunt by the patron of the award. 

  • You can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that you got it because of disability hiring incentives.

  • If your day, week, or year is going badly, you need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it is disability related.

  • You can choose public accommodations without fearing that you cannot enter or will be treated with disrespect in the places you have chosen.

  • When you plan social engagements, your way of getting to and into the venue is the same as that of most of your friends and you don't need to strategize, beg for assistance from friends or go to extreme expense to get to or enter the social venues your peers take for granted. 

  • You can always ensure that your living, schooling, work and or social environment will be among people you can communicate with and among which you will be considered "normal" if you desire.

  • You can always find a living, schooling, work or social venue that you can physically access and fully participate in locally if you desire. 

  • If you should need to move, you can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing which you can afford and which you can personally enter and use fully and from which you can get to schools and places of employment.

  • You can be pretty sure that your neighbors in such a location will view you as a full adult, if you are over 18 years old. .

  • You can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that you will be able to access merchandise and that a reasonable portion of it will fit you and be usable by you.

  • Whether you use checks, credit cards or cash, you can count on not being infantilized, shamed or dismissed by cashiers and other people you interact with in public..

  • You can arrange to protect yourself from harm most of the time.

  • You are twenty percent more likely to finish high school than a person with a disability who has similar intelligence. You are twice as likely to finish college.

  • You are at least three times as likely to have any sort of job than a person with a disability and much more likely to have a job that is of some interest to you, that provides some social prestige, that pays your bills and in which you can progress for a career.

  • You are half as likely to be hungry as a disabled person. 

  • You are a third as likely to be a victim of sexual assault and half as likely to be a victim of violent crime as a person with a disability from a similar social or economic group and geographical area. You are half as likely to be a victim of domestic violence.

  • You are twice as likely to have family and friends nearby or who you can contact in an emergency. You are likely to have a circle of friends to enjoy leisure time with and to network with for mutual benefit.

  • You are twice as likely to have a long-term relationship. You are many times more likely to have children.

  • You can swear or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people automatically assume these choices indicate low intelligence, shaky mental state or poverty.

  • You can be temporarily out of work or sick without being called a burden or assumed to be unemployable.

  • You can do well in a challenging situation without being called "an inspiration" or used to further the religious or social agendas of others without your consent.

  • With education and credentials, you could become an an acknowledged expert on people who look, speak and perceive the world differently from you and you would not be asked why you did not choose to study your own group.

I am sure I have missed some. It's a large knapsack after all. 

This is one of those posts that will inevitably draw flack. It isn't that I don't care. I have simply decided that the amount of verbal shrapnel I'm getting in "progressive" circles these days for being an uppity person with a disability has reached a point where the potential flack from this post won't be a significant change. 

So let me lay it out there. I am sick of the dismissal of people with disabilities in activist circles. I am sick of being told, "you are white so you need to practice being silent for a while," when I have been silenced, dismissed and sidelined my entire life.

I am sick to exhaustion of being excluded, rejected and sidelined in supposedly progressive groups because I didn't take an insult or bullying in silence and answered back withotu profanity, without insults but nonetheless with unpalatable truth. . 

I get what people of color, indigenous people, speakers of languages other than English and people living in absolute poverty are talking about when it comes to wanting those with privilege to stop yammering about their perspective on society, their perspective on history, their perspective on underrepresented people and their perspective on social justice long enough to listen to the perspectives of those less heard.

I get it because while I have the privileges in the white-privilege knapsack, the English-speaker's knapsack and the resources-beyond-bare-survival knapsack, these are usually not enough to be heard without abled privilege. 

This is not "the Privilege Olympics." It is not a matter of whose usurped privilege is worse. It is almost always so different that it cannot be compared. Still mentioning "the Privilege Olympics" or equivalent is routinely used to dismiss and marginalize people with disabilities in activist circles.

We have huge, life-threatening threats to people of color. The crises for people of color are so extreme in some places that there can be no other priorities or even distractions.

Many of us, myself included, have agreed to this, stepped back and ceded precedence because while there are life-threatening and devastating issues for people with disabilities as well, the numbers seem to indicate that our problems are at least statistically less severe. We activists with disabilities have often felt that we can wait a little while and trust that our progressive activist communities would do their best to include us in the meantime. 

But that trust has been misplaced. 

Not once but again and again. Not only do people with disabilities encounter a lot of social exclusion, bullying and discrimination in society at large, we encounter much the same atmosphere inside social justice organizations and groups claiming to be against bigotry and hate. 

My experiences and the experiences of those I have spoken with are clear. People with disabilities are welcome in these groups primarily as mascots or symbols. We are not respected for in our fields of expertise and study. We are often silenced and rarely given a voice. 

I've been told that my voice and experience are not welcome in progressive and social justice groups on multiple occasions. Usually this was not specifically because of my disability but rather because of my race. I was told that as a white person I am privileged and my role is not to speak. As a blind person, however, given that no other people with disabilities were present or given a voice, I felt that our voice was needed. 

I have been rejected quickly from several groups when my politely phrased protestations against being silenced were regarded as going against group authority. I never used profanity or insults against others in my responses. I did not talk over others but only refused to be entirely silent.

For that reason, this inventory of the abled-privilege backpack is necessary. I welcome any additions that others may find while rummaging through it. 

The front lines in the war against fascism

Ten days ago I was snapping beans at the kitchen table with an old friend. It was a pleasant evening and the kids were in bed. We often talk politics at this table, bantering back and forth, bemoaning the state of the world, society and prejudice. 

But this evening, my friend turned down a different path. "I heard on the radio that there's new scientific evidence that we really are different from Africans. We didn't all come from one woman after all."

I question carefully. There is a lot of racially loaded misinformation in our local media, and while this old friend and I almost always agree on social and political issues, there is one way in which we are different. He has more time to listen to the local media and he eventually believes what is repeated enough times. 

Creative Commons image by Joanna Bourne

Creative Commons image by Joanna Bourne

This time it turns out that radio commentators had taken recent studies of the human genome that have found traces of Neanderthal DNA only in non-African human genes and extrapolated a new form of scientific racism.

The real science first appeared in the journal Nature in 2014. That was a study showing that once very long ago some humans interbred with Neanderthals. This occurred during the migration of some humans away from Africa about 60,000 years ago. The traces are now very faint, but they may have initially helped the ancestors of Europeans and East Asians to survive in colder climates at a time when shelter was scarce. Less helpful traits, such as a decline in fertility and differences in speech centers of the brain, were weeded out by natural selection and are no longer part of our DNA. 

The amount of different DNA in Europeans and Asians thanks to the interbreeding with Neanderthals is now minuscule. No, it does not make us fundamentally different from Africans. No, race is still not something genetically significant. And yes, we did all still come from some long ago ancestress in Africa. (And why exactly do some people have a problem with that?)

But of course, there are those in today's political landscape who will jump at any chance to play tug-o-war with people's minds. I researched the science and then explained it. My friend nominally accepted it and backed down from the racial separatist interpretation. Yet I still felt troubled at how pervasive the propaganda has become.

Ten days later at the dark of the moon and after the white supremacist terrorist attack in the United States, I'm more than unsettled. I am a wordsmith and I know the craft. I know about motivation, targeting and persuasion. I see all the signs here. This misinformation is being targeted specifically at communities, nations and people who are white yet not white supremacists.

It's a classic fascist tactic. 

I have studied and written about extremist groups, inter-ethnic conflict and racial violence for twenty years, starting in the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans and following similar troubles around the world. 

And when rooting out fascism it isn't the rabid hatred of the other that is the best clue. The first battle lines are amid those who could be considered part of the in-group but who are not radicalized.

Today if you follow the mainstream media, you are told that racism is wrong and mainly a thing of the past. But you are also told many negative things about people of color, whether refugees, immigrants or people in your own community. Eventually you also hear how white people should believe that they are different and they should hold themselves apart from non-whites. 

Creative Commons image by  Alper Çuğun

Creative Commons image by  Alper Çuğun

Across North America and Europe civil rights organizations have documented a rise in white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity in the past five years. Since the election of Donald Trump in the US, the membership rolls of the Klu Klux Klan have exploded with thousands of new recruits. Through social media, racist hate groups have pushed past the reactionary fringe and become a force that poses a clear danger to average citizens.

And right now, although incidents like the one in Charlottesville pose the most obvious danger, the front lines are a lot closer to home than you might think. In far too many cases, the front lines of this conflict run right across your kitchen table, your bar counter or your social media feed. 

You may feel that I'm being overly dramatic. But consider the other recent fascist uprising and its devastating effects. I mean the one in Syria. 

The Islamic State has all the hallmarks of fascism. It may seem odd to compare a brown-skinned Muslim group to neo-Nazis but they are close ideological cousins. They just happen to have a different home-group as their central focus.

ISIS stands for an authoritarian, supremacist ideology rooted in fascist tactics and social media was crucial to its rise. ISIS has also made it clear in public statements, organized attacks and internal documents that while they feel they are superior to non-Muslims, the brunt of their violence and hatred is directed at Muslims who do not fully accept their twisted version of that faith. In ISIS territory, Christians, Jews and even Pagans are allowed to live, if with curtailed rights. But Muslims who do not adhere exactly and pledge their allegiance to ISIS are executed and make up the majority of mass graves uncovered in places ISIS has retreated from.

Statements and documents uncovered by western intelligence agencies indicate orders by top ISIS leaders to fuel European fear and hatred of moderate Muslims. That has been the open goal of recent Islamic terror attacks in Europe. Far from championing the Muslim cause, ISIS would like Europeans and Americans to do their work for them, isolating Muslims in their communities and denying entry to Muslim refugees fleeing ISIS terror. 

It should come as no surprise that the same tactics are used by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. They often call themselves "race realists" and claim that they are not primarily motivated by hatred of others but simply want to further the interests and ensure the survival of their own people, which they conceive of as the white race, minus those who are nominally white but deemed undesirable and ostensibly genetically different, such as Jews. 

And just as ISIS was built with social media and on the backs of moderate Muslims, white supremacists are focusing much of their energy on misinformation directed at average white people and hatred of "race traitors."

White supremacist groups are now in the stage in which they use social media and misinformation to grow their power. They set average white people against African Americans, against Muslim refugees and against all immigrants of color. And yes, they'll do the reverse too, whenever they get the chance. They draw harsh lines and attack white people who stand against them viciously. And they will very likely manufacture reasons for people of color to hate average white people as well, to ensure that we don't stand together.

Those--like that friend at my kitchen table--who don't want to be racist but also don't want to be bothered with the struggle against racism are key pawns in this game. Fascism has always fed on the discomfort people naturally feel for conflict and poisonous rhetoric. Most of the great atrocities of the world were not committed because of great hatred, but because of apathy and avoidance by large masses of people.

Those radio programs twisting science and claiming that Europeans are genetically distinct from other races and thus must be protected are not a random, weird-science occurence. This is the front line of fascism's war on us. Don't let racist pseudoscience go unanswered. 

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.

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!