Crossroads

We’re standing at a crossroads.

Donald Trump has the Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton (almost) has the Democratic nomination. America is thus faced with a choice. But it goes far beyond Trump vs. Clinton or GOP vs. Dems. This is a choice that may well decide several things. First, it may decide what kind of country the United States truly is. Second, it may decide the fate of the US in general. Third, it may decide the fate of human civilization.

Let’s take that one at a time.

Remember this: the United States was built on racism. It was built on the racism of denying non-white people their land, their liberty, and their labor. Mexican-Americans in Texas and California are in the first category, African-Americans in the second and third, and Native Americans in all three. It was built further on a policy that US needs should and would override the needs of everyone else in the world. Thus democratically elected regimes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Iran were all overthrown with US help or approval, in order to preserve profits, and thus Saddam Hussein was our friend while he fought Iran but our foe when he fought Kuwait, and Osama bin Laden was our friend (or at least our fellow-traveler) when he fought the Soviet Union and our foe afterward.

Racism is in our DNA: it taints the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it haunts us still in police violence, economic disparity, and political power imbalance, to name only the most obvious. Continue reading

Ferguson Queries

As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.

For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.

As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late: Continue reading

Authors and Finishers

My country is increasingly fractured and divided these days, with this oncoming election widening the rifts deeper every day. The election has, to an extent, become a clash of ideologies. And though there are still more things that unite us than divide us—all the candidates love their country, all the candidates are trying to protect it—the rifts are so deep that compromise is becoming not just a dirty word but an equivalent to “surrender.” Too many have come to the conclusion that even agreeing with their political opponents is tantamount to treason. I will not pretend that all parties are equal in this respect; one political party, after all, has seemed to drift rightward in the wake of the other’s extremism. Now, it’s possible that the election will end some of this; if Governor Romney wins, he might attribute his success to his late-race moderation, and if he loses, the Republican Party may recognize that it is because of their ideological extremism, and adjust accordingly. But there is no guarantee of that. And with the politics of rage reaping a rich harvest of hate for both parties (though to an unequal degree), I do not see politics in this nation becoming more civil any time soon. The electorate is remarkably divided this year, with few swing votes up for grabs. This means that first, most voters were set along party lines long before Election Day, with few people deciding not on party name but on the merits of arguments, and second, the way to win the election is a matter of firing up the party base and bolstering loyalist turnout. Which means more vitriol and more hatred, because the easiest way to motivate people is through fear. It is almost becoming a situation where we no longer have the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but the Anti-Democrat and the Anti-Republican Parties. Or at least that is how they bring out the vote.

This makes me deeply uneasy. Continue reading

Forgive Us

For over a century, women in this country had no real legal rights, except perhaps as widows. They had no right to vote, no right to own property while married, no right to a divorce except in cases of adultery, no right to even a modicum of control over their own bodies. That last was not a comment about abortion: women were denied access to information about controlling their fertility. Not abortions, not condoms, just pamphlets. Such information was declared “obscene” by the Comstock Laws, and Federal officials would routinely search the mail and seize educational material on human sexuality. The lack of control would go even further, as spousal abuse was not considered a crime and rape would generally be blamed on the victim.

For over a century, African Americans could be killed with impunity in this country. They could be lynched for talking back to a white man, whistling at a white woman, owning a gun, or trying to vote. As local law enforcement usually organized the lynch mobs, blacks had no legal recourse or protection (State and Federal officials ignored the problem). Nor was this an exclusively southern phenomenon. The north and west had “sundown towns,” so called because the rules were simple: blacks could come into town during the day to work or do business, but had to be beyond the city limits by sundown, or face arrest or worse. Lynchings the country over were family affairs for whites, an occasion for a picnic and taking photographs. They were so solidly entrenched in the American culture that Franklin Roosevelt could not get an anti-lynching law passed in the heyday of the New Deal.

For nearly two centuries, gays and lesbians in this country were effectively persecuted. Sodomy was a felony. Just being at a gay bar could get you arrested for public indecency. If a gay man got arrested, he could expect to be beaten by the police (who would he complain to?) and have his name published in the newspapers, unless he could bribe his way out of it. If his name was printed up he could expect to lose his job, his friends, even his family.

Lesbians could expect all of the above as well; they would also be raped.

Things are better now, of course. Teachers can’t get in trouble for teaching about sex, just for teaching anything other than abstinence-only birth control. Blacks can’t get lynched by the police, just shot by them. Gays and lesbians can’t get beaten by the police, just by the general population. Continue reading

If Only the Czar Knew!

In Czarist Russia, centuries ago, conditions for the serfs could get truly appalling. Living in an agricultural society in a cold, dry land, famine was a frequent visitor; living in an autocratic society, taxation was basically armed theft by the lords, the boyars. The serfs were therefore caught between the climate and the hierarchy. But they held out hope for rescue: their perpetual refrain was, “If only the czar knew!”

The czar was the agent of Jesus, you see — the sainted ruler, Christ’s agent on earth. Since he was so holy, he would rein in the boyars and protect the people (and who knows, he might ask Christ for a mild winter, too). Since he obviously wasn’t doing this, however, it must be because he had no idea how his people were suffering. So the serfs reasoned, or so goes the story. In 1905, therefore, a group of serfs and low-ranking priests took a petition for a relief of sufferings to the czar at the Winter Palace, relying on his goodness, and were massacred for their trouble. There were probably quite a few serfs who had guessed the truth before that, but afterward it was blindingly obvious.

For the czars were mortal — some good, some bad, some totally ineffectual, not a few insane — and they were bound up in the system the serfs bemoaned. Rather than being above and apart from the outright robbery of the boyars, rather being a potential intercessor, the czars benefited enormously from the system as it was. To intercede would have been to cut off the branch they were sitting on. So for nearly a thousand years, it was “If only the czar knew!” while the czar knew all along. Continue reading

Something for Nothing

There was a candidate who ran for senate in my state this summer; he was eliminated by the primary, as expected, but he serves as a useful example of a common phenomenon in the United States these days. He is a farmer of sorts, and stood with the Tea Party in saying that he and his fellow agribusinessmen of Eastern Washington are taxed far too highly and receive nothing but grief from the government in return. Yet his farm is watered by the Grand Coulee Dam, a New Deal project, and he receives government subsidies from the Department of Agriculture. In short, without the Federal Government his farm, and all the others between the Cascades and the Palouse, would not exist. Not profitably, anyway. So his insistence that he pays more in taxes than he receives in benefits is puzzling. His distaste for taxes is understandable; I even share his dislike. Yet the Feds are undoubtedly pouring money into his farm, not taking it out, in the form of subsidies and water–and both are paid for by taxes. In short, until recently we had a candidate for senate who swears he owes DC nothing, when in fact he owes DC everything. He, the rest of the Tea Party, and often the rest of the GOP as a whole, seem to expect something for nothing–and how often does that work? Continue reading

Observations on Colors

Three men shared the back of the bus with me. By their talk they seemed to be homeless, discussing where they’d encountered each other before: Workforce, the Millionair Club, various street corners. They were dressed for hard work, and looked like they had been doing it. They discussed the times: loss of jobs (one man was laid off from a position he’d held for 14 years, and was only hanging on thanks to the second job he’d had for much of that period) and a black president. Being black themselves, they expressed their continuing astonishment: “Never thought I’d live to see the day,” one said repeatedly, and the others agreed.

And then one of them said something which blew me away: “Maybe we’ll get another one.”

It really shouldn’t have astonished me so much. After all, the walls have theoretically fallen, yes? It’s now been clearly demonstrated that a mixed-race child of a single mother can grow up to be president. Obama is our first president of color: that means, surely, that there can now be more. But it’s a thought that had never before entered my mind. Had I already begun to think of Obama as our token president? Or is it just the case that we’re not thinking about the next one because we’re still grappling with the president we’ve got — and because those who hope to take power from him don’t seem likely to run a person of color as their contender?

I was tempted to enter the conversation myself, but I did not; instead, to sort of indicate my openness, I broke out my copy of Real Change. (For the non-Seattle readers, Real Change is the homeless newspaper in town, very focused on social justice, and sold by the poor and homeless on street corners around town. I buy two copies, one for me and one for my parents.) I thus flew my flag as a sympathetic ear. Two of the men got off before long, and silence fell.

As we were crossing Lake Washington, the remaining man tapped me on the knee and pointed to the western horizon. The sun was setting. It reached just under the rain clouds, setting the atmosphere on fire in startling shades of gold and purple. It was astonishingly lovely, and I said so. The two of us watched the sun until it slipped behind Captiol Hill and the Madison radio towers.

I glanced north, and now it was my turn to point something out to him: the sunlight still fell on the north lake, and so did the rain. A rainbow, colors as vibrant as the sunset, was arcing up out of the water. It had a faint double bow further north; and, as my eyes followed it, I saw it was a perfect bow, running the whole north-south length of the lake, from Juanita to Renton.

My friend and I sat in awe and spoke of our wonder to each other.

“This is why I never moved away,” he said, and I said it was the same with me.

He got off at Montlake, and clapped me on the arm as he did, saying, “Good talking to you, man.”

“You too,” I said, and I meant it.