Sunday, January 29, 2017

Why so quiet?

In the days following the election, many friends raised their voices, insisting that the disillusioned masses give the new president a chance. We’re not bad people, they said. We just have different political ideals, they said. We are just as concerned about other humans as you lefties, they said.

Yet their silence over the last 48 hours has said more than their words ever did.

If you voted for Trump, and claimed that you were mislabeled as xenophobic for so doing, where is your voice decrying this most recent un-Constitutional, un-American, un-Godly executive order? I was willing to try out the idea that maybe you voted for this atrocity of an administration out of some combination of deeply-held convictions and misguided hope and, at the end of the day, you were still a good person who would stand up to evil.

Yet, the silent majority is even more shocking to me than the vocal few who are defending this barbarity.

Those vocal few seem to be hanging their hats on the need for security. But, if security is your primary concern, why target refugees? Refugees are the most vetted group of people who enter this country, and they have little to no say in what country they’ll even be sent to. Before they ever step on American soil, they are screened by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a resettlement support center contracted by the Department of State, the actual Department of State, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, additional US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Refugee Affairs Division, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and a medical doctor. When they arrive at our border, they are screened again by Customs and Border Protection.

The whole process takes 18 to 24 months. And it works. You are 369 times more likely to be killed by falling out of bed than by an Islamic jihadist immigrant. Notice that says immigrant, not refugee. There’s no breakdown data available for being killed by a refugee because they don’t pose a threat.

The reason the refugee program exists is because our country recognized the enormity of the mistake of barring Jewish refugees during World War II. We saw what we had done and vowed that we would never stand by while innocents were slaughtered. Yet here we are.

Will you stand up and call this what it is, or will you cower behind your vote and insist that we give evil another chance?

Monday, December 12, 2016

How did we get here?

Five weeks hasn’t made this election any more palatable, and I have certainly spent copious amounts of time asking myself the above question. Here are three main changes in American culture that I believe contributed to our current sad state of affairs.

Embracing Crassness. In the early 1990s a slew of talk shows began airing that celebrated a strange stew of violence, foul language, and the very baseness of human nature. I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that people never swore in public before we started bleeping out words on daytime TV, but it was behavior to hide or, at the very least, be a little embarrassed of if someone overheard you. We collectively enjoyed Mel Brooks movies, but we elbowed each other and raised our eyebrows in disbelief when the characters said things we would never dare say out loud. With the rise of the trashy talk shows, it was as though we collectively decided that it had all been pretense. This was how “regular” people talked and behaved. Slowly, but not slowly enough, that thought became the truth.

Accepting Dishonesty. In case you don’t remember, the 2004 presidential election is when “to swift boat” became a verb. While I understood that politicians would bend, spin, and twist the truth, this campaign took it to a whole new level. Of the two major presidential contenders, one was an alleged draft dodger and the other had been awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam. Yet it was the latter candidate’s patriotism that was called into question. Even though the claims against Kerry were false, the voices raised against him were loud enough to make people call his service into question. Our country had started a descent into a terrifying realm where truth could be considered subjective.

Celebrating Mediocrity. Looking again to the 2004 election, one of the criticisms heaped on Kerry was that he was too smart; he didn’t talk like an average dude, he had an Ivy League education, and to top it all off he enjoyed windsurfing. (Yes, this was an actual criticism.) On the other hand, there was W: just about as “regular” as a guy could get. There was no doubt about who America wanted to grab a beer with; it certainly wasn’t that smarty-pants Kerry who probably thought he was better than us. This election was the turning point where America decided that we didn’t want someone better than us to be in charge. The problem with that thinking is that it completely negates the benefit of living in a community. When my car is broken down, I want someone better than me at mechanics to fix it. When I have pain that won’t go away, I want someone better than me at medicine to treat me. When I have occasion to celebrate, I want someone better than me at the culinary arts to prepare a meal. And when we have the privilege of electing a president, I want someone better than me at foreign relations, economic policy, and a whole host of other areas to lead the free world.

All of which leads us to 2016, where America has elected the embodiment of crassness, dishonesty, and mediocrity. He doesn’t pretend to be polite (and disdains those who are), he has at best a very loose relationship with the truth (and continues to lie when confronted with facts), and won the votes of 62 million Americans by convincing them that he was just like them (he’s not; not even a little bit). So, now the question is: how do we get from here to just about anywhere else?

Monday, November 28, 2016

What’s the least productive comment on the internet?

“Do your research.” Followed closely by its slightly more aggressive cousin, “Educate yourself.” I’m opposed to neither education nor research; it’s just that those comments have nothing to do with either.

My first issue with this comment is that in its current use, no one actually means it. When a commenter throws out “Do your research” they have no interest in anyone becoming more educated, well-rounded, or thoughtful. No, this phrase has become a placeholder for something along the lines of, “until you reach the same conclusion I have, you’re an idiot.”

The second issue is that few people seem to understand what constitutes research. In the fourth grade I was introduced to the maddening tedium of 3x5 index cards. And while my ten-year-old self saw it as an exercise akin to memorizing times tables (only less satisfying), I find myself drawing on those principles daily. The index cards may have been the vehicle, but the lessons were around the distinctions between popular press and journals worthy of citation, differences in treatment of primary and secondary sources, and corroboration of information. All of this involved copious time at the library.

Now that information is everywhere, and multiplying faster than a Duggar, I call upon those lessons every day. Here I’ve taken what I remember from my elementary school days, updated it for the current world, and added some personal recommendations.

Check Multiple Sources. In the history of journalism, there has never been a true story that was only covered by one outlet. Verifiable stories are covered from multiple angles. Seek them out. Bonus points if you consider sources with wildly different perspectives on the same set of facts.

Look at the URL. This one is so simple that most of us never do it. Too often the difference between a reputable business and an absolute scam is a couple of letters in the internet address. Make sure you’re looking at reputable sites.

Review their Standards. It’s pretty easy to find ethics and standards for print media. It can be more challenging to find these for other channels, but it’s still worth a little googling to discover what rulebook a source is using.

Criticize the Data. I know just enough about statistics to get myself into trouble. One of the red flags I notice in spurious articles is the habit of looking at a handful of data points and drawing wide conclusions. While there are countless nuances that go into significance, I will simply say that a significant finding should be based on more data points than you have Facebook friends. Extra credit if it’s been peer reviewed.

Look for Press Releases. When organizations have official opinions, they publicize them. If the Pope had actually endorsed a presidential candidate, it would have appeared on the official Vatican site. Exercise extreme caution with second-hand information. Want to know what a business/religion/politician is proposing? Look for it on their owned media (corporate site, Facebook page, Twitter account, etc.). Look to secondary sources for the analysis.

Check the Facts. In the current environment, fact checking could keep a small army in full time employment. Here are some good fact-checking sites to start with. Keep in mind, good sites will offer links to primary sources, allowing you to review and make up your own mind.

There is much debate around what skills should be included in public education; there are particularly compelling arguments for the inclusion of financial management and coding skills. But if this election has taught us anything, it has demonstrated the dismal gap between information and knowledge. The only way to bridge that gap is by teaching everyone that not everything with a URL carries equal weight.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What do we do now?

I consider myself as somewhat politically active; I always make it to the voting booth (even for mid-terms) and I talk about policy with people who agree with me. I think it’s safe to say that I need to do more. I see a lot of acquaintances bouncing back and forth through the stages of grief: shock, anger, rejection . . . not quite making it to acceptance yet. I’m adding one more voice to the many others detailing positive steps we can all take to move forward.

Protest. And just in case there’s any doubt about how I feel about this, I mean peacefully. Physical assault and intentional destruction of property yield neither the moral high ground nor political progress. I am all for marching, sign waving, sitting in, and loving in. Just keep your hands to yourself. As a side note, has anyone else noticed how much press coverage violent vs. non-violent protests get? No, I still don’t condone it.

Call congress. Don’t just call your congress person, call all your elected officials. Yes, call, don’t write. (But if it’s a choice between writing a letter or doing nothing, please write!) If you can get a bunch of people to call about the same issue, that’s even better. Get contact info here. Not sure what to talk about? One pressing issue would be the appointment of Steve Bannon. I worked as a canvasser for a lobbying organization, and one of the most common conversations I had was around letting elected officials know what you care about. All they know is that they won; they don’t know what issues you actually care about until you tell them. I was fired from that job twice, so maybe I wasn’t very good at explaining that.

Get a job. The new administration needs to fill roughly 4,000 jobs. If you are a smart, thoughtful person and at all qualified or interested in any of these positions, I beg you to look into them. I realize that entering the belly of the beast won’t be palatable to everyone but you could be like Peeta and give the rest of us an early warning when crap’s going down. (Without all the unfortunate brainwashing and subsequent murderous tendencies.)

Donate. Whatever issue you care about, there is an under-funded non-profit that’s fighting for it. You can start with the issue you’re most passionate about, find an organization, and set up a recurring donation. Or you can pick a different recipient each month. Not sure where to start? Here’s one good list of charities. Or you could just start with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit committed to combatting hate, intolerance and discrimination; or Propublica, an independent non-profit news agency.

Volunteer. Don’t let your wallet be the only one that shows up. Commit your time to your community. I’ve been half-heartedly scrolling the New York Cares website (a local aggregator of volunteer opportunities) since I got back into town but now I’ve committed that I will sign up for an ongoing project before the end of this month. If you want help finding a volunteer opportunity that matches your passion and your geography, let me know. That’s totally my jam.

Make dinner. Don’t just make dinner, but invite someone different from you to share it. When was the last time you shared a meal with someone whose political beliefs were different from your own (other than that work happy hour or church potluck)? One of the reasons we’ve become so divided is that we’ve just stopped talking. So eat ramen with a Republican, dim sum with a Democrat, and ice cream with an Independent. Isn’t that something we call all get behind? 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Do you think all Trump voters are racist?*

The short answer is no.

The long answer is more nuanced. For purposes of this discussion, I see three types of Trump voters when it comes to race: actual racists, deniers, and compromisers.

Actual Racists: Since the campaign has received enthusiastic support from the American Nazi Party, the KKK, and the alt-right (just to name some headliners), it seems obvious that there is an actual racist contingent in play. Thankfully I have not seen any indication that any of my immediate connections fall into this category.

Deniers: This is the category for people who claim that Trump either hasn’t said those racist things or simply didn’t mean them. If this is you, I would love to have a conversation with you about how you absorb, evaluate, and internalize information. (Seriously; I’m not being sarcastic.)

Compromisers: As far as I can tell, these are the people I know who voted for Trump. You recognize him for what he is, but voted for him anyway. If you said something along the lines of, “I just had to hold my nose and do it,” this is the category for you. And for me, this is the most difficult group of people to wrap my head around.

See, I know you. I’ve worked with you, worshipped with you, and lived next to (and in some cases, with) you. I’ve seen your integrity first-hand, and my observation is that you work for the good of your family, your friends, and your community. Yet somewhere in this election you found yourself doing the devil’s calculus. I believe that for most people this was subconscious: you didn’t purposefully weigh healthcare reform against sexual assault, or manufacturing jobs against registration databases for Muslims. But that was the compromise you felt forced to make.

It’s as though you played a massive hand of poker and went all in on Trump. Sure, every election is a gamble of sorts. No one governs exactly as they campaign. Each of us has to throw our chips behind the bet we think has the best odds. Unfortunately, not all the chips you played were your own. Some of those chips were other people’s human rights.

Where does that leave us? There is no CTRL-Z on the election, and I’m not sure a lot of you would use it if there were. But there is something you can do. Think about any attack in the last 15 years that could be tied to Muslim perpetrators, and the series of inevitable responses:
  1. Muslims are horrible people who want to destroy us!
  2. Not all Muslims!
  3. If it’s not all Muslims, then why aren’t the so-called good ones speaking out?
Here’s your chance to put that last response into practice. If you voted for Trump and are not, in fact, a racist, now is the perfect time to raise your voice. Speak out in opposition to the hate crimes that have been increasing drastically for the last five days. Donate to the ACLU. Volunteer at a local refugee center. And talk about it all. I’m not usually a fan of bragging, but now is the time to take a visible stand and demonstrate that you voted for Trump in spite of his racist rhetoric, not because of it.

*In this post I use the term racist as shorthand for xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, ableist, etc. Honestly, there’s no way I could write a non-clunky sentence that contained the whole list. This is me being lazy, not intentionally overlooking any marginalized groups at risk. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Why can’t you just move on?

This blog was my first foray into what we now know as social media.  Here, as elsewhere, I made a concerted effort to keep my words neutral. My friends and family come from a wide array of vantage points and life circumstances, and I never wanted to risk alienating any of them with my opinions. The closest I got to anything political or religious were three positive Facebook posts: one for each of Obama’s elections and one when the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality. But this year has been different. As I witnessed more and more people expressing their political opinions, I dipped my toe in those waters. I liked a few statuses. On the day before the election, I openly posted my support of Hillary.

And then my world went topsy-turvy.

A few things have happened this week that made me think I need to speak up. The first was the utter shock at the outcome. I began to wonder what more I could have done. Should have done. The second was when a friend sincerely posted some questions on Facebook. Why are people so upset? Do they think all Trump voters are bad people? I offered a brief response in the moment, but there was so much more I wanted to say. I don’t think all Trump supporters are bad people, and I think many of them are interested in answers to those questions and more.

This morning I woke to this confession in The Atlantic, and it captured so much of what I’ve been feeling. If I had spoken up, had the uncomfortable conversation on occasion, would the outcome have been different? Would my voice have helped persuade a few votes on the fence? Would those few votes have persuaded a few more? None of us will ever know. I regret every moment I didn’t challenge someone when they said that both candidates were equally bad. I will not risk remaining silent going forward.

With that in mind, here’s why we can’t just move on. If this were just about losing—as though this election were a game of Parcheesi and we could just pick up our pieces and be done—then the critics might be right: we sound like spoiled brats who can’t handle not getting our participation trophies. But that’s not what this is about. I’ve voted for losing campaigns before and, while certainly disappointing, I was able to move on.

This outrage and despair and grief is not about losing; it’s about what we’ve lost.

We’ve lost freedom and safety for millions of our fellow Americans. We’ve lost the America we knew and loved. We’ve lost the childlike naivety that had us believing our country was better than this.

Friends on the right have mentioned that this is just how people felt when Obama won. While I cannot speak for anyone else’s lived experience—if you tell me you were scared, the only reasonable response is to believe you—I’m curious what that felt like. Can you tell me what positions Obama espoused, or policies he enacted, that threatened the freedom or safety of your family? (This is a real question.)

I have some ideas for questions I’ll be addressing here over the coming weeks. If anyone has anything specific they’d like me to address, shoot me a note. I’m willing to try.

This is already longer than I wanted it to be but, if you’re still with me, I have a favor to ask: if you identify as both a Christian and a Trump supporter, read this. And in case I haven’t been clear before, let me say it overtly now, I am always willing to have a conversation.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Back to My Old Self

I’ve never been happier for the start of a new month. In case you missed it, July sucked cold rocks in the desert at night (which is to say, it really and truly sucked). The move was a nightmare—no thanks to the worlds’ worst moving company and a new home that was no where near move-in ready—and I spent the first week here suffering through a heat wave with no AC. Add in passing out in public and an allergic reaction of unknown cause (the mostly likely culprit is peanut butter, a personal loss almost too great to contemplate) and I say strongly that T.S. Eliot got it wrong: July is the cruelest month.  At least it was this year. I would say that everything that could possibly go wrong did, except I need to add that several things went wrong that seemed beyond the realm of possibility.
But now it’s August. And even though I woke up with a headache, I practically skipped over to the calendar, thrilled that I could finally turn the page. It’s a beautifully sunshine-filled day, brimming with potential. Today is the day that the over-the-top optimism of June will return.  It has to; I don’t think I could take another July.