What I Saw at the Counter Demonstration

I learned of the upcoming June 4 anti-alt-right counter protest while I was attending the vigil at the Hollywood MAX station on the evening after the train killings. Someone handed me a flyer that proclaimed “Portland Stands United Against Fascism!” It described the planned pro-Trump “Warriors for Freedom” rally, and urged readers to join the anti-fascism (or “antifa”) counter demo that would be held simultaneously, more or less in the same place. It looked like trouble, like a scene where a guy could get his head bashed in. But, freshly grief stricken with the rest of my city, I felt the call.

I let friends know, via email, that I was looking for a sign to hold with a peaceful message, maybe something about love, and one friend came through with an “Everyone Is Welcome Here” placard, featuring the kindly face of a woman wearing glasses and a hajib. This pretty much perfectly captured the sentiment I wanted to project (though I’d also come up with my own slogan – “One human race. One human family.” – and were I a sign maker myself, those are the words I’d have put on my sign).

In the days before the event, I learned there would also be a more mainstream (so to speak) “Portland Stands United Against Hate” counter demo in front of City Hall, attended by a likely less-volatile crowd than the antifas. And an hour before those rallies were to begin, a Buddhist-sponsored meditation for peace (“Standing Together for Justice”) would be held at Lownsdale Square, a block or two away. That looked like a good grounding keynote for the day.

   ****

About 40 people showed up for the meditation, which seemed modest, though the friendly atmosphere was fortifying. As we meditated with eyes open (as instructed) around the war memorial statue, we could hear the spirited chants and drumming from the already-amply-populated antifa demo two blocks to the south, which was not even due to begin for another hour.

After the Buddhist closing circle and prayer, I shambled over to the counter demo in front of City Hall, kitty corner to the antifa demo in Chapman Square, and directly across SW 4th Ave. from Terry Schrunk Plaza, where the pro-Trumpers were. (They were actually boxed in and outnumbered on three sides all afternoon, with my chosen City Hall demo to their west, the antifas on their north side, and a riled-up union-led rally across 3rd Ave., just east of them.)

The area in front of City Hall was already thick with counter protesters when I arrived, attendees vigorously chanting stuff like “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” The pro-Trump group across the street looked pitiably tiny by comparison. (I had not been aware that their rally wasn’t actually scheduled to start for another hour and a half, and that the folks I was looking at were the early birds.) With a few biker-type exceptions, they looked pretty normal to me (what was I expecting?): clean cut families, including some children. Some of them waved American flags. Two people unfurled a Trump banner. One guy had a sign that said “BLM is racist.” When our side began chanting “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” they hurled back: “All lives matter! All lives matter!”

I flashed on an early 2016 Hillary-Bernie debate (ah, remember those days?) during which a young black man, via youtube, asked Bernie: “Senator Sanders, is it ‘black lives matter’ or ‘all lives matter’?”

Without a beat of hesitation, Sanders replied, “Black lives matter.

I don’t remember the rest of his answer. But I was impressed with his strategic emphasis. In this highly charged, nuanced, symbolic, ongoing debate about words, Sanders had found a way to thread the needle (at least for the moment). By coming down with just a little bit of stress on the word matter, he had avoided denying the other proposition. He had skirted the either/or crux of the question, rendered it tangential. I deemed it astute of him, clever, not dishonest.

****

I stood on SW 4th Avenue, having threaded my way to the front line of my counter protest, as close as possible to the cordoned-off pro-Trump crew. Having achieved a privileged spot to stand, I implicitly felt I should do what most other people around me were doing; namely, chanting and shouting and raging at the people facing me some fifteen feet away. But that felt silly. Instead I just held my sign and maintained a mournfully serious expression.

At one point, the other side began chanting “USA! USA!” and our side retorted (effectively drowning them out) “You are not the USA! You are not the USA!” Which, when you think about it, was exactly the same message, just broadcast in the opposite direction. I started shouting “We are ALL the USA! We are ALL the USA!” One or two people sympathetically joined in with me for a round or three.

Altogether, I found the other side’s signs more interesting than ours. A few were demented and creepy – “CNN is ISIS” for example – but they were all pretty different, and some of them were downright discursive. I don’t remember the exact wording but there was one sign that – I swear – conveyed (in BIG letters!) all of the following information: “Jeremy Christian [the MAX train killer] is not alt-right. He is not a Trump supporter. He voted for Bernie!”

I believe that sign was accurate. I’d read an article online about this. Christian had been a Bernie supporter. Also, I had watched some footage of Christian at a previous Portland alt-right demo, screaming things like “Die, Muslims!” and a big bearded redneck-looking guy holding a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag was insistently telling the camera person “Hey, that guy’s not with us! He’s not one of us!”

Another sign – actually a series of small signs draped over the cordon by the pro-Trumpers – read: “No fascism.” “No hate.” “No KKK.” “YOU are the fascists!” I could believe that they might really feel that way, especially when our side was chanting “Go away, Nazi scum! You’re outnumbered ten to one!”

One guy on the pro-Trump side had put together an attractive sign with multi-colored block letters which read “If you are here legally, welcome home.” I registered a guilty little rush of tingly warmth upon reading those words. It occurred to me that our two signs – his sign and my own “Everyone is welcome here” – summarized the opposing viewpoints that animate our national debate over immigration, and by extension the character of our democracy. I imagined that this particular gentleman and I could have had a civil and interesting conversation. (Although, as I conceived it, the point of my sign had little to do with immigration per se. It was primarily an anti-racist message; a statement about diversity and tolerance.)

But the most intriguing of their signs, to my mind, was another highly legible, carefully wrought specimen, hoisted high by a scrawny, self-conscious looking young man whom I deemed to be no more than 21 or 22 years old, possibly only a teenager. It said:

Love Trump
Trump’s hate

It was a head scratcher, all right, and I puzzled mightily over it. Only hours later, far from the demo, did its intended meaning dawn on me. The lack of clarity had been due to the sign maker’s poor punctuation skills. His sign should have read:

“Love Trump”
trumps hate

Or, to put it more prosaically (and perhaps nauseatingly to some readers): “Love of President Trump is what trumps hate.”

It’s kind of a complicated thought, isn’t it? And honestly, I don’t think it’s without merit! I mean, that’s a deep discussion and I won’t get into it here but …

… here’s the thing. I’m a former English teacher and the young man’s rogue apostrophe and faulty capitalization did not sit well with me. In fact, had he been a student of mine, and had he turned in a paper with that depth and idiosyncratic quality of thought, yet with such abysmal punctuation, I could never in good professional conscience have awarded his efforts anything higher than a B.

So does my reflexive, visceral disdain of his inability to punctuate reveal me to be a blinkered, overeducated liberal elitist? And is this emblematic of our American cultural divide? Truth be told, I do find superfluous apostrophes kind of deplorable.

*****

 I’m sure I’ve been to over a hundred demonstrations. There is something about demonstrations (or, in this case, a counter-demonstration) that makes you feel like you’re supposed to know what to do, what posture to assume, what attitude to wear, when it’s appropriate to greet your friends, how it’s appropriate to greet your friends, how to feel inside. And of course you should certainly know what it is you’re doing there, what your purpose or objective is in having come.

But sometimes there’s an existential moment (I speak for myself, and I suspect for others too) when you realize you don’t actually know any of that stuff, you’re just lost in some flow with no internal compass.

Such a moment occurred for me at about 1 p.m. I’d been at the counter-demo about half an hour, staring at the same defiant, mostly red-clad Trump supporters across the street, intermittently chanting (or enduring a chant), or just milling around and taking it all in. Since the opposing demo wasn’t even really due to officially start until 2, and as I had limited energy for demonstrating, this seemed a good time for a break.

So I walked some blocks away to regroup. I peed discreetly (truly) in some office building shrubbery. I took the novel I was reading out from my fanny pack, sat on a concrete bench by some bushy manicured landscaping and read for a while. (I was reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which is excellent, and apropos for the occasion, being post-apocalyptical.)

I reflected on why I had come — to try and contribute some semblance of a peaceful presence, to honor the recently fallen, and to express, however faintly, a prayer for them and us.

I returned to my counter demo at 2. I held my sign above my head, though I was too far back now for any of the Trump people to see it. But my comrades could read it and many of them glanced in my eyes and smiled at me sweetly after looking up and doing so.

I felt no imperative to emotionally work myself up. I found a comfortable place to stand, something metal to lean against (a signpost? a parking meter? don’t remember) and continued to hold up my sign, switching arms every few minutes and periodically checking my cell phone for the time, because I’d decided I would permit myself to leave at 2:30. I did want to go home.

A bit after 2:30 I moved to go, weaving my way out of the thick of things. I had to cross Madison Street in order to go around the Trump protest (the police had it all well circumscribed). In the midst of the crush of people on my destination sidewalk danced a gleeful-eyed, smartly dressed young man, Walkman ear pods in, his two hands holding up, at chest level, a huge sign that said “Jesus is weed.” His merry eyes caught my own, and he transferred his sign to one hand to gather me in for a brief embrace with his free arm. A goofy, heart-lifting little surprise, that.

Before disengaging entirely from all the action, I felt drawn to check out the antifa scene. I entered their demo zone, the spacious, shady lawn of Chapman Square. By and large, the antifas struck me as young, mellow (yup), and innocent-natured. I received much generous eye contact from above face kerchiefs, likely in response to my signage. There was one stocky, bearded, tough-looking dude (in black, like nearly all the antifas) who was blasting a music loudspeaker in the direction of the Trumpers, and I was delighted to recognize that the song was the old pop hit “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent. I blatantly boogied to it for a few minutes and then prevailed on the guy for a brotherly fist bump before proceeding to my bus stop.

By then it was just about 3. I learned the next day that if I’d stayed another 20 minutes, I’d have seen rubber bullets, tear gas, and some violence.  I felt lucky to have missed that.

 

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From Whence Cometh This Knowledge?

I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about why people believe irrational things.

One very pithy and penetrating essay that appeared in the NY Times points out that all of us, by necessity, have to crowdsource (not their word, exactly) so many of our beliefs, because there is so much we cannot know directly:

“Consider some simple examples. You know that the earth revolves around the sun. But can you rehearse the astronomical observations and calculations that led to that conclusion?  …  Most of what you “know” — most of what anyone knows — about any topic is a placeholder for information stored elsewhere, in a long-forgotten textbook or in some expert’s head.”

So I got to thinking about one of the things I “know” indirectly that influences my thinking and my actions and my entire emotional constitution every single day, and that is the fact that 99 percent of scientists agree on the reality of human-caused global warming.

That 99 percent of scientists agree on global warming is practically a meme at this point, isn’t it? But is it true? How do I know? Why do I believe it?

So I googled “do 99 percent of scientists believe in global warming” and I learned that NASA is pretty emphatic about its existence (“Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree.”) and on their landing page is a Statement on Climate Change from 18 Scientific Associations.

I scrolled down the Google hits page and found a rebuttal, in the form of a National Review essay, to the notion that 97% of scientists agree on climate change. I skimmed the article; didn’t read it closely; but the gist of it is a quibble with how the 97% figure got arrived at.

I also found this essay from Forbes magazine which essentially argues that, while 97% of scientists may agree about the existence of anthropogenic global warming, this does NOT mean that 97% of scientists believe we should ban fossil fuels.

But the rest of my Google hits were all affirming of the 97% claim.

So I feel pretty sure that I’m right to be alarmed as I am about climate change.

Nonetheless, I learned something: The figure is 97% percent of scientists, not 99% as I (and others) have been saying. That’s still a hell of a consensus but accuracy is important too. Right?

 

can the balloon be pricked yet?

Can anybody simplify the situation such that even Trump voters MUST come out of denial?

I saw the unflappable Kellyanne Conway in some youtube newsclip today. In response to the reporter’s question regarding why there was no visible evidence for Trump’s claim that Obama wiretapped him, Conway blandly replies that the president has access to all kinds of information sources that the rest of us don’t, and he knows what he is talking about.

 

I don’t remember what the reporter said next, nor can I find that news clip again. (I tried.) But here is what she or he did not say:

 

“So the president has access to information no one else does, and he is asking Congress to investigate this matter. But he has not disclosed to Congress what he knows or how he knows it. Yet he wants Congress to find it. Is there some extremely complex, national-security-related reason that he needs to send Congress on a scavenger hunt?”

THE MEDIA AND TRUMP, POST PRESS CONFERENCE

I want to blame the media for being too simplistic, for playing into Trump’s hands.

 

For example, they (CNN, MSNBC, probably others) keep repeating, like a mantra: How does it make sense for Trump to say the leaks are real but the reporting is fake? How can that possibly make any sense?

 

Well, it makes obvious sense, and Trump knows it in a feral, instinctive way, as do his supporters, though neither he nor they might have the clarity of mind to articulate it. The sense is simply this: The leaks did happen, but the reporting about their significance – and possibly even their content — is misleading and distorted. The INTERPRETATION that the media has overlaid on the leaks is “fake.”

 

Now, of course, if the media were simply to acknowledge this IMPLICIT argument (and trust me, it IS implicit), they would have an easy comeback with “But we are simply reporting what the leaks CONTAIN. We are reporting them LITERALLY. Interpretation is minimal or NONEXISTENT. We are simply reporting the information we are receiving via White House and other government sources, as literally as we can without divulging our specific anonymous sources.”

 

And yet, if the media tried to do this – that is, both articulate AND address Trump’s implicit argument – an argument that Trump himself has not been able (or willing?) to state plainly – that would be asking A LOT of the news consumer, a lot of thinking, a lot of attention and proactive use of brain power to follow the nuances of this situation.

 

And our culture is not conditioned to use its brains. This is not people’s fault. People are not stupid, but we are neither taught nor encouraged to USE OUR BRAINS in this society. This has actually been a problem as long I’ve lived at least, but it’s gotten so much worse. And calling people stupid, of course, only adds to the problem.

 

So I don’t know what to do, or what the media should do. But it freaks me when intelligent mainstream media seem to deliberately ignore the obvious. I feel they are unwittingly PROVING TRUMP’S POINT when they do that. They are reporting the news as it occurred – in this case, the news being Trump’s gibberish at his press conference about real leaks and fake news – but giving it a not-altogether-honest slant. And I believe Trumplandia dimly perceives this, and it keeps them in Trump’s corner.

 

I think Trump himself is a lizard brain, connecting with other lizard brains. When he calls himself not a bad guy, don’t you feel something? Like the guy really wants to be loved? Let’s not underestimate the power of that either. That tiny bit of authenticity is something people feel, totally bypassing their rusty critical thinking facilities.

10 Responses to a Traumatic Election

This essay is several weeks old now. I wrote it in late November. It still feels relevant to me, a week into the Trump presidency.

#1 Devastation

For days after the election, I am gutted. I feel small and weak and ignorant.

I don’t know where the pressure points are in “the system.” I don’t know how to help make things better. I don’t know if there’s any realistic hope for human existence on planet Earth, my country’s democracy, the economy, civil society, anything.

Hell, I don’t even know if I can take care of myself.

 

#2 Spooky Fatigue

Reading a piece in the New Yorker magazine that featured 16 esteemed writers’ commentary on the election, I was suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue and went back to bed.

Waking again an hour or so later. I flashed on an eidetic image of a rat’s eye, or maybe a squirrel’s eye, or maybe a brown rabbit’s eye, twitching, taut with tension, every nerve on maximum alert.

A friend had recently said that Brexit, Marine LaPen, and various emerging strains of nativism and fascism in Europe have been strengthened immeasurably by Trump’s ascendance in the U.S. I’m sure he’s right, but it’s not just the human realm at the effect of this Dark Wave. Even the animal kingdom feels it, this bedrock-level tremor we’re currently calling “Trump.”

 

#3 Buddha-like Equanimity

I can’t tell if people who are calmer than me are wiser or just less informed. Maybe both.

I was musing with a friend about how, throughout history, when humans have worried about large-scale catastrophes, they might have feared war, or drought, or famine. Today we not only worry about those things, but also about the extinction of the human species from anthropogenic climate change or even nuclear war (see: General Michael Flynn, national security advisor).

I speculated that perhaps, after our species evolves into a more refined and intelligent life form, they’ll encounter ever-bigger threats, like maybe a rupture in the very fabric of space-time.

My friend, whose wife is about to give birth to their second child in a week or two, nodded thoughtfully. “And that will be okay too,” he said.

 

#4 Stark Horrified Amazement

I don’t know if we will survive this.

Two days before Thanksgiving, President-elect Trump sat down with the New York Times editorial board and said he was “having an open mind” about the Paris climate accords.

The next day I read that Trump intends to curtail funding to NASA’s climate change research division because he deems it “politicized.” (And just to add a little icing to Wednesday’s cake, he’s appointing a school-privatization hardliner as his Secretary of Education.)

It really is incredible how abruptly EVERYTHING most people I know (including myself) care about is threatened. Here is an incomplete, rambling list:

  • public schools
  • the world economy
  • Medicare
  • the existence of NATO (never dreamed I’d worry about THAT!)
  • the Geneva Conventions
  • immigrants’ rights
  • abortion rights
  • organized labor
  • affordable health insurance
  • a U.S. Supreme Court that isn’t dominated by hardline right-wingers
  • gun control
  • freedom of the press
  • the natural environment
  • the livability of the planet

 

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Portland Oregon’s Willamette Weekly rated, on a scale of 1 to 5, over two dozen things we have to worry about in the face of a Trump administration, with a 5 signifying the highest likelihood that our worries will come true. For example, the fear that the U.S. Department of Justice will try to re-criminalize pot in Oregon only got a 1. The concern that Trump will reverse efforts to combat climate change got a 5.

I know it’s a mark of privilege to worry about the end of the world, when so many people are facing so much more immediate pain. Still, I am just gobsmack stunned that everything “we” – people like me – were dreaming of is on the chopping block.

What is the “other side” dreaming of, I wonder?

(I recently asked a cousin of mine why he voted for Trump and he replied, “Because change is good, I like surprises, and I’m not crazy about all the abortions.” But somehow that doesn’t enlighten me much.)

 

#5 Bitter Fury

Protesters in Portland broke local business windows.

At a meeting of Portland climate change activists, a woman proclaimed, “Y’all are too nice. That won’t do diddly squat. This is a right-wing coup! We have to take to the streets!”

A friend fumed on the phone, “I will NOT normalize the American Hitler!”

A stranger on the street asked me for directions. We wound up walking a little together, and discussing the election. She said that Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie were like mafia dons, and she was sure it was Giuliani who had leaked the information about Hillary’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s computer to the FBI, which resulted in Comey’s last-minute letter to Congress, which may have swung the election.

I said that sounded unlikely, and that more logically the leak would have gone the other way, from the FBI to Giuliani.

She said, “Well, I think Giuliani leaked it. Of course Russia was involved too.”

We parted ways.

I believe Russia hacked the emails that were released via wikileaks. I think it’s unlikely that Russia hacked the actual voting machines or somehow instigated the kerfuffle with Weiner’s computer. What I know for certain is that sputtering rage and complex paranoid speculations fill me with toxic dread.

 

#6 Nonviolent Activism

My friend Adam thinks it’s a “coin flip” as to whether we now become a fascist country.

Nonetheless, he points out that “the more chaos and fear there is, the easier it is to move people to the darkness. Nonviolence and positivity are an invitation back to the light.”

He acknowledges that seriously nonviolent resistance is not easy. It requires discipline, maybe even training. And it’s hard to get millions of people to buy into it. But it’s the only kind of activism that does not increase Trump’s power. Engaging with hatred and blame won’t help anything. Like Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”

I mentioned to Adam something I’d read about on facebook. A woman was jogging the day after the election and some guys shouted at her, “Who owns your pussy now?”

Adam responded wearily, “There’s a lot of angry, broken people in this world. People who would say such things, who would taunt … it’s just brokenness.”

 

#7 Retrospective Reflections on My Candidate

I like Hillary Clinton a lot. Maybe I’m just a sucker for an agile mind and a precise vocabulary. I’m also in awe of her resilience.

But there is a price to be paid for being so tough. Toughness makes your nerve endings a bit brittle. You lose some sensitivity.

Barack Obama, I have long felt, brought wisdom as well as intelligence to the presidency. I never quite felt that Hillary had that quality. While infinitely preferable to Trump, she is probably not an inspired leader for our times either, though the platform she ran on was terrific.

She didn’t do much campaigning in the late weeks of summer. Rather, she attended many small fundraisers, and reportedly told donors, probably with a smile, “I’m all that’s standing between you and the apocalypse.” Now that may have been true (we’ll find out) but let’s face it, that was a message of fear if ever there was one. An invocation of raw fear, worthy of a dictator. Employing terror to get people to open their wallets. It takes a special kind of person to do that.

Then when she described half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” I never bought the story that it was an offhand mistake. She knew the press was there; she is way too savvy to have imagined it wouldn’t make waves. I believe her calculation was that it would reify certain cultural divisions in our country which would ultimately redound to her electoral benefit. It was an unwise move.

She also blew what was probably the most important moment of the second debate with Trump, the town hall debate where he followed her around the stage, the debate that took place shortly after the infamous “Hollywood Access tape” became public. Hillary won it hands down of course by every rational measure: she was far more cogent, informed, poised.

But this is the era of the extremely-low-information voter, the voter to whom civil discourse and policy positions are mere background noise, the voter who just decides “from the gut.” So when the final questioner asked both Clinton and Trump to say something nice about each other, that may have been the critical moment.

Hillary could not answer authentically. She insincerely praised Trump’s children. Trump could answer authentically; he expressed genuine admiration for Hillary’s toughness and resilience. Never mind that this contradicted his repeated charge that she “lacked stamina” – it was an honest moment, and I believe that many millions of low-information voters perceived it as such, and in their “guts” it may have even won the debate for him.

But what else could Hillary have said? What could she possibly respect about Trump? He’s a walking caricature of all things vile. Maybe she could have dug deep though – if she were wise – and come up with something true. Maybe something like: “I admire how powerfully Donald connects in an emotional way with his supporters. I connect well too when I talk to people one on one, but as everyone knows, I struggle a bit on the stump. Donald has tremendous ability to move large crowds; it’s a great talent. He is very charismatic.”

Could she have gotten away with such frankness, such vulnerability? I think so. It might have been a remarkable moment of grace. It could have won her tons of votes. Who knows? It certainly would have garnered a lot of attention in the modern media environment.

Then again, speaking of graceful moments, her concession speech, in which she dignifiedly reassured the nation of the peaceful transfer of power and the sustaining order of things in our democracy, was poignantly brave and patriotic.

But a few days later, she publicly blamed FBI Director James Comey for her election loss. I submit that this was not high-minded leadership. Identifying a scapegoat did nothing to ease the crushed hearts of her supporters. I believe it merely reinforced feelings of rage and helplessness and victimhood. If Hillary were a wise leader, she might have said something along the lines of: “We are at an historic crossroads … there are many reasons why we lost this election … the onus is on me … this is a painful moment for us all … but now it is up to you not to lose heart, to keep sight of our values …” and so on. She could have spoken with the interests of the people foremost in her mind, rather than focusing blame on an individual.

 

#8 Reflections on Trump

Let’s admit it. There would have been a nationwide Trump ridicule-fest had he lost. We would have danced on his grave. We would have gorged on gloating. Personally, I couldn’t wait to see the son of a bitch humiliated.

It would not have been wise or mature, but I would have “given in to it.”

Instead, as it is, I’m praying for him every day, praying that he should find his heart, that he should awaken to peace and compassion. At first I had some resistance to making that prayer, because after all, why does Trump, of all people, deserve peace of heart, the most precious thing there is? (More on that later.)

I speculated to a friend, the one who called Trump the American Hitler, that he’s a wounded person.

She snapped: “He’s not wounded! He’s disconnected from his soul!”

“So that’s not a wound?” I replied.

She said, “There are people who take pleasure in killing others. He is one of them.”

That I don’t know, though Trump does have a long, storied record of cheating, hurting, and demeaning people, apparently without remorse.

Yet, post-election, even his arch-foe Bill Maher had to give him credit. Maher said something like, “Trump certainly did it his way. If anyone has the right to sing the song ‘My Way,’ Trump does.”

I give Trump credit too. He really sparked a movement. He did it largely by appealing to people’s basest instincts, elevating ignorance, lying incessantly, inciting fear, and fomenting violent resentment. He demonstrated a certain feral astuteness: He did not overestimate the American people like the liberals did.

(For the record, I do not have a grand explanation for What Happened. Michael Moore’s analysis of working class people throughout the Rust Belt feeling forgotten and aggrieved makes sense to me. So does a friend’s observation about how all Hillary’s celebrity surrogates were hip and beautiful, and how economically marginalized people with low self-esteem might have felt alienated and “left out” by that. I know people generally act –and vote — from their needs and hurts. I’m sure bigotry and racism were in the mix too.)

But for all his pettiness and meanness, Trump does not seem to possess the smug sadism of a Stalin, the maniacal vendetta of a Hitler, or even the steely hatefulness of a Mobutu or Pinochet.

After Trump’s pre-Thanksgiving sit-down with the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni wrote an op-ed entitled “Donald Trump’s Demand for Love.” Bruni described how, before the meeting, Trump touched his arm, looked him in the eye, and stated, “I’m going to get you to write some good stuff about me.” Bruni, openly gay and very liberal, had been nothing but excoriating of Trump for over a year.

Bruni went on to write: “It’s entirely possible. I keep an open mind. But I’m decided on this much: Winning the most powerful office in the world did nothing to diminish [Trump’s] epic ache for adoration or outsize need to tell everyone how much he deserves it.”

I trust Bruni’s insight. It’s consistent with what we’ve all seen. Clearly, Trump has a conspicuous and insatiable desire to be loved and adored.

And what if we fed that desire? What if, instead of hating Trump, we tried to love him?

Does the very thought make you want to throw up?

Me too.

But I think that’s part of the problem.

I think Trump is kind of a sponge. He absorbs what gets thrown at him and then secretes it back out.

I don’t expect to be able to conjure love for the man simply by virtue of deciding that it may a good thing to do. But I will recognize that it’s probably the sanest response, and maybe, ultimately, the only hopeful one.

(Thinking of Hillary again: Was she harder to love than Trump?! Even her supporters, at times, seemed to imagine that she was so tough she didn’t need love. Talk about a fatally flawed candidate!)

 

#9 Thoughts on What to Do, Where to Stand

Hard times are coming.

We have not hit bottom yet, not even close. Who knows what “bottom” will even look like? It’s going to require us to step up and be bigger in ways we can hardly imagine, especially those of us who’ve lived a life of relative stability and comfort for decades.

Maybe if millions of us commit to doing at least just a little bit more than we’ve been doing thus far to create and sustain the world we want – whether “a little bit more” looks like political activism, or civic involvement, or volunteerism, or civil disobedience, or simply remembering to speak from our deepest hearts more often – maybe this will, cumulatively, provide some counterbalance to the forces of “Trumpism.” Maybe it will even be enough to save our country, our planet, ourselves, and each other.

Of course, it may not be enough. The challenges ahead are overwhelming. But as Mahatma Gandhi stated, “Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.”

Attending a community meeting may seem downright quaint in the face of a political juggernaut that stacks the federal judiciary, undoes every environmental regulation in effect since the 1960s, disenfranchises millions of voters, slashes social services, and generates chaos. It may feel like shooting peas against a fortress wall. (Or barely even that.) But I think we have to be humble. Our only hope is each other. And we have to be realistic about what each of us can practically do, or is willing to do.

At the very least, it soothes the soul to join together with other bewildered, devastated people and make some consistent effort.

For starters, I will work with my local climate change group, 350PDX, and volunteer as an overnight host at a local homeless shelter at least a few times a year.

And I will at least remember – even if I don’t always live – my deepest values. This means remembering that blaming is useless. It means remembering that – as the principles of nonviolent communication state – everything everyone does or says is in service of their needs (one way or another) and we all have the same needs. Even those bastards coming into power. Oh – and I’ll quit name calling too. Really.

I’ll also try not to be so reactive any time I feel slighted or insulted, which isn’t easy. I’m sure I’ll fail often. But I’ll do my best.

I’ll keep my heart as open as I can. I’ll speak the truth as I see it. I’ll be honest with myself.

I seriously think that these coming times will require us all to be spiritual warriors.

Then again, if being a warrior means – as I heard or read somewhere – being impeccable, I won’t qualify. But I don’t like the sound of “spiritual soldier” so … maybe spiritual striver. I can strive every day to act and speak consistently with my heart’s best wisdom. That much I can do.

 

#10 Message of Peace

 

I got the message while I was out walking one night recently:

Despite my weaknesses, my preoccupation with myself, and all the ways I’ve let myself and others down – and despite the state of the world, and the gathering darkness ahead — I deserve pure shining peace in my heart.

And so do you. So does everyone. Even Donald Trump.

We’re all broken into pieces. We’re all reaching out from a fractured place. To the extent we find peace, we behave sanely.

I’m thinking of the person who left the climate change meeting, because it wasn’t angry enough for her. I’m thinking of all the people who feel that their activism requires anger.

I’m not going to argue against anger that arises naturally. I think it’s a fundamental emotion.

But don’t feel you should be angry even when you’re not. Don’t feel you have to be militant and oppositional in a blaming way. It may just be your delusional mind’s way of telling you that you don’t deserve peace.

You don’t have to hit back in anger against injustice before you can have peace in your heart.

You may feel like you have no right to peace, given what’s coming, given the crimes being committed, and all the people who are hurting. Given your own shortcomings and “sins.”

But you do deserve it, now. You really do. We all do. Do you really doubt that?

The Republican Party Is Saving the World!

The Republican Party is saving the world!

 

I know it sounds ridiculous but hear me out.

 

The climate agreement reached in Paris does not contain any mandates for specific emissions reductions by any country. Everything is voluntary.

 

And we have our Republican Party to thank for that!

 

No international climate accord would have much meaning if the United States – historically the world’s biggest polluter, and still one of the biggest – was not a party to it. But by U.S. law, treaties have to be ratified by Congress. And if emissions reductions were REQUIRED by the agreement, then it would be a TREATY. With Republicans controlling both houses, a climate treaty would be dead on arrival.

 

A climate AGREEMENT, however, is not.

In order to include the United States, there could be no “climate treaty.” That was a given from the start. An agreement such as the one reached in Paris, however, does not require Congressional approval.

 

And perhaps an agreement right now is better than a treaty. Here’s why.

 

If, hypothetically, we could effect a treaty that stipulated specific emissions reductions – particularly for the biggest polluters like us and China and India – then, once we met those targets, it would be torturously difficult, politically, to go further than those targets. There would be enormous inertia at the point when we met our initial goals, especially if vested interests were continuing to dispute their necessity.

 

And if specific targets had been included as requirements within the Paris agreement, it is certain that at this point in time – with where the collective will and consensus (of the most powerful nations) is today — they would have been woefully inadequate to the scale of the crisis. (Note that if all the countries hold just to the commitments they made in Paris, temperatures will still be on a course to rise over 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century – a complete disaster for the human race!!)

 

Therefore, I say, much better to have created a framework, a mechanism for reducing emissions and revising targets as we go IN RESPONSE TO THE SCIENCE (and to the tangible developments of the global warming crisis). And that is a huge part of what this agreement has accomplished, with its brilliant idea of forging consensual standards of measurement and verification, and its ongoing international report-and-review protocol.

 

Now if some Republican does get elected president, chances are the U.S. might bow out of the voluntary reporting protocol. But you know … I mean … talk about peer pressure! If there is such a thing as international peer pressure, THAT is what this agreement provides (among other things).

 

And I’m stoked. I think it’s a more hopeful outcome than a bunch of inadequate targets.

 

So again I say, Hey, maybe the Republicans are saving the world. Unintentionally, but still.

When Will America Get in the Habit of Using Its Brains?

I’m psyched about the Iran peace deal.

Maybe you’re not. I can accept that. Reasonable minds may disagree.

I’ve been reading about the particulars. Maybe you have too. Is the verification regime going to be effective? Will the imminent lifting of the arms embargo (from Russia and China) encourage Iran to project its power even more aggressively throughout the region, promoting terrorist groups like Hezbollah?

These are complicated questions. But for my purposes here, I don’t want to get into the weeds, and for that I hope I may be forgiven.

What I’m quibbling with today is a meme, not a contract provision. That meme was emblemized by a cartoon I saw featured recently on realclearpolitics.com. The cartoon depicts an impossibly stick-skinny, big-eared, insubstantial-looking President Obama shaking hands with a much larger, more imposing bearded ayatollah in a robe. Obama is saying, “We will trust you.” The ayatollah is saying, “Death to America.”

I’ll come back to this in a second.

The Meaning of “Ignorant”

When I was 15 I had a job busing tables and washing dishes at a restaurant in South Florida. One of the cooks, Chuck, was 29 years old, though he could easily have passed for 45. His face and demeanor were ravaged by hard living, though he occasionally showed a lively spirit, such as when he used the cook’s microphone (which was there so that cooks could briskly announce “Order up, Kathy!”) to serenade the restaurant with country ballads like “Since I Met You Baby.” He sang well actually.

I used to get on Chuck’s nerves in various ways which I won’t go into here. Often he’d lash out and call me dumb, which didn’t faze me. I knew I had problems but I was confident that stupidity wasn’t one of them.

One late night after our shift ended, Chuck, in a détente mood, invited me to come by his place to share a beer or a joint or something. He lived in some cruddy apartment in a sketchy section of Dania, FL, and as we sat across from each other at his little kitchen table he looked at me earnestly and apologized for calling me dumb all the time. He said, “I know you’re a smart kid, but you’re ignorant!”

I retorted, “Ignorant of what? I may know some things you don’t. I’m sure you know lots of things I don’t. So? Everybody’s ignorant of something.”

Chuck exhaustedly shook his head, the features in that worn face of his straining as he pulled together his thoughts. “Well, that’s not what I mean. To me, ignorant is when you have a brain but you don’t use it.

I’m pretty sure I never visited with Chuck again and I certainly have no idea what became of him. If he’s alive today, he’s only in his early seventies, but somehow I doubt he’s still with us, poor Chuck. At the time, though I never consciously thought about it, I implicitly understood the elemental difference between our respective situations. Regardless of whatever troubles I had, I knew I’d go on to college, and I would eventually have the opportunity to choose my destiny. Chuck, on the other hand, would never attain anything much better than that greasy cook’s job. For me, the restaurant was a temporary way station; for him it was his station in life.

Nonetheless, when he pronounced his definition of ignorance, it changed my life forever. I recognized that in his mildly inebriated, coarse, and primitive way, he was really trying to tell me something.

And I got it. Simply having a good brain isn’t enough—you have to exercise it.

In a nutshell, that’s how I feel about my country. Hundreds of millions of people with plenty of native intelligence to whom it simply never occurs to use their brains. Because if most Americans used their brains, that cartoon I mentioned earlier—and the meme it expresses—would be extremely marginal stuff, not mainstream.

That Meme

Do you know what a meme is? I won’t hold you as ignorant if you don’t, but “meme” is an important word. A meme is a sort of basic idea, or image, or thought, or way of looking at things, which catches hold in a culture.

Urbandictionary.com describes a meme as “a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable.” Urbandictionary.com also offers the following definition:

an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture …

Make sense?

The meme that’s really bugging me at the moment is the following thought progression:

Obama is a weak leader who can be taken advantage of by “tougher” heads of state around the world. In the case of Iran, the rulers are ruthless and conniving and they have hoodwinked Obama by playing on his naïve desire to “trust” them. Thus the so-called peace deal is a triumph of evil cunning over Obama’s lack of moral courage.

Okay. Set aside the reality that Obama didn’t go in there and negotiate on his own. He didn’t sit down mano a mano with some unscrupulous but charming mullah and get fleeced. The United States was represented by an extensive negotiating team of seasoned State Department diplomats, as well as nuclear experts.

Set aside the fact that on our side of the table we also had high-ranking officials from Britain, Germany, France, China, and Russia. (Is Putin a wimp too?)

Forget all that for the moment and let’s just look critically for a second at this whole issue of “trust.”

Minimal Historical Memory

Rule 1 for using your brain: Be reasonably informed about things if you’re going to profess an opinion about them.

It is an established, well-documented fact that our CIA engineered a coup of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, and reinstalled the western-friendly but domestically brutal Shah (who was eventually overthrown in 1979 by the Islamic fundamentalist minions of the Ayatollah Khomeni). True, that was over 60 years ago, but maybe, just maybe, there remain some hard feelings in the collective Iranian psyche … perhaps even some distrust of the U.S.

I’m no Mideast scholar but I am aware of this historical fact and I believe all Americans should be. I’m a realist too though. I reluctantly accept that Americans generally don’t know much history. As a culture, we are very “Zen,” very present-moment.

HOWEVER … we don’t need to go all the way back to 1953 for a reasonable, albeit minimal, historical perspective. Nearly all adult Americans are old enough to remember the lead-up to our 2003 Iraq war, and to remember – during that time period – President George W. Bush’s (in)famous characterization of Iran as one of the three “axes of evil” in the world (along with Iraq and North Korea).

So when we hear Iranian clerics describe America as “the great Satan” and so on, is it really so different?

Actually, it is very different. Because our crazy words, unlike theirs (insofar as they pertain to the U.S.), have been backed by breathtakingly crazy actions.

Getting the Questions Right

Rule 2 for using your brain: Consider – and, whenever possible, ask — the obvious questions. Even when no one else—including, perhaps, the entire U.S. press corps– is asking them. Especially when no one else is asking them.

Never assume that a question is unimportant or not legitimate just because no one else is voicing it.

Here’s another historical tidbit that I don’t expect – though could reasonably wish – Americans to recall: Iran was vehemently and vociferously opposed to our 2003 invasion of Iraq. They issued multiple apocalyptic condemnations of the whole idea. Yet I cannot recall anyone in our press asking – much less explaining or speculating – why Iran was so opposed.

More history: At their historic 1972 meeting, noting that the U.S. and China had a common interest in curbing Soviet expansionism, President Richard Nixon allegedly quoted an ancient proverb to Chairman Mao: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Apparently Iran wasn’t feeling that logic in late 2002 and early 2003. Though they’d been at war off and on with Iraq for decades, and though the Shia-Sunni blood hatred ran bone deep with their neighboring state, Iran did not deem it good news that America was about to shock and awe Baghdad. Did anybody wonder why not?

Maybe Iran’s leadership could see the inevitable result of our invasion—a power vacuum and a chaos that would pose a far greater threat to them than even Saddam Hussein. And looking at it from today’s perspective, I imagine they would prefer living next to Saddam rather than ISIL.

Or maybe they simply did not trust the United States at all. They knew Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. So what was the American government’s true motive for this “pre-emptive” war? And would Iran, Iraq’s neighboring “axis of evil,” be next?

Circling Back to the “Trust” Meme

The fact is: America can, and has, posed an existential threat to Iran. Iran cannot, and has not, posed an existential threat to the USA.

We have wreaked havoc on their country with the 1953 coup, the 2003 Iraq War, and our heavy military support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. (What, you didn’t know? don’t remember? It was no secret.)

Iran has taken American hostages, said atrocious things, armed the Shiite rebels in Yemen, and sponsored terrorism in the region.

But of our two countries, who is actually a larger threat to whom? And for whom would trust constitute a greater risk?

Which country’s actions, towards the other, have been more reckless, violent, insidious, undermining, and ruthless?

Which country can more rationally view the other as a big evil monster that cannot be trusted?

Which country “projects its power” in the Middle East more extensively, overall?

I know what my own answers are to the above questions, though again, I suppose reasonable minds may disagree. Nonetheless:

Rule Number 3 for Using Your Brain: Don’t settle in with familiar, comfortable memes. Question memes. Question frames. The Iran deal has largely been framed in terms of whether, given Iran’s historical record, they are worthy of trust. Is that a proper frame? Should that be the primary frame?

Rule Number 4 for Using Your Brain: Draw connections for yourself.

For example, I drew a connection between our invasion of Iraq and the subsequent Iranian election of Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, arguably the most toxic Middle East leader so far this century (not counting ISIL or Quaida leadership). I also drew a connection between President Obama’s conciliatory language toward Iran in Cairo and the subsequent Iranian election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate. Maybe those connections are imaginary; maybe they don’t truly reflect the political evolution of Iran. Maybe there hasn’t even really been any political evolution in Iran (as many would argue) since the clerics (ayatollahs) have still been in control all along.

But at least I’m using my brain, right? Thinking about these things. Not waiting for the blinkered mainstream punditry to interpret everything. Not keeping my brain on hold until somebody tells me what to think.

Some Memes Are Good

There are plenty of memes I agree with. One is The Iraq War was a monstrously bad idea. That’s a pretty powerful meme, and you know it’s really taken hold when even Jeb Bush can’t resist it anymore.

In fact, lots of great memes out there are gaining steam. Marriage equality is one. Rape, in any form, is morally atrocious and completely intolerable in a civilized society. That’s another healthy meme, I think.

Then again, some common memes are highly questionable. The United States is the world’s great moral force is one of those, in my opinion. I love my country and I’m grateful to live here; nonetheless I would dispute that meme. Christianity is what’s normal is another. No offense, Christian friends. I just don’t think any particular religion should be equated with normalcy in an open secular society, even if the majority of that society’s citizens adhere to that faith. Taxes are bad is, to my mind, a braindead meme. It shuts off thought.

In my personal life, I live by certain memes, many of which are questionable. Life is about pursuing and realizing my desires. That one guides me most of the time, and I scarcely even notice it. But if I use my brain, at least I know why I do what I do, and why I think as I think.

I believe that if our country—in the sense of the body politic—used its brains—that is, applied critical reflective thinking as a matter of course, as a habit, as a reflex—we’d have a saner national dialogue, a saner foreign policy, and a saner domestic situation.

So that’s all I have to say about that. Use your brains, America. It’s fun.