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(Personal) Spit and Vinegar into Clear Water

Buddhism 150I think most Buddhists, if we’re really honest with ourselves deep down, flirt with the daydream of what we’d look like enlightened. I know personally I would love to resemble Budai, the eternally-laughing bodhisattva known for his jovial attitude, wisdom, contentment, and the fact that you can rub his belly for good luck. In my daydream, I would move through the world with a wide smile and ready laugh, meeting everyone in my travels with the same abundant good humor whether they were friend or foe. Of course, these daydreams about my enlightenment are ironically a barrier to my enlightenment. They move me away from who I am in the present — an already-enlightened being too distracted to realize it.

This daydream does something a bit more subtly damaging, too. Instead of accepting the parts of myself that are difficult to absorb I excise them to mold myself in the image of this laughing Buddha. Gone is the brief but intense flash of anger; gone too is the persistent static of anxiety and fear that thrums through my veins. Self-doubt, an easily-overwhelmed brain, impulsive and puzzling behavior — all mysteriously absent. As much as I love the idea that I would be Budai, the truth is I would not be; I would simply be myself, as imperfect as always, but mindful of my imperfections in a way that allowed me to express the Dharma in a truly unique way.

It’s important for me to remember this, especially these days. For a very long time I have built my energy around the hope that if I believed hard enough, I would unlock something within myself that loved everyone without reservation. I wanted to be the embodiment of loving-kindness, of compassion in even the most difficult circumstances. This is a not-so-secret of mine: the most beautiful thing in the world to me is a moment of small grace in a hopeless situation, those automatic gestures that speak to the spark within me, that gives me hope that for most people the basic state of humanity if collaboration and love.

One of the reasons this year has been so rough on me is that this dream of mine is dying and I have no idea what to replace it with. Reconnecting with my family and spending time briefly in Baltimore has shown me what life is like for too many people who have lived their entire lives in a hostile and unforgiving world; any sense of compassion and connection is seen as a weakness, and something even as basic as a smile is not to be trusted. Everyone has an angle, not because they’re selfish, but because it has been ingrained in generations of black Americans that there is absolutely no one who will look out for them; they’re on their own, and the more quickly that’s realized the better able they will be to get theirs and keep it.

Some brothers and sisters in the city are so desperate for connection that they’ll see any attempt to give it freely as an opportunity to tap the well dry. While it’s understandable, given their background and experience, it doesn’t make the reality of it any less unpleasant. I find myself pulling back more and more to protect myself from being drained completely, but at the same time I feel intensely selfish for doing so. I left Baltimore, and over a very long time and through painful effort eventually managed to build a decent life for myself. I have a loving husband and amazing friends. I make decent money. How could I not want to go back to the place I came from and help others to do the same thing?

It makes me feel like a bad person to not be generous. Aren’t people with compassion supposed to be? Isn’t that how you prove loving-kindness?

At the same time, I find it increasingly difficult to be compassionate and loving towards those people who have demonstrated time and again that my life, my rights, and my happiness mean less to them than preserving the status quo or taking a hard look at the inherent problems in our society. When I see someone making excuses for fascists, white nationalists, misogynists, bigots and other anti-social people I am filled with a rage that I have worked hard to manage and redirect towards positive action. But this is happening so often that I’m angry all the time; exasperated that there are so many people who are still silent and equivocating even though it’s so obvious that the current administration is filled with incompetent, criminal racists but that this is the result of decades of cultivating distrust of the government, racially-coded dog whistles, and the persistent preservation of institutionalized inequality. I used to believe that you had to be patient with everyone, for they were fighting a battle you could not see. But now we’re in a place where these people mean to do me real harm; I cannot be patient with someone who doesn’t see a problem with a world that thinks my continued existence is a threat to its survival.

So I am taking an increasingly hard stance on politics. I’m ending long friendships with people that I genuinely liked, because they voted for a man who is damaging the ideals of this country beyond repair. I can no longer tolerate people who have a problem with Colin Kaepernick but no problem whatsoever with police who brutalize and kill people of color without even a trial. I can no longer ignore that these people would rather be blind to the real fear and anger I have about my country than think about how they’ve been implicit in the progression of white supremacy and make deeply uncomfortable changes. I just don’t have it in me any more to give these people any quarter. But does that make me a bad Buddhist? Does that mean I simply can’t achieve boundless compassion for all people, for all times?

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it does me no good to judge these feelings as bad, or keep trying to run away from them. They are who I am at this moment, and as such they are as much a part of this enlightened and distracted being as the love and equanimity I feel. I cannot sit with something that I refuse to recognize.

So I have to be honest with myself — and with all of you — about how I feel. I’m angry, all the time. I’m very scared that we will not be able to find a way out of this. Even if we impeach Trump and remove him from office, we still have a major political party that was willing to bring us to the brink of fascism to hold on to power — and that party has rigged the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to make it easier that they keep themselves in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. Even if we make sweeping changes to reset that, we still face the existential threat of climate change — the same issue we’ve been talking about for 50 years without meaningful progress or even complete willingness to make progress. There’s the runaway train of capitalism that replaces compassion with competition and will not stop until it is forced to crash, killing most of the people trapped on board. These problems may not be insurmountable, but they will require coordinated and sustained effort to solve. We are nowhere close to that, and we’re running out of time to get there. In this environment, it’s so easy to despair. I struggle against that every day. It takes more and more effort to try; what’s the point of succeeding in a world that seems determined to destroy itself anyway? Why bother being kind in a world where kindness is weakness to be taken advantage of? Why keep shouting into a void that wants nothing more than to render me invisible?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m having a tough time with this. I’m hoping that facing it will help me find a way through.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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I’m…37? Yeah, 37.

Self Improvement 150Yesterday I celebrated my 37th birthday by watching Kubo and the Two Strings, playing two rounds of mini-golf, and having a dinner out with a few friends. It was tremendously fun, and I really appreciate folks coming out to help me ring in another personal new year. I have amazing friends, and to say that I appreciate all of you would be an understatement. You inspire me, you encourage me, you elevate me closer to being the rabbit I would like to be. Thank you all so much for being in my life.

Year #36 for me was a pretty big one. I went back to school for a time, reconnected with my family in fairly tragic circumstances, fought with despair and anger about the direction our country is going, and always kept trying to build on the gains that I’ve made — wherever they might be. Through the loss of my sister and helping my mother, the passage of time and the inevitability of death have been weighing on me. In three years, I’ll be 40; it’s such a strange thing to write because of the weight we place on middle age. In a lot of ways, it feels like we should be calcifying into the person we are by then; change happens much more slowly, through concentrated and difficult effort.

That doesn’t feel like the arc of my life at all — or the arc of most of the people I know. Human beings are nothing if not adaptable, and I watch as my friends struggle to cope with the setbacks of life, changing and strengthening through their experiences. Some of us have figured out our path and the struggle becomes how to walk it consistently; others of us are still seeking out a foothold that will allow us to see the way forward. But no matter who we are, we are constantly changing, molding ourselves towards our goals and the times, becoming the people we need to be.

To be honest, it’s been a joy to watch — and to experience. For all the difficulties this year has brought me, it’s helped me to see how change can be weathered and how the support of the community can be essential for that. When Teneka died suddenly back in April, so many people stepped in to help when they really didn’t have to. They gave me emotional support, direct assistance, financial support; knowing that I didn’t have to face this nightmare alone helped pull me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. It restored my faith in humanity at a time I badly needed it, and it helped encourage me to try and do the same for others. This tragedy, and all of the chaos that followed, made me stronger and more compassionate. I have everyone who helped to thank for that.

Looking towards the future, it’s easy to be frightened and overwhelmed. Personally, it feels like there’s an ugly undercurrent in our society bubbling up to the surface, threatening to consume us all. Beyond an erosion of trust in our institutions — our governments, our media, our businesses — there seems to be an erosion of trust in the concept of society itself; it feels like so many of us distrust the goodness within our fellows, that the purpose of our lives is to take as much as we can for ourselves and maybe the people closest to us while we can do that. The American Dream isn’t a just and prosperous society; it’s elevating the “virtue” of selfishness above all.

This kind of thinking will lead to our ruin. We have not evolved to be a purely self-absorbed species; we are a social animal, built for collaboration and cooperation. We share this planet with other human beings with different ideologies, cultures, histories and perspectives; we share this planet with other animals who depend on us to make sure we keep things in balance as much as our limited understanding will allow us. We can’t focus only on the things that we have while ignoring the suffering of others. We can’t preserve our safety and prosperity if our neighbor is poor and in danger. We can’t keep taking whatever we want without making sure there’s something left for others, for our children.

I really don’t know how we rebuild our trust in our society. I don’t know how to encourage people to care about each other. I can only trust in the goodness of my fellow beings, know the selflessness and compassion I have seen in others, and see that in everyone I meet. I can only treat people as if they were their best selves already, because in so many ways they are — fearless and resourceful and far more beautiful than anyone gives themselves credit for. I want to be a mirror that reflects the Buddha-nature of everyone I meet.

But that takes a lot of difficult and consistent practice. In order to shine and reflect as well as a still pond, I must first smooth out the ripples of fear and anger within me. In order to reflect Buddha-nature, I have to realize my own.

That, I think, is what I will strive to do with myself in year #37. I’ve lived through a difficult year, and I know that I can live through another one. That’s not enough. I want to develop an equanimity through difficulty that helps me move through my own fear and anger; I want to be calm and reflective in even the most difficult of circumstances. That sense of stillness doesn’t mean inaction, or disinterest in the world around me. It means that no matter what happens, I can engage with a clear mind and a full heart. It means recognizing the poisoning influences of fear and anger, working with those difficult emotions, and ensuring my actions don’t only come from those places. That is much easier said than done.

Thankfully, I have 36 years of experience to draw upon. I have the help of my community. I have the wisdom forged by countless difficulties through thousands of years, lived and remembered through the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves. I have the hope that one day, we will look at someone different and see not a stranger or an enemy, but ourselves and our capacity for boundless compassion and love. I only hope that we won’t make things too difficult for ourselves before that happens. I only hope that we don’t fall to our fear and anger and destroy ourselves.

I love all of you. I know I’m scared. I know I’m angry. But I am choosing to struggle past that. There is something so much better on the other side.

 

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(Political) Social Justice Cleric

Politics 150This is the fifth Presidential election of my politically active life, and each one has taught me something about the American public and the nature of being a responsible citizen. This one taught me perhaps the most painful but also the most important lesson: a community is only as good as the people who belong to it, only as strong as the will of the people who keep it together. Over time, we’ve become less community-focused and much more self-oriented. Over on the right, groups like the TEA Party have demanded “personal freedom” to do whatever they want in their lives and businesses while also supporting legislation that dictates other people live by their beliefs. And for us on the left, we’ve come to demand respect and recognition for the groups we belong to while also having blind spots about how our actions make it difficult for those groups to organize and be effective. I understand that this is not an equivalent problem; the right is attempting to monopolize our political system to fit their political beliefs while the left is fighting to attain something resembling equality for all Americans, no matter what their race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation or gender identity. I also understand that not EVERYONE on the right believes in this social and religious monopoly, but the power structure in place certainly does.

As I’ve become more and more determined to resist the attempts by the GOP in its current form to subvert American democracy by claiming to uphold it, I’ve tried to find a group that I would feel comfortable fighting with. It hasn’t been easy; the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to have any idea what’s at stake for its base or what to do to stop Trump and the Republicans from rolling back rights and services for women, people of color, the poor, the disabled, and so many other minorities; the NAACP hasn’t been organized enough to galvanize black people into a strong, united community on the issues that matter most to it; several other political action groups are too small, scattered or fringe to really get behind. One of the reasons we’re in the state we’re in is our inability to set principles we can agree on as progressives and organize behind those values consistently and en masse. Who is leading the resistance against Trump and his agenda right now? Protests and congressional feedback campaigns have been largely grassroots, while none of our progressive institutions have been able to even agree on the degree or nature of its resistance.

The more I look around me, the more I see the need to build community. More than just providing a way to amplify our voices and make our actions more effective, having a community of people who strive for the same values allows us to remember that we’re not alone. There are others who believe in the fight we’re undertaking, who will have our back in times of need, who are working to build the better world we envision. That better world, for me, is a society of people who recognize the inherent responsibility we owe to our fellow men — without them, our society would be slightly poorer, less resilient, less capable of reaching our ultimate potential. We can’t be self-focused any more. None of us live in a vacuum; everything we do affects someone else, from the kind of car we drive to the things we choose to entertain us. The choices we make need to take that into consideration. How do our actions change the world around us, in small ways and big?

I understand the impulse to ditch that responsibility. None of us has asked for it, and none of us can properly understand the immensity of it. It can feel unfair to give up total freedom or unfettered individuality in order to make sure someone else can have a better life. We can feel like it shouldn’t be up to us to look out for someone less fortunate, or going through a rough spot, or who doesn’t have as much power as we do. When we work hard to make a lot of money or gain a lot of prestige, it sucks to realize that the system that allowed us to get where we are needs our help to continue so that those after us can do the same thing. All of us, from the broke and broken to the rich and powerful, want to reap the rewards of the struggles we’ve been through without having to think about anyone else.

But human beings are a social species. We’ve evolved to work together, and that evolution demands we put aside our worst impulses to continue to do so. We can’t be selfish or myopic any more. We can’t be disdainful of the different or distrustful of strangers. We can’t be gatekeepers. We have to stop reinforcing the divisions that keep us apart. We have to stop denying the basic humanity of the people we disagree with.

It’s taken me a very long time to get to this point, to know what I want to do for my community and feel as if I have some small measure of ability to make it happen, but I feel like I’m finally ready. I want to work to build and maintain the bonds that form a community, to help and heal the wounded and sick however I can, to provide for those in need and fight when necessary to protect the people who can’t fend for themselves. I want to uphold the values that make for strong connections with my fellow man, and I want to encourage others to do the same however I can. I have no idea how to actually do any of this, but it’s something I will learn in the doing. It’s not enough to believe this should be done; it’s time to do it.

I don’t have illusions that I’ll be perfect at this. I’m a fragile and struggling human being who is bound to give in to his bad impulses from time to time. But it feels like I’ve found my north star, and as long as I keep following it I know I’m going in the right direction.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2017 in Buddhism, Politics

 

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(Politics) Self-Respect as a Form of Protest

Myth 150As a culture, I feel like we’re bathing in a pool of reminders to consider ourselves discontent, incomplete, and unworthy. Advertising is predicated on the idea of creating a need for whatever needs to be sold, and since it’s so ubiquitous we’re awash in a chorus of commercials, billboards and banners that scream to us “YOU ARE NOT HAPPY. YOU NEED THIS.” The current administration has told us that “real America” has been left behind by an establishment that cares more about itself than any of us, but that they do care and they will fix it. When we speak up and tell them their actions are making things worse, or that the claims they’re working from are fundamentally untrue, we’re told that they’re offering “alternative facts” or attack us for being unpatriotic enough to disagree with them. On the internet, any assertion made by women, people of color, LGBQTIA people, disabled people or anyone else on the margins is frequently met with a pack of dissenters eager to tell us our own experiences are wrong, our perspectives are skewed. We are constantly assaulted with messages designed to make us doubt ourselves, which is why we need to start putting in the work to believe in who we are and what we care about.

Respecting ourselves can be a form of protest against the society that wants to shape us into people who will passively accept what we’re told by our institutions, uncritically and gratefully. With so many of our cultural forces attempting to control how we think about ourselves, it is a revolutionary act to reject those attempts and determine who we are and who we want to be. Setting our own standards for happiness and personal fulfillment, then following through on those standards, makes us more resistant to the constant messaging that attempts to set our values for us. It allows us to know ourselves and our beliefs in a way that gives us a solid and stable center, that roots us to ideals larger than we are.

Our connection to this foundation is essential to our well-being. Instead of being buffeted by the shifting winds of our cultural attitudes, we sway with them while keeping true to who we are. Just as a tree bends with the wind, carries the burden of rain and heat, and still provides shelter to the animals and other plants who depend on it, knowing who we are allows us to be both flexible and grounded enough to remain upright against gale forces that threaten to bowl us over. We can come to see these storms as intense but transitory and gain a courage of conviction that checks our fear.

This work is not easy. So many of us have been told all of our lives that there’s something wrong with us, or that we have to change to fulfill the desires of the people around us. But there’s nothing wrong with you. You, as a human being, are worthy of happiness and respect. It’s one thing to be told that and wish it were true, another thing to believe it might be, quite a different thing to know it’s so. Getting to that point is a long and sometimes difficult process; it requires us to face ourselves and acknowledge our thoughts, our desires, our actions and beliefs. We may find things that are unpleasant and hard to deal with. But accepting all of ourselves, even the bad parts, shifts our perspective to one that makes the effort to change that much easier. It’s possible to recognize our flaws, work to correct them, and still treat ourselves with love, respect, and care.

When we do that, something extraordinary happens: we begin to have a clear perspective on the flaws of others and we learn to treat those with compassion. We learn to see how the behaviors of our fellow man are rooted in their own system of values, and how similar we are to each other. We find it easier to forgive people when they make mistakes, because we’re able to forgive ourselves for our imperfections. When we love ourselves, it becomes so much easier to love everyone around us — even the difficult people, the awkward ones, the people whose personality grates on our nerves.

We also find a security that allows our beliefs to be tested and changed according to new and more accurate information. We don’t cling to false ideals, or assume that our identities depend on dogmatic thinking. We know that our morality is an extension of our values, our ideals translated into action. Our understanding of those ideals and the actions they lead to can be examined and adjusted without the feeling that we’re killing ourselves or becoming unmoored. We gain a deep strength that underlies a flexibility allowing us to admit when we’re wrong and change our behavior with sincerity and purpose.

I don’t mean to say that learning to respect ourselves is going to solve all of our problems, because it won’t. We will still be frightened from time to time; we will get angry when our sense of morality is offended; we will still react poorly, make mistakes, backslide into bad habits, behave without compassion. We’re only human after all. However, learning self-respect will make us more resilient, more confident, more open and more compassionate. All of those traits are absolutely necessary if we are to face the rising tide of intolerance, ignorance and cruelty that threatens to destroy us. We cannot force others to respect us if we don’t respect ourselves first. We can’t teach others if we don’t learn about ourselves first. We can’t fix society if we don’t set the wounds we’ve taken on and ignored.

This year, learning to love and respect myself is one asset of my activism that I’ll be paying attention to. I will think about my values, and how that shapes the way I see the world. I will work to resist those people who diminish my values in an attempt to control me. And I will encourage all of us to do the same. We are as worthy of happiness and respect as anyone else; we have the right to demand our society treats us with the same respect we give ourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

 
 

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(Personal) Affirmations

Myth 150One of the things it’s been recommended we do to prepare for the Trump Administration is to learn how to be our own lights, to live our values openly and consistently. What does that mean? Well, Gandhi put it best when he said to “be the change you want to see in the world”. I know how horribly pretentious it is to quote Gandhi to open up a blog post, so I’ll beg your forgiveness now but also ask you to really think about what that means and how important it is to act upon. What kind of change do you want to see in the world? What do you want people to think of as a typical American? Be that person. Rearrange your life to make those values your priority. I wanted to take a moment to write down who I want to be and what I want to stand for now, so in the months and years to come I can come back to this as a North Star.

I am a Buddhist who believes that none of us are free from suffering until we’re all free from suffering. Enlightenment isn’t a static goal reached through years, decades, even lifetimes of work — it is an active state of being, a mindset that compels your thoughts and actions. Enlightenment is not being at peace under a bodhi tree in the lotus position; it is a life lived with complete focus and dedication to the eradication of suffering. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be tragedies; floods will still come, we will still lose the people we love, and we will still get sick, grow old, and pass on. However, it means that we are clear about the precious and impermanent nature of our lives, appreciate what we have while we have it, and learn to let it go once it’s gone.

Suffering comes from the unhealthy clinging to the good things in our lives and a pathological avoidance of the bad. We must learn to be uncomfortable, because that discomfort carries with it the promise of deeper understanding about who we are and what we’re about. The good times never last, but the bad times don’t either. Each carries with them a small truth about the nature of our existence, and our work is to sift through the sand to find that glittering and unmistakable gem.

Human beings are social animals, and I believe it is our life’s purpose to connect and engage with one another. Each one of us is an amazing creature, an entire world of thoughts and experiences, simultaneously common, vulgar, divine, unique. We must never forget that our potential is limitless when we learn to work together, and our doom is assured when we come to think of our fellow man as an enemy that must be eliminated rather than a companion that must be embraced and understood. It is difficult to connect with something as complex as another human being, but our life’s work isn’t meant to be easy. It is meant to be illuminating.

I will do my best to overcome my fear in service of that work. I will persist in trying to connect with other people, to connect other people to each other, to build and nurture a community that challenges and inspires its members to be more compassionate, more engaged, more devoted to the realization of our potential. I will endure the setbacks, dangers, and disappointments of this work because failure is only as permanent as I allow it to be. Abandoning my life’s work is a fate worse than death. I will not bear it.

I will protect those who are different, whose differences make them vulnerable to the whims of the mob. I will not tolerate intolerance of those who were born another race, worship a different God (or no God at all), who love different genders, who are different genders. I will stand up and speak loudly against those who would isolate their fellow human beings through cruel speech, aggression, violence. I will do what is necessary to make sure no harm comes to another human being simply because they are different. I will not assume someone else will take care of it; it is my life’s work to eradicate suffering, whatever form it takes.

I will keep learning how to tend to my life’s work better and more compassionately. I will correct my mistakes as soon as I am aware of them. I will be forgiving and understanding of the mistakes of others. I will be patient, kind, open, and honest. I must be brave in order to uphold these virtues.

I believe in a future where humanity embraces the full spectrum of its existence. I will work towards that future by respecting others and demanding respect in return. I will not allow myself or others to be mistreated. At the same time, I must be aware of my limitations and respect myself and my needs. I can’t continue my life’s work if I don’t take care of myself. I will do what I need to do to stay as healthy as I can for as long as I can; to do otherwise is to give in to despair. I will not bear it.

My name is David, and I am a gay black man living in the United States of America. This is my country. I refuse to let it stand for values that promote suffering, isolation, ignorance and selfishness. I will do everything I can to make sure we are a nation of united peoples, respectful and respected, engaged in the world and dedicated to making it better.

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2016 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Navigating Trump’s America

Politics 150Unless a miracle occurs sometime in the next two months, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States this January. If you’re a liberal like me, this is an alarming fact for all kinds of reasons. The election of Trump — who won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by anywhere from 1.5 – 2 million — is a signifier that our country is much more comfortable with what Trump represents than we thought. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, and disdain for truth, competence and compassion have all been revealed to be a much stronger part of the American fabric than we were willing to admit and now we have to pay the consequences for that over the next four years. What do we do with that? How can we navigate a political climate that seems so hostile and stacked against us? I think now it is more important than ever to resist what Trump represents by actively embodying our values; we must be aggressively compassionate, open and honest, and welcoming of those who are different and disadvantaged.

We already know how cruel Trump can be. He announced he was running for President by attacking American immigrants from Mexico, saying that they were drug dealers and rapists. At one of his rallies, he openly mocked a journalist with a disability. Whenever he has a public argument with a woman, he inevitably goes to their appearance, their sexual behavior, or their relationships in an attempt to dismiss them. He has mocked war veterans, members of his own party, people of color, journalists, entertainers, anyone who has accused him of illegal or immoral acts — mostly through Twitter, his cudgel of choice. This is not an aberration. Many in the GOP establishment have been using misdirection, lexicographical engineering, and ad hominem attacks as the common method of debate for years, even decades.

Which is why it’s also no surprise at all that Trump is so brazenly, shockingly dishonest. He has lied about the things he’s said and done in the past. He has lied about the things others have said and done in the past. By now, it’s very difficult to be ignorant of the long history of Trump’s half-truths and falsehoods because they were a distinguishing feature of his campaign. Politifact has five ratings for claims made by Presidential candidates, the worst of which is “pants-on-fire” — a claim that is nt only untrue but obviously ridiculous. Over the course of the campaign, Trump has 60 claims with this ratingmore than his “true” or “mostly true” statements combined. However, most of Trump’s supporters don’t care about these lies; they actually care about what these lies are justifications for — a xenophobic, racist set of policies that will make lives more difficult for just about any minority in this country.

That’s the worst part of Trump’s ascendancy. After decades of fighting for equal rights and protections under the law, the next four years could see most — if not all — of those advancements dismantled. Trump, like so many of the white supremacists who have supported him, thrives on isolation, humiliation and threats to dominate the conversation. He wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and deport undocumented immigrants immediately, without punishing the companies who have been taking full advantage of their labor all this time. He wants to ban any Muslim from entering the United States and “register” anyone of the Islamic faith already in this country. He has threatened to jail Hillary Clinton, his major political opponent of the last year, multiple times. He has threatened to sue or imprison journalists who speak against him, activists who protest his policies, other government executives and legislators who have declared defiance of his proposed federal policies.

Those who have asked us to wait and see what a Trump presidency will look like have no answers for all the news that has come out about his transition. Steve Bannon — a hard-right white nationalist associated with Breitbart News — was tapped to be his chief strategist for domestic and foreign policy, which will almost certainly mean that the worst parts of Trump’s racist and anti-globalist policies will be a central part of his administration. He wants Tom Price to head Health and Human Services, which definitely means that repealing or gutting Obamacare — and depriving millions of the most vulnerable Americans of health care — is a campaign promise he intends to keep. His pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is in favor of charter education over fixing the nation’s ailing public schools, corporatizing our education. His Secretary of Transportation pick, Elaine Chao, is married to Mitch McConnell. The man he wants for Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was a former partner at Goldman Sachs and hedge-fund manager. His Secretary of Commerce pick, Wilbur Ross, is a coal and steel executive who owned a company that lost 12 workers in a mine explosion and is also aggressively anti-free trade. The Trump administration will be stocked with pro-business allies with limited government experience, all with the singular aim of pushing government functions into the arms of the private sector.

There’s no question that Trump’s Presidency will present real hardship for me, people like me, my friends and family. The only unknown is how hard things will be; best case scenario, we have four years of an incompetent federal government that does a lot of crappy stuff that might be undone later, but worst-case scenario is the end of our democracy as we know it and a resurgence of fascist, authoritarian, white supremacist thinking. How do we get through the next four years, knowing that our lives will very likely be worse but not quite knowing how much worse they’re going to be?

I think it is more important than ever for us to actively, aggressively uphold the virtues that Trump and his allies are trying to destroy. We must be courageous in the face of this adversity. We must be compassionate to those who are being targeted at any given time, and ferocious in our defense of their lives, liberty and our democracy. We must be open and honest with ourselves and each other, willing to own up to our mistakes and work to reverse any damage they might cause. We must prize accuracy and truthfulness, no matter how painful or difficult the facts might be. And we must forgive each other, work with each other to become better people, and to forge a better community.

I won’t lie — I’m very frightened about what our country is becoming, and what it will look like during the next Presidential election in 2020. The scope of what we must deal with is overwhelming. Equal rights for minority and vulnerable populations, fixing our unjust legal system, investing in education, ending our reliance on fossil fuels to combat climate change, promoting green energy and technology, embracing the rich tapestry of differences that makes America a true melting pot while also respecting a common law that allows everyone to pursue their individual dreams are all things that we must fight for. Sometimes, we will have to fight for many of these things at once. I honestly don’t know if I have what it takes for sustained resistance these four years. But I know I must try. It’s OK to be afraid, but it is not OK to allow that fear to keep you silent and still. We must speak loudly for ourselves and our fellow Americans. We must move to defend our democracy and our community. We must be brave.

We must have empathy for the people who are vulnerable. Islamic-Americans, American immigrants, Americans of color, LGBQT Americans, Americans with disabilities, American women, poor Americans both urban and rural, progressive Americans, American journalists and entertainers — all of them have been threatened specifically by Trump at some point during his campaign, and his Cabinet choices signal that he will make good on at least some of those threats. If at all possible, we have to actively protect those who are in the crosshairs of Trump’s policies and supporters to make sure they’re as OK as they can be in this trying time. Only by reaching out to help those who need it will we be able to repair the tattered fabric of American community; we can’t expect anyone else to do it. We HAVE to.

We have to develop critical thinking, analytical ability, and a sense of our own fallibility. We are not always right — sometimes, the facts we have to base decisions on turn out to be inaccurate, or we lead ourselves to the wrong conclusions through the trail of facts we build. The world is a complex, enormous place; we will never understand all of it, and that’s OK. Even experts make mistakes in their chosen field, and most of us will never be experts in public policy, sociology, philosophy or most of the things we need to be to understand why the world works the way it does. We can do our best. We can put our trust in those we believe to be correct. But hear me — they will be wrong at some point, and so will we. We have to respect our ideals and values well enough to know when we’ve fallen short of them, and compassionate enough with ourselves to make room for our mistakes. We can’t allow our ego to extend the damage our mistakes cause by doubling down on them. We won’t fool the people who matter most to us.

There will be hard truths to face these next four years. Our government might do things that are obviously, undeniably unjust but that we are also powerless to stop. We might find that it’s too late to save various parts of our environment that have been ignored for too long. We might see a wave of hatred sweeping the country and the rest of the developed world. Our lives may be changed irrevocably. But we can’t fall into the trap of denying these events, or thinking that we can go back to normal again if we just elect the right people. We must have clear eyes about our world and our place in it, and we have to do this to know the best way we can help make it the best world it could possibly be.

We must forgive each other when we make mistakes. For far too long progressives have torn their own communities apart for not being “woke” enough, for not doing the right things to protest injustice, for not being as far along in our understanding of our society as some are. We each have our own experiences and perspectives, and none of us ever come to the decisions and actions we make in a vacuum. While it’s true we must call out damaging attitudes, words and behavior, we must also do so with the goal of correcting them instead of excoriating the person responsible for them. We need our allies — even those who are still unaware of just how deep systemic injustice goes, or who are uncomfortable with certain forms of protest, or possess any number of imperfections. A community that demands ideological purity from its members is not a good one for realizing the dream of what America could be. There will be tension about matters of belief, and of policy — we will disagree with those who are in the trenches with us. But there are in the trenches, with us. We must be patient and kind to our fellow Americans who want to be on our side, but who don’t quite know how. Pushing them out and leaving them alone to discover the “right” way to ally only increases the isolation that we’re working so hard to combat.

In order to weather Trump’s America we must become our best selves quick in and in a hurry. We must remember what it means to be in a community of different but united voices again. We must be brave, compassionate, shrewd, patient, honest, open, and assertive. We can’t keep our heads down. We have to face this with all the strength and ingenuity we can muster. And we must do it together. That is how we make America great again.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2016 in Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Feeling the Bern, But I’m Still With Her

Politics 150In 2000, the very first year I was old enough to vote, I turned to Ralph Nader. I was a young voter and fairly liberal, but Al Gore just wasn’t inspiring me. Nader, the Green Party candidate for that year, spoke my language with a passion that I could really get behind. Of course, since I was living in Arkansas at the time and the state would certainly go to Bush, I didn’t feel my vote would tilt the outcome in the election. But, looking back, if 500 Nader voters in Florida had broken for Gore instead, history would be very different.

In 2004, I really loved Howard Dean for the Democratic nominee. For a second there, it looked like we were going to have him ride a populist wave into the contest for the White House. Then it fizzled when he lost an early primary, screamed in this really weird way, and then everyone just thought he was crazy. Still in Arkansas, which held its primary after the contest had all but been decided, I voted for Dennis Kucinich because he was the only candidate in the field that really pushed ideas I had believed in. I wasn’t on board the Kerry train until I saw his acceptance speech at the DNC that summer; I was crushed when he lost handily to W.

In 2008, come on — if you were a liberal person of color, how could you not vote for Barack Obama? Same in 2012. He was my guy, he is my guy, he will always BE my guy.

Now, in 2016, after six years of a Republican congress doing everything it can to block the agenda of the President and refuse to work with him on pretty much anything, we live in a country that is angry about the state of our government but also so worn out trying to work within the system we’re ready to abandon it altogether. The two big anti-establishment forces that dominated the conversation in our major parties made a lot of noise over the past year, to different outcomes — for the Democrats, Bernie Sanders lost the fight to the establishment choice of Hillary Clinton; for the Republicans, Jeb Bush and every last hope of the party lost out to apocalyptic outsider Donald Trump.

I go over my Presidential electoral history to let you know that for pretty much the entire time I’ve been involved in politics, I’ve belonged to the further-left wing of the Democratic Party. I’ve encouraged it to pull further away from the center-right towards actually liberal policies that address the needs of our minorities and most-disadvantaged citizens. I’ve been frustrated with the direction the party has chosen, and I’ve been disillusioned by the choices they’ve made on how to best use their considerable power as the dominant voice in liberal politics.

Which is why Bernie Sanders was such a natural fit for me. He was a “radical” liberal like Kucinich wrapped up in the temperament of a firebrand like Dean. He has Kerry’s vision for the good that government can do for its people, and he’s able to marry a clear, logical vision to a passionately emotional pitch like Obama. In so many ways, he’s the total package. He gets people — especially the young — excited about politics again. And his ideas are some of the most liberal policies I’ve heard voiced on the national stage in a long time.

As this extraordinarily long and contentious primary season wore on, however, I noticed the tone of Sanders supporters shift worryingly. Instead of directing their anger at corporate interests who want to break the backs of the working poor and middle class to line their pockets, they turned it towards their fellow liberals — people who supported Clinton and even Hillary herself. More and more, I saw my camp direct feverish animosity towards their own, using tactics that Republican operatives have honed and refined over a generation to paint Hillary as shrill, as a sell-out, as politically craven, as fundamentally dishonest.

The rancor with which Bernie’s base treated their centrist allies was a gut-check for me. The vitriol and sexism — both underlying and shockingly blatant — made me reconsider my allegiance and question not only Bernie’s stances, but his ability to actually work from the Oval Office to be effective. After all, a similarly populist wave ushered in the Obama Presidency and look how that’s turned out — he had two years to make the Affordable Care Act happen, lost Congress in his first mid-term, and has not been able to work effectively with them ever since.

How would Bernie handle a rabidly obstinate anti-liberal legislative branch? What could he possibly do to bring a consensus together in order to make the government work again?

These question marks, along with the treatment of Clinton supporters by my fellow Bernie fans, pushed me towards Hillary a few months ago and I’ve been with her ever since.

I totally understand why Bernie inspires such passion and loyalty. He’s built a long career out of fighting for the right thing, even when it would be politically expedient to just go along. His principles aren’t something he’s willing to compromise on, and how many candidates on the left do we have on the national stage that actually have that quality? His entire platform proves that he understands the struggle of the left and the desperation we feel to make actual changes that fix some of our government’s most fundamental problems. He gets us. In a way that very, very few politicians do these days, he gets us.

On the other hand, Hillary feels like she was grown in a lab to fit into the political system we have today. Every bit of her is managed and polished and staged, from her pantsuit to her hair to her cadence to her speeches. She doesn’t do a single thing unless she believes it will help her do the thing that she wants to do. I still remember the bile that Hillary fans spewed on Obama in 2008; who wouldn’t? It was ugly, vulgar, and racist — both subtly and shockingly blatantly. Hillary and Bill haven’t had the best track record in dealing with people of color, and her political career has been blemished with one scandal after another. For better or worse, Hillary is a perfect politician. She is a Washington insider who knows how the game works inside and out, and she’s brilliant enough to play it better than anyone.

For an electorate that’s fed up with politics as usual, this is just the thing that makes her impossible to like. And I get that. But let me try to frame it another way.

Bill Clinton rose onto the national scene as the coolest President we’ve had in a long time. He played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show. He “did not inhale”. He embraced pop culture in ways that we couldn’t even imagine after twelve years of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. He was a dude we could go out and have a beer with. We loved him. His wife, though…

In many ways, Hillary Clinton was a majorly progressive figure on the political scene as well, reflective of the changing reality for professional women in American culture. Unlike Bill, though, she was a lot more vulnerable to attacks from the right for transgressions against traditional values. Remember when she said “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession…which I entered before my husband was in public life.”? She was attacked, not by Republicans — but by Jerry Brown, former and current CA governor. The electorate turned on her almost immediately. Her comment reeked of “smug bitchiness,” and the media’s reporting of it — without the full context of her statement — fanned the flames of that first gender-biased political scandal.

The full quote, by the way, is this:

I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession…which I entered before my husband was in public life. The work that I have done as a professional, a public advocate, has been aimed to assure that women can make the choices, whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood or some combination.

Right out of the gate, she was subjected to scrutiny not based on her ability or character, but on our perception of how she should conform to gender roles. Everything that she’s done since then — from her ruthless, aggressive ambition to her distance from the media to her incredibly frozen public image — feels to me a response to that. She doesn’t have time for the image game, and she doesn’t have the tolerance or temperament to thread the needle of what we believe a woman should be. She has to get things done.

She worked extensively on health care issues during her time as First Lady, even though her signature initiative failed at the time. She was instrumental in the creation of the State Children Health Insurance Program; she promoted nationwide immunization for children (something that her biggest liberal rival in this election, Jill Stein, continues to indulge anti-vaccinator sentiment against); she played a leading role in the Adoption and Safe Families Act and the Foster Care Independence Act; she successfully fought for an increase in funding for the study of prostate cancer and childhood asthma at the NIH; she worked to investigate the set of illnesses that eventually came to be known as Gulf War Syndrome; and she created an Office of Violence Against Women at the Dept. of Justice.

She was the first First Lady ever to hold a Senate position, and in that position she helped secure billions for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site; introduced legislation that eased the burden on soldiers in Iraq by increasing the size of the Army (I know, I know, but it’s making the best of a bad situation); advocated for retaining and improving the health benefits of veterans.

As Secretary of State, she helped to repair the damaged reputation of our country around the world, visiting 112 countries and increasing the diplomatic presence of the US in many, many regions. She’s been a tireless advocate for women and children’s rights here and around the world. And, despite her support for Keystone XL, has been an activist for dealing with climate change for a long time.

Of course Hillary isn’t perfect. As I mentioned before, she has a rocky relationship with racial minorities; she’s a little too hawkish with foreign policy; and her track record with LGBQT rights is disappointing. And to me and so many of my friends, that’s a big deal. But there are other ways we can hold her accountable for that.

I’ve voted for a third-party candidate before, and Floridians who made my choice made the difference in the Bush vs. Gore election. Say what you will about voting irregularities and the Supreme Court decision, but the fact remains that less than 300 liberals in one state changed the shape of our nation. And instead of getting the outcome they wanted, they got George W. Bush.

Our choice in November is even more stark. Hillary Clinton, for all of her faults — and yes, I know they’re there — is on our side, fellow liberals. She cares about women, the disadvantaged, and our threatened environment. She believes in the value of science in shaping public policy. And she is willing to listen when presented with new information and evidence, changing her mind where she’s been wrong. Even if you hold to the cynical belief that she only changes her mind when it’s politically safe to do so, you have to understand how and why she developed that behavior. When she speaks her mind, she is punished by being called cruel. When she appears too hard, she’s punished by being called bitchy. When she softens, she’s punished by being called craven and opportunistic. There is almost nothing she can do without being criticized for it. And while a lot of that criticism is legitimate — I have no doubt we’d say the same things about any career politician — the tenor of it is sharper, crueler because she is a woman and not a man.

Those of us who flocked to Bernie because we were frustrated with the shape of our politics may not have pushed our guy into the race for the White House, but we have started a conversation that we now have the chance to continue. Instead of taking our defeat as a sign that the system is hopelessly broken, or that saying Clinton is just as bad as Trump (which is an insane statement I won’t dignify by refuting here), we can instead take a look at what we can still do to help Bernie continue to voice his conscience in 2016 and 2018.

That means electing Clinton, who will be far more likely to work with us and for us than Donald Trump. That means helping Clinton effectively implement liberal policies — and hold her accountable for decisions we disagree with — by electing liberal Representatives and Senators to Congress. And, if you’re actually serious about increasing the legitimacy of third parties, that means researching and supporting those candidates on the state and local levels. We aren’t going to actually make the Green or Libertarian Party a national force until we make them a local, state, and regional force first. Minor parties are going to need to build an organization from the ground up, and installing them in our city councils, mayor’s offices and judges seats will establish a foundation of experience, knowledge and connections that will allow them to do so.

Bernie supporters — I know you’re disappointed. And I know that you’re wary of Clinton. But she is our best chance at continuing the work that Bernie has started here. Stein will not be elected, and your protest vote could be one of the things that gives Trump the presidency. This is a painful truth, but it is the truth: in order to get closer to our goal, we need Clinton to win. She is one of us, and she deserves our support. She’s worked hard for it, she’s earned it, and I trust her to do the right thing.

Let’s make sure she gets the chance.

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2016 in Politics, Uncategorized

 

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