Monday, November 14, 2016

Be the lightning bolt - Some thoughts on the last week

I haven't posted much lately. A lot of that has been work commitments, but for the past week, my silence has been because I've been trying to process the aftermath of this election. My candidate lost, which is something I've lived through before. People I know voted for the other guy, which is ALSO something I've lived through before. This time is different.

I don't want to re-litigate Trump vs. Hillary because I've got a lot to say about this aftermath, but I think we were handed about as clear a contrast as possible. Hillary was a flawed, albeit extremely qualified candidate with a long record of public service working towards the betterment of people. Was she unblemished? No, but I feel like we have to get over the "purity myth" of politicians. You go to war with the army you have, not the one you want. In Trump, we had a man with no history of public service, a lot of very questionable ties to Russia. His entry to the campaign came with a lot of ugly racist statements about Mexicans and illegal immigrants. And then, after a detour to attack captured POWs, he called for a total Muslim ban. At that point, even Paul Ryan rebuked him.

I'll admit that even at that point, as shocking as his comments were, I felt secure that they were disqualifying to such a degree that we'd never have to worry about this man facing a general election. But he kept going and going, like the Energizer Bunny. In any logical world, it was inevitable that the preponderance of these gaffes would catch up to him. But they didn't.

There's a metaphor I've been using a lot this year: "Luke Skywalker under the stairs." It's referencing a moment in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Luke, after having been goaded into a fight with Darth Vader, has retreated into a hiding spot. He's determined not to fight, but Vader keeps taunting until he finds the one nerve to hit. At that point, Luke leaps out from under the throne room stairs, lightsaber blazing and unleashes hell upon Vader. Lightsaber strike after lightsaber strike. By the end of it, Vader's on his back, disarmed and beaten.

That's how I felt as we got within 12 months of the election. I know I have friends back home who had... shall we say... strong opinions about Obama. I'd hoped that eight years of vast improvement and prosperity would turn them around, but primary season made it clear they somehow perceived Obama as the worst thing to happen to the Presidency. I behaved during the first few Trump months, figuring that some of them were just sharing Trump stuff to gawk at the car crash.

And then I hit my red line. It was the infamous "Sheriff's Star" dog whistle that was a clear anti-Semitic meme. I was proud of the bravery shown by a New York Observer columnist named Dana Schwartz, who wrote an open letter to Trump's son-in-law and campaign manager Jared Kushner, expressing her concerns that this was being seen as support for the anti-Semetic alt-right. Kushner also happens to be Schwartz's BOSS. Which... look, I like to think I have balls, but to openly suggest to your boss that he's encouraging Neo-Nazis takes BALLS. It's worth noting that Schwartz had already taken days of really ugly abuse from alt-right trolls when she did this, so she knew when she wrote this, it was only gonna draw more.

But it was the right thing to do. She appealed to him to have Trump denounce it. For his part, Kushner gave a response that started with "My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite" and basically proceeded from there. It didn't really address the core issue - that Trump's campaign seemed to be courting the anti-Semite vote - and it was in line with the rest of the campaign rhetoric, wherein his surrogates tried to convince us that it was not a Star of David in the meme, but rather a sheriff's star.


I'm of Jewish descent, but not EXACTLY Jewish. I never attended Hebrew School, never had a bar mitzvah and my mother's not Jewish, so in the strictest sense, I am not. However, half of my family is and my wife and her family are. I've read that children of mixed-religion families are more likely to consider themselves Jewish because of the cultural history attached, and that's generally where I fall.

We all grew up with the Holocaust as part of our past. I don't discount that non-Jews are equally capable of understanding that horror, but when you're growing up, that history is one thing that reminds you that no matter how much you look white, there is a LARGE segment of the population that is capable of seeing you as The Other.

I never faced anti-Semitism growing up in the suburbs of the midwest. I don't even think I knew the word "kike" until high school and THAT only came from controversy over lyrics in a Michael Jackson song. You can't even blame this on me going to a lily-white school. My high school had a higher percentage of black students than white and even there, I never felt anything you'd perceive as racial tensions. The most racist remarks you'd encounter might be something like someone observing all the black kids walk around with their pants sagging.

Bottom line: I grew up in a world where it felt like we were all educated enough that the Holocaust could never happen again and that my generation was bridging all the racial divides we'd read so much about in our history books. It's not that racism was gone, but it felt like strides forward were being made. The few bad apples were the minority and people were basically good at their hearts.

The Holocaust seemed like the red line we could all agree would never be crossed. It's why Holocaust deniers are so vile. The people responding to Ms. Schwartz weren't denying the Holocaust, but they were celebrating it. There was a lot of "We're warming the ovens up for you, kike" and when I checked the mentions of several other Jewish journalists, it was clear this was NOT an isolated block of support for Trump. It was also equally clear they had interpreted the meme the way Schwartz had.

Kushner didn't address any of the rising anti-Semitism the campaign was contributing to. There was no apology to the Jewish people for causing any pain. There was just denial, "Oh it doesn't mean that. Oh, you're being hyper-sensitive."

Their earlier attempts to incite hate against Mexicans and Muslims had been undisguised. Even if they had offered an apology, it would ring hollow. This was unique. This was an anti-Jew dog whistle. If it was unintentional, the easiest solution would be to offer apology. The denial, "Donald Trump is not an anti-Semite," infuriated me because that's not really the issue. He doesn't have to BE an anti-Semite for his actions to empower anti-Semites. All this did was provide cover for people whose own bigotry drew them to Trump, but didn't want to admit it.

I'm sure that my friends who voted Trump convinced themselves, "Well, I'm not an anti-Semite, racist or homophobe," and are offended at the suggestion that supporting Trump makes them one. Empowering homophobia IS an act of homophobia. Empowering anti-Semitism is an act of anti-Semitism. And as I said, this was not a difficult dilemma. The Trump Campaign was made up of values that every decent person should be able to reject without much introspection.

My generation grew up without really being tested with regard to bigotry, at least not in the way our parents were. Our failing might be the belief that our work stops with "I am not a bigot." We confer our own moral purity and because we're not faced with daily opportunities to affirm it outwardly, we believe that's enough. It breeds complacency and we start to think that "it can't happen here."

I've seen more anti-Semitism in the last year than in the 35 years I lived before it. It was drawn to the Trump agenda like moths to a flame and with Steve Bannon of Breitbart News acting as campaign manager, it's clear the alt-right had a mouthpiece. They saw it and anyone paying attention would have seen what a Trump victory would embolden.

THIS was my Luke Skywalker under the stairs moment. You were either with the crowd that thinks Hitler didn't go far enough, or you're with her. I'd say "it's that simple" but it's even simpler than it would have been with almost any other candidate. Trump had no coherent policy, nothing that should pose a moral dilemma in terms of rejecting the rest of his slate. For the sake of argument, if he had an economic plan that made sense, would boost the economy, help the middle class and reduce the deficit, I could see someone being mildly torn - at least up until the anti-gay stuff and the sexual assault confession and allegations.

There was no such policy, though. Where there were shreds of a policy, experts almost unanimously agreed they'd bring ruin to foreign relations, the economy and the environment. I'm saying this so it's clear - his agenda had plenty of reasons to reject it even if you discount every racial and sexual issue he barreled into. We're not dealing with a case of "Damn, he has great ideas, but he believes some horrible things."

Easy to reject, right?

And yet I saw the Hillary bashing memes still surfacing via the Facebook pages of old high school friends. Some were subtle about their Trump support, others flagrantly "liked" his page and passed forward his words from time to time. I admit, I deliberately provoked a few of them, drawing a firm line about a month out saying that I could not be friends with anyone who supported this man.

That was part threat, part truth. I was cutting off less as a matter of principle and more because seeing that kind of moral failure in a person forever changed how I felt about them. I have old friendships that are forever tainted by the knowledge that these people were so easily capable of performing mental judo to excuse someone who saw me as less of a person, who were indifferent to the numerous ways my gay friends would be caused pain under this agenda, who were not disturbed by disrespect shown to veterans, to Mexicans, to women.

These people, these Trump voters, sat in the same history classes as me. I watched their faces go pale alongside mine as Holocaust survivors would tell stories that MUST not be lost to time. When we learned about the Asian internment camps of WWII, I remember how hyperaware we were of our Japanese classmates, and how WRONG what was done to them seemed. But now, when you replace "Asian" with "Muslim," that same repulsion didn't exist.

It's easy to hate some faceless bigots in a small town in Podunk Red State. To see your old friends fail the "What would I have done in Nazi Germany" test is... it's soul-crushing.

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." Do you recognize that quote? It's from Anne Frank's diary, written while she was hiding in an attic from the Nazis who would eventually kill her. I want to agree with her, but the hardest lesson of this past week might be that... I don't.

I figured Trump's victory would empower some ugliness. I didn't expect to actually WAKE UP to reports of violence and harassment. It took less than a day for people of color to start being harassed by groups of white men. The less fortunate ones were physically assaulted, while some were merely intimidated and told to "get out of the country." The KKK was openly celebrating in North Carolina.

When you see that happen so quickly, you realize it's not as simple as just blaming Trump. These people were already here. They were hiding, walking among us, like some sort of xenophobic sleeper agents. And a lot of them are YOUNG. My generation was supposed to be the enlightened ones. We were supposed to be learning from the past. Sure, there were some bad apples. You can't help that, but as a collective, we were post-racial, right?

Observing a switch flip THAT quickly is like watching reality break before your eyes. Evil rose because we all convinced ourselves it was impossible something that ugly could happen without us knowing about it. If we were less certain of the virtue of our fellow man, maybe we'd have seen it before it boiled over. There's not inherent good in this world. We have to make it.

It's hard not to feel broken after these election results. The Republicans targeted minority voters in several key states and worked to depress turnout (and again, made no effort to disguise what they were doing). The FBI Director released a letter designed to inflict maximum damage on the Clinton campaign soon before the election, a letter that turned out to contain no new information. The media couldn't be bothered to talk about ANYTHING but Hillary's emails. Yet, despite all of that sandbagging, Hillary Clinton still not only got more votes than Trump, but one of the highest popular vote counts of this century.

And she still lost. We played their rigged game, we got the votes and she STILL lost to a guy who offered nothing and rode in on a bandwagon of hate and misogyny. Even just as an abstract concept, that feels hopeless. When you have friends who you know will suffer a lot of pain because of this, it's... look, I'm out of synonyms, it's bad.

I don't have the rousing "let's go fight" speech that undoubtedly would come out of the mouth of Captain Picard, or Kirk, or Buffy, or Superman or... you get the picture. I've spent a week trying to conjure the words, but they all sound hollow in the face of this past year. What I can offer you is this...

There's a movie I watched a lot as a kid called Short Circuit. It's about a military robot who's struck by lighting and develops a cuddly personality. His fellow robots remain instruments of destruction, but "Number 5" becomes a decent person. Right now, that's my metaphor for humanity. We're not basically good, but some people get struck by lighting and evolve beyond expectations.

Be that lightning bolt. Make it possible for someone to evolve. 

I think again of Luke Skywalker in a fighting frenzy until he has the Dark Lord of the Sith at his mercy. In that moment, he's beaten him, but that's not what saves the soul of the man who once was Anakin Skywalker. That table is turned when an unbowed Luke faces the Emperor head-on and becomes the target of all his evil power. It's that act of bravery that provokes Vader to finally turn on his dark master. He throws off years of lies and hurls him to his death.

Should the next few years become a fight for the very soul of our nation, don't be afraid to take the impact of that dark lightning. Take that stand and maybe, just maybe, those who have been blinded by the dark can save themselves and us all.