A few words about 13th

I stayed up way too late last night watching Ava DuVernay’s 13th. You don’t have to read what I have to say about it; in fact, I’d rather you just watch it.

Please just go watch it. Conservatives – there are about 40% conservative interviews, including Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. This doc does not let Democrats and progressives off the hook, as you can tell by this trailer.

For those of you who are familiar with the realities of mass incarceration and its historical evolution since the Civil War, there may not be a lot of new information, although I will say that despite having done heavy reading on the subject, I learned a bit (particularly about ALEC). I also found, as did some other friends that are informed on the subject matter, that the way DuVernay presented the narrative visually was so compelling that it brought it home in a truly urgent way.

One thing that I have been meditating on recently is a statement from a Eula Biss piece in the New York Times called “White Debt.” In it, Biss recounts a story of being interviewed at the Amherst police station for pasting posters all over town for a talk she and some other college students were hosting. She says, “The first question the Amherst Police asked was whether I was aware that graffiti and ‘tagging,’ a category that included the posters, was punishable as a felony. I was not aware. Near the end of the interrogation, my campus officer stepped in and suggested that we would clean up the posters. I was not charged with a felony, and I spent the day working side by side with my officer, using a wire brush to scrub all the bombs off Amherst…Even as the police spread photos of my handiwork in front of me, I could tell by the way they pronounced ‘tagging’ that it wasn’t a crime invented for me.”

“It wasn’t a crime invented for me.”

That statement reminded me that laws are human creations and subject to human fallibility. Obvious, I know. (“But they are criminals – they broke the law.” No longer any need to racialize our complaints; there is an easy, objective way to justify any kind of treatment of those that broke our laws. But who wrote the laws?)

Beyond this obvious statement, that laws are human creations, was for me a clarification of the insight that laws are created with specific demographic targets in mind – sometimes, as my husband pointed out with the example of the Rico laws, with specific individuals in mind. Those specific individuals are not the only ones caught up in the nets of those laws, because once they exist, they can be used however law enforcement wants – and herein lies the flexibility of making race implicitly rather than explicitly targeted. But the laws were designed to punish someone in particular. The laws against tagging and graffiti were not designed for young white female college students. Clearly not. They could have been charged, but the police recognized that perhaps they were not the intended targets and let them go.

I’ve been talking with some friends who are concerned about the path of the current administration. As I have explained, my position is that we as a country have begun down the path of authoritarianism. My friends reference Japanese-American internment camps of the WWII era, and many other historical precedent across the world and time of detaining people who fall outside our concept of “our people.” They say, Could it happen here, do you think?

I say, It would look like a new law. It would not mention race or ethnicity, but rather a broad spectrum of behavior that falls along racial or ethnic patterns that allows law enforcement to target people based on race and ethnicity. We would fill up our detention centers and jails and need to create new ones, private ones. It would be the same thing as internment camps with the most recent fashionable veneer of legitimacy.

It would, theoretically, look like that.

But then I realize, almost as I say it, with shame and horror, that this is not theoretical, and it is not new.

It is already happening. It never stopped happening.

Please go watch 13th.

On the Defamation of Love and the Politics of Silence

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

So they say.

Nice is agreeable. Nice is pleasant. But I must make it clear that nice is not love. It is not kindness. The opposite of of loving-kindness is cruelty and apathy; the opposite of niceness is disagreeableness and unpleasantness.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of me to insist on my son’s bedtime, despite his tears? He certainly didn’t think so.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of the enslaved men and women and the abolitionists to decry slavery as an affront to God, to revolt against the slavemasters? The slavemasters, who had the law on their side (after all, they’d written it themselves), didn’t think so.

Was it agreeable and pleasant of Jesus to flip the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, calling them “a den of thieves”? The moneylenders, who were also supported by law and tradition, certainly didn’t think so.

In each of those cases, the nice thing to do would have been to remain silent. There is nothing “nice” about telling a three-year-old in the midst of a temper tantrum to go ahead and get in bed now, even if you throw a “honey” on the end. There is no nice way to end slavery. There is no nice way to throw the moneylenders out of the temple.

But to be nice would have been a failure. It would have been a failure of nerve, of moral courage, certainly, but more than that, it would have been a failure to love.

Niceness is thin and brittle and empty, and when we constrain our definition of love to mere niceness, our love becomes thin and brittle and empty. Fragile, like thin ice. Perhaps you’ve experienced love that felt like that. This is love defamed, defanged, profaned. Its powerful core hollowed out and filled back up with sorrow and recrimination. True love is powerful. It is the ocean. It absorbs everything and bounces back. It will never fail.

So I can’t put too high a value on “niceness.” But silence is not always niceness, and it is not always a failure to love. We must ask ourselves: what lives in our silence?

I am a devotee of silence. I seek it out every day for a few minutes. Every week I seek it out for longer. I sit in it and just sit. Or I sit in it and listen for a still, small voice. Or I sit in it and absolutely revel in it.

And so I am also a connoisseur of silence. There is the noisy, clanging kind, where your mind feels like the inside of a cement truck full of nails. There is the itchy, twitchy kind, where your skin is nearly vibrating with discomfort and your mind darts around like a squirrel trying to hide an acorn. There is the sharp, heart-crushing, awkward kind, when you’ve just done or said something wrong, or you’re remembering it years later. There is the ringing pause before a kiss. There is the settling-dust silence at the end of a book. There is the angry, thunderstorm-building silence before an argument. And there is sometimes, if you catch it just right, the silence of the beginning and the end of the universe, the silence that is RIGHT NOW and you realize that silence is all there ever was.

And then there is the silence of omission. It feels like it is full of hot knives. When something is supposed to be said and isn’t. When you could show up with love and integrity and sit down instead. When you are ignoring injustice, pretending you can’t see pain. It’s how you feel when you turn away from a person begging on a street corner as if you didn’t see her sign, hear her calling out to you. It’s the feeling of failing to stand up for a little kid against a bully, even though you’re not much bigger.

That silence is called complicity.

Complicity hurts. We don’t like the feeling. We urge others to join us there. We silence and shame and shut down; we employ every fallacy and trick in the book to stop them from calling us out. As much as complicity hurts, being called out is much worse. It must be avoided at all costs. So our silence becomes a verb.

Silencing sounds like this:

“This is not the forum.”

“No use offending people. It’s not like you can change their minds.”

“Silly girl.”

“There are starving kids in ___. Your message just isn’t important.”

“You should really read more before you talk about a subject.”

“This conversation is over.”

And the classic, my favorite:

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Silencing looks like the unfollow button, the defriend button. It happens every time we choose to build out our filtered internet bubble. Bubbles of silence, floating above a sea of pain and need. Bubbles of careless complicity, turning away from love.

So what to do about it? I think you can tell from my vivid descriptions that I’ve experienced that hot-knives feeling. All I can do is recommit, once again, to fierce loving-kindness. To lean curiously toward the discomfort of candor and authenticity. To have a little more faith in the power and resilience of love. To be brave and shake off the lacquered golden shackles of complicity.

So this is what I’m saying when I say I will be loving and kind and honest. I’m not saying I will be agreeable or pleasant.

I’m not saying I will be nice.

This is not normal.

We are becoming overwhelmed.

The daily assault of news stories, some of which are pure distraction techniques, has caused so many people to withdraw, claiming not to want to see political stories in their news feeds. Wanting a filter. Wanting to take a break. Wishing things would just be kind and civil.

It’s OK to take a break when you feel overwhelmed.

When you are ready to come back, I will be here. I promise to be kind, civil, respectful, and honest. Seeking truth has always been my highest priority, right up there next to kindness. And both of those priorities, above and beyond my political beliefs, are currently under attack at the highest levels, and that kind of model filters down to our collective discourse. It’s meant to turn you off of politics! Don’t let it. Politics may not have impacted you before; if the election didn’t do it for you, recent developments signal that everyone’s lives are about to be very affected by politics.

Six days after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, it’s become clear that we all should have been taking him fully at his policy promises, such as they are, throughout his historically divisive campaign; but more than that, we must armor our institutions against attack from within. I’d like to summarize a few of the most abnormal and worrying developments so far and give you a little context to support this concern.

  • Agencies including Interior, EPA, USDA, and others have been subjected to a media blackout. This level of restriction goes beyond any previous presidential transition and is reportedly “chilling” to employees. It’s not obvious that the order specifically violates First Amendment rights as it is worded, although it does create a (theoretically temporary) barrier between critical government science findings and the public. We do have the opportunity to watch how it is enforced; alternative, unofficial Twitter feeds such as “@AltNatParkSer” have been created by government employees in order to continue providing information that is of “public interest,” which is a protected form of speech for government employees.
  • An investigation into “voter fraud” in “two states,” following an assertion that over 3 million votes were cast illegally. Senator Lindsey Graham (R – SC) stated that this assertionshakes confidence in our democracy.” Indeed, this is a common preliminary tactic in the installation of autocratic and authoritarian regimes, in which shaking trust in voting, the fundamental institutional mechanism of democracy, is a critical step in removing or replacing the democratic structures entirely.
  • The President issued a statement via Twitter threatening to “send the feds to Chicago” if Mayor Emmanuel does not “clean up the carnage” in his city. He has previously endorsed the use of “stop and frisk” in Chicago, a failed tactic first widely used in New York City, which was found to unjustly and ineffectively target people of color. Martial law, particularly targeting ethnic minorities, is also a common tactic among repressive and authoritarian regimes, particularly right-wing, fascist, and ethno-nationalist varieties.
  • The administration is planning to propose the elimination of all 25 grants that support the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women. It would save the government “a little more than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget” and would defund support to some of the country’s most vulnerable populations, including child victims of assault and abuse, residents of tribal lands, women with disabilities, and children who have witnessed the abuse of a parent.
  • In the first press briefing of the administration, the press secretary issued statements directly contradicted by knowable and reported facts and refused to take questions from the press. The President has also referred to journalists as “the most dishonest people on Earth,” among other epithets. His campaign fueled continual mistrust of the press. As with the investigation into voter fraud, this shakes trust in an institution absolutely essential to the functioning of our democracy and raises questions in the minds of many followers or neutral folks on whether facts can be knowable. This centers his own outlets of information (i.e. Twitter) as an authoritative source of facts. These fissures in the institution of the free press and the attempt to undermine and control structures of information flow in a democratic society are the bases of the classic authoritarian state-run propaganda complex and are a well-documented tactic of authoritarian regimes.
  • According to Reuters, “U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign executive orders starting on Wednesday that include a temporary ban on most refugees and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries, say congressional aides and immigration experts briefed on the matter.” A Cato Institute report concludes, “The security threat posed by refugees in the United States is insignificant. Halting America’s processing of refugees due to a terrorist attack in another country that may have had one asylum-seeker as a co-plotter would be an extremely expensive overreaction to very minor threat. Resettling refugees who pass a thorough security check would likely decrease the recruiting pool for future terrorists and decrease the long-run risk.” This overreaction and scare tactic by the administration is known as scapegoating, and besides being, per Cato, an “extremely expensive overreaction,” it provides an external, nationalism-fueled enemy around which the authoritarian leader’s party may rally.
    • Another notable quote from the Cato report: “A refugee from Burundi was detained by DHS for 20 months for materially supporting a terrorist group because rebels beat him up, stole $4 from him, and took his lunch (it’s unclear from the story, but he might have been an asylum seeker).  Many good candidates for resettlement in the United States are turned down for these silly reasons.”
  • President Trump may be in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which says: “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust … shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State,” according to George W. Bush ethics Richard Painter. Emoluments are essentially payments for labor or services. His “blind trust” does not actually fulfill any of the technical requirements of a blind trust, which works on a high-level by putting all assets into a fund that is re-invested and managed by unknown parties. In that case, the owner does not know how their assets are being managed, and others outside of the trustees are not aware that the owner’s funds are involved.

However, the President has simply resigned from leadership in his companies and placed his family members in charge. The use of the word “blind trust” to describe this arrangement is wildly inaccurate and intentionally misleading. As it stands, he is aware of decisions made in his former businesses, and all the world is aware that they are doing business with his personally-designated family members. This puts him in a conflict of interest that could easily compromise national security, as his loyalty is divided between what is best for the country and what is most profitable for his companies.

Walter M. Shaub, Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, expressed his concern that this was not sufficient to avoid conflicts of interest and in response was sent a letter from Jason Chaffetz (R – UT), Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, threatening investigation, which was widely seen as a measure of intimidation.

It was not generally believed that a civil suit could correct this; impeachment, or, short of that, a resolution by Congress directed towards the President, would need to be considered in order to remedy these potentially compromising conflicts of interest. However, on Monday, January 23, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit against the President, but while they believe they have standing, their status as a directly injured party is not clearly affirmed by precedent. If the suit is upheld, the President could face a court order requiring him to divest fully from his current assets.

Of course, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said. But political discussion is a marked change in the direction of this blog, and it is likely an unwelcome one to many of my readers – mostly family and friends. Some of you may have voted for Trump. You have as much reason or more to hold him accountable as those of us who did not. Join me in paying close and careful attention, seeking facts, evaluating context, and resisting any attempts – from any side – at eroding the basic tenets of our democracy and human rights.

You may note that I am not addressing everything. There are a number of areas of already-signed and anticipated executive actions that are not surprising in terms of their content, given the Republican Party’s stated stance on these issues. The substance of these issues, and whether or not they are the right direction for our country, can be debated – and believe me, I will debate that. But for now, regardless of your political leanings, I hope that we can all agree that our democratic institutions and rights are worth protecting, and that we can all unite against these threats to the core of our American – and human – values.