America, Where Are You?

America is supposed to be better than this.

Where is the country, young, scrappy, and hungry, that stood up to a mad king and against all odds, won its independence? The country which has a statue at one of its busiest ports challenging the world to give us its tired and poor, its huddled masses yearning to be free? Where is the country of my great-grandparents, which took those immigrant lives and pushed them through a sieve of red white and blue until they bled apple pie? Where is the country which hails itself as a beacon of democracy and freedom, as bright as Liberty’s torch shining over New York harbor?

We are supposed to be better than this.

Where is the hunger to fix the problems pulling the country apart at the seams? Where is the drive to do better, to take care of our own whether they’re in Puerto Rico or Houston or Las Vegas? Or Iowa, Mississippi or Maine. Where is the innovative thinking we need to overcome problems like gun violence and systemic racism? Where is the scrappiness to face those challenges, the conviction to overcome them?

At what point will this great American experiment be deemed a failure? At what point will the absolute right of the individual citizen be responsible for the downfall of a nation?

I say this as an American who loves my country: I think we are very close to that point. I think we have championed the right of the individual over the rights of the whole for too long, and we are paying the price. Or rather the people in Las Vegas are paying the price, and the citizens of Puerto Rico, the families who bury their black sons and daughters are paying the price. Children who shoot themselves with unsecured guns, women who are killed by abusive partners, transgender citizens who are murdered by fellow citizens. People without healthcare. Citizens in the wealthiest nation in the world going hungry, going without.

We are all paying the price because we are all worse off.

Maybe some of us take nicer vacations or have more square footage. Maybe some have a nice chunk of retirement change. But this idea that our rights as individuals, to speech or guns or bigotry in the name of religious freedom comes before our unity as a whole, as a nation?

That idea is going to kill us as sure as a stake through the country’s heart.

We now accept mass shootings as a way of  life, especially those carried out by white male terrorists. We find neat little ways of compartmentalizing the actions of those men by giving them titles like ‘lone wolf’. By humanizing them in the narrative with occupations and family stories. And so it’s easier to think it’s yet again a one-off thing. There was nothing to stop it, it won’t happen again.

Until it does.

And does.

And does.

And does.

Mass shootings are now as American as baseball and McDonald’s. We expect them. We’re unsurprised by them. We pray and we send thoughts and push aside the fact that it is not going to go away right out of our minds.

Where is the problem solving? Where’s the courage to fix this? Where are the goddamn bootstraps I hear so much about? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, but give me young, scrappy and hungry too.

In the aftermath which will follow Las Vegas, the same tired, old arguments will be trotted out. But the real tragedy, beyond the lives of the fifty-eight people lost is this:

Too many Americans have become immune. Inoculated against the bloodshed. Caring too much about the imagined individual restrictions than about the life of a nation. We’ve finally managed the neat, little trick of turning so far inward that we’ve ceased to see outward.

 

We have our own mad king now, who likes gold thrones just as much as George III. But Las Vegas did not happen because of the Trump administration. NFL protests are not happening because of it. I am not laying blame for any of this at the feet of the Trump administration.

Nor do I think the administration is capable of doing a damn thing about staunching the blood either.

So we will continue our descent. Our empathy will continue to atrophy. Our belief in the individual over all else, even the life of our neighbor, our lover, our child. Until there is nothing left but an island full of individuals who come up with ever new Hunger Games style ways of killing one another because ….somehow, someone somewhere will convince those remaining Americans it’s within their rights to do so.

Or we can channel those early founding fathers and stand up.

America, don’t throw away your shot.

 

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What’s the Point of Having Rights if You’re Not Going to Use Them?

“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
-Donald Trump

Last year Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, refused to stand during the American national anthem. Several other high-profile athletes such as US soccer star Megan Rapinnoe followed suit. The backlash was quick.

A year later, it hasn’t abated.

Looking past the fact that blind allegiance to a nationalistic symbol is about the most Un-American thing I can think of, that forced standing, saluting, singing, and pledging are exactly the sort of things that Americans abhor in other places, because you know…freedom….the bigger point is this:

The whole point of having certain inalienable rights as defined in the Constitution is to USE them. If we’re not going to use them, why spend so much time, energy, blood, and lives defending them?

People are getting their Kaeper-knickers in a twist about utilizing rights. Are rights merely meant to sit on a shelf somewhere, kept shiny but never used? Because if so they will atrophy. They’ll wither until they are of no use to anyone. Until they die.

Service men and women have fought and died to protect the rights Americans hold dear. Those rights are whispered into the ears of American children at night. We grow up on them. We eat them at greasy spoon diners and wash them down with Bud Light. They are our bread and butter, our meat and potatoes, and apple pie for dessert.

Rights.

Not a flag. Not an anthem. Not a pledge.

Protests, such as that of Colin Kaepernick and fellow athletes do not dishonor those sacrifices. In fact, I can’t think of anything that honors them more. Citizens using the very things so many gave their life to protect.

Rights.

It may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I guarantee that bitterness still tastes sweeter than what Kaepernick and his fellow athletes are protesting: daily witnessing the fact that your life doesn’t count for as much as it does if you’re white.

Of course this is not about utilizing rights. This is about certain groups using their rights. When tiki-torch carrying white supremacists march en masse we hotly debate ‘rights’. When toddlers are routinely shot dead by unsecured guns, we wring our hands over ‘rights’. When statues glorifying slavery-supporting generals are questioned, we hem and haw over ‘rights’.

But when black Americans protest? Suddenly it’s not about rights. It’s about dishonoring. It’s about disrespect. It’s about refusal to bend the knee (oh, the irony).

They may as well be calling black NFL players ‘boy’.

America! Land of the free and home of the brave! Yet the landscape of my country is very different depending on who you are. And who you are has a lot to do with the color of your skin, your biological sex, and who you love.

As a white educated woman, I lead a different life than a woman of color of the same educational background. My life is very different life from that of a white male, a hispanic homosexual, a transgender female, or a white woman living below the poverty line.

I know it’s hard to see that. It’s easy to assume that everyone else out there has the same experiences –not only the day-to-day ones, but the overreaching ones as well, the ones that link together to make up the concrete foundation of your experience. That we all have access to the same raw materials. That those bootstraps Americans love to fetishize are available in one size fits all.

But that is simply not true.

Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennet and other black NFL players protest because their America is not the same as mine. Megan Rapinoe knelt because her America is not the same as mine. Their opportunities are not the same. Their access, their power. Forget pulling yourselves up by the bootstraps. What happens when you’re not even given access to the materials to even fashion them?

Yet when they use non-violent means of protest to call attention to these very different experiences, they are criticized, told to be quiet, threatened, and called unpatriotic.

I ask you, what choice have we left for those whose experience of the United States is not the same as yours, or mine? What choice have we left for those who keep trying to pull up the damn bootstraps only to find the ones we gave them are shoddy, damaged, or non-existent?

What choice?

What are people supposed to do? If you find protests so unpalatable, so offensive, then what course do you recommend? Because nothing else has worked. Nothing.

Racism, sexism, homophobia–they are all documented issues. Yet we continue to shuffle them under the rug and stuff them in the closet. We deny, deny, deny. We shift the blame and blame the victim. And then–and then!–when people use their rights to call attention to these problems, we tell them to find another way to do it because it’s “offensive”.

For real?

260 years ago, the idea of taxation without representation was enough to go to war.

We celebrate that uprising each year with fireworks and backyard barbecues. We celebrate those protests, many of them violent, which led to the birth of a nation. But when a non-violent protest asks us to look at the messy afterbirth of that same nation?

We can’t handle the truth.

We hide behind a flag, an anthem, a pledge.

The United States of America is not post-racism. There is literally no legitimate recourse if you are a person of color.

You’re beat down, then told you’re not. You’re told to use the right channels, but those channels are blocked. You’re told it’s all in your head, it’s not as bad as you think, it doesn’t exist. And when you stand over the dead bodies as evidence, you’re told it must have been your own fault.

How are you supposed to affect change if there are people who won’t even admit change is necessary?

 

Somewhere out there there’s a child sitting and watching these athletes saying, ‘I’m not crazy, I’m not alone and here is someone willing to stand up for me.”

And that is how it begins. A teabag thrown into a harbor doesn’t make too much of an impact. A ship full of tea does.

But it all has to start somewhere.

What’s the point of having rights if we’re not going to use them?

What kind of message does it send when we value a symbol over a life?

And what does it say when we have a leader who refers to someone using their inalienable right as a son-of-a-bitch?

 

 

 

Women Who Don’t Burn

Not that long ago a friend pulled me aside and said, “You know, if you lived a few centuries ago, I think you’d have been burned at the stake.”

It was meant as a compliment, and I took it as one.

Because what he meant was that outspoken women, loud women, women who didn’t sit still, who pushed boundaries or dreamt or loved or worked outside the tight confines of the lives assumed for them, those women were often rounded up and burned as witches. Because there was no room for them outside a witch pyre.

Fast forward two centuries. Those same women were labeled hysterics and chained inside concrete institutions instead. As we evolved the punishments for women who refused to sit down and shut up when told to became less physical. We simply shunned them, banishing them to the bottom tier of society.

Nowadays witch burning is metaphorical rather than literal. We don’t tie women to a wooden stake anymore. No, today women get shamed, harassed, and threatened in the media.

Same shit, different century.

Four centuries removed from barbecuing women and we still don’t know what to do with women who don’t STFU.

Oh sure, we may be far from the madding crowd taking pleasure in watching a woman sizzle and fry, but we’ve moved to a place where the madding crowd takes pleasure in metaphorically burning women in public discourse.

The pyres are now cable news shows, the logs op-eds, and the match is social media.

Same shit, different burn.

It’s not easy to be burn resistant, not when society whispers in your girlish ear that you’ll be admired more for your bust line than your by-line, when from the first doll you’re given to the last child you birth you’re told women must be compliant and nurturing. We are still very much a society in which the most revered thing a woman can do is produce children, a society which applauds you for your achievements but with footnotes and codicils and a thousand pages of fine print.

We use women up until they’re no longer useful–usually around the time they hit their sexual sell-by date–and then we throw them out like so many old newspapers. Women who have failed, or lost, the train wrecks of society. We put them on the recycling pile where they’re expected to go gently into that good night.

But every now and again a woman comes along who picks herself up and refuses to go away. A woman who is resistant to the flames which were supposed to engulf her.

‘GNAGH!’ ‘HAA!! HA,HA,HA,HA!’

Hillary Clinton is only the most recent in a long line of women who will not burn. And boy, have they tried.

I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life, she said way back in 1992. And boy oh BOY, that one line managed to set off  a catastrophic string of witch fires that have burned with near consistency for thirty years. She may not have the dragons, but this woman has walked out of more fires than Daenerys Targaryen.

And that drives people nuts.

We generally don’t know what to do with women who refuse to succumb to the flames we place them in, women like Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama, journalists like Lauren Duca and Anita Sarkeesian, even entertainers like Madonna and Beyoncé. Women who have learned to walk through the flames rather succumbing to them.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Hillary Clinton recently wrote a book. Like countless others before her, she wrote a book. Last time I checked, no one was forcing anyone to buy it, or read it. I highly doubt it’s on any high school required reading lists. Yet the book is selling well, and her supporters are lining up to hear her what she has to say.

And people are going ape-shit.

Ultimately this isn’t about whether or not you like or support Hillary Clinton. In fact, ultimately it’s not even about Hillary Clinton, the woman. It’s about not knowing how to cope with women who refuse to go when some tell her to go, to shut up when some tell her to shut up, to stay down when they tell her to. In the case of What Happened, it’s caused so much frothing outrage that entire news cycles have interrupted natural disaster coverage and policy unveilings just to opine on whether or not she has the right to continue to exist in the public sphere.

But of course it’s not just about a book. It’s not even about what’s in the book. If, and only if the book was a four-hundred page opus of self-flagellation perhaps it would have been about the book. Because generally it’s only when a woman lays herself bare at the altar of self-sacrifice we begin to feel the stirrings of sympathy. Only when a witch’s skin begins to pucker and burn are we able to dredge up a modicum of empathy.

But when a woman doesn’t do that?

Whoeee, mama. Pitchforks and hunting parties and more women rounded up and burned.

This is not about what is in the book. There is ample room to discuss the merits of Clinton’s writing style. There is room for disagreement.

What there is no room for is the insistence that she sit down and STFU. That she no longer gets to have a place in the public sphere because someone else is telling her not to. Plenty of politicians write books. I can’t think of another one who was told, before the book had even come out, that he had no business writing it.

Like her or hate her, Hillary Clinton has every right in the world to tell her story. She has a right to exist, to write, to stay standing, to stay speaking. She has every right to still be there, walking away from that smoking pyre and marching into that good night on her own terms.

In case it wasn’t crystal clear from the great cookie quote of 1992, Hillary Clinton is not going gently into that good night.

And this is at the crux of it. This refusal, the audacity of some women to continue to exist, to be relevant to those around them, to simply not die. It outrages people.

Women, after all, are supposed to burn when we tell them to.

There have always been women who don’t burn. Maybe someday soon we’ll stop trying to fan the flames even higher and acknowledge that sometimes the ones we try the hardest to quieten are the ones we should be listening to the most.

 

A Word to Progressives

There’s a story I’ve been telling recently I think bears repeating.

A year or two before my son started school, there was a buzz. Word on the playground was that a momentum was building. A group of neighborhood parents, priced out of NYC private schools and frustrated at the lackluster performance of the local public schools, were starting to mobilize. Fantastic, right? These parents started getting involved, going to town halls and attending district and zone meetings. They organized and advocated. They had binders full great ideas that would benefit not only their own kids, but everyone’s kids. Win/win.

In their passion to improve what was already there they neglected one important thing: the people who already called that school home. And those folks were understandably wary and resentful of a group of newcomers rushing in demanding change while liberally pointing out fault and failure.

I’m watching the same thing happen now with the progressive movement in the US. A fired-up grass-roots movement which wants to overhaul the Democratic Party for the betterment of all. Fantastic, right? But as I’m watching, I’m shaking my head. Because many are making the same mistake those neighborhood parents made: they’re not taking into account the people who actually make up the Democratic party.

The Democrats lost the last election. Bigly. They’ve lost countless seats and governorships in the last few election years. We can autopsy the whys until we’re covered in the gore of yesterday. We can place blame from here until Tuesday. None of that changes the fact that when you march into someone else’s school–or house, or political party–expecting to radically change the structure, you must take into account the needs, wants, and desires of the people who actually live there. Or, as the case may be, vote there.

Even if your ideas are great. Even if your ideas will help the people already there.

No one likes to be told they’re doing things wrong. No one likes to be told if only. Never mind if you’re right or not. Everyone’s well-versed in hindsight and its eagle-eyed vision. Would you march into someone else’s house and start shouting “You chose the wrong carpet! Your decor sucks! What were you thinking? Oh by the way, can I come stay with you for a while until I get my own place?”

If you expect them to say “Well sure, here are the keys!”, I want some of what you’re smoking.

What are they likely to do? The same thing any human being does when told they’re wrong, or stupid, or not good enough. They bristle. They resent the hell out of you. And they probably try to block every single attempt to change because hey, maybe the school/house/party is failing, but damn if it’s not our school and who are you to tell us how to do things? 

It makes my heart swell to see millions striving to make the world a more equitable place. But….you need to remember that there are millions of Democrats who’ve been living in their blue house for decades. Maybe it is falling down around them (and that point is arguable in and of itself). But remember, even if it is, it’s their damn house and they’ve been paying the mortgage on it for years. And despite what you may think, they’ve had a lot of good times in that house. There are some good memories there. They’re not going to let someone they don’t know come in and start tearing up the linoleum to see if there’s hardwood underneath, all the while berating them for every decorating choice they’ve made since 1960.

Most people don’t like change. It’s uncomfortable. Even when that change is going to benefit them. The reasons why so many old school Democrats are committed now to a resistance movement is that the change is threatening to go too far in one direction. But remember, for millions of Democrats–the people who have been living in that house, the ones who have been showing up and voting–change too far in the other direction is just as frightening. And they’ll fight it just as much.

Right now, Progressives need to rent some room in the Democrat’s house. Sure, you could declare it condemned. You could burn it and build something new. You could find another house on another street. But that all takes time, and by the time all is said and done, it could be too late.

Or…you could work with the people already living there. And, chances are, when you start looking around, you’re going to find a pretty decent bone structure to work with. In fact, the place may not be in as much disarray as you thought it was when you dragged your sleeping bag in looking for a place to squat.

Smart Progressives will approach coalition building with courtesy, caution, and yes, compromise. Maybe you reach an agreement to live together until your own house is ready. Great! After all, help with the bills is always welcomed. Until it’s ready it would be wise to remember that if you need a place to stay, it’s probably not the smartest move to go around  knocking holes in the walls and incessantly bringing up that time in 1992 when they let the pipes freeze. Or else you may just find your ass on the street. Noble intentions, passion, and good ideas go a long way, but when there’s a hurricane bearing down upon you, and there’s a big old blue house on the corner inviting you in, it would be dumb not to take shelter. Even if the roof is leaky and it stinks like mothballs. 

Eventually the new parents in my Brooklyn hood worked with the long-time neighborhood residents, wisely realizing that even if the school wasn’t winning any awards, it wasn’t really their school to criticize. The need for underlying change and improvement hadn’t gone away, but any forward motion had to take the old into account as well as the new.

Resistance is necessary. But the last thing a resistance movement needs is resistance within itself.