Monthly Archives: November 2017

Where Responsibility Lies

Most of us, as adults, have many responsibilities.  We have a responsibility to our communities, locally, nationally and globally, and although we view those responsibilities in varying ways, we must share the responsibility to co-exist.

FB_IMG_1448492742310-1We have a responsibility to family, friends, and employers to be the best person we can be in the different ways that they may depend on us.  And, like every parent, my paramount responsibility is to my children; to be strong, wise, fair, and to imbue the principles of character.

I have a responsibility to be honest as I write this blog and as a columnist for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. I’ve also run for public office which, at its best, is a responsible endeavor.

Those credits, however, have exposed me to a few surprising confrontations that challenged that resolve.

On one occasion a couple years ago, I was enjoying the company of friends at a restaurant Angry_Santa_BN8KAA_3141801bwhen someone from another group called me out as a “stupid liberal.”  No reason to bait me except that they felt a need to vent because liberalism, they said, was “the undoing of America” and apparently that was on their mind at Christmastime.

Last year I was dining with friends and a person I’d never met before passed our table and said without provocation, “I can’t stand your politics.”

My friends were aghast that anyone would be so rude, but were particularly floored since, as one friend put it:  “Your politics are about civil rights and helping people.  How is someone against that?”

I’m a grown up, I can take it, and these encounters don’t rattle my cage or cause me consternation; what they did, however, was make me aware of a societal knot that is getting tighter and tighter. A knot that could unravel at such a velocity that “the undoing of America” will be a very real possibility.

Civil discourse is being replaced by the language of fear; an extreme rhetoric, rooted in a fear of egalitarianism, a fear of secularism (the fear of Islam, in particular), a fear of government, and a fear of change to the status quo.

It is amped and fanned by media, by unchallenged web information and communication cells that share only the most extreme perspectives. Those perspectives are turning into actions; sometimes violent actions to counter those fears.

Recently I went to a friendly bar to relax when an old friend appeared.untitled This fellow and I are on opposite sides of the political fence, but we’ve always enjoyed each other’s company.  On this particular evening he was with a friend of his own and I was introduced.

After a few pleasantries I was left alone which is what I hoped for that evening.  I saw the two of them converse quietly for a minute and then the young man, to whom I was introduced, came over to me.

“I just have to ask,” he intoned.  “Why are you a Democrat?”

I really wanted to be left alone, but I have a responsibility since I’ve chosen to be in the political arena to, at least, be respectful of any inquiry.

“I have a lot of reasons, “I replied, “and they would take up the rest of this evening, but I will give you this.  Social justice.  Whatever I do relates to finding the respect and opportunity that I believe all people deserve.”

He laughed.  “That’s the biggest load of horse s#!t I’ve ever heard. Explain yourself.”

“Oh boy” I thought to myself.  “But this comes with the territory…here goes….”

(Not to myself: ) “Let’s start with the history of systemic racism and sexism in America.  It is a fundamental flaw in a presumably free society, predicated on justice, and we must continually examine justice and equality until we can transcend prejudice.”

That was too much for this fellow.  He bellowed:  “I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  You’re saying that government will take care of everything.  I believe in individual liberties and your Big Government is telling me what and who I have to believe!”

“I said nothing of the kind, “I replied. “You are putting words in my mouth and answering a false premise.”

“Are you saying I’m stupid?” came his response.  His brow was now furled and he was in my face.  I should point out that this young man was probably over 6’ 2” and clearly a body builder.

“Not at all. Why don’t we just let this be and we’ll get together to talk at another time?”

“I will knock those f*@#in glasses off your face!”

The rest of the bar was very aware of this situation and my friend came over to take him away.  The angry young man marched out the front door and didn’t returned.

“He gets that way around Democrats.  That’s happened before” was my friend’s conciliation.

“Not a problem” I said, but in reality it was.  The problem wasn’t the disagreement itself, but the intensity of the anger that came with it.  The same anger I had witnessed before that stepped outside of the realm of respect, but this time there was a physical threat from an intimidating source.  It wasn’t the thought that I could be nursing a broken nose that bothered me as much as the senselessness if I had.

What is happening in America when a man in Michigan robs a convenience store and calls an Indian American employee a “terrorist” as he shoots him in the face? That was not an anomalous reveal of violence and anger, it is indicative of an epidemic of irrational behavior in bars, restaurants, churches, mosques, schools, clinics, stores and city streets.  They are the acts of people inflamed by fear.

But this kind of fear is not rational. Not to such an extreme that uncontrollable rage should strike out at a distortion of reality.  Where is this insanity coming from?

INSANITY2The noun “insanity” is quite possibly the most overused, misappropriated and misunderstood word in the English language.  It is used to define everything from serious mental illness to simply making a subjectively questionable judgment.

There is a wide berth in terms of what insanity implies, but a definition can be refined to this:  A mental illness of such a nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.

We are all capable of shades of fantasy and impulsiveness, but it is clear when someone steps over the line into the fog of genuine insanity.  The trouble is that an overt act of insanity is not the only measure of its existence; insanity is being created right before our eyes.

The extreme fear that is cornering our socio-political reality is being trumped up (pun intended) and fanned by irresponsible, irrational, demagoguery.

What I hear, instead, are unfounded claims:  “You liberals care more about the rights of Islamic terrorists than Christians.”  Or I hear a justification:  “That’s how upset people are with liberal policies.”

Or:  “Liberal protesters are just as bad.”

I didn’t condone the violence in Seattle when thugs emerged from the Occupy Movement and broke628x471 windows, nor did I turn a blind eye to violent riots that resulted from protests against racism in cities all over the country.  I may even agree with the fundamental causes in those cases, but violence, destruction, or harm to anyone, is not justifiable in any context.

I didn’t consider the protests in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere to have been party specific, but the reaction to them did fall along ideological lines; the left being sympathetic to the protesters cause and the right aligning with the status quo and a denial of the racism in question.

The crucial distinction is that the protests themselves (like the National Anthem protest) stemmed from extreme dissatisfaction with institutional or systemic failures that deny justice.  That doesn’t make a violent outcome any more justifiable, but the root issues stand on rational ground.

These extreme acts of violence like the convenience store in Michigan, the church in South Carolina, a mosque in California are clearly a manifest of ideology born from hatred construed from fear.  The root issues that lead to xenophobia, sexism or racism do not stand on rational ground; it is an emerging cultural insanity.

Insanity gives a perverse peace of mind to those who are most susceptible to being programmed by extreme rhetoric, especially when that rhetoric plays upon the very real instinct of fear.  Fear is a vital, emotional response to perceived danger, but it also triggers the most primal, non-intellectual part of our psyche.

So where does responsibility lie?

rs_1024x759-150916173506-1024_Donald-Trump-Republican-Debate_ms_091615 Policy starts at the top, but our leaders are forged from popular opinion, and so culpability for dangerous dysfunction falls to all of us. When President Trump moves to ban Muslims from entering the United States he cannot be absolved from the Islamophobia that results.  His policy is based in fear that causes many people to stop looking for truth and to settle on the most shallow and superficial reasoning.

The shallow reasoning that gives sanctuary to insanity.  For this to stop, our political rhetoric has to be held accountable to reason and facts; it has to be scrutinized by historical truths, honest reflection on our intentions, and the reality of our circumstances.

Unless we start to unravel this knot, it only gets tighter.  Another responsibility that we all must bear.

Freedom Isn’t Easy

Yesterday someone said to me: “I gave your campaign money because I thought you were going to bring people together. But, you’re just another far-out liberal.”

I asked him what turned his perception of me from favorable to unfavorable, and he offered: “Your posts lately (Facebook).”

There are only two subjects for which that might be the case and one was gun control.

“No, I agree with you on assault weapons, but the other stuff.”

The “other stuff” had to be with regard to NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem. I had written that I stand for the anthem, but also understand the protest. I wrote that I, personally, did not view the protest as disrespectful to the military, but as a call to address compelling evidence of systemic racism.

Regardless of disagreements I didn’t consider my position to be divisive. Defending the First Amendment and taking a stand against social injustice isn’t….far-out….is it?

I trust this fellow and I know without question that his repulsion of my view is rooted in his own beliefs about patriotism and national pride. I wasn’t going to dismiss him. I’m also passionate about America and I cannot pretend that I don’t see the issue of injustice as critical, and the denial of it as – dangerous.

Except….

Arguments are often less about what started them, than what they become. The sides drawn from the debate/controversy surrounding the National Anthem; what it means and the issues of justice, now stand in different contexts from the statement that was made in protest. That exchange with a friend (I hope that he still is) was not idle chat to me and looking for a platform to understand all sides of this issue is something I’ve been doing since the controversy began. And I had somewhat of an epiphany.

The tradition of the anthem at professional games isn’t that longstanding, and the inclusion of our military is really only since 9/11, but it was cut from the same ideological cloth as Old Glory herself and to separate pride from our symbol of freedom…well…maybe that’s dangerous, too.

The rituals that bind us, especially if they include the honor of military sacrifice, serve a purpose to strengthen our resolve to retain our patriotic values.The ceremony has now become, for many Americans, inextricable from reverence for our military who pay the price for our exercise of freedom. Perhaps, the ceremonial pledge offered in our National Anthem includes freedom yet to be realized.

I haven’t changed my mind about the First Amendment, or the reality of systemic racism and how that betrays our values, but the issue of participation in our national ceremony is not about those things to those who are angry at kneeling. They aren’t going to change their minds either. I can argue ‘til I’m red, white, and blue in the face, and not one person is going to move from their position.

What credibility do I have to reframe the context of this debate? Very little, probably. I am not a black man in America. It has never been assumed that I stole a nice car just because I’m driving it. I have never seen eyes scan nervously when walking past them down a side street. I cannot and will not pretend that I speak for people who endure suspicion and suffer the sometimes deadly consequences of judgment and fear, just because of the color of their skin. And I will not ever say that the protest to call attention to profiling and social injustice is unwarranted or misplaced.

I can, however, call attention to the conversations we should be having by giving the conflict that has arisen a platform to acknowledge the differences drawn from the battle lines. “We can agree to disagree” isn’t going to work here. We’ve tried that. But, one side succumbing to the other isn’t going to happen, either. People don’t easily surrender the deep rooted beliefs from which they identify themselves.

So….what do I say to my friend?

This, perhaps: “Freedom isn’t free and it isn’t easy. It comes with a price that can exact struggle even among friends and family. And that price also demands that we never become complacent toward our promise of liberty, and justice for all. Our traditions to recognize our pride in this great endeavor, and to honor the sacrifice of those who have been willing to die to protect the cause of freedom, can make us stronger in that pursuit.”

And like I’ve written many times: “I stand for the National Anthem to acknowledge the Brave and to renew my commitment to them to make the “Land of the Free” a reality and not just a lyric in a song.”

I’ll take “Patriotism” for the win, please

Let’s be very clear. What President Trump is calling for, particularly with respect to our flag and standing during the National Anthem, is not “patriotism” but “nationalism.” Both are concerned with individual relationships towards nations, but nationalism is defined as our interest in the unification of a nation based on cultural and linguistic equanimity. Patriotism is experienced as our love for our nation’s values and beliefs.

For several months there has been controversy around some NFL players taking a knee, as a form of protest, during the playing of our National Anthem. A paradoxical situation immediately developed. Standing for the national anthem should be an expression of upholding our national values since it is, essentially, a pledge to recognize America as the “land of the free.” As is our Pledge of Allegiance (to the flag) which commits us to “liberty and justice for all.” Those are America’s values and to support them is patriotic.

However, to protest the National Anthem or America’s symbol (the flag), does not necessarily debase those values. As an expression of our First Amendment, protest can be a patriotic premise to scrutinize (or criticize) our commitment to those values. While nationalism can hold us together, it cannot supplant our value of freedom and justice. Forced nationalism is, in fact, contrary to true patriotism.

At the same time the ceremony in which we express national pride is cultural….and therein lies a paradox that demands we drill down into the issues at the center of the protest.

If a minority race in America is being profiled, and if there is evidence that such profiling is leading to being killed for an offense (or alleged offense) for which a white person would likely be incarcerated (and not killed), then the pledge to American values becomes false to those subjected to such systemic racism. And it cannot be unfathomable that at some point a black person (as in the case of Colin Kaepernick) will not be willing to participate in a cultural tradition that celebrates a different reality.

The other part of this controversial equation is respect for military sacrifice. Our military is essential to securing our founding premise of liberty and justice and to secure our way of life by protecting our national interests. They will always deserve our honor and respect. The ceremonial pageantry of honoring the military at sporting events was heightened after 9/11 when we, as a nation, needed to be in touch with our strength and the spirit of nationalism was an essential bond (in my opinion). But that fusion of the equanimity of nationalism and patriotic values came at a cost; that being a necessary understanding between the character of America today and our commitment to the freedom and justice that conspired to create America in the first place.

The latter cannot be ignored, swept under the carpet, or absorbed by a ceremony; it must remain a relevant and vigilant pursuit. The freedom to protest, along with Constitutional respect and transparent democracy, is what holds our preeminent values to the light and in the highest regard. That is what men and women have died to protect. What they didn’t put themselves in harm’s way for was to defend pageantry; they sacrificed their lives, or were willing to, for the principles that forward our most sacred values.

Personally, I stand for our National Anthem because I am stating my commitment to those values and to honor the brave men and women who have fought for them. But….if you don’t stand, that doesn’t mean you are dishonoring those soldiers. You may be challenging the systemic injustice that betrays their honor and sacrifice. You may be calling into the light our citizenry who do not hold freedom, liberty and justice in the highest regard, and the cultural malfunction of a status quo blinding itself with nationalism that can compromise our patriotic values.

We may have different ways of expressing these points of view – but that is a true American value.

Support Our Troops

support_our_troops1What does it mean, specifically, to “support our troops”?

Everybody says it, and I believe that everyone sincerely means it, but since every color on the political spectrum uses the phrase, even when foreign policy ideologies are diametrically opposed, I wonder what it really means.

It was originally branded political-bumper-stickers during the Gulf War to emphasize conservative values that supported the military actions of the United States. It found more traction at the start of the Iraq War. Originally, it was more about the duty our troops were called to serve than about individualizing the troops themselves. But, that position was blurred pretty dramatically when Barack Obama was President.  Did it only mean any military action a Republican President takes?

I ask that somewhat facetiously, but there were clearly conflicting standards. There is, however, a meaning to the phrase that everyone can agree with.  It can mean that we support the lives of men and women in uniform who represent the United States of America and we unconditionally admire their service and sacrifice.  There is nothing party-specific about that.  Sadly, however, even though the sentiment is sincere, it can become a mere platitude when held up to serious cross examination.

There was once a site on Facebook called “We Support Our Troops” and circulating from the page was a picture of an African-American soldier.  The headline read:  If Obama had a son, he wouldn’t look like this.stock-photo-3597987-isolated-portraits-african-american-soldier

Clearly, the implication was that (then) President Obama would not have allowed his own child to be a soldier and in a twisted logic construed that conjecture as “supporting our troops.” I was frustrated because there is no depth of thinking in a post like that. Yet, that warped-view is a strong voice in the public discourse.

I wrote in the message box:  This is quite possibly the stupidest post I’ve ever seen.

Floodgates opened with Obama-hating, liberal-despising, name calling (insert the noun-adjective of your choice), to let me have it.  The nicest one said, “You’re a pacifist liberal!”…although I’m sure the intent was to insult, and not to praise me.

Actually, I call myself a “Realist-Pacifist.”  While I promote peaceful solutions and wish for a world without war, I also believe that we must have a powerful military if we are to achieve that end.  And let me be perfectly clear:  I support our troops.

I support them by hammering in posts, emails and conversations with representatives or anyone who will listen, that American foreign policy needs to define its purpose and have an exit strategy before engagement so that more men and women can come home alive.

I support our troops by demanding from our leaders that America follows moral directives that are clear before sending troops in harm’s way.support_our_troops_yellow_ribbon_bumper_sticker-p128639558653299365en8ys_400

I support them by petitioning Congress to give our military the equipment and armor necessary to better protect their lives. (http://sftt.org/)

I support them by voting for legislators who believe that American military men and women should have better benefits upon returning home and receive superior health care. (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/29/veterans-need-jobs-better-health-care-leading-military-official-says/)

That means prioritizing the lives of the men and women on the battlefield above the margins of defense contractors who get rich off of military conflicts.(http://thinkprogress.org/security/2012/08/13/680481/defense-contractors-profits-cuts/)

Here’s the sticker I would like to have:  I Support Our Troops and That’s Why I Want to Bring Them Home Alive, as Soon as Possible, and to Receive the Care and Benefits They Deserve When They Get Here!

Supporting our troops is a vital responsibility in our democracy. Thinking about what that really means is essential, because our best support will come from what we agree upon.