Education, Politics, USA

How To Brainwash a Student Trump Supporter

It was pretty clear after the first few days of school that a Trump Shop had opened up in the town where I teach.  From “Keep America Great!” hats and swim trunks to “Trump 2020” sweatshirts and COVID masks, dozens of students arrived to school decked out in election-year gear, undoubtedly hoping to trigger the snowflake teachers that run most of their classrooms.  Credit to the Trump team, I guess, for building a brand that’s hip, with it, and wow amongst a certain population of teenager trendsetters.  And while it’s true I’m dismayed by the fondness so many of my students have of our current president, I’ve also commented to colleagues that it makes it easier for me to identify the kids I need to target for political conversion. 

Much like the title of this write-up, the last line of the above paragraph is a joke. I don’t want to brainwash students.  I want to teach students to think for themselves.  If a kid chooses to believe something simply because he presumes that it’s what I believe, then I’m not doing my job. 

However, like a lot of good jokes, there is some truth to it—not in a political, “vote for Joe Biden or you fail my class!” kind of way, but in the way that so much of the essence of Donald Trump conflicts with the values that school buildings everywhere are seeking to cultivate.  There is no curricular conspiracy against Trump the president, but when it comes to many of the beliefs and behaviors that make up Trump the man, they are alarmingly antithetical to the values we want to instill in our young people. 

Kindness

Donald Trump is hardly the first president capable of being less than kind, but he is also uniquely capable of being mean.  The Twitter wars that have consumed so much of Trump’s time and energy during his presidency go beyond political mudslinging.  They represent the kind of mean-spirited name-calling that we have been discouraging in our children since pre-school. 

Well before “Sleepy” Joe Biden, Trump has employed a laundry list of nicknames to mock his political opponents.  They’re “creepy”, “crooked”, “wacky”, “deranged”, “shifty”, “heartless”, “phony”, and “slimeballs” just to name a few.  He’s made fun of men for their small stature (“Little” Marco and “Mini” Mike Bloomberg), questioned the intelligence and mental stability of women (“Crazy/Low IQ” Maxine Waters and Gretchen “Half-Whitmer”), and continually insulted indigenous Americans with his use of the name “Pocahontas” to mock Elizabeth Warren.  They have a name for this kind of stuff in elementary school—it’s called bullying.

To be sure, Trump is also the recipient of his fair share of mean-spirited mockery, which should be discouraged, as well.  Especially those insults that have no place in politics like disparaging Trump for his physical appearance.  However, while cheap insults are to be expected from liberal comedians and late-night talk show hosts, they should not be the norm for the occupant of the Oval Office.  And in a school setting where we work hard to help students resolve their differences civilly, it’s not helpful that the conflict resolution modelled by a president whom so many students look up to is mostly made up of language that would land him in the principal’s office.

Leadership

Leadership is important in our schools on many levels.  It is important for teachers to show students what it means to be an adult and a professional. It is important for older students and student leaders to be good role models for younger students and impressionable peers.  And it often involves carrying yourself in a certain way in a public setting that might differ slightly from how you carry yourself in a private one. 

The current pandemic is a great example.  Like most Americans, I’m pretty imperfect when it comes to the practice of mask-wearing and social distancing in my personal life.  And while I’m a firm believer in the gravity of this virus and the necessity of these measures to limit its spread, I’m sure that in a school building of hundreds of professionals, there are those who are more skeptical.

Nevertheless, when it comes to our collective time on the clock, I have seen nothing but the utmost professionalism from my colleagues.  Mask-wearing, social distancing, and regular cleaning of hands and surfaces are employed in every corner of the building per the mandates and guidance provided by the state.  Even the students have been remarkable in their compliance with procedures that many of them question and none of them enjoy.  Sure, I’ve had to occasionally tell students to please pull up their masks, but overall, I’ve been extremely impressed with the willingness of young people to do their part to help keep our school opened during the pandemic. 

Which is more than I can say for our president.  It took the president months to explicitly endorse mask-wearing—an endorsement largely undermined by all the skepticism he had already sewn about the pandemic’s severity.  While schools like mine are working hard to provide the safe, in-person learning that the president said he desired, the president is holding indoor rallies that violate state COVID-19 restrictions and have little-to-no enforcement in regards to social distancing and mask-wearing.  With that kind of leadership, it’s little wonder why the U.S. is the leading the world in both cases and deaths and why so many people in the U.S. are resistant to pandemic-related precautions. 

Which is not to say that Trump’s task is an easy one.  The pandemic has left political leaders with the unenviable, lose-lose decision of either shutting down schools and businesses or risking the further spread of a virus that has already proven to be immensely lethal, especially to society’s most vulnerable. But when it comes to what many consider to be the president’s most important job, protecting the health and safety of the American people, and doing the bare minimum like encouraging mask-wearing, social distancing, and heeding the advice of medical professionals, Trump’s leadership has been abysmal. 

Thoughtfulness

One of the main skills I seek to cultivate in my Social Studies classroom is encouraging students to be thoughtful.  I want students to ditch their black-and-white worldviews and see the varying shades of gray—to interpret a complicated and complex world with the nuance it deserves.  Donald Trump is incapable of that. 

Aside from colorful and creative insults, there are only a handful of adjectives that Trump uses with any regularity.  Everything is the “best” or the “most” or the “worst” or the “least”.  Things are either “good” or “bad”, “great” or “horrible”, with little room for a more measured in between.

There was a lot to be appalled by in Donald Trump’s early-August interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios.  People were rightly offended by his ineptitude surrounding the virus and his childish unwillingness to recognize the legacy of John Lewis.  But for me, the part of the interview that had my head most violently shaking in disbelief was when the subject turned to foreign policy (approximately 16:26-22:22).  The vagueness and imprecision in Trump’s language, his name dropping of countries like India and China, the boasting about his reading ability and meeting attendance—all of it left me with a complete lack of faith that this man understands the world complexly. 

Which isn’t to say that I do.  I couldn’t begin to tell you about the religious and ethnic tensions that complicate the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, or the geopolitical forces that drive policy decisions about South and East Asia.  But I don’t think the current president can either. 

And when you combine that with Trump’s complete and total lack of humility, that’s kind of scary.  Thankfully, the president almost certainly has a team of advisors that understand the world with far more complexity than he does, but it’s still pretty disturbing that the man ultimately making the final decisions has a worldview that appears so incomplete and simplistic.

Presidents should be intellectuals.  Even if we disagree with them politically, presidents should provide a model of what it means to be intelligent—to possess vast knowledge about the world, its issues, and its people, and what it means to be a perceptive and thoughtful person.  Once again, as this kind of role model, Donald Trump leaves plenty to be desired. 

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  It’s being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consider their perspectives and experiences, even if they don’t reflect your own.  It is an essential skill that students need in order to make evaluative moral judgments about things like justice both in history and in the present time.  And while empathy won’t always lead us to change our beliefs, it still has the power to strengthen and refine them. 

It’s hard to imagine a less empathetic political figure than Donald Trump.  On the contrary, Trump seems unable to make any issue he comes into contact with about anything other than himself.  Just the other night at a town hall, Trump was asked whether or not he believes that there’s a “race problem” in America.  His response: “I hope there’s not a race problem.  I can tell you there’s none with me.” 

Empathy and conservative politics do not have to be mutually exclusive.  It is possible to recognize the tragic plight of refugees while still advocating for a secure border.  It is possible to acknowledge the racism and inequities still experienced by black people in the United States while also questioning some of the goals and tactics of groups like Black Lives Matter.  But that’s not what Trump does.  Instead, Trump seeks to demonize, divide, and desperately cling to the disgusting blend of fear-mongering and racist dog-whistling that he hopes will scare enough white voters into giving him a second term. 

I teach a lot about empathy in my U.S. History class.  We are constantly seeking out multiple perspectives in an effort to understand how experience and identity shape the way that people perceive history.  We look at the American Revolution through the eyes of the powerful, the disenfranchised, and the enslaved.  Manifest Destiny through the eyes of white settlers, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants.  The Vietnam War through the eyes of the president and the public, the soldiers and the parents, hawks and doves in Congress, the Vietnamese in the North and the South, and the Hmong. 

Studying these perspectives not only helps my students to understand history, it helps them to understand each other. It helps them to understand the different ways that we all perceive the history we are living right now due to the varying intersections of our experiences, our identities, and our current seat (or lack thereof) at the proverbial table.  Empathy is among the most important virtues we seek to instill in our students.  It’s just so sad that we have to work against the White House in order to do it.

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I don’t think that it’s possible for education to be apolitical.  While objectivity is something to strive for, teaching as a profession is just too personal and too tied up in our values to ever be completely void of bias.  Even if it were possible to teach a curriculum with complete neutrality, the decisions about what to include in and exclude from that curriculum are also value judgements that are not neutral at all.

However, what I can say is that when it comes to American politics, my teaching does not and should not have any desired political outcomes.  The goal of education is not to turn students into Democrats or Republicans—it is to help them become good people. 

Neither liberal nor conservative ideology has a monopoly on what it means to be a good person.  At my school, there are students from across the ideological spectrum that have the potential to be the kind, thoughtful, empathetic people we need to lead the next generation.  Unfortunately, teaching them that skillset also implicitly means teaching students to be very unlike the man whose name is emblazoned on so much of their merchandise.  If that’s brainwashing, so be it.

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Economics, History, Race, USA

Reparations for Racist Plunder: Addressing the Racial Economic Divide

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“When we think of white supremacy, we picture colored only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.” ­– Ta-Nehisi Coates

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There is no panacea for American racism—no single policy or protest or legislative proposal that can cure the ills of this deep-seated, multi-layered disease. The killing of George Floyd, and many others before him, has our national attention focused on the issue of police brutality.  Calls to defund the police are ringing out in cities across the country.

To this cause, I’m both sympathetic and skeptical.  I’m supportive of communities of color who wish to defund or dismantle an institution that has all too often done the opposite of “protect and serve” them, but I also question the ability of such an initiative to make progress towards true racial justice.

Everything is and should be on the table, and reforms to the way we do policing are undoubtedly worth considering.  But when it comes to appropriating our limited energy and resources, I think there is an issue that deserves a bigger slice of that pie—an issue that should seize centerstage in this moment of national urgency towards addressing racial injustice.  That issue is the enormous economic gulf that divides black and white America.

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Real solutions come from addressing root causes, and economic oppression is a root cause of a lot of problems in black communities, police brutality included.  Black people are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, and while the caricature of the “black ghetto” is problematic, impoverished communities are more likely to experience crime, and therefore, more likely to experience encounters with police that have the potential to turn violent.

Economic inequality also helps respond to one of the favorite refrains of those who question the Black Lives Matter agenda, “Why are we so worried about blue-on-black crime when the real problem is black-on-black crime?”  There is no excuse for police brutality, but black-on-black crime is a problem that plagues many black communities, and makes policing those communities a difficult and dangerous job.  But, once again, it’s important to consider root causes.  Why are levels of black-on-black crime so disproportionately high?  Is it due to the fact that people born with black skin are innately more likely to exhibit violent behavior?  If you believe that, you are literally a “racist”.  But assuming you don’t, then there needs to be another explanation, something that stems less from biology and more from socialization.  That explanation lies within the impoverished communities that black people are more likely to be born into—communities in which socioeconomic conditions leave people more susceptible to participation in criminal activity.

And those conditions are 400 years in the making.

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The black poverty of today did not fall from the sky.  It’s a construction of American history that took centuries to build.  That history begins with slavery.

The enslavement of black people on American soil is older than the country itself, and it is the starting point for the black-white wealth gap that has never went away.  For nearly two-and-a-half centuries, black slaves occupied the unusual economic position of being mostly unable to accumulate wealth while simultaneously representing wealth as the property of their white owners.  They also generated enormous amounts of wealth through their labor, even though they didn’t share in any of the profits.  In the seven cotton producing states in the antebellum South, it is estimated that one third of all white income was derived from slavery.  By 1860, there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River Valley than anywhere else in the country.  That wealth has been passed down through generations of white families, even though it was literally built on the backs of enslaved black people.

Following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the brief period of Reconstruction offered a glimmer of hope to newly freed blacks that measures would be taken to reduce their economic deprivation. Forty acres and a mule was part of the initial promise made by the American government to help former slaves begin their new lives as free people.  It’s amazing to think where our country might be today if this promise had been fulfilled.  But it wasn’t.  Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency and rescinded the order, returning all the land set aside for freed slaves to the white southern planters who had owned it originally, and who had attempted to secede from the Union in order to preserve their “right” to force slaves to work it.

Black people remained free from state-sanctioned bondage, but their undesirable situation showed that freedom without economic security is no freedom at all.  They had lost their chains, but what did they have to start their new lives as free people?  Without money, without skills, without formal education, what was a free black man to do upon his release from the plantation in a country that, despite his legally recognized humanity, still saw him as something to be disdained?  Many ended up back on plantations working as sharecroppers for the same families who owned them in previous decades, and became a part of a system that many historians have referred to as “slavery by another name.”

When Reconstruction came to a close, the South rapidly returned to the project of constructing a society steeped in white supremacy.  Legalized segregation, voter suppression, and violent intimidation all collaborated to deny blacks political and economic opportunity. Even when black people were able to overcome all odds and achieve economic prosperity, incidents like the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 showed how quickly that wealth could be wiped away.

In an attempt to flee the horrors of the Jim Crow South, many blacks headed North in hopes of finding something better.  Unfortunately, better was still bad.  Discrimination in employment left blacks with few pathways to upward economic mobility.  Those able to succeed still found themselves unwelcomed in emerging wealthy, white suburbs.  Instead, black families with wealth were pushed towards poor, black neighborhoods where predatory mortgages torpedoed them back into poverty.  This practice, known as redlining, is one of the primary forces that led to the formation of the black ghettos we see across the urban North today.

 

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s made some pretty historic progress towards racial equality, but few of those achievements were centered around economics.  Decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 went a long way towards gaining black Americans political equality, but economic equality still remained elusive.  While most remember Martin Luther King as the guy with a “Dream” in 1963, not many are aware that, towards the end of his life, King had shifted his focus to much more “radical” causes, including economics.  It’s worth quoting from one of his last major interviews at length:

“White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil…America freed the slaves in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, and nothing in reality…to get started on.   At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base.  And yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked free for two hundred and forty-four years, any kind of economic base.  And so, emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate, and therefore, was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the Negro to “lift himself by his own bootstraps”, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression, and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

This is the reason that King was in Memphis in the Spring of 1968.  He was there to support striking sanitation workers who were staging a protest against unequal wages and working conditions.  King did not leave Memphis alive.

 

Fast-forward to today.  Millions of black Americans are still “bootless”.  The wage gap between blacks and whites has been widening in recent decades, and the gap in homeownership is as large as it was on the day King was assassinated. When it comes to net worth white households on average possess about ten times the wealth of black households, creating cradle-to-grave security or cradle-to-grave poverty depending on which side of those statistics you’re on.  These inequities are magnified during the current pandemic.  Black people make up 13% of the country’s total population but have made up 23% of Covid-19 deaths, a stat no doubt bolstered by the fact that black people are almost twice as likely to lack health insurance compared to whites.  At every turn, the lingering economic inequality that began the day the first African slave was imported to Jamestown is still hampering the crusade for racial justice dozens of generations later.

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So, what do we do about?

The most powerful piece that I read in preparing this essay was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”—a must-read for any American that cares about racial justice and even more of a must-read for any American that doesn’t.  In the article, Coates outlines a thorough history on many of the historic injustices that I’ve more briefly discussed here, and his belief that black Americans today must be financially compensated for the wealth that was robbed from their ancestors, and by consequence, them.

There are many forms that these restorative payments could take.  They could be checks sent out to individual African-Americans who can demonstrate a legacy of slavery in their lineage.  They could be, as Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree suggests, targeted investments in things like job training and public works that operate under the mission of racial justice, but indirectly assist the poor of all races.

What makes the idea of reparations most attractive to me is that they are a systemic response to a systemic problem.  The racial economic divide that exists in present day America is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Americans carefully and intentionally created it.  They created it through slavery, segregation, violence, discrimination, Jim Crow, redlining, voter suppression, sharecropping, and the scientifically disprovable belief that skin color determines the superiority or inferiority of persons, or if they are even persons at all.  It’s an outcome created by a system, and it will take a system to destroy it.

Reparations are about “repairing”—repairing the economic damage done to black communities throughout the course of American history.  But they’re also more than that.  They’re also a step towards healing—healing an enormous wound in the flesh of racial harmony that’s led to so much mutual hatred and mistrust between the “races” that we’ve created.  As Coates puts it:

“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

Perhaps defunding the police could play a role.  Redirecting police department dollars towards an investment in a struggling community of color could be an important step both practically and symbolically.  But that’s not enough.  Not even close.

Reparations would be a colossal project, but one of the many lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that if we deem a project to be sufficiently important, we’re willing to commit as many dollars as that project needs.  The federal government has already invested trillions of dollars in Covid-19 relief spending, and it’s possible that there are trillions more to come.  But as devastating as this pandemic has been for the American economy, it pales in comparison to the economic devastation wrought on black communities over centuries of subjugation.

Reparations don’t need to happen in one fell swoop, but it’s time for the economic divide to take center stage in the national dialogue on racial justice.  It’s time for H.R. 40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—to receive serious consideration from our elected leaders.  The problem of American racism is much too complicated to be solved simply by throwing money at it, and certainly there is no amount of money that can truly “make up” for the gross injustices of the past.  But when racial inequities of all kinds are so deeply rooted in economics, and in a country where financial security is so closely linked to the experience of true freedom, money is a good start.

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Minnesota, Race, USA

Reacting to the Riots

I’m not sure of anything I’m about to say.  I struggled with the decision to even write about the riots.  I’m not sure that I should be writing about the riots, or if “riots” is the term I should even be using.  As sad and distressed and disheartened as I feel, I don’t know if a guy that occupies the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic spaces that I do can offer helpful and meaningful contributions to this conversation.

I obviously don’t condone the riots.  How could you?  How can anyone look at the videos and images of our cities reduced to robbery, rubble, and flames and say that that is something that they condone?  The ugliness unfolding across my social media platforms literally has me sick to my stomach.

But is that something that I really need to say?  Is that the kind of commentary that we need right now from Minnesota’s white community?  It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to fire-up my social media and launch a series of disparaging tweets condemning the senseless and counterproductive violence taking place across the Twin Cities.  And I would mean it, too.  That is how I feel.  But everything felt is not worth saying.

I haven’t lived a life of experiences that would ever lead me to participate in this kind of destruction.  That’s not because I’m better.  It’s because I’m lucky.  It’s because I was born with a skin color that statistically made me more likely to experience economic prosperity and less likely to fall victim to state-sanctioned violence.  It’s also the reason that I’m ill-equipped to pass judgment or condemnation on those who aren’t as lucky as me.

Which is why I don’t have a lot I want to say.  Instead, I want to listen.

I want to listen to the people of color who have a more intimate knowledge of the experiences that lead us to today.  People of color who have grown up in these neglected communities and been victims of poverty and profiling and police brutality.  People of color who have grown up with more privilege, but still sense the dangers that their black skin can bring them in the United States of America. People of color who are leading movements that call for peace, justice, action, equity, and systemic change.  People of color who are decrying the craziness of the last two days and have suffered the most from the devastation.  And, yes, people of color who are encouraging and perpetrating it.

The radical historian, Howard Zinn, once wrote that “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

The voices of the unheard are roaring today.  There’s nothing just about what’s happening right now, but there’s nothing just about what got us here, either.  I hope with all my heart that state and community leaders will make the right decisions to quell these threats to human life and property, but I’m also skeptical that a “right” decision even exists.  But when the dust eventually settles and the smoke eventually clears, if we haven’t listened to these cries and learned from these injustices, we’re doomed to repeat them, and all the madness that comes with.  I hope to god we don’t make that mistake.

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Minnesota, Race, USA

Thoughts on George Floyd, 24 hours later

It’s been 24 hours since I first watched the video of the events that lead to the death of George Floyd in southeast Minneapolis.  It’s one of the most distressing videos that I’ve ever seen.  About five minutes in, shortly after Floyd appeared to lose consciousness, I remember thinking that the video had to be over soon—that the aggressor-officer had to be ready to let up.  As I moved my cursor downward, I was shocked to discover that the video was barely half-over, with another full five minutes to go.  Throughout most of those minutes, the aforementioned officer continued to kneel on George Floyd’s neck.  We all know the end result.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first video I’ve seen documenting the slaying of a black man at the hands of my local police.  Twin Cities folks no doubt remember the dashboard cam footage of four years back when Philando Castile was gunned down during a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights, as well as the harrowing footage of the aftermath filmed by his girlfriend from inside of the car.  I wrote about this tragedy at the time, highlighting the injustice that seemed to be implied from the various angles that we had of the killing.  But as incriminating as that footage was, I think that the video from this most recent tragedy ascends to a different level of incrimination of the law enforcement officials involved in a few distinct ways.

One difference is the factor of the unknown, or in the case of George Floyd, what might have went down before the filming began.  While I will still contend that the killing of Philando Castile was grossly unjustified and criminally reprehensible, I will admit that I cannot know for sure what took place inside of that car prior to the officer discharging his weapon.  I know what I think happened (nothing!), but I have no definitive proof that Castile did not appear to be reaching for his weapon, or that the aggressor-officer did not have good reason to fear for his life.

George Floyd is different.  In the video I watched early yesterday morning, the events that transpired before the witness began recording on their cellphone have little-to-no bearing on what took place afterwards.  Invent any scenario that you like—”George Floyd was resisting arrest!”  “He was aggressive!”  “He was dangerously violent!”  No matter what took place prior, at the time the now infamous video began, George Floyd was clearly no longer a threat, and he only became less threatening as the video carried on.  He was handcuffed, lying on his stomach, and sufficiently disenabled.  In the case of Philando Castile, we can at least imagine a scenario (albeit unlikely) in which lethal force could be justified.  In the case of George Floyd, that scenario does not exist, no matter how creative your imagination.

Another distinction worth noting is the behavior of the aggressor-officers.  The officer who killed Philando Castile knew he fucked up.  You could hear it in his voice.  He was well aware that pulling that trigger may have been the gravest mistake of his life.  I’m not sure if that necessarily transforms him into a sympathetic figure, but at the very least, it lends him a little humanity.

I cannot say the same about the behavior of the aggressor-officer in the case of George Floyd.  His demeanor is calm and cold.  As the onlookers grow increasingly urgent in their desperate pleas for him to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck, the officer almost seems to grow more defiant, as if he continues to apply the possibly lethal pressure just to prove a point.

I’ll still refrain from passing judgment on these cops as people.  I’m a firm believer that good people can do terrible things in moments of anger or weakness.  That includes the bystander cop who, despite his concerned and conflicted expressions, fails to make a potentially life-saving intervention. These cops may not be monsters, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they participated in a monstrous thing.  Assuming they are criminally charged, the prosecution should reflect that.

I attended the early stages of yesterday’s protest.  It was the first protest I’ve ever been to of this kind.  Several things stood out.

First and foremost is my admiration for the protest’s organizers and leaders.  In the past, I’ve been critical of some members of groups like Black Lives Matter for what I believe to be their overzealous inflation of injustices that need no hyperbole, and the adverse effect that those exaggerations can have on the group’s goals and credibility.

I heard none of that last night. The leaders of the protest were impressively nuanced.  They called for resistance, but explicitly denounced violence and destruction of property.  They called for the prosecution of the offending officers, but refrained from demonizing the entire police force.  That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some protestors blaring “Fuck Tha Police” waiting for any excuse to launch whatever projectiles might be in range, but based on my unofficial observations, the vast, vast majority of protestors who were gathered at that intersection came ready to resist responsibly, and that is in large part due to the protest’s leadership.

Another personal takeaway was my dramatic realization of the courage that it takes to attend protests like these.  Over the time I spent on 38th and Chicago, I witnessed the removal of a man who was later reported to be an armed, Neo-Nazi counter-protester.  I saw the beginnings of what could have exploded into a mass-panic when revving engines suddenly approached the protest’s epicenter, evoking a short-lived but intense terror that we were about to experience a repeat of Charlottesville (the engines turned out to be those of a black motorcycle gang arriving in support of the protest, but god was it scary).

Both these anecdotes are representative of the kind of knowledge that only comes from experience.  From my studies and teaching of events from Selma to Ferguson, I’ve learned a great deal about the inherent dangers of protest, but there is no knowledge that can be acquired from a book that can ever supersede the experiential knowledge gained in those few fleeting moments when I thought that the consequences of that danger might be experienced by me.

I was moved by the solidarity exhibited between different groups of color.  Despite a very different history, there were first, second, and probably third generation African immigrants, many Somali, out in full force at this protest.  Native peoples were well-represented, including a quasi-drum circle on the southeast corner explicitly expressing its solidarity with the black community as a group with a comparable history of systemic mistreatment.

That diversity also included a lot of white people, and the protest’s leaders made us feel validated.  That validation, however, did not come without a challenge.  I was deeply impacted by the words of one of the speakers who, after proclaiming his appreciation of our presence, insisted that we remain with them on the front lines, because, as he so eloquently put it, “we [black people] can’t go home.”

I left the protest about 90 minutes after those words were uttered, and as I watched the chaos and destruction unfold from the safety of my suburban neighborhood, the speaker’s words could not have rang more true.  It is hard to find a more powerful representation of white privilege than the ability to attend the easy part of a protest and leave before the shit gets real.   I should have been a better white ally, but I’ve learned to live with my shortcomings.

Not that I would have participated in the violence and destruction of property with the select few who perpetrated it.  I believe those actions to be profoundly misguided and undermining of everything the protest is meant to achieve.  However, I also subscribe to the Kingsian view that “riot is the language of the unheard.”  That doesn’t mean I agree with the riots, but it does mean that I think I understand where they come from and why they happen.

One last point I’d like to address: the courage of the confronters.  I’ve got a semi-personal connection with one of the people who confronted the team of police officers called upon to restrain George Floyd, and I couldn’t be prouder to be vaguely associated with him.  He’s a fellow aspiring martial artist who happens to train at the same institution as me.  The mix of persistence and composure displayed by him and other confronters at the scene—including the firefighter chick and the woman behind the cellphone cam—is unbelievably admiral.  “He’s human, bro…He’s not responsive right now…Check his pulse!!!…You gonna let him kill that man in front of you, bro?…Thao, you know that’s bogus…”.  The level of courage that it takes for a black man to challenge police officers ENGAGED IN ASSAULT is a level of courage that I very much aspire to.

This is 24 hours in.  I’m a big believer in allowing the facts of a case to manifest before arriving at final conclusions, and that no previous injustices by white cops against black men should weigh in on our decisions on how to evaluate the specific details of this case.  That said, I also find it hard to imagine the emergence of any evidence that could substantially sway my general sentiment about this particular tragedy.

A gross injustice was committed yesterday. An injustice that was both unnecessary and preventable.  An injustice that certainly would not have taken place with a little more empathy and a lot less hate.  I’m sad for my city, my state, and my country, and while I’m encouraged by the level of turnout at the protest and the swift action taken by the city of Minneapolis and its police department to try to right an irrevocable wrong, I’m also convinced more than ever that, in spite of centuries of progress, we still have a lot of work to do.

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Minnesota, USA, World

Thoughts on COVID-19: Where we’re at and where we’re headed

I was as happy about Tim Walz’s lifting of the stay-at-home order as anybody.  Okay, maybe not as happy as the owner of a non-essential retail store or a self-employed hairdresser, but I was pretty happy.  The lifting of the SAHO means that I can finally get together with friends and family that I haven’t seen in months, and maybe soon after, return to the gyms and restaurants and breweries that I used to frequent weekly several moons ago.

But part of me wonders if I should be happy.  Is Minnesota really ready for this step?  Have we really bought ourselves enough time to prepare for the worst that this virus has to offer?  Is Walz really doing what’s smart and right, or just what’s politically palatable to a restless population?

I think most medical experts would say the latter.  I’m not even going to pretend to understand all the data and curves, but those who do seem to agree that the worst is yet to come.  I’ve been on the listen-to-the-experts bus since it left the station, and if the medical experts were calling the shots, I don’t think I would have done my first set of push-ups in over two months today in preparation for some early-June bench press.

However, when I say listen to the experts, I’ve always meant ALL the experts, and that includes economic ones.  The economic damage inflicted by these societal shutdowns is already calamitous on a macro-scale, and the worst kind of life-altering for some on the micro.  Every extension of the SAHO means that damage will only become graver, with innumerable (I’m sure there is a number, I just don’t know it) more layoffs and small business failures, leading to a lengthier and more strenuous recovery.

So, where do we draw the line?  At what point does the economic damage wrought by stay-at-home orders outweigh the potential lives that are being protected?  Anyone who says “never” just isn’t being honest, but that doesn’t make the question easy to answer. It’s one of the reasons that I have a lot of empathy for our elected leaders during this crisis.  Of course, everyone’s got an opinion, but it’s easy to have an opinion that doesn’t carry the weight of consequence.  I just know that I’m glad that I’m not forced to choose between destroying the livelihoods of young entrepreneurs or the lives of old folks in assisted living.

And I also don’t think it’s as easy as telling those old folks to stay home while the rest of us go about our lives.  As a relatively young guy in relatively good health, I need to keep reminding myself that the SAHO isn’t necessarily about protecting ME, it’s about trying to prevent me from becoming a link in a chain that could contribute to the spreading of the virus to the most vulnerable.

And the most vulnerable aren’t just old people.  There are plenty of unancients with underlying health problems that could be headed for long and happy lives, but for whom COVID-19 could be a death sentence, especially if we overwhelm the healthcare system.  My wife works at a chemotherapy clinic where folks of all ages come in for treatment, but due to the chemo, also have weakened immune systems.  Just the thought of me bringing a case into my home that my wife could bring into her work fills me with a level of guilt and dread that I’m not sure I could handle if it were to become a reality.

This is one of the reasons that I have been a supporter of Walz’s actions thus far.  I’ve been nowhere near perfect. Like most people, I’ve found ways to bend the rules to make my life more tolerable and convenient during this boring-ass time.  But I’ve also based my bending off the rules as they are written, which has led me to being more well-behaved than I would be if the rules were different. And as a fellow teacher of high school students, I think Walz understands this.  Give kids an inch and they’ll take a mile, so if you don’t want them to have a mile, give them half-an-inch instead. Us adults are no different.

So, I guess we’ll see where this goes.  I’m excited to regain some semblance of normalcy in my life and reestablish some of my pre-COVID routines.  I’ll be ready to turn back the dials again if my trusted leaders tell me that’s what’s necessary.  And I’m also ready to embrace some of the “new normal”—the aspects of our post-COVID world that will be forever different than the world we knew before.  Hooray for Zoom meetings, good riddance to hand-shaking, and please Western Union, complete my money transfer to Hijo del Soberano so he can get my lucha-style cubrebocas on their way to Minnesota.  Virus or no virus, I’m wearing these fucking things.

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Politics, Race, USA, World

The Transparency of Trump’s “Chinese” Virus

Let me start with a concession: the Coronavirus did originate in China. To that degree, the president’s use of the term “Chinese virus” is accurate. I’ll follow it up with another concession: the Chinese government is deserving of criticism for its handling of the initial outbreak. Though recent governmental efforts have led to a vast reduction of new cases inside the country, it’s reasonable to think that more effective measures early on could have helped to prevent some of the worldwide chaos that we are experiencing now.

Those concessions withstanding, Donald Trump’s recent rebranding of COVID-19 as the “Chinese” virus is disgusting. It’s a transparent attempt to tap into the racism and xenophobia that animates much of his base, and perhaps worse, a shameful act of cowardice during a time when strong leadership and accountability couldn’t be more important.

I’ve repeatedly resisted the urge to call Donald Trump a racist. I’m a firm believer that that term should be reserved for people who truly hold hatred in their hearts for different “races” of people, not people who are racially unenlightened. Trump is definitely the latter, and while he may not be the former, he sure has no problem exploiting the racial hatred of others.

There had already been an uptick in discriminatory attitudes and behavior towards Asian-Americans since the Coronavirus outbreak began, and that was before the most influential person in the country decided to get in on it. Trump knows that his words will contribute to this ugliness, but he doesn’t give a shit. That’s because he’s already made the political calculation that his best hope for reelection lies in crafting the same xenophobic narrative that won him the presidency four years ago. Much like the boogieman of the Central American migrant was his ticket to victory in 2016, he believes that the boogieman of the Chinese virus will salvage his reelection campaign in 2020.

And that’s what makes Trump such a fucking coward. This was Trump’s chance to step up and be the brave “wartime president” that he imagines himself to be in his egomaniacal fantasies. This was his opportunity to be a leader of a nation in a time of crisis. But Trump has not been the strong leader we need.

Strong leaders accept responsibility for their shortcomings and promise to learn from their mistakes. Trump tries to rewrite the history of his own incompetencies and searches for scapegoats to deflect the blame. Strong leaders seek to bring diverse peoples together and unite them around a common struggle. Trump reads the words of unity from a script but can’t suppress his divisive impulses the second he’s asked to speak form himself. Strong leaders are champions of the most vulnerable. Trump victimizes them.

There are some governmental measures spearheaded by Trump that are worth commending. The weeklong, albeit, overdue efforts to get Americans to embrace social distancing and self-quarantining will hopefully help to flatten the curve. The massive stimuluses for American citizens and businesses will hopefully help to head off the enormous economic losses that are resulting from nationwide societal shutdowns. But these are things that any American government would have done anyway, regardless of who’s in charge.

Make no mistake, when it comes to the main responsibilities of an individual president in a time of crisis, Trump has been a total failure. Rather than providing leadership and inspiring confidence, Trump has been a fountain of misinformation, contradictory claims, and now blatant bigotry. We’ll make it through this crisis in spite of him, but when we do, and Trump tries to make the case later this fall that it was his courageous leadership that helped the country prevail, please, America, don’t fall for it.

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P.S. If you want to see a difference in leadership styles during a time of crisis, just do a little comparison between the Twitter’s of our former president and our current president.  No partisanship necessary.

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History, Politics, USA

Sacrifice in the Time of Corona

Americans are no strangers to sacrifice.  We make sacrifices in our personal lives all the time—for friends, for family, for work—putting aside personal desires and ambitions in order to support the other people that frequent our existence.  We’ll surely be making many of those sacrifices in the weeks and months ahead, as we struggle to adjust to the life-altering circumstances imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.  But in addition to the personal sacrifices, there lies an opportunity, and perhaps a necessity, for our country to reacquaint itself with a type of sacrifice that we may have grown distant from—a larger, more collective sacrifice for the greater, national good.

There are periods in our country’s history when a sense of national sacrifice was much more salient.  During the Second World War, Americans in every community showed up to support the “war effort”.  They planted victory gardens, and limited their consumption of meat, dairy, and gasoline.  They turned out their lights early, and collected and donated resources like rubber and aluminum.  They spent billions of dollars on government war bonds.  And while some of this sacrifice was a result of government mandate, most accounts suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the war effort not because they had to, but because they wanted to.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to a national sense of collective sacrifice, and Americans willingly answered his call, becoming a vital component of the American military victory abroad.

Another president made a similar appeal a few decades later. John F. Kennedy ascended to the presidency during the formative years of the Cold War—a time when every aspect of American life seemed to be under imminent threat.  In his inaugural address, Kennedy famously challenged his fellow Americans to, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”  This call to duty inspired a generation of Americans to seek careers in public service as teachers and soldiers and government officials, hoping to contribute to something larger than themselves.  The efforts of this generation were essential in the decades that followed as the United States pulled away from the Soviet Union in their various Cold War competitions, and became the world’s sole superpower, a designation it still holds today.

This sense of national sacrifice for a greater common good has not completely disappeared from the American ethos, but it has faded significantly.  Elected leaders today might be adept at making promises—most of which they can’t or won’t keep—but rare is the politician who will ask Americans for something in return (other than campaign donations).  It makes sense, in a way.  A call for sacrifice doesn’t win elections, so campaigns stopped making them, and as a result, Americans grew unaccustomed to hearing them.

But as positive tests for the coronavirus continue to multiply by the day, a call for sacrifice from our elected leaders is exactly what we need, not only to protect ourselves as individuals, but to do what’s best for the collective whole.

The importance of this last part cannot be overstated. If what we think we know about the disease is true, then the coronavirus does not pose a grave health risk to the majority of Americans.  As a relatively young person in relatively good health, it seems that even if I were to contract the virus, I’d probably be fine.  It might leave me feeling pretty crummy for several days, but in all likelihood, I’d survive.

BUT THIS IS NOT HOW I SHOULD BE THINKING.  Even if the coronavirus does not pose a lethal threat to me as an individual, it can still use me as a vehicle to inflict lethal damage on others.  I may be able to weather the disease, but if I infect others, who infect others, who infect others, eventually the virus will find a host that is much more vulnerable than I, and it may find several of them.

This speaks to the role that each of us must play in limiting the spread of this virus.  It’s why we need to wash our hands and avoid touching our face.  It’s why we need to work from home and practice social distancing. It’s why we need to reduce or eliminate our trips to the store, the bar, the mall, and the gym.  To put it shortly and bluntly, the more we are willing to make our own lives suck, the more likely it is that other lives won’t end.

To be sure, our government has to help us out, too.  The economic losses that will be experienced due to this virus can only be mitigated by a massive government stimulus—bailout-style payments to big businesses, small businesses, and individuals that will help to prevent further economic crisis.  Still, government will not be able to do its part if we don’t first do ours.

It is our national duty to not expose ourselves to the coronavirus, or if we do, to not expose ourselves to others. It is our national duty to protect the faceless fellow Americans whose lives will be saved by our actions, or lack thereof.  We must reawaken the sense of national sacrifice that inspired past generations of Americans to think beyond themselves in times of crisis, or just times in general.  We must do our part to not become a link in the chain.  We must do our part to help “flatten the curve”.

It’s hard to know what the coming weeks might hold. The last few days have been the most tumultuous days since, for most of us, ever.  And while things may not be great for much of the immediate future, most Americans can take solace in the fact that, if not for their sacrifices, things would be even worse.

We are all literally in this together.  This disease does not target Democrats over Republicans or Muslims over Christians or Americans over any other human being on the other side of some arbitrary border.  It’s a crisis that reminds us of our common humanity.  It’s us versus it.

We need to move forward with that collective mentality—one that places the greater, national good over selfish comforts or desires. And if we’re able to make those sacrifices, for ourselves and for each other, just like generations of Americans before us, we’ll win.

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Minnesota, Politics, USA

Why I’m voting for Bernie Sanders in the Super Tuesday Minnesota Primary

I like Bernie Sanders the candidate.  I really like Bernie Sanders the person.  I really, REALLY like Bernie Sanders the cranky, disheveled, old man hellbent on carrying out a revolution even if he dies trying (and he might!).  However, despite his irresistible likeability and his front-runner status, I’ve been unconvinced that he represents the best option for Democrats in their efforts to unseat Donald Trump in 2020.

And I’m still not convinced.  This write-up is way less about convincing others to think like I do and way more about figuring out what it is that I actually think.  And at the moment, I think that I think, despite his obvious weaknesses, Bernie Sanders has as good of a chance as anybody to take back the presidency for the Democratic Party.

Common sense suggests otherwise.  If, like me, you agree that the most important quality in any potential Democratic nominee should be that candidate’s ability to defeat Donald Trump in a general election, then a self-described “democratic-socialist” hardly seems like the best fit.  When I cast my vote for Bernie on Tuesday, I will do so with this reservation very much weighing on my political conscience.  However, while it’s not enough to quell my worries completely, deeper consideration of this concern has me questioning if it’s really as common sense as it seems.

The prevailing thinking goes as follows: Donald Trump is an extreme right-wing candidate who has alienated many moderate Republican supporters.  Therefore, the Democratic strategy should be to nominate somebody left-of-center—a candidate who can turn out the Democratic base, united in its opposition to Trump, and perhaps also attract some more moderate conservatives who are fed up with the chaos of the Trump presidency.  To nominate a progressive candidate, particularly one as radical as Bernie Sanders, is to forgo that potential moderate support, and by consequence, lose the election. Moderate Republicans may be able to hold their nose for a Joe Biden vote, but they will NOT vote for a socialist.

This all makes sense, and undoubtedly describes many individuals in the electorate who would view Bernie as a deal-breaker when it comes to casting a Democratic vote.  However, it is also based on a questionable assumption: that this is how the majority of the American electorate actually makes its decisions.

People plugged into American politics know where they lie on the political spectrum.  So do people who write about American politics and say things like I said two paragraphs above.  But for a lot of American voters, the political spectrum doesn’t always seem to be the best indicator in determining how they might vote.  Bernie Sanders has much more in common ideologically with Hillary Clinton than he does with Donald Trump, yet the numbers suggest that at least 1 in 10 voters that supported Bernie in the 2016 primaries went on to vote for Trump in the general election. Different numbers also suggest that the key voter group that cost Clinton that election might have been former Obama voters who also opted for Trump.  And while surely these voters each have their unique reasons to explain why they voted the way that they did, on a macro level, it doesn’t make a whole lot of ideological sense.

Which leads us to another fact that we know about American voters: while some vote with their mind, many others vote with their gut.  They vote less based on what a candidate believes, and more on how that candidate makes them feel.  Anyone that has ever seen a Trump rally should know that this is true about Trump voters, and the rabidity of the Bernie Bros suggests that its true for many of those voters, as well.  Not all Bernie supporters are radical socialists.  Many are just people who perceive him to be an authentic truth-teller that represents a refreshing departure from the status quo.  And they’re not wrong.

Bernie’s crossover appeal also extends to his message.  I’m not sure how it plays in Florida, but his appeal to working class people resonates loudly in states vital to Trump’s 2016 victory.  Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin—all states won by Donald Trump in 2016, and all states in which Bernie Sanders could fare well in 2020.  And while his policies are very different, the populist undertones of Bernie’s campaign are not that dissimilar from some parts of the promise to Make America Great Again (just not the racist and xenophobic parts).

Once again, I am not even convinced of my own position.  Part of me still very much feels that I should cast the “safe” vote for a more moderate candidate.  But I’m also reminded of what happened around this time in 2016.  Bernie Sanders was surging in Democratic primaries, but ultimately came up short of securing the nomination.  His failure to do so resulted from many of the same preoccupations that surround his candidacy today—concerns that his democratic socialism made him unelectable, and that it was safer to go with the more moderate, establishment choice.  After Trump secured the Republican nomination, the “safe” choice seemed like an even bigger no-brainer.  Surely the relatively moderate Clinton would defeat the radical, right-wing demagogue in the general election.  And we all know what happened next.

Come November, I will vote for the candidate that receives the Democratic nomination, no matter who that happens to be.  For the most part, I like all of the candidates on the Democratic side, which is a lot more than I can say about the buffoon that will once again represent the Republicans.  The big question continues to be which Democratic candidate has the best shot at an electoral victory.  My mind tells me one thing, my gut tells me another, and on Super Tuesday, I’m going with the latter.  Feel the Bern.

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Politics, USA

Thoughts on the Trump Impeachment

I don’t like Donald Trump.  Never have.  He doesn’t have the qualities that I appreciate in a person, let alone a world leader.  In most cases, he’s the opposite.  I like kindness—Donald Trump is mean.  I like an intellectual—Donald Trump is shallow. I like people who take the high road—Donald Trump always takes the low road.  I like people with a certain degree of humility—Donald Trump is a braggadocious buffoon who never shuts up about how great he is.

None of these things are impeachable offenses.  Donald Trump, after all, was already all of these things long before the 2016 presidential election, and people voted for him anyway.  That said, the argument that the Trump impeachment is an effort to undo the “will of the people” doesn’t really hold water.

Removing a popularly elected president is exactly what impeachment was designed to do.  It’s a safeguard that the framers wrote into the Constitution not just as a check on the executive, but as a check on the people themselves, whom many of the framers had very little faith in when it came to intelligent decision-making.  Plus, if Donald Trump were to be removed via this constitutional process, he wouldn’t be replaced by a collective executive made up of Nancy Pelosi and the Squad.  He’d be replaced by the ultra-conservative Mike Pence, who would carry out the rest of the four-year term secured by the 2016 electoral victory.

Still, if a popularly elected president is to be removed from office, it’s got to be for the right reasons. It’s got to be because the president’s actions fit the description laid out in the impeachment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

I’ve got some major objections to the ways that House Democrats have went about making that case.  That begins with their lack of credibility.  The word “impeachment” has been in the mouths of House Democrats since the day Trump took office, and now that we finally find ourselves in a situation where Trump’s actions might be objectively impeachable, the word has lost all of its power.  It’s the classic parable of the boy who cried wolf—when the wolf finally showed up, nobody believed it.

The other major issue that I have with the Democratic approach is my belief that they are over-playing their hand.  That’s not to say that they don’t have a hand to play.  Overall, I found the impeachment hearings to be highly effective in illustrating the problematic nature of the president’s actions, and utilizing a group of witnesses who were credible, professional, and non-partisan.

But while I heard enough in the testimony to be convinced that Trump did indeed offer a “quid pro quo”, and that he did indeed suspend military aid to Ukraine in order to force an investigation into a political opponent, manipulating taxpayer money and placing American foreign policy initiatives in jeopardy in order to try to better his own reelection possibilities, I would concede one major point—there is no “smoking gun”.

In her opening statement of the impeachment debates, Nancy Pelosi said that the House was there to discuss “the established fact that the president violated the Constitution.”  This simply isn’t true.  The evidence and testimony certainly point in that direction, but there still is nothing to undeniably prove it.  Even key witness Gordon Sondland admitted that his assertion of a quid pro quo was based on a “presumption”, and with something as serious as impeachment, it seems iffy to proceed on a presumption, even if it’s a pretty strong one.

What is more, while this charge would constitute a serious abuse of presidential power, I can’t help but feel that House Dems are still overstating its gravity.  In his floor statement on the day of the impeachment vote, Congressman Adam Schiff reiterated the testimony of Professor Gerhart a few weeks prior, who stated that if Donald Trump’s actions were not impeachable, “then nothing is impeachable.”  Schiff went on to ominously warn that, “The president and his men plot on.  The danger persists. The risk is real. Our democracy is at peril.”

I agree that Donald Trump’s actions on Ukraine do represent something that, in their essence, seek to undermine the foundations of American democracy.  I also agree that Donald Trump is a unique brand of dangerous, and that his words and actions are all too-often reminiscent of those leaders who have undermined democratic societies throughout history.  Still, as I was listening to Schiff’s floor speech, as well as the statements of many of his Democratic colleagues, I can’t help but admit that my first reaction to much of what they had to say was, “Really?”  Is Trump’s failed attempt at a quid pro quo really the worst crime imaginable when thinking about what constitutes an impeachable offense?  Are Trump and his men really plotting to destroy American democracy and transform the United States into a fascist dystopia?  Or does this type of language do more to reinforce the Trumpian narrative that Democrats’ hate for him is so powerful that it prevents them from rational thinking?

I don’t consider myself a member of either of the two major parties, but I absolutely view the Democrats as the lesser of two evils, and I don’t think it’s close.  However, in order to convince the public that Trump is guilty of abusing his presidential power, Democrats cannot overstate their case.  Democrats have to be the party of rationality and nuance, because if they’re not, they make themselves indistinguishable from the disingenuous and unintelligible demagoguery that is constantly taking place on the right.

Congressional Republicans have been unsurprisingly awful throughout the entirety of the impeachment proceedings.  Impeachable or not impeachable, Trump did something wrong, and the Republicans know it.  If you want to carry out a fun thought experiment, imagine if, with all the other details constant, the person on the other end of the phone call with the Ukrainian president had been Hilary Clinton. Republicans would have their hair on fire, and would have lost their voices from incessant participation in “LOCK HER UP!” chants.  But of course, since it’s Trump, Republicans have once again sold out the principles they supposedly stand for in order to defend this president.

The idea that Trump is actually concerned about corruption in Ukraine is laughable.  It is abundantly obvious that the only reason Trump has any interest in Ukrainian corruption is the hope that he can tie it to his most likely opponent in the upcoming election, and have the 2020 equivalent of “Hilary’s emails” should Biden secure the nomination.  It’s also pretty clear that Trump was withholding military aid in an effort to force that investigation, and just because it didn’t work doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be condemned for trying.

But for Republicans, that admission would feel like too much of a concession, so they continue with their transparent strategy to try to refocus the spotlight on overzealous Dems, and when pushed, double-down on their dishonest assertion that the president “did nothing wrong.”  If they really believed that, they’d be onboard with Democrats in calling on Trump to let top White House officials testify.  The fact that they’re not shows that they know what Trump knows—if those officials testify and tell the truth, Democrats will have the definitive proof they need to show that Trump did what they think he did.

It’s also worth stating that the evaluation of the president’s actions should not be dependent on whatever the Biden’s may or may not be guilty of in Ukraine.  In all likelihood, the appointment of Hunter Biden to a lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian company, and the demands of then Vice President Joe Biden to fire a prosecutor who was investigating that company, is just a case of terrible optics.  There is no evidence to suggest anything different.  But if there were to be an investigation, and that investigation were to reveal the Biden’s were up to some kind of sketchy business, would that really change the nature of the charges against Trump?  At the end of the day, Trump would still be using the power of the executive to advance his own personal interests.  The fact that there would be a “there there” in the case of the Biden’s would not make that any less true.

But in spite of my beliefs that Trump did abuse his power, and that that abuse of power perhaps rises to the level of an impeachable offense, there is still one major element that is lacking in order for me to feel comfortable with impeachment—the support of the American people.

Technically, that support is already there.  A recent poll showed that 52% of respondents supported the articles of impeachment, with 43% opposing.  But something as big as impeachment, and ultimately removal from office, should not result from a slim majority.  As the articles of impeachment move to the Senate, if Democrats are to have any shot at a conviction, they need to convince more Americans of the dangers of the Trump presidency.

In one sense, this is a practical necessity.  In order to obtain the 2/3 majority for a conviction, Republican senators are going to need to feel more heat from their constituents, but if the opinions of voters on impeachment continue to depend on partisan allegiances, then that is not going to happen.  In another sense, it just feels like a broad consensus should be the expectation if a president is going to be removed from office.

It is highly unlikely that any dramatic shift is coming, either in the Senate or in the electorate, that would result in the first successful conviction on impeachment charges in the history of the country.  The Senate trial will likely go as we expect it to go—most-to-all Democrats will vote to convict, most-to-all Republicans will vote to acquit, and Donald Trump will go on to serve out the remainder of his first term in office.  Which is why I have been saying from the beginning that the most important takeaway from these proceedings will not be the inevitable results in the House and Senate, but the way those results play in the minds of voters heading into the 2020 election.

And this has to be the goal moving forward.  Americans don’t need to be convinced that Trump should have or should not have been impeached by the House.  Americans don’t need to be convinced that Trump should be or should not be removed from office by the Senate.  Americans just need to be convinced that what Trump did was wrong.  They need to be convinced that these actions, whether impeachable or not, are just the latest in a series of actions that are selfish, immoral, and unpresidential.  This may not result in a Senate conviction, but if done effectively, it would result in the removal of Donald Trump by a different method—democratic election—which continues to be the most practical, legitimate, and satisfying means to remove this president from an office that he has done so much to disgrace.

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Immigration, USA, World

What I learned from my week at the border

Virginia.”

¿Dónde?” I asked, having difficulty identifying the state’s name through the boy’s thick, Spanish accent.

Virginia,” he repeated as we stood next to the map at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas—a place he had arrived to less than an hour ago.  After a long journey north and some time in a U.S. detention center, this would be his last stop before he flew out to his semi-final destination, Virginia, the following day.

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I pointed to Virginia on the map and told him a little bit of what I knew about the state—its colonial history, its beaches, its moderate climate.

“¿Y dónde estamos ahora?” Where are we now? I was almost confused by the question.  The boy—probably about 10-12 years in age—had spent the last weeks and perhaps even months of his life in the Rio Grande Valley in Southeastern Texas, yet when looking at a map of North America, he had no idea where that was.

His case was not unique.  Many of the migrants that I talked to that afternoon knew little to nothing about the places they were traveling.   They just hoped that those places would have more security and opportunity than the places from which they came.

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I did not ask the boy nor his dad what specifically they were fleeing, but I assume their story was similar to other ones I heard during the week I spent in the Rio Grande Valley.  Some were fleeing direct extortionist threats towards them and their families, threats that in some cases, had already resulted in the kidnapping or murder of people they love.  Others were fleeing more general conditions of poverty, political repression, and gang violence.  All saw the United States as a place where they could build a better life for themselves and their families.

While many possess a desire to help these migrants, the magnitude of the help that is needed is difficult to comprehend.  Sister Norma Pimentel, the respite center’s director, estimates that they are currently servicing about 600 migrants a day—a number that is slightly down from the 1,000 daily migrants that they were servicing just a few months ago.  Those numbers only become more astounding when you learn that this is a 24-hour respite center, and that their cliental turns over almost completely with each new day.

600-1000 new migrants.  Every day.  At one center.  In one town.  Along a nearly 2000-mile border.

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Nevertheless, help is what I was there to do.  I traveled under the auspices of a Minneapolis-based non-profit formerly known as the American Refugee Committee, now known as Alight.  Our mission was to implement Alight’s Changemakers 365 platform, in which we spend up to $500 a day to help address some of the immediate needs of the displaced peoples we encounter.  The Changemakers 365 platform also relies heavily on organizations on the ground that have more intimate knowledge about the issues at hand, as well as established relationships with the people and communities they serve.

On this particular trip, the organizations that we connected with were all headed by Catholic nuns.  As someone who abandoned his own Catholicism half-a-lifetime ago, it was weird to find myself working alongside these Sisters of the Rio Grande Valley.  But for me, this week never felt like a religious experience.  The nuns were definitely god-fearing women who sought to follow in the footsteps of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, but they felt a lot more like the Jesus of Nazareth from Jefferson’s Bible as opposed to doctrine espousing mouthpieces of the Church.  To use a term that’s become rather politically charged, they were social justice warriors—women who, much like Jesus, have devoted their lives to helping the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden.

We were able to do some pretty great things to support the work that these nuns are already doing.  We helped Sister Shirley supply a breakfast to the homeless community of McAllen.  We helped Sister Catalina buy several wheelbarrows full of jeans for her migrant shelter in the Mexican border town of Reynosa.  We provided Sister Maureen with two carts full of school supplies for her community in Nuevo Progreso. We gave $500 in cash and another $500 in supermarket giftcards to a single mom and her six children who arrived in Brownsville at the church of Sister Marina and Sister Cyndi with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  These contributions made an important, and sometimes enormous impact in the immediate situations of the migrants who benefitted from them, and highlight the power of Alight’s Changemakers 365 platform, which operates under the motto, “When the world’s problems seem insurmountable, we do the doable.”

The cynical side of me is less sure about that.  The cynical side of me says that even if we made a tangible difference in the lives of all 600 migrants that showed up at the Humanitarian Respite Center on the day of our delivery, 600 new migrants will show up tomorrow.  What does our work do for them?  Furthermore, when the food and money and school supplies and clothes and giftcards that we donated run out, are the people who received them really any better off?  What do we do for the migrants whose problems cannot be fixed by a new pair of pants or a month-long prescription?

The answer is obviously to attack these problems at their roots.  After my visit, I am more convinced than ever that the key to addressing the humanitarian crisis at our southern border lies in addressing the problems that cause these migrants to flee their homelands in the first place.  If we could take the $25 billion that Trump would like to invest in a border wall and instead put it towards a “Marshall Plan” for Central America, I think that money would help not only to reduce immigration, but more importantly, help those countries become places with security and opportunity so that there is no need to seek asylum elsewhere.

To be sure, Alight is making efforts to address root causes.  The Color Movement in El Salvador comes to mind as an example, a project I hope to contribute to in the future.  But one of the biggest takeaways that I have from this adventure is the necessity of doing the doable—how essential it is to make a better today while working towards a better tomorrow.  Even if our Congress miraculously came together and approved a major investment in the troubled countries of Central America with bullseyes on poverty, corruption, and gang violence, the road to significant progress would still be long and complicated.  In the meantime, we have to do what we can to address the hardships that people are enduring now.  That’s the mission of the Sisters of the Rio Grande Valley.  That’s the mission of Alight’s 365 Changemakers program, not only at the U.S-Mexico border, but in all the world’s places that are currently experiencing a surplus of displaced peoples.  And they’re accepting donations.

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