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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Minnesota, Politics, USA

Weighing in on Ilhan Omar v. Donald Trump

I voted for Ilhan Omar in 2018.  I have mixed feelings regarding her House tenure thus far.  I’m very proud of what she represents, but sometimes unsure about how she’s representing.  But while she certainly has her flaws, and is still self-admittedly learning and growing, Ilhan Omar and her three “Squad” colleagues deserve every American’s defense against the recent verbal attacks that they’ve suffered from the Twitter-fingers of the president.

To rehash: In a recent tweet regarding these four Congresswomen, Donald Trump said, “So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally come from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world…now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.  Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”

Before moving forward, it is worth noting that only one of these four women (Omar) is foreign-born, and all of them are American citizens.

And that was just the beginning.  As the Twitter war ensued, and expanded into other mediums, Trump proceeded to call these four women, and Ilhan Omar in particular, “disgraceful,” “disgusting”, “Radical Leftists”, “Communists”, “Anti-Semitic”, “Anti-America”, “pro-terrorist”, “racist”, mislabelers of racism in others, and perhaps most prominently, people who “HATE our country.”

Specifically in regards to Omar, there are shreds of sentiments that I agree with in these otherwise intolerant statements.  I agree that Omar is “radical”, in the sense that her views oftentimes fail to reflect the recognition of complexity and nuance that I believe is necessary to describe our reality.  I agree that certain comments from Omar indeed fall under the category of “anti-Semitic”, or at the very least, unknowingly rhyme with anti-Semitic tropes.  I agree that “racist” is a word that is thrown around far too loosely by many on the progressive left, and that more nuanced language is needed to describe the differing perceptions of racial reality possessed by the modern American public.

That last sentiment is why I will once again stop short of labeling Trump as a racist.  I still do not believe that Trump harbors real hatred in his heart for Somalis, Latinos, or any other “race” of people.  Instead, I prefer to call Trump “racially ignorant”.  I really do think that he is almost completely unaware of the racially charged language that he uses.  That or he purposefully uses that language as a tool to try to rile up the real racists in his base. It’s not textbook “racism”, but it is still hugely troubling.

As noted, Ilhan Omar has made some ignorant and discriminatory statements herself, specifically in regards to Jewish people.  The big difference between her and Trump is in their reactions.  Omar unknowingly played on anti-Semitic tropes in statements that she made regarding pro-Israeli lobbyists.  She was officially disavowed by her Democratic colleagues in Congress for those statements, and in return, offered a seemingly genuine apology in which she claimed to be “listening and learning,” and thanked her “Jewish allies and colleagues” for “educating [her] on the painful history” of anti-Semitism.

Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t see a need for listening or learning.  Trump is constantly offering up coded language about blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and other historically marginalized groups, and when confronted about it, does not apologize, but instead chooses to double-down.  In this most recent case against Omar and her women of color colleagues, Dems are again proposing an official disavowal of Trump’s hateful language, much like they did with Omar.  Most Republicans are conspicuously silent.

And this seems to validate one of Trump’s primary defenses: “People agree with me”—the idea that since many Americans agree with Trump’s less-than enlightened reflections, that that makes those reflections okay.  There is no sentiment that gives me less faith in our democracy than this one.

I have been a consistent opponent of the calls for President Trump’s impeachment on the grounds that, 1) The Mueller Report found insufficient evidence regarding the initial crimes that is was called upon to investigate, and 2) Despite potential obstructions of justice, I’d rather see Trump defeated democratically via our election process.   That said, this particular Trump statement, as well as myriad other statements that I have heard personally and impersonally from Trump supporters, makes me worry that we still live in country in which a significant amount of people will vote for Donald Trump not IN SPITE OF the racist things he says, but BECAUSE of them.  I don’t think that represents the majority of our country, but as the 2016 election proved, Trump doesn’t need a majority to win a second term.

Ironically, Trump won that 2016 election on a four-word slogan, “Make America Great Again”—a slogan that suggests that 2016 Donald Trump was dissatisfied with the state of affairs of his country at that time.  Over the last few days, many have pointed out the inconsistency and hypocrisy between this slogan and the accusations of anti-Americanism that Trump has hurled towards the four Congresswomen.  “Make America Great Again” doesn’t seem to suggest a love for our country as it is, nor a patriotism towards the diverse, multicultural nation that the United States has become, an element of our country that many people love.  Instead, much like many of the comments of Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib, “Make America Great Again” represents a criticism of certain aspects of our country.  “Make America Great Again” is an expression of dissent.

But I’m not here to condemn dissent.  On the contrary, I firmly subscribe to the belief that dissent is one of the highest forms of patriotism that one can express—that if you truly love your country, but are unsatisfied or displeased with certain characteristics that it holds or actions that it performs, you do not passively accept those flaws, but instead, challenge your country to be better.  Ilhan Omar seems to understand this.  As she said yesterday, the provocative statements that she has made do not come from a place of hate, they come from “a place of extreme love.”

That is why Ilhan Omar and her allies are so valuable in our Congress.  It is not because their dissent is always righteous or always right, but because it gives us a perspective that our democracy has so often lacked.  From women.  From people of color.  From the sons and daughters of the foreign born, or those born abroad themselves.  For groups that this country has historically failed, and in some ways, continues to fail today.  These are perspectives that are always worth considering. Trump is not evil for lacking these perspectives, but he might be for his refusal to understand them.

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Politics, USA

The First Democratic Debates: Some Takeaways

The first Democratic debates are in the books.  In all likelihood, one of the twenty candidates that debated over the last two nights will ultimately win the Democratic nomination and take on Donald Trump in the 2020 general election.  As an American who lives in a potential swing state, I almost certainly will be voting for that person.  I am not sure yet who I want that person to be, and although I do have some early favorites, the last two nights were more about just learning who these people are and about the issues that will dominate the Democratic side of this election.  Here are some personal takeaways:

 

A “Marshall Plan” for Central America

Immigration has been a hugely important issue in the U.S. for a long time, but in Donald Trump’s America, it might be the most important.  I’m all for the more compassionate approach offered by this group of candidates, but at the end of the day, I want people to stop showing up at our southern border.  I want to live in a hemisphere that doesn’t have a crisis of refugees.  I want a president that is going to address the roots of this problem.  A Marshall Plan for Central America would do just that.

A Marshall Plan for Central America, as named by Julián Castro and described by several other candidates, would help to address the problems in Northern Triangle countries that lead people to seek refuge in the first place.  Much like “The Wall”, it would entail a huge investment on the part of the U.S. and certainly reduce the number of immigrants coming to the United States.  But unlike “The Wall”, it would be an investment that actually helps people on the other side.  We need to do for our Central American neighbors what we did for our European allies following WWII, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the most effective way to address this “hemispheric problem”.

 

Se habla Español aquí

Night one of the debates saw a woke-off between Beto O’Rourke and Corey Booker as both tried to demonstrate their almost bilingualness to a party very interested in turning out Latino voters.  In one sense, I think it’s great that the Democratic Party is speaking a language of inclusivity (in this case, literally!).  In another sense, this was one of the most blatant displays of pandering and general douchebaggery from all four hours of the Democratic debates (and perhaps why we didn’t hear so much Spanish on night two).

Like Corey and Beto, I am a semi-competent Spanish speaker myself, and while it’s a great skill to have, I am also definitely capable of being a douchebag about it.  At least I’m aware of it though, right?!?!  Not sure that I can say the same thing for these two…

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Rehearsed responses vs. Off-the-cuff

When it comes to my enjoyment as a viewer, there is no comparison.  I HAAAAATE listening to the candidates who robotically relay their rehearsed responses, and I LOOOOOVE the candidates who respond to their questions authentically as if they come straight from their heart and/or loins.  That said, does it really matter when it comes to qualifications for the presidency? And actually, don’t we want a president who can sit down and think of thoughtful responses to complicated problems, even if they don’t entertain us when they discuss those thoughtful responses in front of a camera?  Probably, but I still hate it.

 

Avoiding the question

The above points withstanding, I think it’s great when the moderators point out the non-answers that so many candidates provided to questions that were oftentimes very direct.  I also liked the 15-second follow-up that they granted those candidates to give them the opportunity to do what they failed to do in the first 60-second go-round.  Spoiler Alert: most of them fail again.

 

Quiet Andrew

One of my biggest disappointments was how little we heard from Andrew Yang on night two of the debates.  While I’m not yet officially on the Andrew Yang bandwagon, I do think that of all the Democratic candidates, he’s the most intriguing.  The way the dude talks about tech, and automation, and UBI (or the “Freedom Dividend” as he calls it), makes him sound like he’s running for 2040 or 2060, and when those years arrive, I think we’ll look back on his diagnoses and say that he was ahead of the game on a lot of shit.  I’m still not sure I want him as the 2020 nominee, but if you find this guy as interesting as I do, listen to him on some of his recent podcast appearances:

 

Shoutout to the T’s in LGBTQ+

Though it once again sounds like pandering (especially when Julián screws up his terminology), it is nice to hear so much support for transgender issues, and LGBTQ+ issues in general, in a nationally televised debate for a major political party.  The pandering to a lot of traditionally marginalized groups that takes place in the Democratic Party is annoying, but better to be pandered to than to be ignored.  #Progress

 

Biden’s apology refusal

One person who chose not to pander, at least in one case, was former Vice President Joe Biden, who once again refused to apologize for some comments he made in regards to this country’s history of racial segregation.  Without offering an opinion on those comments, I can say that I appreciate Biden’s refusal to do what everyone does in these sorts of scenarios in 2019: offer an insincere apology.  The exchange between Harris and Biden in regards to these comments was one of the most interesting of the night, but the exchange only happened because Biden chose to stick to his guns (and his political record), even if he might be rightfully criticized for doing so.

 

To be young

I like Mayor Pete, but MY GOD is he young!  How can he know anything?!?  He is 37 years old.  I’m 32, and I’ll be 33 before he turns 38!  I’m still not over the fact that I’m now older than the vast majority of my favorite sports athletes and professional wrestlers.  I don’t think I’m ready to be nearly the same age as the president.  Plus, even if in his four-and-a-half extra years of life he’s managed to become 10 times smarter than me, he should still be at least 20 times smarter than that (or 200 times smarter than me) to be the leader of the free world.  #Math #OldPeople #Vote4Bernie

 

Interrupting

I’m torn on it.  I get why candidates do it, especially the candidates who desperately need the mic time in order to remain relevant, but the passive-aggressive Minnesotan in me cringes at the uncomfortability that it creates.  My suggestion: Give the moderators a button that controls the candidates’ microphones.  If Bill de Blasio won’t shut up because he comes from New York where everybody is rude, then cut his mic!  That will teach his big ass some manners.

 

Assault Rifle Buyback

Even though I found most of his mic time underwhelming, I was intrigued by California Representative Eric Swalwell’s proposal for an assault rifle buyback.  If we really want to reduce the number of guns, and consequently gun violence, in this country, this would be one way to try to do it.  Many believe that it had some success in Australia.  That said, the gun situations in Australia and the U.S. are apples and oranges, and the fact that Stalwell thinks that an assault rifle buyback would save the lives of “black children on the streets”, tells me that he might lack some understanding of this complicated issue.

 

Marianne Williamson

What in the actual F?  I would love to have video footage of the expression of bewilderment that slowly evolved on my face as she moved through her responses.    I can’t tell if she’s on something, or onto something.  Either way, I really hope she’s in attendance at the next Democratic debate so that I can continue to laugh-cry at tweets like the following:

 

 

 

Universal Healthcare

Healthcare is the other dominant issue, alongside immigration and perhaps climate change, that will likely be most important to Democratic voters in the 2020 election.  What is most encouraging to me is that all the major contenders for the Democratic nomination define universal healthcare as a goal (which was not the case a decade ago).  They have different ideas about how to get there—some through the immediate abolition of private insurance, others through an approach that is more measured and graduated—but it does seem that these candidates want all Americans to have access to a public option, aka single-payer system, aka Medicare for all.

I’ll be interested in continuing to listen to the different plans that the candidates put forward to create that system.  I think that Kirsten Gillibrand makes the most sense to me so far, that she’s happy to let private insurance companies remain in existence and compete with her proposed single-payer system (insinuating that they won’t be able to due to their need to generate profits), but for now I’m just satisfied that all the candidates want to head in the same direction—joining the rest of the developed world in guaranteeing healthcare as a human right.

 

Left-of-Center vs. Progressivism

The healthcare issue is illustrative of the larger choice at hand: do Democrats want to nominate a moderate, left-of-center candidate, or a progressive liberal?  Do Democrats want more mild and practical reforms within the existing system, or what Elizabeth Warren calls “structural change”, what Bernie Sanders calls a “political revolution”?  These are the questions that the Democratic debates, and eventually the caucuses and primaries, will need to answer.  The tone of these first debates suggest that the tide is turning towards the progressives, but I’m pretty sure that as of this morning, Joe Biden is still considered the front-runner.

I embody this split in the Democratic Party.  I’m inspired by the brand of egalitarian socialism described by Bernie, but I also see the shared prosperity that can result from what Gillibrand describes as “healthy capitalism”.  I love the idealism and aggressiveness in the detailed plans of Warren and Yang, but I also feel the sensibility and practicality in the proposed policies of Delaney and Klobuchar.

But all that said, I believe that what I and a lot of other potentially Democratic voters are experiencing is a good problem to have.  There were a lot of people up on that stage that I could see myself voting for, especially when they are running against Donald Trump.  I want the best candidate for the job, but I also want the best candidate for that job, and in the twenty candidates that I saw over the last two nights, I think there are at least a few people that would be pretty good at both.

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Education, Immigration, USA, World

Immigration, Compassion, & Policy

During the last week of school, I set aside my Spanish Immersion Human Geography curriculum for a class period in order to host a special presentation.  That presentation was led by five of my students.  All of them are teenagers from Central America, all of them immigrated to the United States within the last three years, all of them, save one, made the journey alone, without accompaniment from any friends or family, and all of them are now living in the United States as refugees.

Their stories are literally amazing.  This was evident in the astonishment on my other students’ faces as the five Central American boys shared their experiences of hours spent crammed into semi-trailers and trunks of cars, hiding from both Federales and narcotraficantes as they trekked across the Mexican desert, occasionally happening upon the corpses of failed migrants from the past, and fending off snakes and coyotes as they tried to find sleep in the montes at night.

Immigration had been a topic that we studied earlier in the quarter.  We learned terms like “push factor” and “pull factor”, “chain migration” and “quota”, “unauthorized immigrant” and “refugee”, and how these things all connect to the current immigration crisis at our southern border.  At the end of that unit, we also had a discussion—a Socratic Seminar about immigration in the United States, what we think about what’s happening and how we think our country should respond to it.  Opinions ranged across the board, some echoing Trump’s call for a border wall, some advocating for a more welcoming immigration policy, and many taking more nuanced positions somewhere in between.  My five Central American boys were conspicuously quiet during this discussion, but their presentation on this last Tuesday of class undoubtedly caused some of their classmates to reconsider some of their previously held positions.

I did not facilitate this presentation in hopes of carrying out some hidden liberal agenda that would turn all of my students into advocates for open borders and sanctuary cities, or convince them to vote Democrat in the 2020 election (most of the students are freshmen, so they won’t even be eligible).  Like any source that we consider in my classroom, I saw this presentation as an opportunity to offer my students a lesson in perspective—what this issue might look like to five individuals who have experienced it rather intimately.  And while I do hope that students will take these perspectives into consideration when forming their own opinions on this particular issue, I do not think that compassion for these young men and others like them needs to be nor should be the sole consideration that they take into account.

It would be a mistake to advocate for an immigration policy based solely on emotions like compassion.  While the desire to help people in need is an admirable one, it is foolish to think that the United States, even with all its relative wealth and resources, could offer comfort and refuge to all those who seek it, not only from Mexico and Central America, but from all of the world’s more troubled places.  Compassion can and should play a role in policy-making, but so should realism and practicality, and they do not need to be mutually exclusive.  For example, while I hate the oft-repeated Republican lie that congressional Democrats are advocates for “open borders”, I am also annoyed when any proposed border security measure—be it wall, barrier, or border control agents—is automatically labeled as racist, even though in some cases, it probably is.

Many people levy this accusation at President Trump, and while I would agree that many of his comments are ignorant and insensitive, I’m not sure that he is a racist.  I certainly cannot point to any utterance that represents definitive proof of hatred in his heart towards Latin American migrants.  But what I am certain of is that President Trump’s proposed immigration policies are dramatically lacking in compassion.

Trump has tried to argue otherwise.  In one of his more well-known statements on the matter, Trump said that “tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate,” but “actually very cruel”, as it encourages human trafficking that may not take place if the border were more secure and immigration policies were more stringent.  There is an argument to be made there, but that argument cannot qualify as compassionate if it does not address the situation of people who are sufficiently vulnerable to be taken advantage of by human traffickers in the first place.  A wall would probably reduce the number of people seeking refuge at our southern border, but it would do nothing to alleviate the suffering that influenced those people’s decision to make the harrowing journey that my immigrant students described.

With Trump, it’s also not just about what he says, but how he says it that suggests a lack of compassion.  It is not necessarily uncompassionate to say something like, “I think we need to secure our southern border, perhaps with a wall or structure, before we can begin to address the myriad other issues that contribute to the humanitarian crisis in Central America.”  However, it is something very different to start a nativist “Build the Wall!” chant at a rally packed almost exclusively with white people, some of whom likely scream those words with a fervor at least partially rooted in racist attitudes.  And Trump does nothing to discourage that.

I think those chanters might think twice about their choice of words and tone of voice if they were given an opportunity to sit in on a presentation like the one given from the Honduran and Guatemalan boys in my 9th grade Human Geography class.  That’s not to say that they would necessarily abandon their desire for a “wall”, but perhaps attaching some real human faces to the issue of immigration would push them to consider it with the nuance and complexity that it deserves.

I’m not sure what effect this presentation had on the thinking of my native-born students.  I did not assign any sort of reflection, and have no hard data to gauge any potential ideological shifts.  However, I do suspect that even my most conservative-leaning students might be more hesitant to stand behind any policies that would revoke their classmates’ refugee status, especially after hearing their stories.

And I think that’s a good thing.  Compassion is something that we should try to cultivate in the leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow.  Perspective-taking is something that should influence the way that we think about issues, and ultimately arrive at conclusions.  If we are going to make decisions to erect walls or ban refugees, then those decisions should hurt us, not excite us.  Because even if those decisions end up being the right ones, they also guarantee that human suffering will go unalleviated.  And if someone does not possess a level of compassion that allows them to feel the harmful impact of those unfortunate circumstances, then they should not be the one making those policy decisions.

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Politics

The Mueller Report: Trump exoneration should be good thing for Trump-haters

Trump-haters have been waiting a long time for the conclusion of the Mueller investigation, hoping that its findings could fuel an early exit for one of the most maligned presidents in history.   For them, Sunday’s “no collusion” revelation had to be a disappointment, almost certainly dooming the prospects of any attempt at impeachment, an effort that may have been difficult even if the results of the investigation had been different.  However, as someone who is not too fond of our president myself, I would argue that the results of the Mueller investigation are a good thing, and even though they all but ensure that the Donald will finish out his four-year term, they also give us the opportunity to dispose of this president the right way once that term has reached its conclusion.

I would feel differently if this investigation had produced the proverbial “smoking gun”—a piece of evidence so undeniably damning and unspinnable that even Congressional Republicans would have been forced to jump ship.  That piece of evidence was never found, and the fact that an exhaustive, nearly two-year long investigation couldn’t uncover it means that it probably doesn’t exist.  Russia may have tried to influence the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump, but it does not appear that Donald Trump had any direct role in influencing that influence.

Mueller’s team was less conclusive about its findings in regards to obstruction of justice, suggesting that it was possible that the president had overstepped his legal authority in his attempts to impede and discredit the Special Counsel’s investigation.  But while it may be possible that the language of the statute could be twisted to fit the president’s actions, I think that it would be counterproductive for Congressional Democrats to move in this direction.

Donald Trump has been calling this investigation a “witch hunt” since the day the first collusion accusations were levied, and although I do not agree with the terminology, I have to admit that the president has been largely vindicated.  There may have been a lot of smoke, but at the end of the day, no one was able to find the fire.

This doesn’t mean that the investigation was uncalled for, but it does make the thought of charging Donald Trump for obstructing this investigation a little more troublesome.  Put it this way: Can you imagine how Trump would respond if the charges that are ultimately brought against him are charges that only exist because of his attempts to “obstruct” an investigation that failed to produce any evidence in regards to the alleged crimes that spurred the investigation’s creation in the first place?  Even if Congressional Democrats were able to pull this off legally, it would be a disaster politically, which would do much more to validate Trump’s “witch hunt” claims and energize his base than it would do to force him out of office.

Which is why Trump-haters must now officially shift their focus to removing Trump from office the same way that he got in—democratically.*

Forcing Trump out of office via a failed reelection bid is not only the last remaining option left for Trump-haters to achieve their ends, it is also the sweetest possible means.  The entire Trump brand is built upon his relentless crusade to convince the American people that Donald Trump is “winning”.  He is winning on jobs, winning on the border, and winning in the Middle East and North Korea.  He is winning against Congressional Democrats and Hollywood liberals, winning against treasonous former lawyers and deceased Republican Senators.  How satisfying would it be to finally see him unequivocally, undeniably lose in a free and fair democratic election.

It would be less than surprising to hear Trump try to spin that loss as something else.  We already saw him laying the groundwork for this in 2016 with all his talk of a “rigged” election, that is until he won.  However, to try this again in 2020 would seem way more like the behavior of a sore loser than that of a perennial winner, and would presumably be much less credible even to his base after his electoral victory four years prior.  Nevertheless, no matter how many people might bite on whatever BS excuses Trump might throw them, the results of the election would be the same—a Donald Trump loss.

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The Mueller investigation is over.  The president is not a criminal, and even if he is, there is currently no way to prove it.  Assuming no new evidence surfaces, Donald Trump should rightfully serve out his next 22 months in office free from calls for his impeachment.

But the 2020 campaign is already heating up.  Nearly twenty people have already declared their candidacy, with many more considering.  Trump’s approval rating remains low, and Democrats have a real opportunity to nominate a candidate that is all the things that Donald Trump is not—professional, informed, thoughtful, humble—someone that can return dignity to the Oval Office.  However, if Trump-haters refuse to let the Mueller investigation die, and continue to reinforce the president’s narrative of a partisan witch hunt, I worry that that might be the narrative that voters choose to subscribe to in two Novembers, and if that’s the case, we would all be in for four more unimpeachable years.

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*Yes, I am aware that Trump lost the popular vote in 2016, but c’mon, we all know how the electoral college works!!!

 

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Immigration, Politics, USA, World

Taking on Trump with democracy and civility

I don’t like Trump’s travel ban.  Even if it’s not specifically a ban on Muslims, it’s still a disaster for diplomacy in the Muslim world, and severely undermines the United States’ ability to win over potential Muslim allies in the fight against radical Islamic terror. Furthermore, even more so than being anti-Muslim, the ban is just anti-human, unconditionally denying refuge to some of the world’s most desperate people.

That said, I still can’t trick myself into thinking that the ban is unconstitutional.  While the ban’s author almost certainly harbors some anti-Muslim sentiments, the language in the ban itself is religiously neutral. Furthermore, the ban excludes the vast majority of the world’s Muslim-majority nations, instead singling out seven specific countries (two of which are the highly non-Muslim countries of Venezuela and North Korea) that possess unique security concerns at this moment in time.  I still don’t like the policy, but in upholding its constitutionality, I think the Supreme Court got it right.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, I also don’t like the fact that Anthony Kennedy is retiring, gifting Trump another opportunity to nominate a conservative justice to the country’s highest judicial body.  Once again, I would like to convince myself that turnabout is fair play—that Dems should delay Trump’s appointment just like Republicans did when they robbed Obama of his nomination, Merrick Garland, prior to the 2016 presidential elections.

That said, considering their minority position in both the House and Senate, Democrats probably couldn’t pull that off even if they wanted to, and even if they could, I wouldn’t feel right advocating for a tactic that I find so politically repugnant.  I hate to say it, but I think that Donald Trump has the right to appoint any conservative judge he sees fit, so long as he has the Senatorial votes to get them confirmed.

As the above paragraphs might suggest, I don’t like most of President Donald Trump’s agenda, but in a way, I feel that America is getting exactly what it deserves.  Despite seemingly endless outrage over every presidential speech, tweet, and executive action, this is exactly what America voted for, and to be sure, many people in this country are still very supportive of this presidency.

Some take Donald Trump’s election and presidency as a sign that our democracy is broken, but I tend to agree with Chicago Tribune writer Steve Chapman that it’s quite the contrary.  American citizens democratically elected Donald Trump to be their president, and now Donald Trump is doing exactly what those people elected him to do.  The Trump agenda does not result from a failure of democracy—it is a product of it. And if you are one of the people that find the Trump agenda to be problematic (I am!), then democracy also needs to be the solution.

The most obvious example of this is the upcoming midterm elections.  Unless Bob Mueller uncovers the proverbial “smoking gun” in his Russia investigation, Donald Trump will still be president following this Fall’s elections, but if those who oppose his agenda come out and vote in full force, Trump’s ability to carry out that agenda could be pretty limited. Democrats have a real opportunity to take control of both the House and Senate, but even if they just controlled one of those bodies, that could serve as a very powerful check on any item that Trump wishes to push through the legislature.

However, anti-Trump individuals exercising their own personal right to vote might not be enough. If it were, then Trump probably wouldn’t be president in the first place.  If those appalled by the Trump presidency really want to see significant change, they have to do their part to ensure that other people who may be voting in the midterm elections will vote differently than they did in 2016.  That means encouraging supporters of the president’s agenda to reconsider their support.

Which is why I could not disagree more with the suggested approach of Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who effectively called for the public shaming and harassment of anyone who has lent their support to the Trump administration. I cannot think of a more toxic, self-defeating approach.  If there is any action that would reaffirm everything that Trump supporters already believe about the anti-Trump crowd, or push Trump supporters to cling even more tightly to their president and his agenda, this would be that action.

What is more, the suggestion of Congresswoman Waters seems to me to be a violation of one of the founding tenets of what I believe it means to be liberal—recognizing the humanity in all people, especially people whose worldview differs from your own. That goes for supporters of the president, and even the president himself.  If people who stand against Trump surrender the high road and choose to fight Trump fire with Trumpian-fire, then Trump already won.

Outrage cannot be the only thing offered by those of us who stand against Trump.  It is the easiest thing in the world to be outraged at the parent-child separations that characterized the Trump response to the crisis at our southern border. It is much more difficult to come up with a workable solution. Still, workable solutions have to be a part of the anti-Trump package, not just on immigration, but on any and all issues in which we perceive Trump’s approach to be incompetent or intolerable.

Democracy got us into this mess, and democracy can get us out, not just through the vote, but through all the tools that allow an individual to maximize their voice and exercise their agency, civil discourse with unlike-minded people being chief among them. However, if those who want change continue to dehumanize Trump and his supporters just as Trump dehumanizes immigrants and Muslims, don’t be surprised if democracy once again works against you this Fall.

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Music

Songs w/ Substance #8 – John Prine – “Lake Marie”

Lyrics: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnprine/lakemarie.html


Every place has a history. Every river, hill, valley, and tree has bared witness to an endless array of mankind’s collective moments.  Thanks to the diversity of the human experience, that history rarely has a coherent narrative—it is a random collection of happenings that may share nothing in common other than a pair of geographic coordinates that mark the place in which those happenings unfolded.  Nevertheless, part of the same narrative those happenings remain, and it’s up to us to decide what that narrative means.

No song in the history of music better illustrates this phenomenon than John Prine’s “Lake Marie”. The lyrics recount a history—part-actual and part-fictional—that describe a few of the events observed by the lake’s “peaceful waters”.  These events include a tale of two abandoned babies that gave the real-life Wisconsin lake its name, a fictionalized but highly-believable story of a struggling marriage seeking to find salvation in the fond memories formed on the lake’s shorelines, and a pair of mutilated, murdered bodies discovered in the forest that surrounds the water.

The disconnectedness of these events is challenged at the end of the third verse, when the song’s narrator, who is learning about the area’s latest double-homicide through the “TV news”, connects those murders back to the marriage that he could not save.  He finds in those murders an unmistakable symbolism of his own lost love that had been “slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie.”  To the narrator, Lake Marie is a place of unfulfilled promise—a love set to the soundtrack of “Louie, Louie” that could not endure the test of time…A serene and secluded body of water that could not hide from nor escape the world’s ugliness.

John Prine once said that, in his songwriting, he likes to “try to look through someone else’s eyes,” and give his audience “a feeling more than a message.”  “Lake Marie” is reflective of that effort.  It’s a song about a certain place with a certain story, but it’s also a song about all of the places that us humans name, occupy, and experience.  It’s a song about the public history for which a place is known, but it’s also about the more intimate connections that form between that place and certain individuals.  It’s a song about the different meanings that we attach to a place depending on that place’s significance in our own stories—both for better and for worse.

We all have our own Lake Marie’s.  They’re the towns where we grew up and the parks and playgrounds where we made our first childhood memories.  They’re the buildings of education and employment that shaped and molded us into the people that we are today.  They’re the various scenes and settings that have played host to our lives’ greatest triumphs and tragedies, and the personal relationships that we have formed with those places as they become a part of our history and we become a part of theirs.  That’s why in John Prine’s song, even if we don’t know Lake Marie personally, we all know how Lake Marie feels.  Aah baby, we gotta go now.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below

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