Immigration, Politics, Race, USA

The CAPS LOCK President: Why I like nuance, and why Donald Trump doesn’t have it

I don’t support the death penalty.  I believe that there’s something to living in a country that stakes its claim to a higher moral ground—that doesn’t subscribe to an outdated, eye-for-an-eye philosophy and refuses to treat even its most despicable citizens with the same inhumanity with which they treated others.

That said, I’m not vehemently opposed to it either.  Life-in-prison sentences cost a lot of public money, and we could probably find better uses for that money than caring for convicted murders (although some studies do suggest that capital punishment is actually more expensive than keeping somebody in prison for life).  Also, while it’s easy to take the moral high ground as a detached, objective observer, I’m not so sure that I could maintain that ideological purity if a capital punishment-worthy crime were to touch me more personally.

Which is why I’m not offended when Donald Trump expresses his desire that the man responsible for the recent Manhattan truck attack be put to death.  This guy is a monster of the worst kind.  He brutally murdered eight strangers, has admitted to his crimes and their premeditation, and has even expressed a sense of accomplishment from the results of his deadly actions.  If there was ever a person who was deserving of the death penalty, this guy is that person.

But like a lot of disagreements that I have with our president, it’s not always so much about what he says, but the way that he says it.

Donald Trump could have simply stated his hope that this man is prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and that he receives the harshest form of punishment available under our criminal justice system.  He might have even mentioned that, in a case like this one, capital punishment seems like an appropriate response.  But Donald Trump didn’t do that.  Instead, Donald Trump used his Twitter account to call for the man’s head in all CAPITAL LETTERS.

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This is why I can never get behind Donald Trump.  In a world with so many shades of grey—so many issues in which nuance and complexities hugely matter—Donald Trump has chosen a platform of black or white.  He’s chosen exaggerations, simplifications, and generalizations over any position that would require more than an ounce of intellect.  Everything is the “best” or the “biggest” or the “most” or the “greatest”.  I guess that’s acceptable if you’re Joe Blow by the water-cooler (who coincidentally voted for Trump), but when you’re President of the United States, it’s inexcusable.

Take the national anthem protests by NFL athletes—an issue in which there is all kinds of nuance to be had. Do you support the players right to free expression while questioning the effectiveness of their use of that freedom?  Do you challenge their indictment of American police while also recognizing the reasons that people of color might feel differently? Do you distinguish between sitting down and taking a knee, and the conscientious shift made by Colin Kaepernick following a conversation with a former Green Beret?  Not if you’re Donald Trump.  If you’re Donald Trump, you just scream for owners to FIRE those sons of bitches that are disrespecting OUR HERITAGE, never pausing to consider the fact that the heritage experienced by the “our” in your almost-all white audience may be a little bit different than the heritage experienced by “those” players peacefully kneeling on the field.

The lack of nuance was pretty evident on the campaign trail, too.  Donald Trump didn’t run a campaign of “border security being a legitimate concern for even the most dogged supporter of American diversity.”  He ran a campaign of “BUILD THE WALL!”  Donald Trump didn’t run a campaign of “serious questions over Hillary Clinton’s careless and dangerous use of her private email server.”  He ran a campaign of “LOCK HER UP!”  And sadly, that’s probably what won him the election.

Which begs the question: Is this the authentic Donald Trump, or is it all part of an elaborate strategy?  Does Donald Trump really believe the hyperbolic bullshit that comes out of his own mouth, or is he just throwing out red meat to a certain sector of his base in order to secure their support?  Either way, the answer is unsettling.

In Trump’s defense, the criticisms levied against him haven’t always been all that nuanced either.  It’s become waaaay too easy, hip, and cool to hate Donald Trump in certain circles, and while I can’t say that I’m unhappy with peoples’ lack of satisfaction towards our president, I’m also not all that impressed with the casual tossing around of terms like “racist,” “fascist,” and “white supremacist” from people who seem to be echoing the opinions of others rather than carefully and critically forming their own.

The solution to Trump cannot be to fight fire-with-fire, or to fight the outrageous with the absurd.  That response does no more for civil discourse than the state-sponsored execution of murderers does for curbing violent crime.  The only way to fight the CAPS LOCK president is to disable that function on our own keyboards, type with complete sentences, and insist on saying things that reflect the complicated reality in which we actually live, not the distorted dystopia that the demagogue in the White House likes to portray.

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Immigration, Military, Politics, Race, Religion, USA, World

Thinking through Paris

Paris fucked me up. It was one of those events that seemed to have me reconsidering nearly everything I thought I believed—what I believed about people, what I believed about politics…It threw me into a state of mental disequilibrium so profound that a week-and-change later, I still haven’t really settled back into the post-Paris me. In that sense, this post is a thinking-through, a consideration of the clusterfuck that was last week’s events and the tangled mess of causes and consequences that connect to it, in hopes of finding equilibrium again.

When I first caught wind of the attacks, the radio man was being very cautious about the details he was releasing, but I remember knowing one detail of the attacks right away without anyone needing to tell me: the attackers were radical Islamists.

I didn’t want to be right about that. Upon confirming what I already knew on the World Wide Web, I took to Twitter, and aside from the Parisians directly affected by the attacks, there isn’t any people for whom I felt more pity than the Muslims from around the world who felt compelled to tweet out their opposition to these atrocities lest they be labeled as terrorists themselves.

But the Islamic question is upon us again, and I don’t know where I stand. I know for sure that the vast, vast, vast majority of the world’s Muslims are peaceful people who should not have to explain themselves nor apologize for the actions of these crazy, ISIS assholes. But I also think that thinkers like Sam Harris have a point when they say things like the religion of Islam “has a unique problem at this moment in history.”

When I try to reconcile these ideas in my own head, I find myself trying to differentiate between Muslims as people and Islam as a set of ideas. I don’t agree with any sweeping generalizations that people make about Muslim people, but I do think that you can criticize the religion of Islam, and certain radical Muslims, without being a bigot. As an atheist, I criticize Christianity all the time, and no one ever bigotizes me for it. I also have a life crammed full of Christians who are way better people than I am, people that I love and adore, despite my opposition to the theology they subscribe to. And just like it’s unintellectual to suggest that all Muslims are terrorists, I also find it unintellectual when President Obama and other liberals go out of their way to avoid using the word Islamic to describe the self-described Islamic terrorists they are describing.

But as far as doctrine goes, is Islam really any more violent than a religion like Christianity? The Quran is certainly violent, and Jesus was a peaceful dude, but the god of the Old Testament was a homicidal maniac who indiscriminately killed all those who failed to appease his capricious demands. Furthermore, Christianity experienced millennia of war and violence before it found the relative peaceful epoch that many Christians experience today.

That’s why a big part of me also believes that the violence associated with Islam is less about the religion and more about the places where people who subscribe to that religion happen to live, places where people are generally much more politically and economically disempowered than their Christian brethren in the Western World. Any religion can be radicalized, but radicalization is more likely in certain places than in others, places like war-torn Syria and Iraq or occupied countries like Palestine and Afghanistan.

And then I ask myself what the world would look like if the tables were turned—if Muslims around the world experienced the relative prosperity and stability of Christians today, and Christians the impoverished and violent dystopias of so many Muslims. What it would look like if Islamic countries controlled the UN and the IMF and the Christians nations were still recovering from decades of colonialism and imperialism. How much more vulnerable would Christians be to the radical wings of their own religion, groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan? Certainly there’s no shortage of things like racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the Christian world as it is. How much worse would it be if they were thrown into the desperate and dire circumstances known by so many Muslims, if they really had something to be angry about?

Yet most Muslims aren’t angry. They’re just scared. Scared of the same lunatics that shot up the city of Paris ten days ago. And that’s why they’re running.

Which leads to the questions surrounding the world refugee crisis, questions about the number of refugees we in the United States should accept, questions about the vetting process refugees should be subjected to in order to gain admission.

While I’ve been appalled by many of the racist arguments equating refugees to terrorists, I have to admit that some of those arguments contain a small but significant dose of truth: the more refugees that the United States accepts and the more lenient the vetting process, the more likely it is that that process will be exploited by people who wish to do the United States harm.

I really think that’s undeniable. It doesn’t mean that refugees are terrorists. Refugees are refugees. It does mean, however, that terrorism is a problem in the world, a problem that often comes from the same places as the refugees do, and that those terrorists are not above the exploitation of humanitarian compassion. If you want to make an argument for refugee acceptance, I think that’s a reality that you have to come to terms with.

I do acknowledge that reality, but I also don’t think that it has to dictate our response to our fellow human beings in crisis. I whole-heartedly agree with the overused mantra that to deny refugees based on fears of terrorism would be letting the terrorists win. More importantly, it would be letting the refugees lose, and that would be unacceptable.

Sometimes in discussions like these, the tone seems to take an us-and-them mentality.  “It will put us in danger if we take them in.”  “How are we going to help their people if we can’t even help our own people?”   Fair points, but for me, those words carry little weight when I’m looking at images like these. When I look at these pictures, I don’t see Syrians. I don’t see Muslims. I don’t see us or them. I just see children—children who desperately need a world to do the right thing in spite of any potential consequences.

And while this decision should not be a political one, it does present the United States with a tremendous opportunity to begin reforming its image in the Muslim world. By taking in tens-of-thousands of Muslims (and many non-Muslims) in need, the United States not only provides an essential service to humanity, it also simultaneously delivers a big “fuck you” to radical Islamists everywhere, demonstrating our unwillingness to let their terroristic threats dictate the way that we care for our Muslim brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings in need.

And after the Paris attacks, it is clear that we in the Western World need a reminder of who our fellow human beings are. The outpouring of sympathy for Paris was, in my opinion, beautiful. Changing your Facebook profile picture or retweeting #PrayForParis could be seen as pretty meaningless gestures, but I love the idea of the world coming together across borders and oceans to show support and offer hope, to send prayers and positive energy to a city and a people who desperately need them. No one should be made to feel bad for clicking with their hearts.

But there is something that we should feel bad about, and that is what Paris revealed about who we choose to grieve for.

I remember having this thought while watching the news coverage of Paris two Friday’s ago, but in hindsight, I didn’t know shit about Beirut or Baghdad either, and a week-and-a-half later, it’s still not those attacks that I’m “thinking through.” Black Lives Matter is usually something discussed in relation to domestic issues inside the United States, but Paris made it clear that there is a definite discrepancy in the way that we values the lives of white people compared with those of black and brown people in the rest of the world as well.

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And what about the response? What does France and its allies do to “strike back” at ISIS? It scared me when my gut-reaction to this question was eerily similar to Trump’s idea of “bomb the shit out of them,” the kind of balls-over-brains thinking that helped to create ISIS in the first place. Looking at recent history, military intervention seems to do way more to create terrorism than it ever does to eliminate it. That being said, while I hope our world leaders won’t be making such decisions with their collective gut, I can see why military intervention, in this case, might be called for.

What I know I don’t want is to see some sort of unilateral Western intervention composed of France, the States, and other Western allies. I think critics of intervention are right when they say that this is exactly what ISIS wants, a war on Islam by the West, the ultimate tool to galvanize support among the enlisted and provide additional propaganda for recruitment to ensure that their fucked-up brand of backwards hate will only continue to grow. The West can’t solve this problem alone, no matter how many bombs or drones they drop. This is a worldwide problem, and it needs a worldwide solution.

Perhaps most important to this worldwide solution is the support needed from the Muslim world, the collaborative effort from countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to take out a group that should be considered an enemy to all Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and any other group that considers themselves a part of humanity. Furthermore, it will take cooperation between West and East, between Western Europe and North America and China and Russia, and a dramatic departure from the Machiavellian, balance-of-power bullshit that has defined the conflict thus far. And while a united effort of this magnitude could easily wipe the wanna-be caliphate off the face of the fucking planet, history also tells us that this kind of humanitarian-driven, united effort has zero chance of happening.

And that’s what makes this situation so impossible. That’s why nearly two weeks removed from the Paris attacks I still have no idea what the fuck to think or what the fuck to do. It makes me want to eternally avoid the likes of MPR and CNN and forever hide within the comfortable confines of KFAN and the WWE.

But thinking about these things is the least we can do. Thinking about what we can do in our lives to fight back against ignorance and hatred. Thinking about those who are less fortunate than us, and what we can do to make their existence on this planet a little more tolerable. Thinking about how we can be the best human beings we are capable of being, and inspire others to realize their full human potential as well. And continuing to remember that it is easier to be the ones tasked with thinking about these horrible events, than it is to be the ones tasked with feeling them.

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History, Immigration, World

Historical Consciousness and the Global Immigration Crisis

In my world history class, one of the most important skills that I try to cultivate in my students is the skill of “historical consciousness.” I define historical consciousness as being able to see the present through the lenses of the past, to see today as a creation of yesterday. Current events, I tell them, do not fall from the sky. They are culminations and continuations of historical narratives. To understand those events currently happening, you need to know their stories. You need to use your historical consciousness.

Unfortunately, if you watch the news, I don’t think this is a skill that is modeled very well by the lame-stream media. News is framed in nothing but the now, and while the now is the most pertinent component of any news story, you cannot fully understand that now–where it came from or what to do with it–without some historical contextualization. To try and do otherwise leads to false conclusions about the problem at hand, and worse, flawed solutions proposed to fix it. Exhibit A: Immigration.

Immigration is the “A” news topic in the world right now. The horrendous stories coming out of Europe are rightfully receiving the majority of the media’s attention, but immigration on our own southern border has been a hot topic at both of the Republican presidential debates, and our own border crisis ain’t over either.

Voices on the issues vary widely on both sides of the Atlantic. There are those who are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and those who see them as unwanted intruders. There are those who want to build the refugees a pathway to citizenship and those who want to build walls. But within this chorus of voices, one voice that I personally have had difficulty hearing is the voice of history. What are the historic roots of the sectarian wars in Syria in Iraq?  Of the political and economic disaster that is large parts of Africa?  Of the violence and corruption that defines so much of Latin American governance?  If you read the history books, a large part of the answer is us.

You cannot talk about the immigration crises around the world today without talking about the imperial and colonial legacy from which these crises stem. The dramatic differences that define quality of life between the world of white Europeans and the world of black and brown Latinos, Africans, and Middle Easterners did not come to be by accident–they came to be under a relationship of dominance, the former dominating the latter. It is this relationship that helped to create the political and economic instability the latter group is currently suffering, and the poverty, oppression, and war that they are currently fleeing.

What is more, the relative wealth and comfort experienced by so many living in Europe and the U.S. today is not just the result of living in a country that has never been colonized–it is the direct result of that country’s historic role as colonizer.

Europe and the States were built on the backs of slave labor, both at home and abroad. They were built with the resources of the “third world”–their gold, their silver, their rubber, their copper.   Sometimes these resources were funneled through corrupt dictatorships that the colonizers helped to install. Sometimes they were just stolen outright. And while colonization has come to an end, colonizer countries continue to benefit from the exploitation of their old empires today. Look no further than the “Made in ________” marking on your sneakers and electronic goods for proof of this discomforting reality. The comfort and luxury in what has come to be known as the “developed” world has always and still continues to depend on the “developing” world’s exploitation and misery.

When talking about immigration, I like the way that one writer puts it: “The empires are striking back.” They are fleeing what colonialism and imperialism created, and seeking to take back that which was taken from them generations ago. But increased compassion and understanding of the refugee plight does not reduce the complexity of the problem.

I was listening to NPR a few days ago when a French official said something to the tune of, “To close our doors is to watch migrants literally die on our doorstep, but to leave our doors wide open is to ignore reality.” And reality is real. To open the gates to everyone is not a solution that will help anyone. The settling of said refugees needs to be organized and evenly distributed so that both the refugees and those taking them not only simply survive, but prosper. That said, I have no idea how the fuck to make that happen.

This is a mess, and there are no easy solutions. All the refugees can’t and won’t be saved. The 2,500+ whom have already perished trying to cross the Mediterranean will surely be joined by more of their Afghani, Syrian, Somali and Nigerian brethren before the calendar year expires. The death count at the world’s second deadliest border will continue to pile up as well, along with the countless others who will die from the very conditions that drive people northwards in the first place.

There are commendations to be made. European countries like Germany and Sweden should be commended for the numbers they are taking in. Those in the United States pushing for amnesty and easier pathways to citizenship should be commended for the battles they are fighting. Perhaps most importantly of all, any genuine form of humanitarian and/or economic aid that is delivered to these countries in crisis in hopes of helping to make them not such horrible places to live should be commended, as this is perhaps the one true action that addresses the root of the problem. However, what need not be forgotten is that, while these actions are often framed as altruistic deeds of the benevolent, they could just as easily be framed as the fulfillment of a moral duty–a responsibility to rectify the inequality that exists between those who benefit from a colonial legacy and those who suffer from it.

And I think that is the most important thing to keep in mind. When talking about the conundrum that is the global immigration crisis, we need to think about where this crisis comes from–the historical factors that helped to create the dreadful situations experienced by those seeking refuge. Using our historical consciousness to think about immigration may not necessarily generate solutions to some of those toughest questions, but it can help us to avoid some of the horrible solutions proposed by the people who aren’t using theirs.

“Go back home,” doesn’t solve anything. The huge-concentration of Mexican-Americans living in states like Arizona and New Mexico actually are living in what historically was the home of Mexican people up until 150 years ago when the States took it from them in the dubious Mexican-American war. I’m sure Iraqis and Libyans would love to go back home. Maybe if it wasn’t for the non-stop cycle of violence and political chaos, largely perpetrated by foreign invaders, they would have never left.

At the end of the day, this is just a sad, sad situation. I don’t think that even the staunchest conservative blowhard lacks sympathy for the situation of these international refugees. When they say things like, “We’d love to help everybody. We just can’t,” I really think that they are right. We can’t help everybody. That’s just true. However, in light of history, I don’t think that that reality absolves us of our responsibility to try.

Recommend reading and viewing on the topic:

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