RFKMLKThis morning I read Richard Cohen’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s Intolerable Cruelty. Putting my confirmation bias on the table, I’ll say up front that a number of Cohen views are also my own. They resonate deep within. You’ll find no interest here on my part to engage others on Trump’s virtues or lack thereof. To be clear, I believe Donald Trump to be a rogue, megalomaniacal narcissist, who possesses the resources (read: butt load of cash) to feed his psychoses in front of the masses. I have (hopefully) a much less developed narcissistic megalomania in me, and, coupled with (definitely) less capital, my damage can be mitigated in this world. Trump is emotionally nuclear, and the implications for a Presidency of similar description are quite clear.

What really struck me in the piece was this paragraph,

Trump has his charms. But he’s a towel-snapper — a rich kid who has always had it easy. He has never had the character-building setbacks that sometimes season the callow — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s polio or Robert F. Kennedy’s loss of his brother John, for instance. These are the sorts of things that reduce the rich to the powerlessness of the poor. Trump has none of that. He lives in a pre-Copernican world of his own. The sun revolves around him.

It made me think that Trump has either chosen to appear unaffected by suffering in his life — we all have it in one form or another — or, he was shaped by it in a way that both handicaps him and gives him personal force. I get that, and see similar leanings on both counts in myself. This surely must explain at least some of DJT’s appeal. He touches on topics and feelings that come from an unproductive or stunted response to suffering. But RFK…

Somewhere in my transformation from a robotic follower of all things conservative to striving to be a critical, independent thinker, I rediscovered the recorded speeches of Robert F. Kennedy. This one in particular:

This is an example of what Cohen wrote about. RFK used wisdom gained from torturous, dripping pain to help give productive focus to the suffering of his listeners. Months later, RFK was killed, it would seem, because his own torrential suffering gave him hope that political and economic systems could be shaped to put shoulder to the anguish of others. That was too threatening to the view of the American Dream, of American Culture, of perhaps American Exceptionalism that was held by some in his day.

Not so with Trump. He foments base-level responses to pain in his audiences. He may occasionally touch on something true or real (“even a broken clock…”), but his manner in doing so, and his end game, is to ride anger, bigotry, fear, and anti-intellectualism straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Someone once said that if you have all compassion and no truth, you are half way there. But, if you have all truth and no compassion, you are less than nowhere. So, it follows that care for others sets the table for straight talk. In Kennedy’s speech, he spoke extremely difficult things to a crowd of mostly Black Americans, difficult even more so because he was White. He was able to do so because the insufferable droplets of pain upon his own heart produced not only wisdom, but also deep compassion. All these years later, it is still beautiful to observe.

I want a candidate who has much more RFK in them than DJT. I always will.

Greeting Death Like An Old Friend

harry-potter-the-deathly-hallows-could-have-turned-out-so-differently-if-j-k-rowling-634691Today in my inveterate Facebook scrolling, I came across an interview with Maurice Sendak, by NPR’s Terry Gross. It was his last such interview. He had this unique marriage of sadness at the loss that death inevitably brings to the living, with a seeming lack of fear of it for himself. He was an atheist who did not believe in an afterlife, yet felt sure that he would see his brother who preceded him in death. I appreciate and respect the dichotomy. We are not all a smooth system of beliefs. It also made me think of my own experience.

When I was four years old, my mother sat me on her lap to tell her that one of her older brothers, my Uncle Billy, had died. I cried, asked questions, and my mom helped me as best she could. It was some good parenting on my mom’s part. Uncle Billy, only in his early 40’s, was the life of the party, and a hard working, loving father and husband. My little soul didn’t understand why this would happen, and couldn’t begin to comprehend the grief that I would witness in the coming days. The hushed sadness that attends the wake of a life taken too soon. The gut level weeping of my beautiful Aunt Peggy that screamed out in rage against her brother’s death. Little did I know that my family knew death already, in ways that I still struggle to wrap my head around.

In the early 1960’s, my Mom’s two younger brothers, Tommy and Barney, were working together on the Hoboken Police Force. In a traffic stop that turned into an attempt to apprehend a car thief and recover a stolen vehicle, Tommy fired his weapon to try and disable the vehicle, but instead accidentally struck Barney in the head as he dove out of the way of the oncoming car. Barney died. Tommy was never the same – how could he be? Death came too soon.

I grew up only knowing one grandparent, as my mother’s mother had died while I was in utero, my father’s mother in the late 1940’s, and my father’s father while I was a baby, struck by a hit and run driver. None of them made it past their late 60’s.  My mother’s father, the one living grandparent I knew, died when I was nine. Death came too soon.

One year and three months after my Grandpa’s death, the news came that my own father had been killed in an accident at work. He was a month shy of his 53rd birthday. To say that my relationship with him was difficult would be a serious understatement, yet the sense of loss and life change to a ten year old was profound. The smells and sounds of that day are forever burned in my memory, along with the absolute gaping sense that death came too soon. It was uninvited.

As the youngest of ten children, many in my extended family were quite old – great aunts and uncles, distant cousins, their near circle of friends. When they died — their deaths seemed to occur in rapid fashion — most had lived full lives, and the pain of loss was different. Present, yes, though somehow muted, like sad music played softly in an adjoining room. Death seemed in those cases somewhat more well mannered. Then came Cheryl.

I was a young teenager when I learned that my friend Cheryl and her boyfriend, Bob, were killed in a car accident. An elderly gentleman had become disoriented, gotten on a major highway heading against traffic, and struck Cheryl and Bob head on. Cheryl was not my best friend, but was she was a light. She filled a room with her joy, as if she had been given an extra serving of whatever it is that makes us human. Death was so rude, so selfish, so callous – it invited itself to a party that should have gone on for sixty or seventy more years.

Somehow, that blow was like a hammer to a stake in my living heart, deadening it, while at the same time making me more keenly aware of the life that remained. I sat in the dust of a philosophical crossroads for many years after that, allowing death to shape me. And shape me, it did, though not in the usual way.

In my late teens, I re-heard the story of Jesus. He was a good and beautiful human, whose only crime was showing others clearly what death had wrought for millenia. He invited people to Cheryl’s party, a vibrant and vivacious romp through life which, though spotted with pain and suffering, was to be spent in community, where no one needed to be left alone to contemplate their mortality. Jesus’ reward for his transforming life was death. He angered the death eaters of his day, the soul-sucking dementors who sapped life from others to pad their own. They had death on speed dial, and Jesus made their fingers itchy.

Now, I am a man of Christian faith, though I live and believe it imperfectly. Unlike Jesus, I have invited proverbial death into the lives of those near me at times, over which I mourn. Yet, it is the perspective of Jesus that has instructed me best. I’ve come to see that death brings life. He saw his own death as a door that would lead to the healing of the world. The kingdom in which many of us inherently hope, would rush in, that death would be sent home with a copy of Emily Post, and the ache of unfulfilled longings salved.

It would be better if Cheryl never died. If my loving and doting aunts and uncles were still here, life would be fuller and richer. My grandpa was so special – he should still be with us. Even my unhappy, angry dad, it would have been better for him not to have died. Uncle Barney and Uncle Tommy should still be here (Tommy died at 48). Uncle Billy? No question. His wife and five children would have been so much better off had he remained. Even Maurice Sendak – our lives would have so much more whimsey in them if he were still writing. But, in the end, I would never have written this had he not passed. And if writing this helps one person see death differently, following the model of Jesus, a new door has been opened because of it.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Elephant-Donkey-boxingThere is a Facebook phenomenon that has me scratching my head. It’s the practice of searching for friends who “like” Donald Trump’s official page, and then unfriending them. It seems strange to me, but I may be missing something. To be clear, I personally believe that the Trump campaign is a freak show, and that he is a venomous, hate spewing fear monger. He is inarticulate, incoherent, traffics in lies and half truths, and would be a complete and utter embarrassment as Commander In Chief. The question for me is, why would we disengage from those in our lives with whom we disagree? I know a number of people who support Trump and will vote for him, who are not like him. They speak clearly and intelligently, and are reasonably well informed. This makes me want to engage them more, not dispense with them. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I don’t know everything – I may learn something through engaging them
  2. Understanding others, especially in such a way that enables me to clearly articulate their opposing position, is a way of earning trust and having substantive dialogue
  3. The spirit of tolerance actually calls me to respect those with whom I disagree (telling others that I will be unfriending them seems like an act of disrespect and condescension)
  4. The act of dismissing from our lives those with whom we disagree seems very much like the ugly spirit of political discourse the pervades Washington, DC

So, is it possible that those who #feelthebern can actually have friendship and mutually informative interactions with those who want to #takebackamerica? I think so. What do you think?

Hooray, your candidate sucks!

Read-A-Facebook-Argument-482The dreaded incredibly exciting Presidential election season is upon us! With it comes the social media shaming sharing, where we troll our candidates’ opponents and destroy their character through primarily ad hominem attacks extol the virtues of our preferred candidates. This makes us feel as if we are morally and intellectually superior to our friends allows us all to make educated and informed comparisons between candidates. Because of this social media phenomenon, we realize that Facebook is the last place on earth to have a mutually respectful exchange of diverging or opposing ideas a wonderful place in which to engage in friendly debate. I’ll stop following all friends who act like elections are an episode of Jerry Springer be waiting with bated breath for this next round of enlightened, politically themed posts. Hooray, your candidate sucks healthy, rigorous dialogue makes us better citizens!

A List of Things Never To Tell Me In List Form

0102I hate know-it-alls. Really. By the way, I am a know-it-all. So are you. Ok. That’s settled. I hate know-it-all lists almost as much as I hate the know-it-alls who write them. In the spirit of being a douchie know-it-all, here’s my list of 10 things I don’t want other even more douchie know-it-alls to tell me in list form.

  1. Don’t tell me in list form all the beers I shouldn’t drink. Just for the record, I don’t drink beer as part of my fitness regimen, you self-righteous, uber-hipster. I drink it because I like it. As crazy as it seems, the human body is really good at regeneration, even when I down a couple of Guinnesses or Newcastles every now and again. Go roast your hops, barley boy.
  2. Don’t – DON’T – list for me all the things I am doing wrong. I can peel fruit, grill steak, raise my kids, watch movies, listen to music, use my iphone, or take a dump any way I damn well please. The world isn’t one, giant efficiency exam which I am eternally failing. Just because your ass is so tight that it could press coal into diamonds doesn’t mean I have to pucker up my sphincter just to feel good about myself. The only thing I am doing wrong is not ninja-kicking you in the throat right now.
  3. Don’t show me a list of incredible life hacks like toilet paper roll speakers for my smart phone or cleaning supplies made up of dog urine and apple cider vinegar. Where in God’s name to you get the time to think of these things? Don’t you know that when I see your life hacks posted in my Facebook newsfeed, it’s alongside the posts of my other 1000+ friends, which means I will forget about your life hacks as fast as an ADHD dog at a squirrel convention. Oh, and by the way, I am not taking a cardboard tube, which begins and ends its useful vocation twelve inches from my toilet, and jabbing the mouth end of my iPhone directly into it so that I can hear music amplified without electricity through recycled cardboard that will land me in the ER with dysentery. Thanks but no thanks.
  4. Oh, and don’t list for me all the things/people/movies/blah blah blah I don’t know.  You know what those lists should be called?  “A List Of Shit I Know And You Don’t To Make You Feel As Stupid As Humanly Possible And Me Look Like An Effing Genius.” Just call them that.
  5. Relationship lists. Just don’t. Don’t tell me how to have better sex, better communication, better fights, better… Here’s what I know as a blogger. When I write about things, it’s because I am a screwup at the very thing I am writing about. You, Mr. Better Sex Life List Guy? You are writing from your parents’ basement, where you have lived for the past 20 years of your adult life. Your skin has lost all its need for pigmentation. Your eyes are made up of almost entirely dilated pupil, and you picked up your last date in your grandma’s Crown Victoria. Try talking to people in person.
  6. You know what else, I don’t care what liquor I am, what my superpower should be, or who I was in a past life. I already know that my superpower is screwing up my current life by drinking too much liquor, I don’t need to know what how bad my past twelve lives were. (This one’s not a list, but it’s still damn annoying.)
  7. At any time, however, you may extoll, in list form, the virtues of bacon.

There. I feel better.

I’m Still Not Black – Part 2

racism prejudice 2A a few weeks ago, I published I’m Still Not Black, my (then) latest installment in an ongoing series of race related posts.  The subject was what appeared to be racially motivated police activity in detaining actress Danièle Watts, questioning her as a possible prostitute.  A resident in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles called the police to report lewd activity in a parked car. Watts clearly saw the actions of the police as discriminatory.

Since the break of the story, new information has come out, including audio indicating that the only one being unreasonable in the exchange was Watts.  So much so, that local civil rights leaders, ones who came to her defense early on, are calling on her to apologize.  Here’s the audio of Watts’ interaction with police.  The police officer in this interaction, while becoming mildly frustrated, is the voice of reason here.

TMZ (I know, I know…TMZ!) has posted what they say are photos of Watts straddling her boyfriend in the front passenger seat of a car with door open. They also report that local business employees actually saw the PDA, and went and spoke with Watts and Lucas (her boyfriend) before the police were called.

So, if all this is true, it looks like Watts and Lucas were given the opportunity to stop, but feeling defiantly amorous, they continued, and the police were called – reasonable.  The police then asked for their ID – reasonable.  Lucas priovided his – reasonable.  Watts refused and, instead, became agitated, emotional, and uncooperative – unreasonable.  The police officer, simply attempting to follow up on a call, continued to seek to ID Watts, and ultimately chose to detain her in order to do so. Once he did, he released her – reasonable. Watts took to social media, and stirred up a story, that seemed plausible to many, myself included.  Things aren’t always what they seem.

From The Hollywood Reporter’s post regarding the response of local civil rights acivists:

Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable president Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Project Islamic Hope president Najee Ali and other activists held a press conference Friday, telling reporters that they now have doubts about Watts’ side of the story.

“I was one that was very outspoken about it,” Hutchinson said about having come to Watts’ defense when her story first broke, as quoted by NBC 4. “We take racial profiling very seriously. It’s not a play thing. It’s not trivial.”

The Associated Press quoted Hutchinson as saying that Watts “cried wolf” regarding this incident being racially motivated.

Here’s my takeaway:

Both black and white people can be reasonable when it comes to race.

Both black and white people can be unreasonable when it comes to race.

Reasonable civil rights activists are willing to discern which situations are racially motivated and which are not, and will communicate their findings publicly.  

Danièle Watts “crying wolf” doesn’t therefore automatically make Darren Wilson innocent or Michael Brown’s death justified.

Racial profiling is “not a play thing.”  Nor is it trivial.  Racism exists.  Dialogue is necessary.  All involved must be reasonable.

One more thing.  Now that some time has passed, and ISIL (ISIS / Islamic State / Bill Maher & Ben Affleck, etc) and Ebola are the new 24 hour news cycle darlings, the issue of race and equality in the United States has returned to its designated back burner, on slow simmer.  Until another race oriented issue turns up the heat, and things begin to boil over.  This must become unacceptable to us as human beings.

I am a classic avoider.  If something isn’t immediately calling my attention, I can ignore it.  And I have paid stupid tax on that behavior over and over again.  How long will we wait – how much stupid tax will we pay as a nation of human beings before we say individually and collectively say that it’s just not worth it?  Why wait for one more Ferguson, one more Danièle Watts incident, one more…one more.

Don’t say that you aren’t prejudiced in any way towards others, because prejudice is basic to being a human being. The most important step is to admit it as a way to combat it.

My name is Bill.  I am prejudiced.  Let’s work on our prejudices together.


I’m Still Not Black

broken-chainLast week, black actress Danièle Watts was detained as a possible prostitute for making out with her white husband in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. They were in their Mercedes with the door open.  A resident alerted the police that there was a prostitute having sex with a man in car on the street.

When the police arrived, Watts refused to provide her identification, as she believed she had done nothing illegal. The police then cuffed her and questioned her, before releasing her, stating that there is no record of the incident, as no crime was committed.

Here are three different accountings of the story, one from Business Insider, one from The Root, and one from Global Grind.

Watts talked about the times her father came home “frustrated or humiliated by the cops when he had done nothing wrong.”

In my post from a few weeks ago, I’m Not Black, I suggested that whites had an opportunity to open dialogue by seeking to understand, generally, what it is like to be black in America. With that in mind, I have questions:

Would anyone have called the police if Watts were white?

Would she have been taken for a prostitute if she were white?

Would the police had even asked for ID or questioned the couple’s relationship were she white?

Was there an actual crime committed, meaning, were her civil rights violated?

Please know that I am not seeking to be incendiary, but rather to gain perspective. I can only imagine the outrage and potential shame she experienced. Her response is gracious and strong, regardless.

What do you think?




FOX Colored Glasses

Scary News“Army Officer Denied Entry to Michigan High School While Wearing Uniform”

“School Security Guard to Army Officer: You Can’t Come In While Wearing Your Uniform”

“Under Fire – School Won’t Let Army Officer Wear Uniform”

These are three titles/subtitles from the same story on foxnewsinsider.com. I first became aware of the story through a friend on FB. He was outraged at the violation of civil liberties. I respect my friend very much. He is an intelligent, gifted, hard working family man, and he has drawn the wrong conclusions from the story, just like FOX has.

The article states that “Lt. Col Sherwood Baker, had stopped at Rochester Adams High School in Rochester Hills during the day to clear up an issue with his daughter’s class schedule.” Upon attempting to enter the school, Baker was told that “he could not enter wearing the uniform because it could offend people.” He was given the option of coming back in street clothes, or calling the school. At that  point, Baker and his wife called the superintendent’s office from the parking lot, and a staff member let him in.

The superintendent was “appalled,” the principal expressed regret to the family, the district apologized  and made it clear that “[it] does not have a policy excluding individuals in uniform and will be working with administration and the firm that handles [its] security to make sure district policies are understood and communicated accurately.”  In an interview, Baker’s wife, Rachel Ferhadson, said, “I feel a lot better about it now than I did 24 hours ago. … They have taken steps to correct what happened.”

When I saw the headline, I was concerned but also skeptical.  It didn’t seem right to me.  After reading the article, I would sum it up this way. An Army Officer was initially, and incorrectly, denied entrance to his daughter’s school  because he was told by a security guard that the military uniform he was wearing may offend some people. Not accepting this as reasonable, the officer promptly informed the school superintendent of the situation, who immediately allowed the officer and his wife entrance to the school. The superintendent made the security company aware that the actions of the guard were inappropriate and did not reflect district policy. The story here seems to be that reasonable people, faced with an unreasonable challenge, engaged other reasonable people to reach a solution, which they swiftly did.

This is an encouraging story for anyone anywhere on the spectrum of reasonableness. Unfettered political correctness did not win the day. Blind patriotic outrage did not create a tempest. A man who serves our country and a man who serves our children got together and solved problem in a way that serves us all. Why can’t we see news this way? Why must we be goaded into offense, outrage and fear?

To be fair to my FB friend who originally posted the story, he did write that the problem was solved, but he began his post with outrage and ended it with the call to fire the security guard for abridging civil liberties. His premise and outrage obscured the real story line, one that showed how cooler heads prevailed in a potentially ugly situation.

It’s time for us to think critically when it comes to news, especially from sources that share our ideological leanings. Otherwise, we are being fed news and information like that which a mother bird feeds her baby chicks – predigested and easy to swallow. We need to feed ourselves, and draw reasonable, truly “fair and balanced” conclusions, with our tendency towards confirmation bias on the table at all times. It’s not wrong to read people and sources with whom we agree, but we must do so employing critical thinking, and we would do well to read people and sources with whom we disagree, in exactly the same way.

The general public shapes the news cycle by engaging certain outlets like FOX, MSNBC, and others. Why not access news through NPR instead of MSNBC, or The American Conservative rather than FOX? If viewership and page visits equal advertising dollars, let’s help funnel Madmen cash to sources that are more intellectually rigorous, that speak with authority rather than yell with outrage, and that possess a self-awareness that allows for, and encourages, rigorous debate and productive dialogue.  Let’s have better conversations about the most important things.



What Does It Mean To Dialogue?

I Wanna Win with textIn one of my recent posts, I’m Not Black, I posited that the discussion of race relations between black and white in America could be furthered by whites seeking to understand the black experience. At one point, I used the term, “white privilege.” The term, for my purposes, was defined as the experience that most white people have, of neither defining themselves, nor being defined by society, according to their race. My conclusion was that a certain humility was required on the part of white people to begin the dialogue.

Responses to my post covered a broad spectrum, from encouraging agreement, to further dialogue, to skepticism, to angry disagreement. There were, however, no lukewarm responses. After sifting through my interactions with readers, I have drawn some conclusions:

  • Dialogue is hard
  • Nobody wants to go first
  • We want to win
  • There must be a third way

Dialogue Is Hard
My dictionary app defines dialogue as “a discussion between two or more people or groups, esp. one directed toward exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem.” Stated differently, dialogue is a two-way, equal conversation, where the parties are mutually focused on discovery and problem solving.

Nobody Wants To Go First
Vulnerability creates the possibility of dialogue. Without it, there will be no honesty, no mutuality, no real discussion. It requires an emotional gamble, a risk, that the one going first may be rebuffed or rejected. Going first “feels” like a position of weakness.

We Want To Win
Somewhere in the course of our lives, we developed the belief that we must be right to be valued. Mastery of knowledge, morality, or whatever the issue, provides us control and keeps us superior. I fully admit to embracing this approach along the course of my. Breaking free of it is like trying to throw out a glue covered piece of paper. Each time you pull it off with one hand, it sticks to the other.

So often, though, when we win, we actually lose, or worse, we measure victory by the wrong standards.  When was the last time that a political debate “winner” was measured by the fact that he or she spoke the most compelling truth to the most people? Never. Instead, they were judged on mastery of their material, how often and easily they rattled their opponents, and how much applause they received from the audience.

There Must Be A Third Way
Olga Khazan has written a concise and helpful piece for The Atlantic entitled, Four Words to Seem More Polite, which is really about empathy.

Empathy is considered by many psychologists to be essential to cooperation, problem solving, and to human functioning in general.  Researchers have described it as “social gluebinding people together and creating harmonious relationships.”

The goal of empathy is to understand the feelings of another. Too often, though, we think that if we are empathetic towards someone else regarding a particular topic or experience, we will be tacitly agreeing with their beliefs regarding it. With the issue of race, there appears to be a hesitance towards being empathetic, for fear of validating a view point with which we may disagree.

What’s left for us to do? If, as a white person, I stand with my arms folded defiantly, and say that I will not offer empathy to black people because they are solely responsible for how they think, their socio-economic plight, etc, I miss the point entirely. Someone who struggles simply wants to be understood. Until they are, they will not dialogue in any productive way.  If white people, in general, sought to understand what it is to live life constantly conscious of their race, it would start conversations that we never thought would happen, ones that seem so fleetingly impossible given Eric Garner and Ferguson, Mo.

Someone who I love and respect challenged me privately when I suggested, as I mentioned above, that white people exercise humility in going first in the race conversation. I used the example of Jesus, who left his place of privilege to walk in our world so that he could understand what it means, first hand, to be us. As I look at his example, I am convinced more than ever that he is the best model.

You don’t have to believe in Jesus to catch the power of he did. According to Christian teaching, Jesus left his place of glory in heaven to take on human form so that he could empathize with us. He knew that reconciliation could not take place until he identified with those for whom he sought it. As a white man, I have an opportunity to see through the eyes of my black brothers and sisters, and, in doing so, feel what they feel, to empathize with them. And when I do, and when I can articulate back to them my experience in such a way that reveals that I “get it,” then real reconciliation in my world can begin. Then, I will be more like Jesus than perhaps I have ever been.