Monday, November 13, 2017

A Fragile Whole: One Year Later

I offered this reflection year ago, November 13, 2016, in response to the election results. It replaced a presentation I was asked to make on simplicity and ecological justice. Some of the information reflects circumstances of that particular week, such as cabinet candidates, but the points still feel relevant to me. I've only lightly edited it here for brevity and clarity.


This was meant to be a presentation on simplicity, on contentment and joy in the face of a consumer society fueled by injustice and greed and sustained by a culture that values permanent dissatisfaction over gratitude and care. It was meant to grieve how this precious earth, this fragile whole made up of human and natural communities, has been looted and crushed, poisoned and neglected. It was meant to celebrate the ways, little and large, in which we could bring about healing our own fragmented lives and communities. And it was meant to celebrate how the earth itself, this beautiful and terrible hum of living and dying, is worth celebrating and grieving and loving and exploring and protecting. I was going to talk about gardening with my grandparents and parents, and hiking with Holly. There was even a sentimental childhood memory about buying seed potatoes and onion sets with my father.

I really hoped I did not have a compelling reason to put that presentation aside last Tuesday.

Although I was not expecting a Trump victory, I was also not surprised. I have spent a good deal of my life around people that helped carry him to success. Although we can’t generalize to individuals, we can notice the trends. Despite the rhetoric around economic issues, Trump’s victory was not a blow against neoliberalism, evidenced by his willingness to cut taxes, deregulate industry, and bust unions. Instead, Trump’s vision appealed to those who have felt the symptoms and impacts of neoliberalism, such as job loss, and did not like it. Trump offered a message built around the assurance that the spoils of neoliberalism would include the middle class, mainly white folk who have felt their privilege threatened both by an uncertain economic future but also by movements for equality and justice among traditionally marginalized people who are growing in number, visibility, and power. The economic world we have inherited and sustained has always required the suffering and oppression of marginalized people, especially black and brown people and women, as well as the pillaging and destruction of the earth. So even if it carried mainly sentimental, a-historical meanings to most followers, the slogan “Make America Great Again” was a startling reminder of just who has born the cost of that so-called greatness, and who will likely bear it again. If you don’t recognize this as white supremacy at work, then we need to have a conversation.

As such, social media and independent news have become clearinghouses for reports of abuse and assault committed by people who felt permitted to do so in the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral college victory, an eruption and intensification of the hatred and violence we witnessed throughout the campaign: swastikas painted in bathrooms and on storefront windows; a teacher threatening students to behave before Trump sends them back to Africa; fifth graders chanting “Build a wall!” at Hispanic students; vandalism of a unity banner expressing care and support of marginalized people; a 10 year old student sent home from school early because a classmate grabbed her genitals; a gay man with serious injuries when Trump supporters smashed his face in with a beer bottle; countless examples of harassment, of POC being told to “go back where you came from,” of women being threatened with sexual violence, of women being afraid to put on their hijab. There is an entire twitter feed called “Day 1 In Trump's America” and a tumblr called “why we’re afraid”, both documenting the abusive and self-congratulatory celebrations of Trump’s victory. Tragically, suicide crisis hotlines are reporting that they are receiving twice as many calls as usual. Transgender hotlines in particular received what they described as a record-breaking number of calls.

All the while, I keep seeing liberal friends counseling us to be calm, to give Trump a chance, to be unified. They speculate that Trump’s misogynistic, racist, hateful rhetoric was just a show, and that President Trump will be a different man. Trump’s victory speech called for unity, after all. While I don’t agree that this is a time to stay quiet, or that we should waste even one moment that we can use to organize and resist, it is worth considering what Trump himself has said about what’s in store. So setting aside what VanJones aptly called a “white-lash,” let’s take a glimpse at the possible shape of a Trump presidency.

To begin, Trump is surrounding himself with a collection of people whom marginalized people already know as problematic under the best conditions. I’ll stick with just two examples here that connect with some of the many implications for POC. First, Rudy Giuliani may become our Attorney General. This is the same man who championed racist ‘stop and frisk’ policies (a practice, we should note, that Trump said he’d like to see implemented nationwide) and has ignorantly and repeatedly condemned the Black Lives matter movement. (SOURCE) Second, Sheriff David Clarke is a possible nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security. Clarke has also repeatedly attacked the Black Lives Matter movement, going so far as to say, “I’m tired of hearing people call these people black activists, they’re not activists, this is black slime and it needs to be eradicated from the American society and the American culture.” (SOURCE) He’s also opposed policies that address gun violence and proposed including a semi-automatic rifle on the Great Seal of the United States. (SOURCE)

Further, of the 47 names of possible nominees for Cabinet positions we know of at this point, only two are people of color (Ben Carson and David Clarke) and only eight are women (Sarah Palin, Pam Bondi, Victoria Lipni, Jan Brewer, Mary Fallin, Cynthia Lummis, Carol Comer, and Leslie Rutledge). And several of these people are being considered for the same position. In short, Trump’s answer to leading a nation that is clearly divided and even more clearly facing both direct and systemic issues of injustice against marginalized and minoritized people is to surround himself with white men. (SOURCE)  

As for policies, Trump has promised to slash service programs and repeal legal protections for vulnerable people, including people with disabilities, senior citizens, and their families and caregivers. One option, to block-grant Medicaid, would mean that states with more low-income residents will lose much needed funding. It would also mean huge slashes in funding over the next ten years, with resulting cuts in services. Trump has also promised to repeal the ACA. Without going into the difficulties and complexities involved with such a process, there are changes that can be made that will result in even more limited access to health care. (SOURCE

LGBTQIA+ folk are also bracing themselves for what’s ahead. At the very least, it seems unlikely that we will be able to depend on federal protections. More likely, Trump will rescind President Obama’s executive orders that offered some levels of protection from discrimination. Trump and Pence have said they want these decisions to be in the hands of the states and local communities, and most states don’t provide protections. The prospect of what a Trump era Supreme Court might do is also frightening for many reasons across a broad spectrum of issues beyond LGBTQIA+ concerns, but they also include the current cases related to transgender rights. (SOURCE

And what if you are a Muslim? Trump toned down his call for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," revising it to read as a ban on “immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur.” But this is simply code, and immigration regulations are written in such a way that Trump could very well ban entry into the United States to anyone who has a passport from countries that he determines are “terror-prone.” The ban is a horrible idea, but it is a very real possibility. (SOURCE) And such a ban would also have ongoing impacts on Muslim citizens living in the United States.

Another area of grave concern regarding a Trump presidency is in relation to the health of our planet. By now, I hope I can assume that the relentless assault on the earth is as well-known as it is well-documented, yet Trump’s plans could make things considerably worse. Brad Plumer of Vox has outlined some of the red flags we already know about:

  • Trump called global warming a Chinese hoax. He couldn’t have been blunter about this. He also tapped Myron Ebell, an avowed climate denier, to head his EPA transition team.
  • Trump has said, straight up, he wants to scrap all the major regulations that President Obama painstakingly put in place to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions, including the Clean Power Plan. If Trump wants to rewrite these rules through executive action, he can. Or Republicans in Congress could try to pass a law forbidding the EPA from ever regulating CO2 again.
  • Trump has also hinted he wants to downsize the EPA. ‘What they do is a disgrace,’ he has said. He now has the power to rewrite or scale back other regulations on mercury pollution, on ground-level ozone, on coal ash, and more.
  • Trump has said he wants to repeal all federal spending on clean energy, including R&D for wind, solar, nuclear power, and electric vehicles. This would require Congress, but it’s not impossible.
  • Finally, Trump … wants to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal. There’s nothing stopping him here. Technically, the US can’t officially withdraw for four years, but for all practical purposes, the Trump administration could ignore it." (SOURCE

Trump’s 100 day plan also included lifting “the Obama-Clinton roadblocks and allow vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline, to move forward." (SOURCE) It’s no wonder Plumer titled his article, “There’s no way around it: Donald Trump looks like a disaster for the planet.”

All of this is just the beginning, based on what Trump has outlined in his own plan and promises, and I didn’t even try to fit in most policies, from the possibilities of war to the roll back on reproductive rights to criminal justice reform to immigration to women’s rights and more. We can be hopeful that Trump won’t try or be able to keep his promises, but we cannot count on it. And this also doesn’t address what might be done legislatively by a Republican controlled Senate, House, and White House, or, as I mentioned before, what decisions might unfold during a Trump era Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, it is important for us to remember that, despite the terrible potential, the election of Donald Trump is not yet the worst tragedy humans have faced. And if you are just now becoming aware of the injustices thriving in the USA and around the world, you are very late to the game. Let us be clear: the current global economic system came into existence on the bones and backs of millions upon millions of human beings, through the tragedies of genocide, slavery, and colonialism, and the ruthless extraction and use of natural resources without consideration for disastrous ecological impacts on natural and human communities. Further, the current global economic system is maintained through the continued exploitation of billions of human beings working, living, and dying under oppressive, dangerous, and economically unjust conditions, and the continued ruthless extraction and use of natural resources with little consideration for the impacts. For those on the margins, crushed under the glittery boot of capitalist expansion, the meaning of life is reduced to survival. For those outside of power but within the circle of privilege, the meaning of life is reduced to consumption. We sustain it with the choices we make when we shop, invest, and spend our time. The earth and everything and everyone on it is reduced to a potential source of profit, and we are reduced to a pool of data that can predict what we are most likely to buy and when.

The way history unfolds will include our own actions, and though there are never guarantees, there are enough of us that we can act in such a way that another world becomes possible. It will necessarily include looking honestly at how we got in this mess in the first place. Yet this can be tricky. That human history is overflowing with injustice is one of the most bewildering and difficult realities for people to face with honesty, especially by those who benefit from that oppression and exploitation. It’s a price we have been all too willing to see paid, as long as someone else was doing the paying; it’s the price that has been paid by a planet squeezed to death by our insatiable, ignorant greed. Sustainability has no place in this world, and cannot have a place until we collectively realize that we cannot consume our way into justice, either social or ecological. Yet we have proved, again and again, and I’m especially talking to white people here, that we would rather not be honest about the ideas and actions that have led us to this point, and that sustain systems that are overwhelmingly and obviously unjust. As long as there is profit to be made or power to be grabbed, as long as our conveniences and adoring self-views are more important than justice, as long as we feel helpless in the face of it all, there will be easy reasons to excuse, justify, or hide our complicity.

What is called for is a different set of values, practices, and systems that are oriented around caring instead of craving. We need to intentionally build communities and join efforts to organize for change - locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. We need to move from accumulating to showing hospitality, from dominating to nurturing, from alienating and isolating to connecting and sharing. It is a shift from hubris to humility and from white supremacy to true equality. The history of human oppression is the history of imperial power, told through the never ending stories of people crushed by food insecurity, forced evictions and exile, landlessness, debt, hunger, violence, war and occupation, environmental pressures, and famine. If we listen to their voices, both past and present, we can recognize our own fears and suffering in their cries for justice.

We have just passed through a brutal election season. It has occupied so much of our thinking, feeling, talking, and doing. We are exhausted, and we are uncertain about this world in which we live. We have come face to face with many things we knew but had avoided in our culture and society. In many ways, this election season brought out the worst in us, making known the prejudices, fears, greed, and violence that we have usually kept hidden away. So even before the ballots were cast on Tuesday, the challenges and injustices plaguing our nation and world were and remain clear: climate change and threats to ecological health, food security, and biodiversity; the militarization of our societies and reliance on coercion, violence, and war; and the maintenance of economic and political power that relies on the exploitation of the most vulnerable among us, through both hidden and overt racism, sexism, gender and sexuality antagonisms, ableism, and similar oppressions.

Martin Luther King, Jr. named their source as the giant triplets of “racism, militarism and extreme materialism.” It is our work to cultivate communities that not only denounce their evil, but announce and embody another way. This is true no matter who is president and no matter who controls congress: we must announce the way-things-could-be as insistently as we condemn the way-things-are, with all its injustice. We must dream of a future and re-imagine a society where people live peacefully with each other and the earth, our health bound up together. We must remember to work for what we love with even more enthusiasm than we expose that which we fear.

How we work for what we love is something we discover together. There is so much being done already, and we may find our place in these movements or find ourselves in the midst of something new. But the first step is to begin reflecting and acting now, so that wisdom has a chance to start her work. I offer some first steps here for people not yet engaged in acts of solidarity but who want to make a start in being more intentional about understanding and acting to care for this fragile whole of natural and human communities.

1. Study your lifestyle and reduce your consumption. Take the time to understand how much you consume, where the goods you consume come from, who profits, and what and who are exploited along the way. Regularly spend time with a no-buy commitment, not to purchase anything for a day, a week, a month, or even a year. Divest in companies that make their profits through unjust economic and ecological practices. You may not change the world by examining and adjusting your lifestyle, but you will begin to understand the world better and see all the little ways you are part of upholding and benefiting from what bell hooks has insightfuly named as imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.

2. Listen to marginalized people and populations. Read and listen outside of your demographic through books, blogs, articles, podcasts, twitter feeds, and social media. If you are white, listen to people of color. If you are straight, listen to people in the LGBTQIA+ community. If you are a man, listen to women. If you are a citizen, listen to immigrants. If you are financially stable, listen to people who live paycheck to paycheck. If you are cisgender, listen to transgender and nonbinary folk. If you are able-bodied, listen to those living with disabilities, or with chronic illness. Listen to religious minorities. Listen to those who are suffering from the impacts of pollution. And as you listen, don’t hide from the many ways you discover that your own life contributes to and benefits from injustice. Listen honestly. Study the history of injustice; learn how racism and sexism and ableism and other systems of oppression have been tools used by people to accumulate and keep money and power. But also study the incredible history of social and ecological justice work and movements. Discover heroic actions, beautiful art, soul freeing poetry, and thriving communities. Conversely, I’d like to say, without qualification, that no one in a position of relative privilege has any business telling marginalized people how to feel or what to do right now.

3. Financially support marginalized people and populations. As you listen, you’ll discover ways you can redirect your spending money you saved in step #1 to the people at the margins who are working hard to resist, unmask, and overturn injustice. There are incredible organizations, blog authors, educators, researchers, business owners, musicians, artists, caregivers and more. Too often, marginalized people are expected to educate, care, and entertain without payment. For those in a position of privilege, we are subconsciously taught that we are entitled to the free labor of those at the margins. Supporting these folk is an act of resistance to this conditioning, an act of justice in the economic sphere, and an act of community building and solidarity for all of us working for a world of peace and justice. It will also help amplify marginalized voices so that others can listen, learn, and join the work.

4. Choose some practical steps you can take. If you have marginalized friends who are in distress, you can do things like:
  • carry names and numbers of hotlines and services in case of crisis;
  • keep a bag of resources with you that help with stress relief and self-soothing (mine has coloring books, play-do, and the like);
  • offer to help with cooking, chores, childcare, errands, and other daily tasks;
  • check in with them from time to time, with no other agenda but to listen; and
  • give them space, because no one is entitled to the trust of marginalized people right now. And if you are in need of empathy, make sure you don’t add to the burden of someone already overwhelmed by what’s going on. Don’t put that on them.
Again, especially for white people, we have centuries of historical momentum behind us that have shown that there is a very good chance that we are not trustworthy, that we care more about centering our own needs and feelings, and that, in the end, we can’t be expected to vote against white supremacy with our ballots or our lives. So even if you are the best-hearted, most loving person in the world, show it by giving marginalized people space when they need it, and put your energy into confronting injustice. There are many lists of ideas being formed right now, most of them are very simple and practical, and they can play an essential part in building community over the weeks, months, and years ahead.

5. Do not be a bystander. If you share social circles with people with power and privilege, speak up and act out in whatever way suits your personality and circumstances. For some us, that means protesting, arguing, and calling people out. For some of us, that means listening and asking hard questions. For some of us, that means sharing articles and memes on social media that provoke thought. For some of us, that means being willing to have the same, exhausting conversation over and over again with people we care about. For some of us, that means creating art and music and stories and poems. But whatever your path, one key is to not stop. Marginalized people usually don’t get to take a break. Use your privilege to help shoulder some of the nonstop pressure. You’ll be giving others some space to breathe, while you get a glimpse of what it is like to be on the margins, and while you practice your skills in working for justice and make some good in the world.

This is a short list, and it is by no means going to get us where we need to go. But it is a beginning, and there are millions of us who have left things up to others for far too long, and a beginning is what we need. So I will wrap things up with the reflection we shared together earlier:

Friends, we join a long struggle when we wrestle, honestly and compassionately, with these difficult questions of how to live fully without benefiting from the harm done to fellow humans and the earth. But while our complicity is woven into the fabric of our modern lives and electoral politics, neither denial nor guilt will move us forward. We can cultivate practices and communities that bring a careful, loving attention for people, animals, plants, and minerals. And though this has been a difficult week, it is only the first of many weeks in which we must emphatically insist and act upon this conviction: we can work with one another to form communities and movements that both produce and use the wisdom and technology we need that make a life of dignity and joy available to all and that make it possible for us to embody, and not just declare, the aspiration of both justice and peace.