An army of safety pins


This week has been staggering. A presidential campaign season that was divisive, ugly, contentious, and wrong for so many reasons resulted in the election of a brilliant marketeer, canny carnival huckster, a reality TV star with no experience in politics who really just wanted to add another notch to his gun belt. Or, perhaps more appropriately in this case, to his bedpost.

The election results themselves have spawned a spike in violence, hatred, truly appalling acts against humanity.

I was numb with shock and disgust for most of the week. And before you start getting hot under the collar about my use of the word “shock”, I will add here that shock and surprise are two different things. I’m shocked that the results are what they are, but I’m not especially surprised. Like many, I saw it coming and simply didn’t want to believe it. The shock lies in the destruction of that tenuous hope. Self-deception is a powerful human impulse.

I’m frankly disgusted with my fellow Americans (and myself, if the truth be complete), so much so that I’ve been sick much of the week, while at the same time recognizing the major forces at play that allowed this to happen.

I’ve watched this unfolding for decades.

We did this to ourselves

Yep. Take that aboard.

We did this to ourselves, even those who voted for Bernie in the primaries and Hillary or Jill or Ben or Harambe in the finals — because it wasn’t just about this specific election, never mind what the pundits tell us about voter turnout or any other granular analysis.

It was about the trends of the past decades that allowed the American mind to be further and further dumbed-down by way of mass entertainment and marketeers that employed military psyops techniques to persuade us through fear that we needed to buy, buy, buy, buy in order to fulfill a need that didn’t exist until they told us it did. All so that the moguls at the top of the food chain could get fatter and fatter and fatter. They told us that we would benefit from their fortunes, that their prosperity would “trickle down” to us like the great Ganga: tiny and delicate at its headwaters, huge and powerful at its feet.

And we believed them. Or enough of us that we allowed it to continue.

Success came to be defined solely as material wealth. The very rich became our gods, celebrities our anointed royalty.

And we believed it.

Our striving as a people narrowed to the pursuit of money — and if we didn’t “succeed” by this definition, why then we were told that we weren’t working hard enough, weren’t doing the right things, weren’t praying hard enough. Enter the new God, who, we were told, granted his favor on the blessed — and that favor was changed from “riches in heaven” to “riches on earth” — pray hard enough and you’d be filthy rich in this lifetime and the next. We rationalized and rationalized, twisting ourselves into pretzels to accommodate this new commandment, comforting ourselves in the thought that Jesus was on our side, and that the pursuit of the “greater good” was now a weakness rather than a strength. Self-help guides sprang up everywhere about how to visualize and manifest material wealth. And those authors were really the only ones who benefited from that little exercise. Spiritual pursuits became commoditized like everything else.

We were lulled into a sense of security, many of us, allowed ourselves to be persuaded that all we needed to do was buy that next car, get that bigger house, buy the latest iThing, and all our problems would be solved.

But they forgot to mention that people were dying from increased neglect. The establishment turned out the ill, the disabled, the disenfranchised, casting them out into the deep sea without a way to get ashore.

The only thing that trickled down was shit.

And the “base”, the people who truly believed that they deserved the wealth they were being told they should pursue, they got angrier and angrier as their pursuits yielded no fruit and instead drove them further and further into ruin. In fear, they became tribal, closing ranks against a perceived enemy they were told threatened their successes. Fear was fanned into a full-on bonfire of xenophobia — and everyone who was not a member of their particular tribe was relegated to “other” and therefore a target of hatred.

Anyone who came along in this election cycle who had anything to say about turning out the establishment and restoring people to their rightful place as the winners they were convinced they should be, was a beacon of hope. Bernie Sanders proved that.

So, too, did Donald Trump.

Turn the bastards out

This election proved one very, very clear mandate: that we as a people — progressives and conservatives alike — are sick to death of the establishment. The establishment as it has acted on this nation has deepened racial divides (using those same fear tactics), exacerbated gender disparity, heaped scorn on the LGBTQ community, the disabled, marginalized everyone who was not a card-carrying member of the establishment, and most importantly widened the economic gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us, all the while deliberately distracting us with minutiae to hide their continued bad behavior.

And we allowed it.

We sat in front of our screens, sleepily letting the market control our thoughts, consuming mass quantities of mindless entertainment, posting cute kitten pics and Kardashian memes while Rome crumbled.

The privileged members of this society dug in, convinced that they lived under God’s grace and aiming their guns (figuratively and literally) and anyone who threatened their belief system. And Donald Trump, slick salesman that he is, told them exactly what they wanted to hear.

A dear friend of mine, an intelligent, beautiful (inside and out), capable and outspoken trans woman, said something that cuts right to the heart of (part of) the division we’re witnessing:

This is the last generational gasp of a people who know their time is ending. Our “promised land” is their “end times.”

All things must pass. We will survive. They know this.

That’s an eye-opener, isn’t it?

Our promised land is their end times.

No wonder they’re scared.

We should feel compassion for people who labor under this belief. It terrifies them. Their entire framework, their concept of the divine, and of the afterlife, is being taken from them. They believe in hell. And they believe we’re taking them there.

And here’s a thought: it could just as easily be us. Because it is. We’re all in this together, so we must learn to address that fear in ways that soothe the fearful souls who are lashing out. That’s not to say that we must accept violence and hatred, not for a microsecond. But we must learn to understand it, and then guide the fearful to speak peace.

Wow, we have a lot of work to do. It’s not just about saying it. It’s about doing it.

History is doomed to repeat itself

I’m writing a novel. It’s set in the 11th century, in Syria — Aleppo, specifically. Yeah, I know. It was an accident. How that all came about is not particularly relevant to this article. Here’s what is relevant: in researching the book, I’ve begun reading about the history of the region and, to understand the context, history before the time in which the novel is set along with what history we know of the emergence of cultures amidst humanity. My understanding is necessarily superficial — I don’t have a lifetime of study in this discipline. Even so, and with the help of people who have spent a lifetime studying it, obvious patterns emerge across the macro view of our history on this earth.

As hunter-gatherers, much of our energy was devoted to the care and feeding — literally — of our community, our tribe, our clan. Heroes were the ones whose kills fed the tribe. Hunters served a great purpose, filled a great need. Tales of derring-do were told and retold around the cooking fire, and we admired our hunters, for they placed themselves in harm’s way in order to feed us.

Where game was plentiful and the forests abounded with edible plants, we got on with our neighbors. The goddess nurtured and cared for us, fed us as a wolf feeds her children, and we had the luxury of being generous with our own people and with strangers, even if they aroused our suspicions at first.

Scarcity altered our behavior: the goddess died or was demoted, and a fierce and unforgiving god took her place; we wandered further afield in search of resources, and learned to fight others for it whom we encountered. Our heroes were the ones who could bring back food, or carve out new and broader territories for us. We admired them because we relied on them.

Soon, though, conquest became an objective into itself. And along the way, heroism for its own sake — for glory rather than for the for the community’s benefit — became the goal. The Hunter gene fed on admiration, and demanded tribute.

Along the way, we learned to cultivate the earth, and learned animal husbandry. These activities made us settle a place. When the ground failed to yield up enough to feed its people, we expanded. To expand, we conquered and competed. Our gods became harsher and even more demanding.

There is a lot more to this — we created cities, ruled from them, defended our territory from them, and to support the cost of defending them, demanded tribute. The further from the city centers, the harsher that tribute often became.

Which bred resentment.

City centers became dens of corruption as humans institutionalized and consolidated their power; the Hunter gene was transformed into a kind of predator that turned on its own people in pursuit of its own satisfactions.

We got greedy.

Do you see where this is going?

It has happened over and over again. It has taken many forms throughout our history, and though the details change, the overarching pattern remains the same.

Scarcity breeds fear. Fear breeds anger. Anger breeds violence. And honey, scarcity is the rule of the land these days.

Surprising conversations

I was finally able to venture out yesterday (Saturday). The thing that finally got me out the door was a galvanizing need to commit to the safety of my fellow humans.

In the wake of #Brexit, people began wearing safety pins to indicate that they would be human “safe spaces” for marginalized members of the population — particularly Muslims — whose lives would be very much threatened by people whom they knew would feel empowered to attack “others”, people not like them whom they perceived as a threat to their lives and livelihoods.

This week, Americans are adopting the practice.

I decided that a pin on my shirt wasn’t enough. I declared this a lifelong commitment, and got a tattoo. It is a reminder that I cannot back down when our cultural ADD and apathy allows us to settle back in to our collective stupor.

After I was done at the tattoo studio, I went to one of my favorite perches and had brunch.

I’m an introvert. Human interaction is a genuine challenge for me sometimes. But I sat at the bar, seeing a few vaguely familiar faces, and we checked in with each other. “How are you doing?” “Oh, you know, it’s been a pretty challenging week…” “Yeah.”

Then I asked something I’ve never asked in person before: “Are you safe? Is your family safe?” — we who held up the bar that afternoon were all members of marginalized populations in one way or another — “Yes, thanks for asking. We’re all okay.”

We began sharing our fears for what might be ahead of us. We all acknowledged that we were in for a bad time.

We also acknowledged that we couldn’t let fear paralyze us, and that we had to stop letting other people do the work for us. We had all voted for Hillary in this week’s election, and we discussed how people might have decided to vote for Trump.

And we agreed that it was because Trump represented the anti-establishment. Whether or not he actually is anti-establishment is irrelevant. It’s what he represented, what he symbolized to the people who needed a new symbol. Hillary made a critical error, one of many, bringing Tim Kaine on as her running mate — another middle-aged white guy, easily perceived as a privileged member of the elite establishment. Sanders or Warren or “BOOKER! God, yeah, he woulda been perfect!” — anyone except yet another establishment figurehead have been preferable to Kaine.

We talked. We talked for hours. And we agreed that it was this sort of connection, talking over food and drink, human contact and a mandate for action, that was needed.

My car is not running this week; it needs work. So a few times over the past few days I’ve taken Uber to get to and from gigs.

I learned from that scary opener I used. I asked it again of all the Uber drivers I met: “Are you safe? Is your family safe? Are you all okay?”

We are lucky, here in California — relatively little of the violence has reached us in our comfortable bubble. That, too, is a kind of privilege. But I learned some details that opened my eyes a little more. Three of the four drivers had their own prejudices, whether or not they had voted for Hillary.

In one case it was against gay people.

Ooh, that one was difficult. In the end, what we came to — and it’s a kind of progress, however small — was that whether it’s a choice or whether it’s hard wired, it is not our place to try to change homosexuality.

Another driver had voted for Trump. He was Hispanic, so I had to reign in my own assumptions, finding myself surprised that a member of a marginalized group, categorically called by Trump “rapists” among other things, would vote for him. But then he revealed his own prejudice: he didn’t like black people. Based on his own personal experiences as a bus driver, he declared that black people just wanted to take advantage of the system. What was this based on? A group of black teenagers who got on his bus and tried to ask for a free ride. No reason, just because they asked it. When he said no, they accused him of playing favorites. “Bet if we were Mexican, you would have let us go.”

It’s a fair point. Prejudice and tribalism is everywhere.

Hindsight is 20/20, though: I realized later that it would have been a good time to ask if he thought it was right to tar the entire African-American community with that single brush.

I don’t think that quickly. Alas.

What we did agree on, being civilized people having a civilized conversation, was that we all needed human contact, that family was important and that our electronic devices had taken over our lives. We’re so connected, yet we rarely connect.

We also agreed that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is: some people are good, some are not. There are assholes everywhere.

And we both saw a revolution coming.

I gave all of my drivers five stars with the note “Great Conversation”, even the ones with whom I disagreed. Because we had conversations. They were great. I learned something every time. This is GOOD.

I came away feeling something like hope.

What does it mean to be a hero now?

I’m afraid. I’m genuinely scared that I will actually be called on to be that walking safe space. But I have survived real, not imagined, threats to my life, and I hope that this stubborn trait allows me to step up to the challenge when needed. I’ve learned a few things that I sincerely hope I can draw upon come crunch time. I know from previous experiences that I’m not a noble creature by nature. But I have also learned that the animal instinct for personal self-preservation can be short-circuited. I will be training to be a nonviolent but ready protector of my fellow humans.

But I’ve also come to realize that wearing this safety pin isn’t just about being some Hollywood hero and stepping into a bloody brawl. It’s also about reaching across the divide, helping fearful people address their fears, helping them understand that violence and hatred is not the way to respond to their fears. Being a protector of my brothers and sisters doesn’t just mean being a human shield; it also means finding a way forward through our fears and into a new unity.

I don’t know if it’s possible. It might not be. Some people will not be willing or able to release themselves from the prison of their belief systems. I think we all still have much to learn about how to respond to that.

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