Be Afraid of What President Trump Could Mean for Democracy

I don’t usually indulge in fearful musings, but in this political season, I have to say that I am seeing a possible future that frightens me.

I have never been a fan of Donald Trump. I don’t like the man. I don’t like the message. I don’t think he deserves any particular respect for using his inherited fortune to create an egomaniacal real estate empire. I don’t think he deserves any respect for his stints on reality TV or the political arena.

His current presidential campaign seems to have tapped into a certain ugly rage and dissatisfaction within the American people who applaud his “honesty” while he calls Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers and uses sexist insults on reporters and opponents.

His indications lately that he would support a registry for Muslims in America and closure of mosques is very troubling. As a member of a minority religion, the idea of this kind of monitoring and exclusion based on religion makes me very uncomfortable. Truly, it should not even be a topic of conversation in this country. We have a guarantee of religious freedom.

But it was the recent incident where he incited and then defended his supporters who beat and kicked a protester who showed up at his rally solidified my opinion that he represents a radical shift in our political climate. He is the kind of bully populist that can easily shift into a downright fascist.

Here are a couple recent opinion pieces that voice the same concern.

Donald Trump’s Alarming skid Toward Outright Fascism

Donald Trump Drifts Closer to Anti-Muslim Fascism

 

I think we are especially at risk today if we elect someone like Donald Trump as President. Normally, there are certain checks and balances built into the American political system to compensate for failures in one or another branch. However, Congress has had some record low approval ratings. For the past few years, approval has hovered between 20% and 10%. A huge majority of Americans disapprove of Congress. And a major reason is that they are, by all measures, quite unproductive and ineffective.

This represents a major vulnerability to our Democratic system. A popular and unscrupulous leader could very well take advantage of this and take over powers from the legislative branch, claiming that they are ineffective and obstructionist (which is not entirely inaccurate). “Why entrust the future of the country to such ineffective leadership?” the argument may follow. “We need a leadership who understands action and decisiveness.”

Of course one of the President’s most important duties is to appoint the Supreme Court and Federal Judges. This represents the other check on the President’s power. Defeating that would mean taking a page out of FDR’s playbook and expanding the court – and therefore appointing all the new justices. Suddenly, the deck is stacked differently and the Supreme Court is a rubber stamp for the President.

 

And so disappears the checks and balances. We will slip toward autocracy.

This is not, I hope, a prediction, but it is a fear. I wish I could say I think this path is unrealistic, but I think this is one possible path that we could take, and it is more and more plausible all the time. If we care at all about the institutions that preserve democratic process, even in its current flawed form, let’s make sure this doesn’t happen.

Giving Thanks 2015

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(These beauties aren’t for eating)

I wrote about Thanksgiving a couple years ago, and I still agree with my sentiments from that time. I believe in the “giving thanks” part of Thanksgiving, even if I don’t support some of the history and traditions.

I am keeping a gratitude journal this month in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. It is a powerful exercise. Even if it is sometimes repetitive. Home, friends, family, health, food, job, culture, freedoms, support – these things show up again and again, and with good reason. The shades of meaning often change as time passes.

This year, as my father becomes increasingly frail and slides further into dementia, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my sister, who is his caregiver and who has made incredible sacrifices to keep him as safe and healthy as possible under the circumstances. I am always grateful for family, but this specific gratitude is central to my mind this year.

If am grateful to my neighbor who allowed me to use his yard for a garden. The experience of working so intimately with the plants that give us life is a pleasure and privilege for me. Living in a city, I’m often disconnected from the source of my food, and I love this opportunity to watch it grow, and to learn how to help it along. I am a beginner in this process, but my neighbor’s help has meant so much to take these steps.

I am grateful for the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, which has given me a spiritual home and made me a part of a community. This year, I was elected to our council, received training to become a celebrant and to aspect and manifest the gods of the order. They have provided mentorship and support and they have added depth and resonance to my spiritual practice.

John Beckett wrote a piece about being thankful for the Pagan community this week. I want to echo that, too. It can be frustrating in its contentiousness, the cluelessness of some parties, the lack of cooperation about important issues, but I’m so glad that the “big tent” Pagan community exists. The very diversity of paths and traditions within this group means that there will rarely be agreement, but the visibility enabled by the combined community gives it strength and holds a beacon to those who seek these paths. It is also a network to rally together when any of us are in need or under attack. It is a source for news beyond the biased and ignorant media outlets.

I am grateful for so many other advantages that I have and positive things in my life. Some days it is hard to remember these when the list of tragedies and threats fill up our minds. But it’s important to take a breath and recall the gifts, the abilities, the strengths, so that we can continue the work of living and helping the world around us.

Respecting Self-Identity

When I was in college, it was a common topic of conversation among my gay and lesbian friends to gossip and guess about which other students were really gay. Since many of us had gone through a coming out process, it was probably a natural part of this to wonder who else was keeping a secret, and who was going to come out next. Certain friends would become somewhat obsessive about a particular person that they were sure was ready to come out. They may have even tried to make friends with them, not from a genuine interest in the person’s friendship, but from a more missionary intention to make them come out.

Another aspect of this was that when a person came out as bisexual, there was an assumption from many people that they were really gay or lesbian and that the bisexual identity was a stepping stone to coming out as gay or lesbian. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that sometimes this idea was true and that in many other cases, people were truly bisexual – attracted to both women and men.

For a while, I was one of the coordinators of our campus gay and lesbian group, which functioned as a combination of support, social, and activist purposes. We often had confidential “coming out” sessions where people came together to talk about their experiences and challenges.

One of the changes that I helped to initiate was the inclusion of Bisexual into the name of the group, and to make sure that those with a bisexual identity were included. I wish we were more aware of trans issues at the time, but it wasn’t on the radar, so to speak, in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

It became clear to me that the habit of speculating and gossiping about whether someone was really gay or lesbian was a useless exercise. We don’t really know what is in someone else’s heart and mind. For me to say that I do know is simply hubris on my part. It is no achievement for me to “trick” someone into coming out. It is my part to respect their identity and respect their process of self-exploration. It is my part to be honest about who I am, and through that maybe communicate that it’s OK to come out. And maybe, if they have it in them, and if they feel comfortable, they can challenge their own identity and become honest with themselves.

 

It seems that sexual and gender identities are now acknowledged to be far more complex than 25 years ago. There are trans, intersex, and genderqueer identities. There are pansexual and asexual identities. There are different flavors of kink and polyamory. All these variables also interact and intersect with racial, ethnic, class, religious and other cultural identities. It’s not just a question of straight vs. gay, and not even the question of the Kinsey scale. Identity politics today include shifting spectrums in all directions.

And I think my personal lesson about self-identity is as true now as ever. I let people identify themselves. It doesn’t do much good to anyone involved if I am stuck on my understanding of their identity, when theirs is quite different. This will never lead to a relationship of trust or respect. This will never lead to honesty.

 

We had another instance this week of a Pagan elder who is being called out for transphobia. This has happened periodically in the past few years. A few years ago, there was a stir because a famous Dianic priestess excluded trans women from their women-only event at a large Pagan conference. The trans women were not “women-born women”. Of course this came off as a statement that they were not “real” women, so they were excluded.

This time, a well-known priestess in a Yoruba tradition reacted to this false news story by saying “Bruce Jenner is an old drag queen” and “Bruce Jenner get over your self. You can dress in all the fabric you want and you will never be a real woman.”

I understand the outrage at the derogatory comments about Serena Williams that were attributed to Caitlyn Jenner. It is racist and misogynistic that people insult Serena Williams for not being feminine enough or even calling her a man. She has a woman’s body – the body of a strong, accomplished, athletic woman. The gender-shaming aimed at her in the media is ridiculous.

But the story is false. Caitlyn Jenner never said anything like this. Caitlyn Jenner didn’t claim to be more feminine than Serena Williams. Even after this Elder knew it was a false story, there was no real apology for the personal insults to Caitlyn Jenner and the online comments (in a public Facebook post) were not taken down.

In some circles, there does seem to be a pressure to universally praise Caitlyn Jenner. I am not quite in that camp. She has some political views that I find very problematic. I can’t say that I’m a fan of the type of reality television that has kept her in the spotlight over the last number of years. The presentation of her “coming out” as trans was very focused on a change in appearance – one that is the result of expensive surgeries and the best makeup artists, stylists, and photographers that money can buy.

On the other hand, her transformation has brought light to trans issues and identities in a broad cultural context. She has sometimes shown herself to be thoughtful about what a trans identity means to those who don’t have her advantages. A lot of good has come from her willingness to take the spotlight.

 

But whatever you think of her personally, I come back to my lesson. Caitlyn Jenner has the right to choose and to explore her own identity. It is not our place to second guess it or pretend that we know her identity better than she does. We do not know what is in her mind and her heart.

By calling her by her old name, by calling her a “drag queen” (by definition a man dressing in women’s clothes), by saying she will never be a “real” woman, this Elder asserts that she knows this person’s gender better than she knows it herself.

This lesson is equally true of all people who are exploring and redefining their sexual and gender identity. We must respect others and their process and their identity. We will never arrive at respect if we think we understand better than they do. We will never help them with their own process. We will never encourage honesty and self-discovery.

Can We Find Hope?

I am a few days from my 46th birthday, and some rather unsettling news stories have emerged about my demographic cohort. White Americans aged 45 – 54, in contrast to nearly every demographic group in the US and Europe, have had a significant increase in the death rate in recent years. Much of this has been driven by those with a high school education or less, and admittedly, I don’t fall into that category (I have a bachelor’s degree).

The researchers’ findings indicate a huge spike in causes that sound to me like they are closely related: Alcohol and drug poisoning (accidental and deliberate overdose), Liver failure (likely related to substance abuse) and suicide. People of my age and background have basically given up on reality, the future and – let’s face it – hope.

My earliest political memories are of my parents and other adults talking about “Tricky Dick” Nixon. Distrust of the government is deeply ingrained in many people my age. We’ve been soaked in constant rhetoric about soaring government debt and a fear that the social safety net won’t be in place when we get old. Corporations have now had decades of downsizing, moving jobs to other countries, and slashing worker benefits. Neither government nor employers seem likely to provide a safety net for the years when we will need it.

For many of the people I knew in grade school, family provided no sense of stability or safety. The 70’s were the age of the “latchkey” kids, who came home from school to empty houses while parents were away at work. Parents going through divorce was common, and it often played out in strained and bitter ways. Children today often have “helicopter” parents, who constantly monitor and over-protect their children. Children 35 years ago were often pretty much on their own.

In the last decade, many of the hallmarks of American middle class prosperity have slid into oblivion. Jobs have been harder to come by, and often pay less in real money than they did in the past, particularly for those without higher education. For those of us who bought homes in the early 2000’s, the housing crash gutted the equity, taking a huge bite out of net worth. Ages when we might be eligible for retirement benefits are being pushed back – from 65 to 68 or further. Employers offering pensions are almost unknown today.

Personally, I took a major hit with both income and home value during the most recent recession, and my financial position in 2015 is still far below where it was in 2008. I am in better shape than most, but still, my financial fortunes are not improving, and don’t look likely to do so anytime soon. For those working physically demanding jobs, these prospects must look even dimmer, as age takes its toll on the body and the ability to work will be diminished.

All the things that were supposed to give us stability and prosperity have been sliding away.

Researchers also found a high rate of people in this group reporting constant pain, inability to walk short distances, or socialize with people. Frankly, our quality of life is declining.

So we escape – into drugs, into alcohol, into video games, and TV. The more we escape, the more disengaged we become, and the farther we are from some solutions to make life more fulfilling.

The major news media lies to us to make us angry, reminding us of the “promises” we were fed when we were young and how far we are from those times today. The mass media doesn’t sell empathy – only outrage. And it creates yet another reason to tune out and retreat into our isolated and isolating worlds.

Post-apocalyptic fantasies have been popular for decades now. Mad Max and Terminator are still going strong. Meanwhile Hunger Games-type stories have multiplied and there seems to be a new zombie-infested movie every other week. It seems difficult to imagine a world where the current crises are overcome and a new, sustainable world results. At least to our story-telling mind, our current events will almost certainly lead to a massive disaster and the best we can do is survive.

It’s not at all unusual for my friends to express a desire not to grow old. The idea of not being able to care for yourself, but having no resources or support to depend on is terrifying.

I know a lot of people my age who drink heavily. I’m sure some of them are on their way to join that liver disease statistic. I’m not aware of friends who use heroin, but I know it has become far more common in recent years. I know of many people who don’t take care of their health on the one hand, or people who have serious health issues now and have fairly burdensome health regimes to try to manage it. A heavy regimen of prescription drugs can also lead to liver failure, and pain-killer use is noted as a gateway to opiate abuse.

Perhaps we can say that our group should take better care of their own health, but honestly, poorly educated people don’t have the tools to sort through the nonsense the media feeds them, and the media is full of contradictory and misleading nutrition information. A lot of us live off convenience foods – take out and pre-packaged foods that are high in fat and sodium, low in fiber and micronutrients.

So what is the way out? How do you sell hope to a group that only sees the future as a slide into misery? There’s no golden retirement with golf courses and Caribbean cruises. There’s just working away at a menial job until you’re so sick that someone shoves you into whatever nursing home will take your Medicare and Social Security (if those programs aren’t bankrupt in 25 years).

 

There are a few pieces of advice for my peers. This is all very imperfect, and every single day, I have to talk myself into this.

 

Shed Expectations and Entitlements

A big part of why we’re having a rough time, even compared to other groups that are less well off (but still improving), is that we have had expectations set – by parents, by schools, by media.

Supposedly, America won the Cold War and is the world’s only Superpower. We’re supposed to be the wealthiest, freest and most open society in the world. Yet, somehow, incomes are sinking and good jobs are hard to come by. Health care is more expensive than anywhere in the world, but is far from the most effective. We have a massive proportion of our population in prison, and yet we live in the most violent society in the industrialized world.

The country is not on a road to prosperity and we can’t just ride the wave. Resources are shrinking. We depend on finite resources like petroleum, and even though gas prices have eased off the record highs of a few years ago, obtaining fossil fuels will only get more expensive and more environmentally destructive as time goes on. Easily drilled oil is dried up. It only gets harder from now on.

So, let’s be real. The expectation that we’ll live a life better than our parents is gone. What we do with that is up to us. And wasting time moping about how we’re screwed isn’t making anything better.

 

Build a Better World with Your Own Hands

Learn to cook. Plant a garden. Take up knitting. Do a woodworking project. Take up painting. Build a doghouse. Build a picnic table. Make a quilt. Sew a tote bag. Sew a new shirt. Bake cookies. Learn how to pickle. Learn how to home brew beer.

Make something real and concrete that you or someone you love will enjoy. Do it with your own hands and make it your own. It will probably take practice to get it right.
If you’re more ambitious and/or skilled, fix up your home. Get a do-it-yourself book from the used bookstore and take on a project. And finish it. Take your quality of life into your own hands.

 

Join Multi-Generational and Multi-Racial/Ethnic Groups

Sometimes, it’s nice to hang around with people who know our pop culture references from childhood, and who know what it was like “back then”. But there’s a huge value in being with people who are older and younger and getting to know their experience. There’s a great value in being with people who have different cultural backgrounds. It gives us perspective about what we have and what we don’t.

Here’s the thing – it’s not valuable if you don’t pay attention to them. Listen. Notice what is different in their perspectives and think about why yours is different. You don’t have to deny who you are or your experience to acknowledge another point of view.

Examples of these kinds of groups are religious and civic groups, volunteer organizations, places where different kinds of people come together for a purpose.

 

Eat More Vegetables

Seriously, you’ll be happier and healthier. Raw in a salad, roasted, or boiled – they’re full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Try different ones that you haven’t had in years, or that you never tried. Your adult palate may surprise you. Think you hate Brussels sprouts, but haven’t tried them since you were eight years old? Give them another shot. And, if you can, prepare them yourself. Again, it’s part of taking your health literally into your own hands.

 

Be Outside in Nature

Stop to smell the flowers – literally, smell the flowers. And feel the tree bark. Watch the squirrels. Listen to the birds chirping. Find a park and walk. If it’s windy or a little cold, find a good jacket. If it’s muddy from the rain, bring out your oldest shoes that you’re not afraid to get dirty. It will connect you to the  world that we came from. It provides an experience that no TV or video game can match.

 

Try a Life-Affirming Religious or Spiritual Practice

Some people meditate. Others try Yoga. Some people try Bible Study. Others volunteer to help those in need. I know it’s not for everyone, but for a lot of people, religious and spiritual practices help their state of mind. I consider myself very lucky to have found a spiritual home in the Brotherhood of the Phoenix.

But without telling you what to believe or what tradition to follow, think of finding one that focuses on now, not that preaches about eternal damnation or waiting for your reward in the beyond. Find a tradition that affirms life, that values our world and the people in it, and strives to improve you and those around you.

 

Practice Gratitude

Be glad that you have what you do – a home, a family, food, friends. Thank people when they help you. Thank them even if they’re getting paid. Saying those words still means something.

Keep a gratitude journal. This is a great time of year for it, since Thanksgiving is coming up. Take the ten days leading up to Thanksgiving and write about one thing each day that you’re grateful about. A person in your life, an experience that you’ve had, a hobby, a gift – big or small, write it down. Really, this helps. Don’t focus on what you feel life promised you. Don’t focus on what your neighbors have that you don’t. Focus on what you have and know is good and helpful – and feel the gratitude.

 

I can’t guarantee that any or all of these will pull us out of this spiral, but I hope it’s some kind of basis for hope.

 

As we say in my tradition,

Ta Kya Te

My Heart is Open to You