Michelle Obama

Going low with Donald Trump

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I do not like this man.

Every day, if you walk by my office, you just might hear me mutter the words “motherfucker” or “racist asshole” or “stupid fucking man” or something like that, because as is often the case, I listen to the news while I work. And since Donald Trump is the news, then when you hear these words coming out of my mouth, it is likely that you’re hearing me disparage the GOP candidate. Or his surrogates. Or his apologists. Or some man or woman who intends to vote for him. Or some reporter who has failed, yet once again, to ask follow-up questions about Trump that are not only (in my mind, anyway) obvious questions to ask, but that are also absolutely important if we are ever to get out of the bind in which the GOP has put us.

More than once I have scanned the Internet for that t-shirt worn by the character in the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the t-shirt that reads “Fuck you you fucking fuck.” Ever since Donald Trump became the GOP nominee, I’ve thought: that shirt is a perfect expression of my (and others’) perfectly reasonable outrage not only at all of the deplorable things the GOP candidate has said and continues to say, but also at the racist, sexist, xenophobic, white nationalist fascist free-for-all Trump’s candidacy has inspired, and nurtured, and thrived on.

I’ve even imagined myself wearing that t-shirt at a Trump rally, daring some fucking fuck to say some fucked up thing to me so that I could…

Never mind.

“Oh, yeah?” I shouted while watching Trump recently on CNN. “You say you want to send your goons to ‘some other place’ on November 8 so that they can ‘make sure’ that the election is ‘on the up-and-up’ in those ‘other communities’? Bring it on, then! Motherfucker, bring it on!” After saying that I reflected fondly on a day back in the 1980s when the Ku Klux Klan – all twelve of them (was it even that much?) – came to March on what was then a much more chocolate Washington, DC. Thousands of outraged citizens, some of whom (not me) were armed with pipes and sticks and god knows what else, showed up to welcome the Klansmen, who got off their bus in an undisclosed location, said a few words, and then quickly – wisely – got the hell out of Dodge.

Those of us who were outraged, on the other hand, occupied the streets long after the Klan escaped, wreaking havoc until the police launched their tear gas canisters.

I say all of this to confess that I have been spending too much of my daily life going “low”– indulging in precisely the kind of nastiness that Michelle Obama implicitly counseled all of us against this past summer when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention about the ways her family has coped and continues to cope with the hatred directed its way. “I will never forget,” Michelle recalled,

“that winter morning as I watched our girls, just seven and ten years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, ‘What have we done?’  See, because at that moment, I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who they would become, and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them.

That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight — how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level -– no, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

Since the DNC, I’ve often used Obama’s counsel to “go high” as a check on my frequent forays in the muck. But I have to admit that I have been content to stay mostly in shallow waters, where going high merely means that I should refrain from acting “like a bully” and from using “hateful language” to denigrate others – where going high means claiming the moral high ground not on the basis of any humble spiritual practice, but instead on the basis of my sense of superiority to those [deplorable] people. For me (and for others, I suspect), going high became a practice of smug self-satisfaction and condescension – spoken in polite terms, of course.

I am certain that Michelle Obama did not mean for me – for us – to be so shallow. And I know this because of the ground in which her counsel is rooted.

“If I respond to hate with reciprocal hate,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Montgomery Bus Boycott memoir Stride Toward Freedom (1958),

“I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love. If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community. Booker T. Washington was right: ‘Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.’ When he pulls you that low he brings you to the point of defying creation, and thereby becoming depersonalized.

In the final analysis…all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.”

As King’s critique makes clear, to go high is actually a profound spiritual practice of “nonviolence to everything,” a practice that should – if it is authentic – shatter you to slivers. The slivers are the pieces of yourself that keep you from calling your so-called enemy your sister, that deny just how bounded is your humanity even to those who hate you, that widen and deepen the gap in our broken community, that make you feel high and mighty in relation to women and men willing to live and act and think in deplorable ways, that make you blind to your own deplorable everyday ways of being.

And the slivers, too, are the pieces of yourself that see an orange Cheeto instead of a broken man who honestly believes his brokenness is the mark of his power and greatness.

In truth, to go high is to go vulnerable, to be willing to love – to radically love – in the midst of your outrage and your fear.

“I’m happy that [Jesus] didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies,’” King preached on Christmas Eve in 1967 – just months before he was assassinated – “because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men.”

To go high is to have the kind of compassion that comes from recognizing in one who hates your own hungry ghosts – your willingness to hold a grudge, to belittle, to deflect criticism, to name-call, to be utterly selfish, to offer only grudging apologies, to retaliate, to be absolutely unwilling to see in the smallness, in the pettiness of others a frightening vulnerability and astonishing lack of self-love, respect, and care. To go high is to cultivate the kind of compassion that completely unsettles who you are, that disturbs and disrupts the narratives you tell yourself so you don’t have to face or question your own inner Trump.

And get this: to go high is to have the humility to see in the one who hates his essential Buddha self, the Christ she is capable of being. In other words, to go high is really fucking hard spiritual labor, a practice in danger of being cheapened by campaign politics. It is work crucial to our quest to make a world great with justice and peace. It is absolutely required in order for us to meet, with great dignity, the most pressing crisis our species has ever known (climate change). Without question, it is work that is easier not to do because it is so damn fun, so wildly entertaining, to call Donald Trump an orange Cheeto motherfucker.


Sitting on my living room mantel piece is a small statute of a black Buddha that I greet every day before my morning meditation. It is the last thing that I see when I close the front door to go to work. It’s the first thing I notice when I open the door, home at last, after a stressful day of buses and BART and a tired, cranky three year-old and a growling, howling empty stomach and a series of my own raging riffs about Trump campaign drama.

This Buddha used to sit on my mother’s nightstand during the final year of her life. I imagine that, along with her Bible (like Thich Nhat Hanh, my mother found deep affinity between the teachings of Christ and the Buddha), this statue gave her great comfort after her cancer treatments. I imagine that it reminded her during the course of the 2012 election cycle (which she followed closely) to be outraged, absolutely – but to be so without hate. I imagine that it inspired her to continue to speak of justice in terms that excluded no one. And I imagine that this Buddha gave her further motivation to say – as she and my father often did when they discussed a politician or pundit who peddles hate – “Bless his heart.”

When I went to her room after she died, I noticed that next to her Buddha my mother had placed – carefully and intentionally, I am sure – a 2012 campaign button of Michelle Obama’s face.


Onto that Buddha now clings (heaven help me) a photograph of Donald Trump’s face. Around its neck is a gold necklace to which I attached a locket that contains a lock of my mother’s hair.

May I shatter into a million pieces.

May we all — including Donald Trump as well as the men and women who support him – shatter into pieces too numerous to count.

And may we all, finally, be free from suffering.

FLOTUS Michelle Obama & Racism porn

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And so here we go again. The moment that African Americans describe or share the pain that racism has wrought, many of our countrymen and women respond by trotting out and bombarding us with their racism porn – you know, the statistics or studies or, as is usually the case, the flat-out pronouncements about African American life that these folks always seem to have in the ready. Their tried and true collection of what passes as knowledge about African American communities is the material from which these men and women generate and feed the barely disguised pleasure they apparently get from African American hurt, subordination and – if we are honest – from their own racial privileges.

It is absolutely obscene.

In her commencement speech to Tuskegee University graduates, First Lady Michelle Obama did a remarkable thing: she spoke candidly not only about the racism that she suffered during President Obama’s first run for office and throughout his presidency; she also spoke openly about the pain that she suffered as a result. Michelle, for example, recalled the criticism she received while on the campaign trail, criticism that was clearly motivated by a desire to tear her down by framing her within the myriad stereotypes reserved specifically for black women. “Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?” Michelle remembered. She reminded the graduates that she was characterized as “‘Obama’s baby mama,’” a slight meant to denigrate Michelle by associating her with the much-maligned single parent households in African American communities, with so-called “illegitimacy,” and with “absent” black fathers. Michelle spoke, too, of the “insults and slights” that “Barak has endured.”

“All of this used to really get to me,” Michelle confided to the Tuskegee graduates. “I had a lot of sleepless nights.” Moreover, she worried “about what people thought” of her, wondered if she “might be hurting” Barack’s “chances of winning his election,” and feared how her “girls would feel” if they “found out what some people were saying about their mom.” Faced with such an onslaught of hate, she had to discover ways to “keep” her “sanity and not let others define” her.

And still, because the attacks haven’t subsided – “all of the chatter, the name calling, the doubting” – she has to “block everything out and focus” on her “truth.” Experiences such as these, Michelle confessed, make for a “heavy burden to carry. It can feel isolating. It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter.”

That’s a lot of pain. And it is pain that I am sure the graduates understood, having themselves experienced (no doubt) racism all of their lives.

But why bother acknowledging that pain when what’s important, really, is that you use it to arouse your own pleasure? For example:

“Why didn’t the First Lady share the reason why she got into Princeton was probably because of affirmative action?” Angela McGlowan of “Fox & Friends” happily asked (I mention her first because she’s African American and, as such, she truly represents the triumph of white supremacy).

Both Michelle and Barack, charged Ann Coulter gleefully, planned the Tuskegee speech “in order to keep a certain segment of the black population angry and voting against Republicans” – in particular, the “‘predator class’” in Baltimore’s African American community that “largely targets other members of the black community.” What it “all comes from,” Coulter continued (in orgasmic glee and no longer concerned about whether her critique actually addressed anything Michelle Obama had to say) is “illegitimacy,” for which we have to thank the “New Deal” and the “War on Poverty.” The latter, Coulter triumphantly pronounced, “just breeds a predator class.”

The “First Lady’s transparent manipulation of clueless blacks this past weekend in Alabama” – that would be Tuskegee’s college graduates – “would be comical” (noted M. Catherine Evan) “if her black brothers and sisters weren’t killing each other at alarming rates (including aborted babies).”

Michelle has “a giant chip on [her] shoulder,” Rush Limbaugh passionately declared. Indeed, she was just using the Tuskegee speech as an excuse to “roil the culture, rile up people who ought to have a different approach being made to them.”

All this in response to the First Lady’s speech (I’m going to stop now – not because there isn’t more hate to quote, but because writing this makes me downright ill).

So let’s call out these reactions for what they are: getting off on black pain, getting off on racism, and getting off on racial subordination. “Illegitimacy,” “black-on-black crime,” “fatherless households,” “affirmative action,” “criminality,” “public assistance” – all of this, when hurled in response to black pain (and even when not), is racism porn, the recitation of which is absolutely heady to the one reciting it and signifies his or her deep, if not bottomless illicit pleasure in the racial status quo.

And how do we know that this is all about pleasure? The dead give-away is that those who usually trot out this stuff do so not from a desire to improve the lived experiences of African Americans or to help heal African American pain or to offer solutions, the purpose of which would be to support a thriving African American community. Instead, they do so both to elicit a reaction that will allow them to keep their hate juices flowing and to cause, if they can, even more pain (psychic, spiritual, and material).

So we have to start calling out this pleasure, naming it, and challenging it by taking on those who seek pleasure in and make money off of other people’s suffering — and we must do so because their pleasure is, at bottom, a form of violence that none of us should ever have to endure.