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…
“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.
A friend recently told me that while I could “afford” to vote for Bernie Sanders because I am, as she put it, “highly educated,” she absolutely could not vote for him – nor could many of her friends and others who were decidedly not like me (i.e., highly educated). “For me,” she argued, “the stakes are too high” – the stakes being the elevation of Donald Trump to the highest office in the nation, and thus potentially four years of GOP control over all branches of government. Because of the real and present danger that a Donald Trump win would pose, “I will vote this November,” she declared emphatically, “for Hilary Clinton.”
My friend is right, of course. I am highly (or perhaps, as my brother would put it, over) educated.
And just for the record, I am also middle-class, African American, lesbian, 52, gainfully employed, insured, and a U.S. citizen with a (meager) retirement savings. Et cetera. I will vote for Sanders when my time comes, and if she captures the nomination, I will vote for Clinton. (That’s a strategic black vote, by the way).
Like many, I live a life of both privilege and vulnerability. I don’t apologize for what I can afford – voting or otherwise. And while I don’t fool myself about my vulnerabilities by believing that they don’t exist, I also don’t use them to claim a sameness with all African American women or others in ways that belie class, citizenship status, education and other differences among us – differences that often make for vastly dissimilar experiences with (for example) racism, sexism, economic instability.
But of course there are moments when our experiences are remarkably similar.
Nevertheless, my friend is right as well about the fact that the stakes of this election are YUGE (to use Bernie-speak). A Donald Trump win! win! win! would be absolutely disastrous for the country (and for me. I would not, as she incorrectly assumes, escape unscathed the consequences of his victory). Continued inaction on climate change; the ability to install a Supreme Court thoroughly committed to inequality, the decimation of individual rights, economic and environmental deregulation, and the interests of the rich; expansion of war in the Middle East and a return to Cold War politics; reversal of marriage equality and freedom of choice; the plunder of the treasury; repeal of Obamacare; the shredding of what little safety net we have left….this is the kind of craziness we face.
Given these stakes, then, we must vote, and vote wisely.
My friend is not alone in thinking that a vote for Sanders is a dangerous vote – one that threatens the safety of many of us, most especially those targeted by Trump, Trump supporters, and the GOP generally – while a vote for Clinton is a safe vote or, to put it differently, a vote for safety. You encounter this argument all the time from HRC supporters – in editorial pages, on Twitter, in blogs, on Facebook, in coffee houses, over the airwaves, and in conversations overheard on BART. Bernie Sanders supporters, they say, are fools – elite fools – who might very well usher us all to the end of times.
Or something like that.
Yet, I have heard similar arguments as well from Bernie supporters. Because the polls say Clinton will lose against Trump (some argue), to vote for her is to cast a dangerous vote, one that will plunge us all deep into GOP chaos. On the other hand, the polls do predict that Bernie will beat Trump. Consequently, our safety lies with his nomination.
But we should wonder about this propensity to speak of Hilary’s or Bernie’s supporters, or of a Clinton/Sanders presidency, in terms of danger, protection and refuge – this willingness, in other words, to believe that voting for either candidate will make us safe.
Should Donald Trump lose to Sanders or Clinton (assuming that he will defeat a Republican coup and actually become the Party’s nominee), we will still go home to families, coworkers, friends, neighbors – and mingle daily with strangers – who are willing to sacrifice democracy to authoritarianism, xenophobia, tribalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the machinations of wealthy white men (e.g., Trump, the Koch brothers) whose hunger for power is, it seems, absolutely bottomless.
We will still be surrounded by neighbors and intimates who do not eschew violence as a means to redress economic dislocation and to contend with change that is not merely a reiteration of current power arrangements.
We will still live in a country riven by hate and divisiveness, and be governed by a Congress for which that hate and divisiveness is the stuff of religious creed and public policy.
We will still live in a nation in which the infrastructure is crumbling, coastal cities sinking, schools failing, inequality increasing, desperation mounting and hunger considered just deserts for those who are poor — especially those who are poor, black and female.
We will still be at war, everywhere.
In other words, we are already unsafe – already living dangerously, and we were doing so long before Donald Trump upended the Republican Party.
So whether you vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton or Bernie Sanders, your vote will not protect you.
Thinking of safety in the narrow terms that we do – i.e., merely voting for a president every four years in order to keep at bay the draconian policies of a mean-spirited party and electorate – will not protect us. This is especially true given that our narrow conception of safety is itself a buy-in to a top-down politics of change.
Now don’t get me wrong: vote we must. It is imperative. But we need to think more deeply and ask: what does it mean to be safe? What does real safety look like and how do we create it for all of us – haters included?
Safety, it seem to me, resides with us, in what we do every day – in whatever capacity we are able – to put in place policies and institutions that are grounded in safeguarding and nurturing the lives of the most vulnerable. For if the most vulnerable are cared for, if that which is creating the vulnerability in the first instance is eradicated (poverty, segregation, war funding, separate and unequal school systems, state-sponsored and private acts of violence, structural inequalities, the upward distribution of wealth), then safety will be the order of the day (I, for one, believe that this means envisioning economic, political, geopolitical and social security through the eyes of a poor, undocumented girl of color – but that’s just me).
That kind of safety is purchased in part by the vote, but most especially by political action and grassroots involvement at the local level – like, for example, sitting in on and participating in neighborhood meetings, helping to organize your workplace, conversing with and listening deeply to people who are different from you, running for office, creating viable third, fourth, fifth party alternatives.
Perhaps most of all, the kind of protection we seek – real safety – is purchased by our refusal to live in fear.
We need to stop proclaiming that we are afraid of Donald Trump and his supporters, and to stop telling everyone else that they should be afraid. When we do this, we make him, and them, larger than life, and in the process, we make us small, fearful and powerless.
Our fear will not protect us.
So let’s move beyond fear and way, way past thinking of either Sanders or Clinton as our saving grace; they are not (while we’re at it, let’s also abandon altogether the shitty, hateful, divisive discourse that passes as constructive political engagement. There’s nothing radical about speaking the same language as, and acting like, those who hate us).
Instead, let’s demonstrate the truism that we are in fact “the ones we have been waiting for” and that our calling is to be dangerous to the politics of what is. Let us make the nation absolutely unsafe for poverty, war mongering, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, neoliberalism, free (as opposed to fair) trade, economic inequality. Let us be dangerous to all that stands against peace. And let us be so regardless of whether or not Hilary, Bernie or Donald ends up in the White House.
But of course, let’s make sure that neither Donald nor a GOP alternative makes it anywhere near the Oval Office.
Moderates…are often correct in perceiving the difficulty or impossibility of racial progress in the context of present social and economic policies. But they accept the context as fixed…They apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty. (Bayard Rustin)
A consensus has clearly emerged among moderate pundits and critics regarding Bernie Sanders’ bid for the White House: his campaign and platform, they argue, are wildly unrealistic and reveal just how delusional, if not nihilistic, progressives have become. The campaign and platform are unrealistic, they tell us, because if elected Sanders will face “a House of Representatives firmly under right-wing rule, making the prospects of important progressive legislation impossible” (as Jonathan Chait has argued).
Let’s be real: any proposal that seriously addresses the concerns and champions the needs of working people will not get through this right-wing dominated House of Representatives. In fact, nothing left of center, or even a little right of center, will get through the current House. That truth, however, should force a conversation not on whether or not Bernie Sanders’ campaign and platform are realistic, but instead on what it will take – what kind of mobilization or political revolution is necessary –to remake Congress into one more amenable to policies that really address the people’s needs.
Preferring to “accept the context as fixed”(Bayard Rustin’s critique of moderates remains remarkably relevant), moderate pundits and critics have chosen a different path, which is to focus our ire on Sanders and his supporters by forwarding an argument that basically comes down to this: Bernie’s policies are unrealistic because they are not Republican. After all, following the logic of Sanders’ naysayers, his policies would have to be Republican in order to pass in the current House – and even that’s not guaranteed. One need only look at the fate of Obamacare (a Republican brain-child) to understand how precarious would be the success of a Republican policy ushered in by a Democrat (remind me again: to how many repeal votes has that legislation been subjected?).
Whether pragmatic, piecemeal or revolutionary, legislation addressing the needs of ordinary folk will not fare well in this Congress. Since this is the case, we might as well go for broke. In this way, we can at least change the terms of the debates on work, wealth, and war.
Speaking of war: moderates also slam Sanders’ campaign as unrealistic because his policies are “half-baked plans” (as Matt Yglesias recently characterized them) that are “too expensive” to fund.
But in making their case not one pundit has put on the table the nearly $2 trillion dollars spent thus far on the War on Terror or the $18 trillion dollars that this war has added to the U.S. debt. In fact, even as they correctly perceive that, “in the context of present social and economic policies” – and most certainly within the current political climate – Sanders’ policies will face stiff and uncompromising resistance, pundits “apparently see nothing strange in the fact” that in the last fifteen years we have spent such an astronomical amount “fighting or preparing for wars.” No one is talking about war at all, except to remind us about past votes on the Iraq War or the threat of ISIS.
Indeed, moderates who have decried the possible tax burden that Sanders’ platform might impose on ordinary people have had nothing to say about the billions budgeted for this fiscal year alone to fight a war with an enemy that we keep mindlessly reproducing. Instead, they have thrown up their hands before Sanders’ argument that we need to provide tuition-free college education, invest in our infrastructure, make healthcare truly accessible to all and thus free from the grip of insurance companies, and “really abolish poverty.”
The exasperation some critics have expressed regarding the costs of Sanders’ domestic agenda, coupled with their silence on war spending, suggests that what they consider unrealistic is not our war economy itself – even though it has robbed the American people of real opportunities for economic growth and stability; driven (rather than curtailed) hostilities and instability worldwide; deepened poverty here and abroad; destroyed human, plant and animal life, as well as poisoned natural resources; and, created — from Des Moines to Damascus — bitterness, resentment and hate. None of that is “unrealistic.” Instead, what’s a “no-win” is a campaign and political platform that seek to eradicate economic inequality and the drivers of that inequality, some of whom profit, absolutely and obscenely, from endless war.
In other words, what they don’t say is that the war is precisely what makes Sanders’ platform costly. We can’t keep bombing people or launching drone missiles and, at the same time, educate our people for free. The latter, in fact, is economically irrational given the [fixed] context.
I think it’s time to redefine what we call unrealistic.
But I will concede this: Sanders is not without fault. After all, his platform says nothing about the continued costs of our war and how those costs stymie creative approaches to redistribution. Thus, Sanders’ campaign and platform are unrealistic to the degree that they fail to set their sights on the costs of our war economy and war culture. Sanders needs to show (for example) that the Pentagon’s push to expand the U.S. presence everywhere through the creation of “hubs” or Special Operations staging areas will take money out of our pockets, enrich war corporations and CEOs, and succeed in fomenting (and thus increasing the costs of) the very terrorism it presumably intends to defeat. And he’ll have to talk about these war effects in ways that address as well as allay people’s real sense of vulnerability to terrorism.
In other words, Sanders needs to show that as President he will take “full command of foreign affairs” (Jonathan Chait) and redirect us from permanent war to peace and economic prosperity, and through a framework that galvanizes all of us to unseat every single representative who thrives on both our fear and our hunger.
Of course, putting on the table that $1.8 trillion (and counting) is not solely Sanders’ burden to bear since the failure to speak of the economic, social, and political costs of war make all the candidates – whether they support endless war or not – purveyors of fiction. Pragmatism and conservatism are lies we tell ourselves when we continue to sink billions of dollars every year into death and destruction at the expense of everyone’s well-being and peace. We have to be moved to see such waste, and the fantasies by which they are rationalized, as “strange” indeed, as something that calls for us not only to adopt a different set of domestic and foreign policies altogether, but to actually engage politics in a revolutionary fashion – and most certainly in ways that take us beyond the dangerously narrow focus on the race to the White House.
We all need to get real.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)