In defense of government

There was a magical moment the other day when my son smiled up at me with bright eyes, complete trust, and unfettered happiness. I’d do anything and everything to defend that smile.

I am one of the many women who ran for local office in 2018. I ran because I am a mother. The best thing I could do for my children, I knew, to ensure their way of life, their happiness, was to show them that running for office was worth doing and that regular people could do it. Then, hopefully, my children would inhale my exhales about participatory democracy, exemplify those ideals, and pass them on like stories.

I believe in government. As a current member of the Lake County Board and throughout my previous work as an aide in the Minnesota State Senate, one thing has held true—government is full of civil servants. Hired, appointed, or elected, it is dominated by people who want to do the work, even when the circus swirls around them.

The circus does exist, of course. But government is far more defined by people who enjoy connecting dots and solving problems. They coordinate traffic signals to decrease congestion, find ice melt that keeps drivers safe while reducing harm to the environment, and research groundbreaking ways to allow a creek to flow around a beaver dam, preventing flooding of farm fields while letting the beaver colony remain part of the ecosystem. They build trails, coordinate services for abused children, and help those in need find food and shelter. They do this largely out of public view, because so few pay attention.

The Reagan mentality that government is the problem has done as much to damage our democracy as anything. Cynicism, as comic Steven Colbert says, only masquerades as wisdom. But cynicism is powerful—as long as people distrust government, government can get away with anything. The more people look away, the worse it gets, reinforcing their false notions, and the cycle of distrust continues until you have an oligarchy in power, a president who encourages the overthrow of an election, and a political party that lets him.

We currently face blinding truths that showcase our country’s imperfections and there are many, many worthwhile reforms to consider. But government itself is not the problem. Not in America. The problem is that too many people don’t know that.

One of the most important things we can do right now is re-ignite a sense of civic pride. Not easy, flag-pin-wearing pride but pride hard won—off the sidelines and into the fray.

We need to:

1.     Provide robust and participatory civics education at all grade levels that includes internships, city council meetings, town halls, and teachers passionate about the subject. Treat civics as importantly as we do S.T.E.M. Encourage discussion of campaigns and elections in grade school classrooms. Stop writing angry emails to teachers who dare try.

2.     Teach all of our history. We cannot feel pride at having overcome obstacles—we cannot overcome them—if we pretend they don’t exist. Calls for unity above all else exemplify a longstanding and pervasive tradition of moving on instead of understanding. To love America, you have to know America. This will make many people, particularly white people, uncomfortable. We can handle it.

3.     Learn how to talk politics. Stop teaching children that “politics” is a dirty word. Embrace intelligent debate. The exchange of ideas, whether on the Senate floor or at the dinner table, is not rude—it’s how great nations are made and kept.

There is no law of the universe that I will always be able to send my children to public school or speak openly to the newspaper or travel to the west side of town to meet friends for coffee. There is no Fairness Doctrine that says I will always be able to contemplate my son’s smile on a January morning.

These freedoms were planned, fought for, and carried out by people over generations who believed in our American ideals. Maintaining our democratic republic is up to us, eyes wide open—regular people doing for our country, whether by running for office, attending a city council meeting, or simply refuting the claim that government is the problem. Having enough hope to continue on, and enough wisdom to know why.

Wisdom with hope. That is who we can be.

Refuse to Play the Game

“Words are all we got.” Dean Baquet, December 8

Remember when, “Don’t let the terrorists win,” was the refrain of the moment and we were urged to get out and go shopping after 9/11? Most people, of course, knew it was about more than shopping — that we didn’t need to simply resume our daily habits; we needed to overcome our fears because the terrorists’ goal was to make us so afraid we’d turn on each other.

Then it became about shoe bombers, waterboarding, and recession. Underwater mortgages, the Boston Marathon, and Newtown. Somewhere along the way we forgot to not be afraid. We forgot to not turn on each other.

Of course, social media makes it worse by providing anonymity to people who confuse ranting with cogent thought. But social media is also a chance for real discussion and while I find it there every day, it’s also been disappointing to see how many people try to tamp down any talk of anything worthwhile.

People are comfortable in the status quo, especially when it is blissful ignorance. Disrupting the status quo is uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable every time I post on Facebook or publish an essay like this.

But, as the daughter of a woman who once went running into the middle of a fight outside Walgreens, I am also uncomfortable in the role of bystander on the playground watching a bully at work, hoping he’ll calm down and leave the poor kid alone. There are a whole slew of rationalizers who keep pressing the “wait and see” button but for me, for many, that time has passed. The lip is bloodied, enough damage done. I don’t want to wait quietly to see if he goes for the throat.

It is purely, unabashedly, American to speak out against leaders who threaten liberties, who keep a hand over our mouths.

Much has been said about the need to understand Trump voters. I agree. I’ve sought them out, read their words and talked with them face to face. I’ve listened as they speak about industry, health care, and welfare reform and growing up around racism — growing calloused to words that, to them, were just words. I’ve listened as they said this election season the news was too overwhelming so they didn’t pay much attention and then simply voted the way they always do.

Listening to them does not threaten my beliefs but it does help me understand, a little, theirs. I can start to separate Trump the voter from Trump the man.

And I want nothing to do with dividing this country further. I refuse to be a pawn in Trump’s game.

The same should be asked of Trump voters: Listen. Believe us when we say it’s different this time. Believe us when we say it is about dignity, equality, and patriotism. Trump represents everything we feel threatens our democracy — he uses his words in anger to divide us. He has continued this rhetoric after the campaign, as president-elect. And he pushes us steadily backward instead of moving us forward on matters like climate change, human rights, and even the notion of truth.

I suspect there are many Trump voters who are concerned but want to see their vote vindicated. The problem is, the man we have elected is such a master of marketing and sparkle and colorful balloons, that it will be even harder these next four years to get at the nugget of truth in the middle.

But we must, and we can’t do it divided. The truth will lose.

He says he hates newspapers and accuses them of lying but that is because he wants to control the message. That is why he loves Twitter. By controlling the message, he controls us. Don’t let him. Some of what he says in the next four years will be true and good, and we should talk about that. I hope he helps small businesses and the working class. But we shouldn’t let it silence us during the moments he will lie. He has, by many accounts, nominated a knowledgeable general in Mattis. But that shouldn’t silence us on the fact that he has also appointed a racist in Bannon, or insulted China on Twitter.

Scrutiny is good.

Donald Trump is the worst of the dividers, but he’s not the only one. They are on both sides, in both parties. They say “all” and “always,” painting us with the broadest of brushes and taking away our faces, our humanity. They rely on the things we are angry about, the things we are scared of, and that’s their main message. These politicians and pundits are afraid, too — that we’ll vote them out of office or turn off the television — so they coddle anger and the attention it gets them like a newborn baby. Or like a crack addiction.

They think we’ll read a headline and maybe the first paragraph, we’ll listen to the screaming heads on cable news, and we’ll become enraged. It doesn’t matter whether a bill is good policy. It doesn’t matter whether this country was founded on the very idea of compromise.

Or they play games, attaching controversial language about abortion to a bill about roads because they know we aren’t paying attention, and they think we like the game.

I wish their assumptions had no merit, but the problem lies with us. We — you and I — have a responsibility and we are shirking it. A small fraction of voters put Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the general election ballot. We have power but we give it up. We forget that we are the parties, from the school board on up to president.

When did it become too hard to be an informed citizen? It isn’t easy, but when did it become too hard?

What happened to thoughtful conversations about government? When did that become an eye-roller?

We don’t talk politics with friends because we’ve been taught it’s a taboo subject. But that is accepting the notion that everything has to be a fight. We’ve accepted the idea that to disagree with someone is to insult them. To have an opinion is obnoxious.

But to be angry — boy, that is acceptable. That feels good. We’re so damn afraid, we indulge in anger like children. Even those of us who did not vote for Trump read about him and feel almost happy in our anger, righteous even. He invites our anger, deserves it, and we hand it over gladly.

This line from the movie Glory comes to mind lately: “We all covered up in it. Ain’t nobody clean.”

Politics is personal. But we have to be able and willing to express our ideas with respect and base them in fact. Anger can be good, useful even. But we have to know when to kick it out the door.

We are a nation of people who refuse to know each other, to read the news and have thoughtful dialogue with people we disagree with, and that is dangerous.

Because when we lack connection with each other, we elect people who work hard to divide us further. Donald Trump is working very, very hard to divide us.

Great leaders use their platform to rally people around a common cause for good. They help us feel the possibility of what we can be, and they remind us of our humanity, our sameness.

True policymaking and real governing are the hard things in all this. We need to quit voting for the clowns who put on a good show. We need to look for the guy who people make fun of for being a policy wonk. Vote for the woman who doesn’t end her statements with exclamation marks and who doesn’t use bombastic language to freak us out. Vote for the people who compromise.

We can still tune out much of the news. Paying attention and finding truth is easier than it seems.

The current situation is exactly what terrorists wanted back in 2001 and it’s what they want today: that we are so afraid and angry we forget who we are.

We have forgotten there are stories behind each of us. We have forgotten what our purpose is and where the meaning lies.

We need to remember. We have got to work together to hold on to America’s common cause, together. It doesn’t mean we stay silent in our corners and it doesn’t mean we don’t write the truth out of fear of making people uncomfortable. It certainly doesn’t mean we’ll always agree. It means we keep talking, and reading and listening and writing our stories, because that’s all there is to do.

There’s a reason this blog is called True STORIES. There’s a reason I put a quote by Colum McCann on the masthead. “Through our stories, we survive.” I believe that.

child patriot.jpg

Rape in the Year 2012

“If I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a two-dollar haircut explain to me what rape is, I’m gonna lose my mind. I watch these guys and I’m, like, ‘What is happening? Am I a secretary on ‘Mad Men? What’s happening?’”  

–Tina Fey

In light of the latest caveman orating about rape, here are some bits that haven’t gotten as much news, from Jill Filipovic at The Guardian:

  • Sharron Angle, who ran for a US Senate seat out of Nevada, said she would tell a young girl wanting an abortion after being raped and impregnated by her father that “two wrongs don’t make a right” and that she should make a “lemon situation into lemonade“.
  • Douglas Henry, a Tennessee state senator, told his colleagues:  “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse.”
  • Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly declared that marital rape doesn’t exist, because when you get married you sign up to be sexually available to your husband at all times.
  • And when asked a few years back about what kind of rape victim should be allowed to have an abortion, South Dakota Republican Bill Napoli answered:  “A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.”

A final thought, from a friend of mine:  I wonder if all of the politicians, MALE politicians, telling American women that rape is “legitimate” or “God’s will” would tell that to the boys Sandusky raped? Perhaps they could explain the implied irony of God’s will to the boys raped by priests? Or if they were raped themselves–you know, God willing?

To Yard Sign or Not to Yard Sign

Unlike what seems like the rest of the country outside of D.C., I love politics. It’s as dramatic as a reality show, but smarter (and real-er).

Dramatic, because instead of sex, drugs, and sparring… That is, in addition to sex, drugs, and sparring, there are Big Deal issues like freedom, justice, prosperity. Dramatic, because of the history of this country—the founding principles, suffrage, slavery, death, war, love, hate. Every human emotion is tied up in politics and policy. Not even to mention what’s tied up in campaigns and elections–it’s as competitive and aggressive as football but without the concussions and literal chest-thumping.

Smart, because policies are complex. Because we field hundreds of bits of information thrown at us and figure out which are facts and which are opinions, what is true and what is false. Smart, because we have to have the self-awareness to know what we really care about.

That’s not to say I always love politics. I have to turn off cable news for months at a time. But I always find myself drawn back to it because at heart I’m a patriotic American. (And you thought the right-wing had hijacked that phrase.) And I love a good debate.

Also unlike what seems the rest of the country, I think we should talk more about politics, not less. If we all talked–and listened–a bit more we would force the few at the top doing most of the squabbling to squabble smarter. And truthier. We’d raise the level of the conversation.

However, I’m not the type to make the first move. I (usually) don’t babble on about politics at parties unless someone else brings it up first. I volunteer for campaigns, but I’m the one who makes calls to supporters simply to remind them to vote. I drop off yard signs to those who’ve requested one.

Every election, I delay putting a sign in my own yard declaring whom I support because it feels like I’m drawing a line in the sand:

Here I stand : There you stand. Aren’t we different.

I also worry it too-strictly defines me to my neighbors who vote otherwise. Sure, I love a good debate, but some of my favorite moments in a debate are when those I disagree with get me to think twice about my opinion, when they make me stop and reconsider. (My husband will say this absolutely never happens; don’t believe him.)

In the end, I always put up a sign because of this: if politics is as important as I say it is, I should do what I can to help elect the person I support. And if I can’t openly declare where I stand and what I believe in, then what’s the point?

For this Monday–Meet: My Yard Signs

Meet: John Doe

JD was stationed in Iraq from August 2010 to June 2011 as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army.

I compiled information on certain terror networks. We were trying to put a puzzle together, trying to wrap our heads around who was who and who was doing what. We got info from various sources. People talk, and it’s a good way to get information. Especially when they’re compensated.

A US Marine base in Iraq

There were no days off. I worked a minimum of 12 hours a shift starting in the late afternoon. Dusk ‘til dawn. New information was always coming in, every day. Whether the info had value depended. We had to make decisions and notify the right people and ask them what they wanted to do–React? Let it play out?

Unfortunately, I’m limited in what I can tell you. Everybody we went after, we went after for a specific reason. We weren’t going to waste resources. There were numerous times we knew things they had just done. It might have been their involvement in the death of a U.S. soldier. In those particular cases, it’s a bit more personal. Going after the person who pulled the trigger in a sniper attack, or the guys who built the vest bomb that was used to kill soldiers at a checkpoint…it doesn’t change the mission, but to say it’s not personal would be lying.

We had constant radio and visual communication with the soldiers out on a mission based on information we’d supplied them. We learned a lot early on in the war in terms of taking care of our soldiers, absolutely ensuring that nobody gets left behind, learning how to fight an urban war. We got pretty good at it. All I can say is, drones are invaluable.

A lot of the policies and restrictions that came up were because of civilian casualties, whether during a drone attack or a firefight. You’re there to accomplish a mission; it doesn’t help to have your hands tied but at the same time, you don’t want to shoot first and ask questions later.

We weren’t allowed to go off post very much, just a few times. There were bazaars where local people came on base to sell products—trinkets, bootlegged DVDs. We had interaction with a lot of the police force and Iraqi army. They wanted things to be just as peaceful as we did. I think a lot of people have a misconception that so many over there are fanatical and that just isn’t the case. These are people just like us. They get up in the morning and go to work. And they want a decent life.

Some soldiers, marines, and sailors went over there 5-6 times. It was like a second home for them. They developed relationships. A lot of trust built up between the US and Iraqi people.

I didn’t disagree with anything we did over there. The way in which the military was operating at the tail end of Operation Iraqi Freedom was geared toward being absolutely legal. It was not the Wild West. There were protocols and procedures. Absolutely.

There were times I was frustrated – you think about terrorists. These are just bad people who need to be stopped. A lot of people, myself included, want to get rid of them by any means necessary. The protocols can be frustrating. Someone can be right there, you know they did something, but just like in the States, for some reason you can’t touch them.

Not to say there wasn’t corruption going on. Suspected terrorists were caught, turned over to Iraqi authorities, and all of a sudden they were seen out in town in a day or two. It wasn’t a common occurrence, but it definitely happened.

We did the best we could with what we had and the Iraqis were doing the same. There have been bombings and attacks since we left and, with us being gone, it’s primarily Iraqi on Iraqi, but that was going on between the Shiites and Sunnis before we left. Been going on forever. Afghanistan is gonna be a lot rougher once we’re gone. I’m not nearly as optimistic about Afghanistan as I am for Iraq.