Thou shalt not fear thy neighbor

I went for a walk yesterday. I do it a lot here in my town nestled into the foothills of the Berkshires in the Western part of the blue state of Massachusetts. A curtain of mist had settled in the distance upon the hay fields, the bare tree crowns peering out above its straight upper border.

On days like this, when the cold hasn’t yet reached the ferocity of the deep New England winter, a teeshirt with a down coat will do. If cold, I zip the coat all the way to my chin. But when I overheat, there is the option to unzip and let the cold air chill me. And on this ordinary late fall day here in Massachusetts, for the first time since I arrived in the US as a teenager in 1977, I am giving my choice of teeshirts some thought for reasons other than fashion.

You see, when I got up yesterday morning, I put on my Clinton/Kaine 2016 shirt, and its soft blue still envelops me as I lace up my hiking boots. My coat on, reaching for the door handle, I realize the potential thorniness of walking on our roads, coat open, my chest advertising my implicit resistance against what has been elected.

Now, it’s not a secret that Massachusetts is and always has been a blue state, our penchant for electing Republican governors notwithstanding. Yet when parsed, all this means is the majority of our voters overall go Dem. This leaves a substantial swath to support the other side. And generally, it’s good for a Democracy when people don’t walk in lockstep, don’t all fall in line with a single governing philosophy, do challenge each other’s views and convictions. Dissent is patriotic and Democratic, after all. But this election season has been different, and now, with my damp teeshirt clinging to me half-way through my walk, I am reluctant to unzip my coat.

To be precise, over 60% of Mass votes went to Hillary, and the breakdown in my small rural town was roughly the same. And when I walk around here, I always wave to the drivers going by, and stop to say “hi” to and chat with my neighbors. So you would think in a small rural town like mine, inhabited in part by Yanks with deep local roots and in part by city explants like myself, we can handle a political disagreement better than most. Yet I shrink when I see a Trump flag hanging limply on a pole in my neighbor’s front yard, a flag that either wasn’t there before the election day or that I hadn’t noticed in my blind trust in the wisdom of our voters.

I keep walking, and I see my neighbor R., an older man whom I have known for years, though not well. He is walking from the garage to the front door. R. is the one you can see everywhere in our town, no job too big or too small. Need a trail cleared from a felled tree? R. is there with his chainsaw and rolled up sleeves. Looking to place a memorial bench for a beloved member of the community after her unexpected death? R. delivers and installs it. A while ago, he was our animal control officer, driving into our driveways in his pickup, making sure the dogs’ licenses were up to date, and the chickens were treated humanely.

I don’t know for whom R. voted, though if I had to guess… A few months ago, at the time many of us were vigorously protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline through our state, the sign in his yard urged “Build the Pipeline,” its slogan tinged with something close to hope about American jobs.

Since the election I’ve been wanting to reach out to my neighbors, if only to understand how they deal with the cognitive dissonance of electing a serial liar, racist, misogynist, homophobic know-nothing with self-confessed history of sexual assault to the highest office in the land. I want to understand their priorities, their views, want to convince myself their choice wasn’t driven by the same rank -isms their candidate continues to flaunt. But how to start?

I take out my earbuds and walk up R.’s driveway toward him.

“Hey, long time,” I say. “I haven’t seen you in a few weeks. How are you?”

“I see you all the time,” he says, his green Carhartt jacket open, the plaid shirt underneath covered in wood dust. “You walk here a lot.”

“Yeah,” I say, “You should come with me sometime.”

“I don’t walk,” he replies. I know, he is too busy working on projects, his own and our town’s.

I turn to walk away, but hesitate, move closer toward him instead and pull him into an embrace. He hugs me back for a long moment before we part with a “goodbye, see you again soon.”

Here in my rural town in the foothills of the Berkshires we haven’t been hit with the wave of hate crimes gripping the nation since the election. The similarities in our skin hues hide a number of more subtle differences of religion, ethnicity, sexuality, philosophy. Everyone here still waves back, still says “hello” with a smile. But I feel that cold fear in my gut now, the fear that until three weeks ago would have been an anachronism, a useless left-over of my childhood in the Soviet Union.

I don’t want to live in a place where I have to worry for my safety and the safety of my loved ones. I don’t want to live in a place where accents and different skin tones and opposing views are not welcome. I don’t want to live in a place where I have to question the decency of people whom until just a few weeks ago I knew to be decent.

I will be walking with my coat wide open. I will be hugging R. again, and perhaps my other neighbors with their flaccid Trump flag. I will not let fear determine my actions. Because, as someone very wise recently said to me, if I do, the big nefarious “THEY” has already won.


How propaganda works

Earlier today I came across a report that Steve Bannon, our President-Elect’s newly appointed chief strategist, suggested that Silicon Valley had too many Asian CEOs. This was a year ago in November. (You have to wonder why the HuffPo is resurrecting this story now, and knowing how Bannon operates, also wonder if he planted it.) To this our populist anti-elites President-Elect responded, “When someone is going to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Stanford, all the greats… we throw them out of the country, and they can’t get back in… I think that’s terrible.”

Dissent among the ranks? Don’t be fooled. This is a strategy, or will be used as such even if a priori it was just a conversation. There are two thoughts I have about how this will go down.

1. Bannon stays in the position given him and continues to lob lunatic fringe ideas into the ether, just so that our President-Elect can counter them and thereby increase his sanity quotient in the public’s eye.

2. The job offer to Bannon is rescinded, which makes our President-Elect look even more sane and even willing to strike a compromise.

Either way, Bannon is a multipurpose tool, on the one hand allowing our President-Elect to appear at least somewhat sane, and on the other winking to the neo-nazi base that their atrocious agenda is represented. And either way, it will make all of us liberals pant with admiration, and we will settle back and watch the rest of the inferno that will be his presidency through the lens of this single push-pull dynamic. This will obscure all the other atrocities going on underneath.

Given Bannon’s cunning, I think he must prefer the first scenario. So we need to push really hard for the second. And stay vigilant and not give our President-Elect a pass on anything that remotely resembles like a dismantling of the ramparts of our Democracy.

This is how professional propaganda machine works.

A letter to Bernie

Oh, Bernie! I loved you, man! You were the guy in the Senate who stood by his principles, making the tea party assholes look like the assholes they are. You have always been concerned about the people, not the ones with endless zeros in their bank accounts, but the ones with zero stuff in the world, those left behind, those forgotten and trampled by the capitalist goliath. You were the one with principles, the one pushing the Democrats to the right… ahem, forgive me, the correct side of most issues. I didn’t always agree with you, but I sure liked your intensity and conviction.

So when you declared your candidacy, I was excited. Here I was, feeling the abundance of competence in both my major candidates, pride in their integrity and experience. Before my state primary, I struggled and searched my soul to choose between you and Hillary. Now, a year later, I hardly recognize you, Bernie, even though you and I are alike, and maybe even because of it.

No, I am not a man, I am not 74 and I am not from Brooklyn. But there is something about you that is familiar, that reminds me of my friends and family from this country and the old. The way you think, the way you debate, the way you are not afraid to be in the minority. But there is something else in you that reminds me of me. You and I, we are not team players. And for me, for the path I have chosen in life, that’s OK. For you? It is fraught. Politics is about coalitions. Successful politics is about banding together to accomplish your vision. You have not.

There is another way in which you remind me of me. When I practiced medicine, it was the diagnosis that intrigued me. I became an ICU doctor precisely because of the mysteries that I had to solve rapidly, while wrangling the fire hose of historical, clinical and laboratory data. Once I diagnosed, however (and, boy, you and I, we are both good at that), I lost all interest in treatment (well, not enough to walk away, you understand, but enough to find the subsequent steps tedious). I guess it’s a good thing I left practice.

And I have to say, that your lack of interest in the details of effecting your dreams scares me. If not you, who? And what scares me even more is that, in all the years you have been proposing this stuff, and over the past year of your campaign, you have not whittled away at the vagueness, have not articulated the path, have not given me something tangible to hold on to. And the fact that you have exactly zero foreign policy experience concerns me even more.

There are many think pieces these days about why people are stepping away from you, Bernie. It’s your flip-flops on whether or not you will run a smear campaign, your inconsistent views on superdelegates, your blind, data-free insistence that you are the more electable candidate against Trump. While I don’t like any of it, I do understand. I think it was Frank Underwood in “House of Cards” who said something happens to you when you get close to the White House door. You have felt that closeness, haven’t you? It has changed you — who would expect anything else?

And this is exactly what makes you human, and fallible, and impure. Yes, impure. And this should endear you more, but instead I am repelled. I am repelled precisely because you cannot see it, cannot admit your flaws, cannot fess up to the obvious.

Hillary is not a saint. We have all watched her for the last 35 years like a bug under the microscope. She makes stupid gaffes, changes her mind, refuses to respond to what she deems unfair and unequal intrusion. She also listens, she engages, she thinks. And yes, she compromises.

You don’t. You write off compromise as impure. You have no tolerance for divergent opinions. Even though I am not 74, I am too old for that.

Bernie, I am not going to pretend that I voted for you in the primary and that now you have lost me. I didn’t, but you did have me. I appreciated you, and made an informed choice to vote for your opponent. And I am bitterly disappointed that the last few months have have given me so much justification in my choice. The drag is that when I voted for Hillary in the primary it was not a vote against you. Now, after months of smears, innuendo and gamesmanship, I am turning away from your hypocrisy.

But here is the deal, Bernie. If by some miracle of numbers you win the nomination, I will be your ardent supporter. And no, there will be no cognitive dissonance for me, since the alternative is unthinkable to anyone with two neurons to rub together, even though you are not my ideal candidate. I am not “Hillary or bust” not because I am ambivalent about her, but because I am old enough to know that you don’t get everything you want every time, and that petulance, especially in this election year, could be deadly. I will go all out for you.

I haven’t given up on you, Bernie. I still hope that you are the man with the values and ideals that you espoused and that drew me and so many others to you. And that even if you don’t win the nomination, you can overcome your habitual discomfort with teams and become a member of Hillary’s team, our team, to make our country the best that it can be.

Your once (and future?) supporter