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.

No better than tsarist Russia

In 1682, the year of Peter the Great’s accession to the Russian throne at the age of 10, there was a coup fomented through a misinformation campaign from one of the warring factions. At issue was the legitimacy of Peter as the heir to the throne. While one influential faction of lords backed Peter, the opposition wanted his half-brother Ivan to rule the kingdom. The campaign of misinformation that climaxed with a revolt of the Streltzy, the palace guard, used well-known propaganda tactics to incite violence among masses. How did they do it? By spreading a lie that Ivan had been executed. And since this happened in the absence of the free press or any kind of checks and balances to verify the story, the fearful pawns, pre-primed into anger, their preconceived notions confirmed, did their job. The bloodshed was ghastly and occurred before the eyes of the child tsar, scarring him forever and informing his ruthlessly pragmatic ruling style. Ivan, very much alive, stood next to Peter on the stairs of the palace while the unleashed mob, unable to stop even in the face of seeing Ivan alive, bludgeoned members of the royal household.

The sleazy manipulation tactics of misinformation campaigns have come a long way. Fox, Drudge, Bannon and the like, are keen psychologists first, and purveyors of misinformation second, aided by the technological advances of the 21st century. The trick with misinformation is that in order to make it credible, it has to be at least somewhat true. Misinformation is just the composted cow manure that helps grow the seeds of emotional volatility among the mob. This emotional volatility, once watered by peer validation (just look at the comments on Breitbart), is not subject to rational examination or logical argument. This is the agitprop of dictatorships, so successful at steering people to go against their own interests. They turn off higher cognitive functions in favor of the autopilot of the reptilian brain. That’s the danger, this locomotive of unrestrained and unexamined toxic emotionality.

This is what the new President-elect has willfully unleashed and legitimized. Yesterday’s “meeting” in his Rapunzel tower with the leaders of the main stream press was a chilling and direct threat to our Democracy, which cannot exist without the freedom of the press. The report of this meeting on Breitbart was met with cheers for the dictator to destroy the mainstream media and put them all in jail. This is what abject fear looks like when it owns you. This is the addictive drug of righteous anger, the only relief they can get from that fear. Breitbart and the like are the drug dealers that will take their addicted followers’ last dime to further their own agendas. And the masses are willingly bringing themselves to be slaughtered.

This ugly blob of toothpaste will take some time to wrestle back into the tube.

Elections, statistics, and the in-betweenness of being

There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics. In statistics we create variables, then look at them from all angles, move them around our mouths, masticating their meanings. We swing at them, we grab them, we lurch to save ourselves from their crooked trajectories. But first of all, we categorize them, wrangle them into shapes that will speak to us whether they like it or not. Sometimes it feels like a forced confession, as in “assume a spherical cow.” But that is the way we make sense of the universe. Because God is a mathematician.

Some variables are categorical. They are like sunflower seeds – a kernel (category: edible) and a hull (category: inedible). Some of the variables have a handful of categories (race, for instance), while others limit themselves to forced binaries (dead/alive, male/female, single/married, young/old, you get the picture). We like binary variables; they are easy to work with.

Other variables are continuous. They are like a ripe peach – each bite its own peach essence. These are the variables with tedious trails of possible values. They are age, height, weight, blood pressure just to name a few. They are messy, exist on a continuum and don’t readily self-categorize without some imposed order of a reference value. These are the variables we force into means, medians and modes in order to understand them. They are thorny, mutinous. We subordinate them with our functions, our programming code, whip them into shapes that are manageable, shapes we can understand and draw conclusions from.

If you think about it, even those variables that we call categorical aren’t so easy to categorize. Dead or alive may seem like a simple dichotomy, but how many of us have known people in-between? My patients in the ICU spent days and sometimes months in the purgatory of neither. Though by virtue of maintaining some of their bodily functions they were considered technically alive, by other mathematical estimations they could just as easily have been classified as dead – artificial respiration, artificial circulation, artificial kidney function, etc.

More to the point, such dichotomies as single vs. married fell by the wayside decades ago, when shacking up became a thing, a culturally acceptable phenomenon. And again, the dichotomy of acceptable/unacceptable fails here: acceptable to whom, to which part of the culture?

Male/female binary is being destroyed before our very eyes by the current generation of brave souls who, despite crushing societal disapprobation, forge their own courses in these stormy waters, reminding all of us living in the safety of our deeply worn trenches of our younger, less certain days, when we lived the “both and” rather than “either or.” Even race, according to genetics, is more of a social construct than a biological reality. So do these categories really help us understand our world, or are they just cramming the complexities into an irrelevant ill-fitting cubbyhole?

The world is becoming more continuous, fewer splines, fewer sharp distinctions, more curves and connections. This destruction of the false security of categories is leaving me with a sense of vertigo, but also of wonder and curiosity. (Which are themselves, incidentally, categories.) And some of my fellow humans are choosing to dig deeper trenches, to stay in what they think was once a great America, where “girls were girls and men were men,” where minorities could be easily categorized into black or Hispanic, where you were either straight or gay, and you knew who was a pervert, a criminal, a thug. In those days in that great America people did not hover between life and death, throwing families into alternating states of hope and despair.

In that great America there were three classes – the upper, the middle and the lower, simple categorical variables, easy to cram into a consistent picture of enviable clarity. But what always lurked under these categories are the details of the continua they obscured. You didn’t just wake up one day in the upper class, traversing a financial distance from here to infinity. No, the awakening after the New Deal, after the Great War was to the possibility of the middle category, spanning a coveted but limited segment of wealth, just enough to keep people satisfied. Because satisfied people don’t question. And because categories confirm our understanding of the world, naturally there needed to be a class to elevate all others, a class to look down upon, a class to grind into the dirt, the lower class. The line, however, was thin, where these categories needed to keep the illusion of fluidity, where social mobility was the carrot for all. Life was simple and great in that America, especially if you could move up. And didn’t we all dream of moving up?

The demolition of categories is a double-edged sword. It is a snake you let into your home that will poison your family, the serpent who will enchant you into eating from the tree of knowledge. It is the sledgehammer that destroys the status quo, fills in the trenches, exposes the truth of the continuum. It pulls apart the curtains of our misguided thinking, destroys an outdated model of what we have grown to see as truth.

This election season has been about demolition. Like an ice storm it is pruning dead branches and dying ideas.If we are wise, this election is tilling the field, turning shit into compost, and we will emerge smarter, kinder, more awake, uncomfortable to be sure, but with a better understanding of our world and our selves. There is no suppressing this rebellion, this fracturing of categories, this emergence of the blinding complexity so frightening and exciting to the human brain.

 At my computer I do not yet know of other ways to examine data. I still have to impose my will in order to make the numbers spill their secrets. I am still the KGB officer and they fallen dissidents. My computer is an orderly array of zeros and ones, the ultimate rejection of the continuous. The analog world around me is infinite, not subject to binary limitations. Not either man or woman, not either black or white, not either Democrat or Republican. Not either Liberty or Justice. Not either Equality or Freedom. No. Both at the same time. And everything in-between.

Return

Once again we climb. We are not the shrinking kind — we face and we persevere. We claw and bleed and claw again. And sometimes there is a breath that leads us to ourselves.

Where does the truth lie? Is it nestled between the blades of grass in the ancient dirt of my homeland? Is it in the dust particles swirling in the setting sun onto the piano keys?

Tears and toil and terror are all guides. They blaze the path with their specific signatures which we can decipher only after we have seen ourselves.

Glory be to those who walk this path recognizing the mountain and the tree and the wind. They will inherit the earth and the heavens once they have tasted their solitary return.