Thursday, February 15, 2018

Quote of the Week: What One Does

"It is not what one says, but rather what one does, that makes all the difference in the world." Pirke Avot 1:17
In the wake of yet another mass shooting in America - this time at a high school in Parkland, FL - we must not only grieve with the families of those who lost loved ones, but demand action from our elected officials. Words are not enough.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Hits Keep Coming

Ever since last Saturday the hits have just kept coming.

First, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists descended on Virginia (an increasingly diverse and open state) to intimidate people and voice their hatred publicly. Then, a terrorist associated with them drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others, while two police officers also died en route to help quell the violence. In Boston, a teenager shattered a glass memorial to Holocaust survivors - the second time this summer that vandals have attacked the memorial. Vandals also spray-painted the Lincoln Memorial. Monuments to the Confederacy are being removed from public spaces across the country as debate heats up over their presence and meaning in this charged political climate. Through it all, Trump has stuck by his most loyal supporters - the so-called "alt-right" conglomeration of white supremacists - while laying equal blame for violence and divisiveness at the feet of those who oppose them.

And those are just some of the national problems we face. I haven't even had time to delve into escalating tensions with North Korea, Trump's calls for a renegotiation of NAFTA, his continued attacks on Senators who refuse to kick over twenty million people off of their insurance plans, the ongoing Russia investigation, and another terrorist van attack - this time in Barcelona. All of that deserves its own attention. And yet, here I am, learning something new and disturbing every few hours about the state of our nation. The latest of these revelations was that police refused to protect a Charlottesville synagogue from armed neo-Nazis who stood outside with automatic rifles shouting Nazi slogans during Saturday morning services.

Of all the discussions happening nationally in the wake of Charlottesville, I am most mesmerized/horrified by the fact that some of this stuff is still up for debate at all. In the past week in Facebook conversations with friends of friends, I have been appalled to learn that some people confuse non-violence with inaction; that others think showing neo-Nazis respect will encourage them to change their ways; and that even more don't understand the difference between memory and honor. Here is a sampling of some of those conversations.

Ignore Nazis and they'll go away vs. Let's punch Nazis in the face. 
Should we punch Nazis? How can we best act in the face of injustice? When does turning the other cheek or ignoring the problem cross the line into condoning it or becoming a bystander?

Ten Of The Best Times That Someone Punched A Nazi In Comics is just one of many examples in our popular culture (expressions of our society's values and moral compass) that documents our need to meet action with action. It strikes me as proof that we believe action is necessary for good to prevail over evil. If violence begets violence, then it is a perfectly natural reaction to meet a white supremacist's aggression and violence with like means (i.e. punching). It might not be the most effective way of defeating them in real life and it is probably not the safest idea, but I think the instinct to punch them comes from a feeling that anything less will inadequately display our disgust for them and their ideas.

What differentiates good people from white supremacists is our ability to measure that reaction - to recognize it as a base instinct that might be momentarily satisfying, but ultimately counterproductive. And the question is: Where do we go from there? How do we channel that desire to punch, to take action, into something constructive?

One solution that was offered was to ignore the white supremacists, but it is disingenuous to suggest that we ignore the problem and do nothing, as if inaction is the same as non-violent protest. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched, Gandhi went on a hunger strike, Heschel "prayed with his feet [paraphrased]." And each of these heroes of non-violence also used language as an outlet - inspiring change not only through action, but also through words.

The ability to articulate a message is fundamental to changing minds. Finding words to express the sorrow, disgust, and fear that these terrorists instill in me is a great challenge, but giving voice to those feelings is also incredibly empowering and ultimately very satisfying. Being able to name something, to identify it, and to share your feelings with others keeps us from bottling up the hate and rage until it boils over into violence. Naming something for what it is also limits its power, which is why Trump's refusal to call out white supremacy in his reactions to Charlottesville is so infuriating.
"I don't speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don't have the power to remain silent" -Rabbi A.Y. Kook
That said, language has limits. Sometimes I do not have words to describe the depth of a feeling, try as I might to do so. And when that happens, I look at pictures of Captain America punching Hitler as an outlet for a rage with no name and a feeling that I can't do enough, no matter how many words I spill into the vastness of the internet, how much I donate to anti-Nazi causes, or how many rallies I attend. People have limits.

So, what can we do when language fails, when violence is wrong, but the need to act remains? I'm sorry to say that I don't have an answer, but I know that we must find one, because Judaism requires that we meet oppression and injustice with action. As Elie Wiesel said, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

Everyone deserves respect, even Nazis vs. No, not Nazis.
Someone actually said to me online, "Punching people doesn't diffuse or eliminate hate. Showing respect does." 

I said this when Trump was elected and I will say it again: respect must be earned. I don't respect white supremacists. Their ideas and actions are morally reprehensible. Anyone who wants to see the decimation of entire races and religions has not earned respect or a place in any meaningful dialogue. Showing respect to white supremacists will not diffuse or eliminate their deep-seated hatred and might give them the false notion that their hate is a respectable, acceptable position to hold.

There is value (historically, culturally, etc) to keeping Confederate monuments in public spaces vs. It's long overdue that we remove these monuments from public places of honor.
In a moment of weakness, the Israelites sinned against God by building a golden calf and ascribing to it a history of freedom and a relationship of guardianship that was rightfully God's. They prayed to the calf and held it up as their new god. Moses, upon seeing this shameful display, did not equivocate. He did not say, "I see the value you have imbued in this object," or attempt to explain away their actions as the result of the people's fear and uncertainty at his long absence. He did not say, "There is blame on many sides; both the calf-worshipers and God were equally wrong." He did not insist that we keep the calf intact and prominently display it as a reminder of our "history" and the "cultural legacy" of people who turned their backs on the most fundamental belief of our young religion. No! He melted it down, ground it into dust, and scattered it in the water.

In a series of Tweets today, Trump ranted about the increasingly "foolish" removal of the "beautiful statues and monuments" of the Confederacy, which are "the history and culture of our great country" and which he claimed will be "greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced."

Here is what we "learn" from a "beautiful" statue of Robert E. Lee in a public park. That traitors to our nation deserve to be honored and venerated. That the racist goals of erecting these statues (largely in the 1880s-1910s to reinforce Jim Crow and segregation and 1950s-60s in direct opposition to the Civil Rights Movement) are not repugnant to our society today. That this particular "history and culture of our great country" is the history and culture we want to hold up as "great." That neo-Nazis and the KKK deserve to be respected in the national debate about who we are and for what we stand.

If we want to learn from these statues, then they should be in a museum where those meanings can be explored and contextualized. They don't belong in public places.

We should never bring up Hitler lightly, but I do think that it is an apt comparison in this instance. Maggie Penman put it best: "To equate Robert E. Lee with Hitler would be lazy, and bad history. Hitler's name is invoked too casually, and too often. But since the white supremacists protesting the removal of Lee's statue in Charlottesville brandished swastikas, and openly made the Nazi salute, the connection to 1930s Germany was invited by the marchers themselves." Germany remembers the history of WWII without statues of Hitler, because they recognize that statues of mass murderers and war criminals are not appropriate or necessary to historical memory.

When we talk about preserving shameful parts of our history, we have to recognize a difference between remembering and honoring. These statues and monuments to Confederate generals were erected as part of a revisionist history that sought to glorify traitors to our nation. Recognizing and remembering the racism that spawned these statues is the history we should be remembering and in light of that history, we have to reject the continued veneration of people who sought to destroy our country.

It is not only history that should concern us, but our future too. By leaving these symbols of hate and oppression in public, we leave present and future white supremacists with the misconception that their ideology is a welcome and valuable part of America. These symbols of hate are fodder for budding white supremacists, like Dylan Roof, who see the Confederate flag and other "lost cause" Confederate symbols as an invitation to continue that violence and oppression today.

It's long past time to take these monuments down. Put them in museums with the proper educational materials to contextualize them and remove the sense of honor they hold, or, like the golden calf, let's melt them down and grind them to dust until all that's left of them is the memory of regret at ever having created and deified them in the first place.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A rhetorical question

​In November, just days after the election, I got in a Facebook-friendship-ending argument with my uncle about fear in the age of Trump. 

The argument spanned many topics, but for the bulk of it, I argued that the millions who voted against Trump (myself included) had legitimate fears. These fears were based on his campaign rhetoric that attacked, among others, women, minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities, Muslims, and Jews, while dog whistling to the scum of our society, and based on history (as a history major who focused domestically on the Civil War and internationally on WWII, I know a thing or two about what happens when hate is given power).

The fears I confessed from my heart were reduced by my uncle to "liberal talking points," and he assured me that, "None of what you and millions of your like minded people think will happen will actually happen."

I unfriended him for many reasons (not all political), which just came to a head in this argument. I was tired of being belittled and devalued, because of my age and gender, as if my experiences as a millennial Jewish woman counted for nothing if they did not lead to the same life conclusions as a white Catholic baby boomer. I was tired of having my education treated as if I'd been brainwashed. And I was tired of talking to a brick wall who, for all his expressions of love for his family, somehow thought that a movement based on hate and resentment would make America great.

At the time, just days after the election, from my grief and despair, I offered this tiny shred of something-like-hope. I would not (and could not) expect better of Trump than he had proved he was capable of, but I suggested that he could (the onus being fully on him) attempt to rebuild the bridges he had burned with over half the country.

In that time, he has built bridges only with dictators and white supremacists. My fears and the fears of millions proved not to be "liberal talking points." They have come to pass.

Photo from Politico
There are Nazis in the streets of Charlottesville. Emboldened by a president who espouses so many of their views and refuses to condemn them, they descended on Virginia wearing Hitler quotes on their t-shirts, waving Confederate flags, and brandishing torches, proposing to take our country from us.

Their definition of American greatness is at odds with America. Their voice is not one of "many sides" to count in the debate about who we are; it is not even a choice. Our ideals, as expressed in our founding documents, in our songs, speeches, and poems, are not hatred, xenophobia, and violence, but life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the great American melting pot (or salad bowl), a place to breathe free, where we offer liberty and justice for all. Any "side" that rejects these fundamental ideals has no place in our national conversation and deserves no voice in shaping our national identity. The fact that the president offers them a seat at the table and a voice is embarrassing, disgraceful, and horrific.

And, so, I have a rhetorical question for my uncle, who is not a bad person at heart: "Is this the America you wanted?"