Ben’s Diagram

(Poster from the Lex-Rock Women’s Rights Rally on Randolph Street, March, 2017.)

On a hot and dusty Friday afternoon, I head to a VFW about two miles from my home.  It’s not yet 4:30, and the parking lot is full.  I park, enter the low-slung building, hand my registration form to the woman at the door, and receive my yellow sticker, which I am supposed to wear on my clothing.  The yellow sticker serves to distinguish me from my green-sticker neighbors, whom I know well and respect.  Green-sticker attendees live in Rockbridge County, and we yellow-sticker folks are from the City of Lexington.  For this particular townhall meeting, all green sticker questions must be exhausted before a yellow sticker question is permitted.

I walk past a policeman, whose gun peeks out of the holster and who stands throughout the meeting.  As I sit at a table, placing my notebook and pen in front of me, I notice a cameraman and assume he’s from the local news, from WDBJ or WSLS, covering the visit to the Sixth District of our representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ben Cline (*check out Gene Zitver’s ClineWatch site).  The folding chairs placed in rows are mostly full, with a few of us late arrivals scattered at the back tables, plastic affairs likely impervious to late-night spills or multiple moves.

Representative Cline begins his remarks by saying that Washington, D.C., is “the most dysfunctional place on earth.” He insists that his work in Washington is to represent his constituents, “the constituents of the 6th District,” he adds with an air of implied complicity with us all.  At the same time, he makes sure we understand that green-sticker constituents will have priority for questions.  The meeting was to end at 6:00.  I left at 5:55, with a number of green-sticker folks still waiting to ask their questions. While the system is set up to prioritize questions from the people who live in the area where the townhall is held, and that seems perfectly reasonable, it also seems to have a weird marginalizing or isolating effect on attendees and to be strangely unaware of the semiotic weight of telling people to wear yellow stickers.

Representative Cline proceeds to speak for a full 45 minutes.  While he laments giving up his local law firm, he is excited to be a big boy in Washington.  He expresses glee that his new office building is close to a Dunkin’ Donuts (surely, any true man of the people would delight in this, right?).  He talks about the 6th District and how the district requires him to focus on education and labor.  His remarks on education include only higher education concerns; nothing at all is stated about the excellent (in some cases) or utterly failing (in other cases) public schools up and down the Shenandoah Valley.  Our county middle school has recently reported significant data on achievement gaps and alarming statistics on chronic absenteeism. These statistics seem to carry over to our county high school.  Ben doesn’t address any local issues surrounding public education because he prefers to talk about charter schools, about removing students from the environment rather than fixing the environment.

The filibuster continues.  I say “filibuster” because Ben is not surprising us with any new expressions of concern or desires to legislate for the common good.  Instead, he talks about developing relationships with other men in the House.  He reminds us that he begins the day with the pledge and a prayer.  He boasts that he is the only freshman Republican in the House to have a bill signed into law.  We learn that the bill modifies membership provisions for the American Legion so that more veterans can enjoy the social benefits of belonging.  While this is well and good, I’m longing to hear about substantive movement (or at least plans to move) on the big issues of education, health care, environmental protections, and gun reform.  Ben does not mention any of these issues.  He does not discuss them until he is asked directly about them in the Q&A stage.  Instead, Ben talks about human beings as “illegals” and discusses who does and does not “belong” in this country.

When Representative Cline chooses to become more representative and opens up the townhall to Q&A, my green-stickered friends start a series of excellent questions.  They broach healthcare and the high cost of pharmaceuticals, ERA and the need for increased constitutional protections for women, real bipartisanship versus the use of inflammatory rhetoric, Ben’s A+ rating from the NRA and its implications for how he will represent 6th District residents keenly interested in common sense gun reform.  For the issues Ben does not want to address (like healthcare), Ben simply says, “It’s a broken system.”  For the issues on which he disagrees with the direction of the question, Ben takes refuge in his favorite, “We just need to enforce current laws.”  How is this neglect (e.g. healthcare) and/or active, obstinate wrongheadedness (e.g. common sense gun reform) working for Ben’s constituents?  How is it working for the state of Virginia, or indeed for the United States?  Not well, I’d say.  And cherrypicking minor bits of minor legislation is just an insult.  Let’s remember the Newsweek headline from last year that said, “More Children Have Been Killed by Guns Since Sandy Hook than U.S. Soldiers in Combat since 9/11.”  Our pro-life representative seems a bit less pro-life in this context, doesn’t he? Ben preens as he announces that the cameraman in the room is from a Swiss television station interested in the United States and the NRA.  Nice A+ NRA photo op, Ben, at the expense of victim after victim of gun violence in the U.S.

For those who don’t regularly track the politics of the Virginia 6th, in January of this year, Ben Cline replaced Bob Goodlatte (*see this blog post and this one) as the district’s representative to the House.  Many of us in the 6th criticized Goodlatte’s utter absence up and down the western side of Virginia.  Friends and neighbors far more generous than I credit Ben Cline with at least showing up—scheduling town halls and visiting with residents of the 6th.  Of course, showing up is the right thing to do, but staging the town hall in the same way, time after time, locality after locality, without opening up ever to real dialogue to me creates the same absence established by Bob Goodlatte, only worse.  It is an abuse of sincere people who desire to speak up against injustice and ask in the kindest of ways for the most appropriate changes.  It is a violation of the good will of good people, and that is what sickens me about both Cline and the GOP.

I have written many blog posts that express my confusion and sadness at the silence of so many Republican voters before the utter debasement of humankind and the earth we inhabit.  I still feel that way.  Cline represents the rotten core of the GOP.  He seems uninterested in learning new things, unwilling to hear dissent, all too comfortable in his own contradictory stances, cruel in his desire to legislate against others’ humanity, and laughably proud of the tiniest of inconsequential legislative victories.  Does Ben Cline deserve the time and energies of thoughtful citizens, people concerned about escalating costs of lifesaving pharmaceuticals, increased vulnerability to guns gone wild, and the lack of women’s rights in the face of domestic violence and major reproductive challenges?  These thoughtful citizens wonder about the Ben Cline who presents himself as the aw-shucks reasonable guy at a town hall meeting he orchestrates and how he seems so different from the Ben Cline campaign guy who uses inflammatory rhetoric at election events and rallies.  It is all one and the same Ben Cline, the one who wants to get elected only to get elected again.

Let me say something more here.  Even if the political parties were reversed, and I were a Republican watching a Democratic representative yank me around, I’d be pissed.  I do not understand power for power’s sake, public presentation without real conversation, or hyper-staged events that in the end feel like the meaningless parades of the Castro era or the trumped-up falsity of the 2017 United States presidential inauguration.  I just don’t get it. From a humanitarian standpoint, I am relieved that more Republican Congresspeople are choosing not to run for re-election because they don’t see a place for themselves in the party.  As a freshman in the House, Representative Cline runs counter to this impulse, seeking power for power’s sake, constituents be damned.

In his town halls, Ben emphasizes “civility,” but what does this mean in a context where every element is controlled by the powerful guy in the suit? Ben gets to report that he holds townhalls and listens to his constituents, when actually he grandstands, offers banal information, tightly controls who can ask questions (and when and how), and replies with sometimes faulty, often conflicting stances.

Ben is the Groping Old Party, taking advantage of the time and good intentions of sincere constituents who want the best for the most people.

(My yellow sticker from the town hall meeting.  One yellow sticker is good for 90 minutes of being silenced.)

Another Kind of Family Separation

(By French artist JR; https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-border-wall-toddler-20170909-story.html)

Two days ago, I blogged about a certain kind of family separation, one marked by actual choice and great privilege.  Thank you for indulging that meditation.

Today, I am writing to remind us all about the acute nature of family separations at the Mexico-United States border and beyond.  Although I’ve mentioned this horror in many blog posts over the last two years (e.g. Cages, Criminal Justice Reform, Census Questions, and the Criminal in the White House), I have had trouble addressing it in direct and specific ways.  This is due, in part, to the scope of the matter, and due, in part, to the brutal reality of raids, separations, deprivations, and deaths at the hands of U.S. officials.  “Brutal,” relates to “brute,” from the Latin brutus, “dull, stupid, insensible,” but also to the phrase “brute force.”

While we appropriately wonder at the “president’s” “offer” (“Trump has defected,” The Atlantic, 8-21-19) to purchase Greenland and his subsequent gendered and decidedly undiplomatic dismissal of Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, we are somehow paralyzed by our nation’s inhumane acts at the border.  Of course, as has been the case throughout this three-year resistance, tens of thousands of fine people are finding ways to address the legal and humanitarian aspects of the border.  The ACLU, Al Otro Lado, and the many lawyers, interpreters, and journalists who have worked at sites like the Dilley Detention Center (in Texas) come to mind as representative of the brilliant and kind-hearted people who are doing the hard work of stemming the tide of Trump’s cruelty.

Nevertheless, the situation worsens daily.  ICE raids work in tandem with certain employers, who have hired immigrant workers and then allowed ICE to haul them away. The United States, under this cruel and crazy man, continues to create problems and then blame others for them.  We supply the guns that contribute to increased violence in Central America, and we demand, in enormous quantities, the drugs that fuel cartels, their competition and their violence.  We also consume natural resources and energy at an alarming rate, causing global devastation and environmentally-motivated migration.  We reinstate a global gag rule to cut aid to developing countries’ healthcare systems (now affecting thousands of U.S. citizens as well, with the cuts to Title X funding). We create all-too-legitimate causes of migration and need for asylum, and then we brutalize those who arrive at the border seeking asylum because they fear for their own and their family members’ lives. We allow children to go without food, water, medical care, and legal aid.  We put them in cages.  We neglect long-term family separation cases.  The United States is doing this.  The United States is causing, contributing to, and exacerbating these globally life-threatening issues.  The “credible fear” interview at the cornerstone of asylum cases is all too credible on both sides of the border.

This is the kind of family separation that empties out hope, makes us desperate.  Enhanced understanding of these issues must lead us to unseat the people making the horror happen, remake the more than misguided U.S. foreign policy with Latin America, and unlearn the cruelty that has become part and parcel of these “United” States.

Explico algunas cosas

My Spanish 240 students and I just read Pablo Neruda’s poem “Explico algunas cosas,” remarking on the poet’s call to the world to see the bloodshed on Spanish soil during the Spanish Civil War, the three-year struggle that would define the violence and alliances of World War II.  We commented on the title, literally translated as “I explain/I’m explaining some things,” but perhaps more aptly saying this, “I’ve got a few things to say,” or, “I’m putting some things on the table,” or even, “Listen up, people, there’s some bullshit in the world.”  I love this poem’s no-nonsense title, and I am particularly grateful for an era in which a poem’s verses can move people, groups, and nations to think and act.

Over the past two or three weeks, I have had several luxuries in my own little town and little time to sort through my impressions and opinions surrounding them.  This blog post is simply about getting a few things on the table, trying to understand my own reactions to the brilliant and creative work I have heard delivered or performed live in this short time.

I have heard Joy Harjo read her poetry, establishing voice and cadence and connection to the past and to Oklahoma, lamenting colonization and genocide and the willful ignorance surrounding these purposeful conquests.  She highlighted the Monacan Indian Nation as an important part of Virginia history.  As I sprinted from Harjo’s reading to Rebecca Traister’s presentation focused on her book, Good and Mad. The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, I thought again about how poetry packs a wallop, how it doesn’t have to be angry to show anger, how it doesn’t have to say, “This bullshit happened again,” to communicate that the bullshit did indeed happen again.  As I jumped into the Traister talk, I was struck by how the author’s style changed when she moved from her prepared remarks to speaking off-the-cuff.  Her prepared remarks slowed things down, stated an academic case, supported it with evidence.  When she spoke off-the-cuff, which really was not off-the-cuff but rather a brilliant demonstration of how much Traister holds in her head and how quickly she constructs the most lucid of arguments, you saw Traister allow the fire and anger to emerge.  You saw her live the academic argument she has made so often.  You saw her fatigue and frustration forged into smart fury, each comment building to the next, each example eliciting knowing nods from most of the audience.

As I walked from Traister’s talk to a group discussion of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, I sorted through how anger works in, for, and against me.  Anger shows on my face (friends often remind me that, even if I’m silent, people can actually still see my face), knots in my belly, and pumps blood through my body.  It drives me to a clear outline of the points I’m mad about and forces me to take some kind of action.  I’m sure it works against me in a whole host of ways that I don’t usually slow down long enough to analyze or to halt.  I arrived at the building where the book discussion was scheduled and laughed out loud thinking of my daughter when she was about four years old.  We had been at a 4th of July fair until too late.  She was in a tie-dye dress, had red, white, and blue popsicle stains across her face, and wild curls across her head. She was four, and she was pissed.  When we got home, and I was drawing a bath for her, she stood over me imperiously and announced that she was mad, mad for three reasons.  “Number one,” she yelled, index finger in the air.  “You didn’t let me cross the street by myself.”  “Number two,” she continued, new finger up and waving in my face.  “I wasn’t allowed to have another popsicle.”  Third finger up, the trifecta of her ire. “And, number three.  I am NOT taking a bath.”  I watched anger galvanize her thoughts and her forceful articulation of them.  I remembered thinking, “Yep, apple, tree, and all that.”

The White Fragility discussion challenged those of us who were present.  I realized immediately that I often approach social events and community gatherings too much as an academic.  I wanted to talk about the book—what I liked, what I didn’t, what I had learned, what I still needed to know, what my weaknesses are—and had little patience for those who just wanted to talk about the issue.  I was still in Good and Mad mode and had to let it go and just listen.  The next hour and a half reinforced for me the fatigue people of color must experience as they hear iteration after iteration of white people coming to terms with their own racism, sometimes in the most stroking and least aware of ways.  It also reinforced the challenge of living at various intersections and having to watch this play out in many different contexts every day.  Nevertheless, it is also clear that working in and as community means living these iterative processes and hoping that, slowly but surely, we are circling back to a more advanced point in our development.

Three nights ago, many of us heard the story of the 8-person local group who traveled to Tijuana in December to offer legal aid to migrants at the border.  The group provided excellent information on international human rights, immigration law, asylum procedures, and specifics about migration through Central America, Mexico, and the U.S.  They also shared the ways in which they were struck by, undone by, worried about, tenderly addressing all the need and tension and preoccupation about further separation and economic hardship.  A colleague talked about being touched again by the power of the law and the need to help people shape their narratives.  As the whole group discussed the “credible fear” interviews for asylum, I could not stop thinking about the additional credible fears our own country has created through detention, separation, and general dehumanization.  An excellent lunchtime presentation yesterday about the forthcoming documentary film The Burning allowed me to draw parallels between the migrant and refugee crisis in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya and the one addressed by the Tijuana group.  The mighty hypocrisy of it all, the unnecessary trauma of it all. We are living this vaivén, this back-and-forth between evil enacted by powerful people and desire for good brought about by people on the ground.

Two nights ago, again on campus, I joined a packed house to watch BlackkKlansman.  I saw most, but not all of the film, but thought it was incredibly powerful in its unflinching portrayal of racism and its institutions, of hatred of an entire race, layered with profound anti-Semitism and misogyny.  I hope to hear about the discussion after the film. Maybe it was a few steps ahead of the white fragility discussion of a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, across town at our local public schools, some great and worrisome events have taken place.  The high school boasts a state champion, Danielle Crawford, in the shot put and the state championship academic team (I can’t yet find a link announcing this), along with outstanding performances in the state championships by several swimmers.  At the same time, though, the high school had planned to hold one of its few assemblies for the whole school.  The assembly, just now scrapped, but only due to some necessary consciousness-raising, was to feature a preacher named Bob Holmes, who sees public schools as “mission fields,” hopes to guide students to Jesus, and states that girls who have been raped can find forgiveness from Jesus.  A local middle school also this week witnessed one of its teachers making racist and sexist remarks to a student.

There is so much work being done, and so much work still before us.  Of course, as a nation, we have also just witnessed the theater of the absurd of the GOP defense of Trump through their attack on Cohen.  The racist, conman, and cheat-in-chief continues to exercise his white supremacist, misogynist, dictator power.  The more we “explicamos algunas cosas,” the more cosas there seem to be.  In the meantime, I am profoundly grateful to the many people across the globe who are finding ways to ask us to see the bloodshed on our lands and do something about it.