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True Populism

The essay will appear in the April 3, 2016 edition of the Durham Herald-Sun. ‘Where to Invade Next’ is showing at the Carolina Theatre this weekend. Check here for showtimes.

The drill team at my high school in West Texas made some unorthodox song choices for routines. One of them was “Crazy Train” by former Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. This song has been going through my head during election season. Songwriters Robert Daisley and Randall Rhoads penned: “Crazy, but that’s how it goes, millions of people living as foes. Maybe, it’s not too late, to learn how to love, and forget how to hate.” They go on to name that “heirs of the cold war” are vulnerable to media messaging that keeps people living as foes: “The media sells it, and you live the role.”

I was recently back in Texas for a wedding. A recurring loop was “No Politics!” One patriarch advised, only half-jokingly, if a conversation starts drifting that direction, interject “How about them Cowboys?” A cousin told my daughter, “Whatever you do, don’t name the one who shall not be named.” Waiting to disembark on the flight home, one hapless neighbor said something about Sarah Palin, and people visibly winced, anticipating an old fight was on. This instant-argument, divide and conquer mess now has a name. The term is “dog-whistle politics.” Keep people living as foes by crafting a figure so divisive we cannot discuss politics with the people we are supposed to love. “The media sells it, and you live the role.” When we cannot discuss our shared future with relatives, something is wrong. Afraid to seem uncivil, or erudite, or backward, or radical, or misinformed, or snooty, we stick to talking about recipes or sports. Some might sweep this into an indictment of “political correctness,” but it is a form of political manipulation. We shout at one another on social media but stay silent when together. This is a crazy train.

True populism requires that people who need to work for a living (meaning, like, all of us) actually talk to one another about what we are experiencing as we work or look for work. For starters, try this: “Name a time when you stood up for yourself at work,” or “Name a time when you stood up for a co-worker.” “Populism” is a phrase political pundits are now using to sort you and me – that is, the populace – and their words are worse than a poor substitute for actual, political conversation with neighbors. Their words are an insulting distraction. The talking heads amplified on media and social media further divide and silence people who need one another to reverse this second great depression.

Here are two examples of insulting distraction. Assessing support for the one who shall not be named, an ostensibly “conservative” media outlet called “National Review” ran these words: “Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence – and the incomprehensible malice – of poor white America.” The writer continues “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.” The writer recommends people leave the towns where they grew up and get a U-Haul (with what extra income, I am not sure) to go somewhere else. This is a hateful, unapologetic form of social-Darwinism. If you cannot afford to leave home, you deserve to die. Another widely-circulated assessment of “populism” from a supposedly “liberal” source was Gloria Steinem’s suggestion that young women prefer a labor advocate from Vermont over a hawkish, free-trade opponent because “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys?’” Steinem actually said that. In both cases, ways that working people are genuinely struggling to find traction are dismissed as besotted. Either you’re clinging to a past best thrown in the trash or you’re hoping to date a hipster. What if people privy to these dog-whistles talk to each other? What if we get off the crazy train and remember, if not how to love, then at least how to work together?

This essay will appear on Sunday, April 3. I recommend we each bring a neighbor to see “Where to Invade Next” at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. A reviewer named Jon Schwarz writes about the main message of this movie: “You and I aren’t bad. All the people around us aren’t bad . . . If regular people get control over their own lives, they’ll use it wisely rather than burning the country down in a festival of mindless debauchery . . . [the movie] is all the more powerful because it doesn’t tell you this, it simply shows you. It’s not speculation about how human nature will be transformed after the revolution so we’ll all be happy to share our ration of grass soup with The People. It’s all happening right now, with imperfect human beings just like us.” As Ozzy sings, “it’s not too late.”

Rollercoaster of Love

This essay first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on February 7, 2016.

I stayed up way too late last night following social media about the Iowa Democratic caucus.  My house has a pink and blue homemade sign in front proclaiming “The Green Street Girls [Heart] Bernie Sanders.”  The last time I had this much love in the game was during Obama’s first primary run.  I remember talking to a good friend in Chicago about the race.  He and his son were traveling to campaign for Obama across the Midwest.  “Do you really think Obama is going to change things?” I asked him, hopeful but also trying to be realistic.  “He is going to break our hearts,” he said, “but I am campaigning for him anyway.”

It is not easy to put your heart back into a game after your heart has been broken.  After I went through divorce five years ago, I was talking to a new friend about trusting in love again.  He and his wife train horses, and they likened the task to getting back onto a horse after you have been thrown off of one.  You cannot let your fear rule you.  You have to trust again that the world is more safe than not – that people are more worth loving than not.  I have found this to be true not only for trusting in romantic love, but also for trusting a new church after a congregation has thrown you off the horse, so to speak, or for trusting a new classroom after you have gone through a really rough ride with a group of particularly rude students.  Investing your heart, truly risking a part of your soul by loving a person or a group of people, can be harrowing.  “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” may be true, but it is not easy.  To venture a sufficient part of yourself truly to be open to love is scary.  

Another friend compared dating after divorce to being in freefall.  He is older than I am, and I had confessed that I felt like I was twelve again, and that it was unsettling.  He reassured me that he often feels twelve also, and added that he often feels like a twelve-year-old in freefall.  Members of funk band The Ohio Players were definitely grown-ups when they wrote their 1976 hit-song “Love Rollercoaster.”  They are singing about loving a sweetheart, and the sense of both exhilaration and barely-controlled panic that go along with such love.  The writers of the 1989 movie “Parenthood” use the same exact image for what it means truly to be part of a family.  The grandmother in the film puts it this way:

You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.

Richard Thompson has a song that says something similar about love.  He wrote it around the same time that his marriage to singer and songwriter Linda Peters was coming apart at the seams.  It is called “The Wall of Death,” referencing a circular track where people ride a motor-cycle or other vehicle sideways, basically.  You will have to look up images yourself, because words fail me.  I cannot begin to imagine riding a motorcycle sideways.  But Richard Thompson sings “you’re going nowhere when you ride on a carousel,” which is true.  Grandma is right.  As one saying about family goes, having children means consenting to allow your heart to walk around outside your body.  I have seen this be true also for love between sweethearts, and love of children for parents.  

Investing your heart with fidelity is not always exhilarating.  Putting your heart into a game – venturing, risking, trusting – is also about the tiny little steps that make love possible.  Bernie Sanders tied Hillary Clinton in Iowa not due to something giant, but through one little phone call after another, one conversation after another, made with patience, not so much with valor.  Love between two sweethearts is similar, like kindling, as one of my favorite television shows put the matter recently.  Life together is made little stick by stick.  That same series has a very astute argument against couples writing their own wedding vows.  In one episode, a young couple writes absolutely ridiculous vows to one another, describing love as an up-front, 100% sure sort of thing, thereby confounding other young couples in the congregation.  I am grateful the marriage vows in my tradition are set in stone by old people, who, even though they sometimes feel like twelve-year-olds in freefall, know that love is also about getting back on that horse, trusting daily that the world is more safe than scary.

Loving Jimmy Carter


A picture from the days when all pictures looked like Instagram.

Two older friends at Trinity United Methodist told me a few weeks ago that they wish Barbara Jordan were still alive to run for president. They both would love to celebrate the first woman president before they go to God, but not the woman that many of us are being told to support at present. Barbara Jordan or Shirley Chisolm, yes. If you do not know who these women were, please look them up. Here are two places to start.  Growing up in Texas, I learned early who Barbara Jordan was. My parents wanted her to be president someday. My mother and I stop to pay our respects at her statue in the Austin airport when I fly there for holidays.

The first presidential election I followed was between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. I was eight years old, and my brother and I had dressed up in bicentennial costumes for the little parade in our small town the summer of 1976, the same month that Barbara Jordan delivered her televised keynote at the Democratic National Convention. This was all a huge, complicated deal in my little mind, as I watched my parents experience nostalgia, skepticism, and resilient hope for a different country. (See the Wikipedia page on the Bicentennial, and look online for more cheesy photos of children dressed in colonial costume.) Read more

This Labor Day, I Want a Union

I have been working this past year on an effort to encourage people to say the words “labor union” (without epithet) at their place of worship the weekend before Labor Day.  My favorite encounter came this summer.  I was at a worker justice rally in downtown Raleigh one Monday, handing out snappy fliers with a picture of an apple pie.  The flier read “Labor Day is as American as apple pie.  So are labor unions!”  I spotted a labor trailblazer in a group of people, so I waited politely for my turn to talk to him.  I flashed my smile and pulled out a flier, with flourish.  He looked at it and said, without a blink, “Do you have a union?”  “No,” I answered back.  “Why not?” he asked.  Huh. Read more

Postcards from Moral Monday

My mom and dad raised me with a passion for public school.  This photo is of my mom, about the same time she was working at Sears to help fund her college education.  She taught for over three decades, middle school and high school, French, Theater, History, English Literature, whatever the job market required, as my dad itinerated for the Methodist Church across Texas.  She is only 4’9”, and she continues to be a charming force to be reckoned with.  Two of her closest, lifelong friends Eva and Jeannie, were also lifelong school teachers.  Eva is an expert quilter and Jeannie knows absolutely everything about public school politics in Texas.


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