Emails to My Senators

I haven’t been writing blog posts lately because
1. I’ve been planning my wedding,
2. I’m in the process of moving,
3. I’ve been calling and emailing my Senators regarding Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

I believe sexual assault survivors of all genders. I’m sick to death of men deciding that crimes against women don’t matter, particularly if the culprits are straight white men, the wealthier the better. And I believe a great deal will be lost if Kavanaugh is confirmed. I am increasingly convinced that most people who support Kavanaugh’s appointment believe Dr. Ford. They just don’t care. They don’t think sexual assault matters. If they did, Trump wouldn’t have been elected. But he was, and Kavanaugh was nominated, and here we are. Women are still less than human. Powerful men can still shout and rant and interrupt Senators and lie under oath and be appointed for the highest court in the country. (Although I pray and pray that he won’t be.) Therefore, I have been contacting my senators, including Lindsey Graham on the Senate Judiciary Committee, multiple times a day.

Below are two of the emails I wrote to my Senators today.

To Senator Tim Scott:
I am calling on Senator Scott to demand the White House ask the FBI to reopen the probe into the three allegations of sexual assault brought by Dr. Ford, Ms. Ramirez, and Ms. Swetnick against Brett Kavanaugh. This is a job interview process for a permanent position on the highest court in the country. We cannot risk putting an ill-qualified judge into that position.

Kavanaugh has already lied under oath during these proceedings. If his word cannot be trusted about the legality of his past actions—such as whether it was legal for him to consume alcohol in Maryland when he was a teenager—his overall character and all allegations against him must be subject to the closest scrutiny.

During the past few days, Senator Graham has demonstrated alarming partisanship while threatening to abuse his power in “revenge” against Democratic candidates. I am relying on Senator Scott to uphold the integrity of the Senate, the Supreme Court confirmation process, and South Carolina by demanding the reopening of the FBI probe. Until that time, I urge the Senator to call for the delay of all votes.

To Senator Lindsey Graham:
I have placed multiple calls to your local and DC offices over the past 24 hours and your voicemail inboxes remain full. It is obvious that you do not want to hear from your constituents. However, your outrageous displays of partisanship cannot go unanswered by the people you represent.

Considering your previous service in the Air Force, I expected you to put the interests of your country above that of your party. Considering your position as the senior senator representing South Carolina, I expected you to uphold the integrity of the Senate and our state. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I expected you to uphold the integrity of the confirmation process. Instead, you undid all your work with Senator Durbin on the Dreamers bill, impugned the reputation of our state, betrayed the best interests of the country to appease the Trump base, and threatened to abuse your power by taking “revenge” against Democratic candidates. In short, you have behaved shamefully.

The only way to begin to make this up to your constituents is to demand the White House ask the FBI to reopen the probe into the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh and to delay all votes until that probe is complete.

Your state is watching. We will remember in 2020.

The News Makes it Hard to Sleep

When I’ve been depressed and anxious, I’ve disciplined myself not to look at the news or get online an hour before I go to bed or an hour after I get up.

I wish I’d been more disciplined last night. I was curious if there were any new pictures of Blair Braverman’s sled dog puppies and ended up discovering, among other things, that a thirteen-year old black boy in Houston was kidnapped by a group of white 17-18 year olds as he was getting off the bus from school, and taken to a cabin filled with weapons. He’s a baby. His name is Zavion. And he barely escaped torture and lynching.

I couldn’t sleep for a while. I don’t understand what my country has become, how so many people think that the president is anything but a lying, corrupt, incompetent white supremacist. Calling Latinx people “animals” (don’t make the MS-13 excuse; humans are humans) is a deliberate dehumanization tactic often seen employed to prepare the way for gross human rights violations, like property theft, enslavement, abuse, and genocide.

When faced with innocents being killed, as in Gaza, I see a lot of people taking the cue of the US ambassador to the UN, who walked out of meeting rather than listen to the Palestinian ambassador speak. The act was supremely disrespectful and undiplomatic. Much like the deliberately provocative decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem or to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Not being trustworthy, consistent, or respectful on the world’s stage is a bad look for a country that loves carrying its bully stick around, policing the world, threatening dictators, and taking credit for other countries’ accomplishments. (Lest we think calling Kim Jong Un names on Twitter is a savvy political move.)

The news is flooded with so many stories of terrible things happening to innocent people because of corrupt, immoral, distinctly un-Christlike political leadership. So many people feel that their worst inclinations are justified by the racist, ablest, homophobic, misogynistic, greedy language and acts of these politicians. And those people act on those inclinations. They rant at people speaking another language or call the police to have brown and black people removed from the areas they want for themselves.

Anyone who cannot accept that someone is not exactly the same as them is dangerous. Zavion knows that. Palestinians know that. A restaurant full of people in Manhattan know that. So do two men in a coffee shop in Philadelphia. As do school after school full of children.

I must constantly remind myself that, as a Christian, I am to be a person of hope. I struggle to understand how Christians around me can extend such beautiful, selfless love and compassion to their friends and neighbors but offer venom to people who don’t look or identify as they do. I struggle to comprehend how Christians, specifically, voted for people who are known pedophiles and harassers and literal Nazis merely because they belong to the political party that Billy Graham insisted was the Christian one.

I’m white and abled and heterosexual and a Protestant Christian. My existence isn’t inherently politicized in the way that, for example, a disabled queer Muslim person’s is. I can wear a symbol of my faith and not have to worry about being attacked or harassed because of it. I don’t think it’s radical to want everyone to be able to wear a symbol of their faith with the same security. I won’t be fired for my sexual orientation or physical abilities, and I want everyone else to be protected in the same way. Marginalized people being protected doesn’t mean I, as a non-marginalized person, lose any protection. It doesn’t mean, as I’ve heard other Christians—even ministers—argue, that Christians will be persecuted if homosexual or Muslim people are not oppressed. The standard can be dignity and security for everyone. Not because of what they can contribute to the world, but because they are human. And all humans, so says the Bible in Genesis 1:27, are made in God’s image.

Hatred and apathy are both un-Christlike. Despair is understandable (thank you, Jeremiah and Job), but Christians are called to hope (thank you, Naomi and David). These days, it’s hard to find the balance between taking care of my mental health and being informed of the instances of rising bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred. Because of my privilege, I can choose apathy and my life won’t be greatly affected in the short term. But I have seen this pattern of propaganda, government-disseminated lies, dehumanization, and society-accepted abuse before in my political science and history studies. And I know that widespread abuse and oppression, even genocide, can happen anywhere. Even here. And it is ungodly. It is unconscionable. It should keep me up at night.

These days, I’m making a concerted effort to learn about communities in the United States that I don’t belong to. Through educating myself, I hope to better understand, respect, and support people who don’t look like me or identify as I do, and who are oppressed for it. God has shown us mortals what God wants of us: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Self-education is one way to obey all three commands. Lately, a favorite resource has been W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America.

I’m also leaning on my word for the year: believe. I believe that people will have verbal, active compassion for others. I believe God is with those in pain. I believe I can change one person’s mind. I believe I can be generous or brave, for God’s glory, to make another person’s life a little better. I believe that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (MLK, Theodore Parker).

Power, Institutions, and the Force

***Extensive SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. You have been warned.***

In the emotional climax between Kylo Ren/Ben Solo and Rey, Rey is tortured by Snoke, Kylo Ren turns on and kills Snoke, the pair defeat the red-clad guards, and now they must decide what will happen next. Both have entered this fight with assumptions about their end goals, and only now, when it’s just the two of them, do they realize how different these expectations are. Kylo asks Rey to join him in making a new order in the galaxy. Rey begs him not to choose this path of corruption.

They’ve been explaining their positions throughout the movie, but until this point they believed the other thought enough like them that the two of them could agree. And, honestly, I found Kylo Ren’s argument surprisingly relatable. All the only institutions are broken. Let them die, he says. We know how broken it all is. We can do things differently. We just have to let the broken institutions die. We have to let go of our ideas of how things have to be so we can build something better.

Even Luke, our dear, salty space uncle, is disillusioned with the institutions of the past and he makes sure Rey knows why they shouldn’t be resurrected. His unilateral decision about his nephew Ben’s darkness, and his power over him, is what pushed Ben to the dark side. Rey points this out to Luke, that his failure was a misuse of his power as the sole Jedi master and as Ben’s uncle and mentor. By the red throne room confrontation, it seems Kylo has come to the same conclusion: the Jedi Order is just as broken as any other institution. His uncle tried to resurrect it and Kylo suffered, and was nearly killed, because of it.

This morning on NPR, I heard a similar argument to Kylo’s, along with a guest asking young people, particularly millennials, not to completely abandon all the old institutions of government and civil service. The speaker agreed that institutions are fundamentally broken in many ways, but insisted that they serve a vital purpose: continuity. This is more of Rey’s philosophy. The First Order is tyranny. The Republic and it’s Jedi Order were also deeply problematic. But Rey doesn’t think others’ lives should depend on her whims, and in Leia and Poe’s arcs we see the need to learn and pass on wisdom so that the resistance, its members, and hope survive.

Kylo is willing to kill many people and to let many many more be killed for this purpose. And murder—since we’re talking about the rise of fascist regimes, it probably needs saying—is wrong. Including murders you allow to occur because the results will further your own purposes.

Kylo asks Rey to join him, to be his balance in the Force and in power, to let him be her balance and teacher. He asks that she accept that the existing institutions cannot be redeemed or saved. He asks that she give up on everyone who still clings to these institutions. He demands that she be complicit in the murders of hundreds of resistance members within sight of the late Supreme Leader’s command ship and the oppression of millions across the galaxy. After her experiences with Luke and Snoke, and confronting the truth about her parents and life on Jakku, he believes she will.

You don’t have to do it yourself, Ren says of the deaths. You just have to let it happen. Which is exactly how fascist regimes come to power, with the majority doing nothing so that, one day, they can hold more power. Even if that promise of power is a lie. I’d even say that it’s always a lie. Power corrupts. No one interested in sharing power with the masses wants loads of people to die in order to obtain that power. You can’t care about people’s freedom while not caring if they die.

I believe Kylo recognizes that he is a better person because of Rey’s influence. He wants Rey to be a part of this mission. He doesn’t want to be alone. But when she rejects his worldview and refuses to join him—refuses to accept the murders of hundreds and the oppression of millions in the name of one powerful person’s version of progress—Ren does not accept her decision and go about his mission on his own. He doesn’t wait out the battle on the planet or begin to dismantle the existing First Order power structures. He doesn’t wake up, fire Hux and Phasma, release all the Stormtroopers, and destroy the First Order ships. Rather, he lies about Rey and embraces again his existing power within the largest, most corrupt institution in the galaxy.

Remember, this is minutes after Rey disagrees with his worldview, which is minutes after he promises to share power with her.

We don’t know Ren’s ultimate vision for the galaxy, but we are given a glimpse of possibility: a trusting and caring team, Rey and Ben Solo working together to eliminate oppression and bring balance to the Force. He is more dark, but possesses light. She is light, but possesses some darkness. Together, they can be in balance. If only she will accept oppression of others, but Rey will not. If only Kylo will work within the existing institutions, but he will not. Rey asks him to use his existing role of power to save lives, but Kylo wants them all to die instead so he and Rey can rule together, as they see fit.

Luke believes he’s right that the Jedi order should die when Yoda’s force ghost sets the ancient tree on fire, but that wiley master knew that the sacred texts, the building blocks of the Jedi and their understanding of the Force, were safe aboard the Falcon. In Rey’s choices, Yoda’s lightning, and even the final exchange of the movie between Rey and Leia, the filmmakers seem to be saying, “Yes. Tear down what’s broken. But don’t burn it all. Don’t hurt people to do it. Go back to basics. The basics are good. Start from there.” Considering the “Weinstein effect” presently gripping Hollywood, I find this argument particularly poignant.

Recently, a friend shared about a dysfunctional dynamic in an organization she belongs to. The person with the most power in the group felt threatened by anyone who disagreed with her and was actively discouraging discussion and making others feel small. This leader initially joined the group when only one person had a voice and only that person had any power. In her eagerness to dismantle that system in which she was voiceless, she created a new system in which only her voice mattered. She doesn’t realize that she had helped created a system of oppression, just like the one she had suffered under, but this time she was the oppressor.

I read accounts of abuse, death, oppression, corruption, and listen to analysis of incompetence run rampant in the most powerful positions in government, supported by people claiming to value the opposite traits in humanity. I am tempted by Kylo’s message. I think the tired, jaded among us were meant to be tempted by it. Let it die. Just let all this horrible crap crash and burn. We’ll make something better. But power doesn’t work like that. Nor does creation. We must have honest group discussions, diverse voices, a populous that asks questions, leaders afraid of their own power, and checks and balances to both power and privilege. And I believe that we do need institutions. Not as they are at present, but institutions that will provide a framework of fair operations and protection of the vulnerable and marginalized so that no one is oppressed. I believe our rebuilt institutions should be able to survive in tact without its builders and leaders.

I don’t know where Star Wars is headed, if Kylo Ren will be redeemed somehow or not, if Rey will manage to create a freedom-oriented teaching environment for force-sensitive people. I come back to hope. I find more hope in a Falcon full of porgs and friends and mentors who work to give others freedom than in powerful people promising to forsake their power once they have a different kind of power. This year, as I call members of Congress and sign petitions and ask questions in response to diverse sources of news and commentary, I am leaning on hope. I am choosing to believe this country can be better. Rebellions are built on hope.

On Mongols and Walls

One day last week, I spent my lunch break in a tree-lined parking lot, eating a salad in my car and listening to the audiobook of The Secret History of the Mongol Queens. That day’s chapter was about the political, military, and environmental factors that went into the building of the Great Wall of China. That Mandukhai Khatun (Queen Mandukhai the Wise to us English-speaking peons) was a credit to her ancestor Ghengis Khan, as almost none of his other descendants were. Also, Commander Wang Yue of the Ming Dynasty was quite the poet in his military reports.

Here’s the gist. The Mongols were in the habit of raiding the fertile pastureland of the Yellow River (also called the Black, Green, or Red River, depending on which people group you ask). The Mongols had once held this territory and wanted it back, in part to provide good grassland for their horses. But it wasn’t grassland at the time; it was farmland, because the Chinese were using that area to feed their empire. The Chinese had to trade with the Mongols for horses because they were farming the pastureland and prices rose. The Chinese military leaders were incapable of defending the border towns and spent most of their time either waiting for news of an attack or futilely chasing after the Mongols, always one town behind.

So, once a favorable cost-benefit analysis was presented to the Ming court, a Chinese courtesan basically said, “Yeah, this is definitely the best option. It’s much more civilized than posting more soldiers up there…or feeding them adequately, or paying them adequately, or training them at all.” This statement was followed with a chorus of, “We’re incredibly civilized! We’re so super civilized, you guys.” (The Ming built entire tribute system on encouraging others to become what the Ming considered to be “civilized,” which just meant being as much like the Ming as possible.)

“A wall is far more humane than killing the poor barbarians who we can never seem to catch, let alone defend against,” reasoned some courtesan. “The wall will keep our farmer-soldiers from deserting us and the Mongols from raiding us. It’s brilliant! So simple.”

And that kind of double-speak to justify a wall sounds rather familiar, in tone if not in words. And walls are such good ideas! Walls solve everything. There’s no problem a big, strong wall can’t fix. Just ask the Chinese, whose wall may or may not have directly contributed to the Ming dynasty’s fall. (No, really! Historians and economists disagree about how much the wall had to do with the empire’s fall. This wasn’t my area of emphasis in my history degree, either, so I’m not going to weigh in. However, most historians agree that the wall served as a symbol of the dynasty’s downfall, and still does today.)

That’s basically what I remember about the Great Wall from my school days. I learned that the wall was built in parts first, then connected, and lots of people died in the process. I learned the great wall isn’t straight because the Chinese believed that evil spirits follow straight lines, and I learned that the wall didn’t really work.

Now, to be fair, the region did stabilize economically after the completion of the wall and a failed Mongol raid in 1482, but the stability likely had as much to do with the legacy of Mandukhai Khatun’s rule (remember, she’s the really cool Mongol queen directly descended from Ghengis Khan) as it did the wall. In terms of repelling invasions, though, the wall did precious little in the 130 years between completion and the dynasty’s fall.

So, to anyone wanting a new wall, literally or figuratively, let me point out a few things that the Ming didn’t know when they built theirs.

1. Racism hurts everyone. That includes you, no matter what ethnicity you are. You may not feel the effects in the short-term (though Chinese and Mongol people died because of that wall), but you better believe that future generations are going to shake their heads in frustrated disgust at you. And no one loves to tear things down more than the young, jaded idealists who grew up in a big wall’s shadow. (Berlin, anyone?)

2. There’s no such thing as a simple solution. Not in border disputes, not in economics, not in policy, not in life. The complex problems that people build walls to try to solve will not be solved once a wall is complete. Rather, the problems will morph, affecting new aspects of society and causing entirely new problems, or they will swell until the wall can no longer hold back the flood.

3. Avoid building symbols of power. They are too fragile to maintain and protect, but become too important psychologically to let fall. If the symbol goes, so does the illusion of your strength. You’ll invest immeasurable amounts of time, energy, money, and other resources defending your symbol, and you’ll have to continue long after it’s outlasted its original usefulness. Or long after you realize it never fulfilled its original purpose. You won’t be able to defend it from others or get rid of it yourself (ie, US sanctions against Cuba, maintained until after Fidel Castro’s death).

Clearly, I’m not outlining my own complex solutions to the world’s ills. But I am cautioning us to really think through the literal and figurative walls being built in US foreign policy.