Second-Class Something

In preparation for some dental work, my husband needed some prescriptions, including one for pain. The latter triggered a request from the pharmacy for ID. He doesn’t walk around with his passport and doesn’t have a driver’s license, so he whipped out his Temporary Permanent Residency card. But … “It’s expired.”

Oh. yeah. We’re in process.

We started it last July. We have an Official Letter From the Powers That Be that says, essentially, Oh, yeah, this guy, he’s still legal, but we’re awfully busy right now rounding up Dreamers and other immigrants to rip out of the arms of their legal loved ones, busy hunting down the semi-legal immigrants who are still trying to stay alive in the ICE Hunger Games Sweepstakes, so this guy has to wait some more. No, we can’t give you an estimated time of arrival. Shut up.

When we first learned that he’d be walking around with an expired green card for a year, we giggled. Wow, that’s really classy and professional. But yeah, see, we’ve got this letter …

So we went home, retrieved the needed paperwork, went back. Fuming.

In between the house and the pharmacy, Gerry decided to just show his passport—which is not expired (and is pretty stinkin’ impressive, actually, with it’s fancy-schmancy visa inside)—and get the pills and get out of there. He just didn’t feel like the hassle of having to call the store manager to look at and read this letter while he stood by, hat in hand. Gerry has spent a lot of his money in this community—on a house, on remodeling, on a car, on furniture, and always, always from local vendors—and yet this whole exercise made him feel not-good-enough.

I support him in the decision but I would have loved to march in there with him with his expired green card and his not-expired letter and say, See? See? I think it would have been a good education for the staff. It’s why I talk/write about this over and over. Because there are a lot of people who live their whole lives and never meet an immigrant. Or don’t realize they have.

At the end of the day, this story works out for us (that is, we can afford to hire an immigration attorney, and we have the time to wait and wait and wait, and we are white and move through society unnoticed, except when we need a drug on the restricted list). But what if my husband had brown skin? Or a funny name? Or a noticeable accent? (Oh, wait …) What if someone just felt like making trouble and called ICE on suspicion of an expired visa?

We don’t blame the good folks at Kroger who were just doing their jobs. The point here is immigrants—people who are neither here nor there—run into a dozen little roadblocks* like this every day. This experience made Gerry feel “less than.” It made him feel second-class. It made him feel as if he’d just been subjected to extreme vetting at the Kroger Pharmacy counter.

This coming October Gerry will have been resident here for three years, and technically we could start citizenship proceedings. Of course, it’s unlikely he will have his permanent green card by then, so we’ll have to complete that process first (so as to remain “legal”), then start on citizenship. Me, I look forward to another progressive voter in the house, working for change in this bloody state.

In the meantime, if anyone says the words extreme vetting in our hearing, he or she is likely to get punched. You’ve been warned.

* Remind me to tell you about how hard it was for Gerry, a decade ago, to open a checking account in this town (because he didn’t have a Social Security number) before we figured out how to game that system. Remind me to tell you how hard it was for him to get a simple credit card here. Remind me to tell you why it was easier for him to pay cash for his first house purchased in the US than to get a mortgage.

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Critical Thinking PSA

I’ve written on this topic—how to find the truth, and why sticking to facts is so important—more than once, three longish articles about critical thinking in today’s Wild West of Journalism.

Eschew Ignorance. Pursue Truth.
I Don’t Care If You’re Partisan. I Do Care If You Perpetrate Lies
The Year in Review

            I’ve probably got another longer article about the difference between news and propaganda in me too—but for now I think I’ve got a couple down and dirty examples that should help those who still don’t get it.* The difference between straightforward journalism and the biased comes down to use of words and use of photos.

Here’s an example of word use:

On Tuesday, with respect to tearing down Confederate monuments, President Trump bravely stood before the world and asked, “Where does it end?”

That’s an example from the Daily Wire, a right-wing opinion website that looks like a news site, complete with “breaking news” headlines. But you see it in the words: “President Trump bravely stood before the world.” Really? I’m rolling my eyes. Legitimate news reportage would simply say, “Donald Trump said.”

Here’s an example of photo use from the same not-news site. In a piece** that has very little to do with Hillary Clinton (except for the fact that the far right would like it to and has been trying to connect her to it for months), the headline mentions her (words, again) and is followed by an unflattering photo of her. One sees this “ugly photo” activity over and over in the right-wing press.

There’s a third principle at play here. The legitimate press doesn’t try to make something out of a long-debunked issue (here’s what PolitiFact says about it), using the name of their favorite bête noire to draw in readers anxious to hear some dirt on someone they dislike intensely.

So there you have it: words and photos. As a last thought, John Wiley & Sons, publishers of the For Dummies series, offers these points for discernment:

  • Look for a slant. Some articles are fair and balanced, but others look more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If an article has only one source, beware.
  • Consider the source. Even if an article cites external sources, check out those sources to see whether they are being cited fairly and accurately—and do, in fact, reinforce the article’s points.
  • Look who’s talking. If you research the contributors themselves and find that they are experts in their fields, you can be more confident in the entry.

My BS meter goes off all the time, y’all, but I have experience in research and parsing words, and that’s why. I offer this in the hope it helps make it easier for others to spot.

* Actually I think some folks just don’t want to get it. But there comes a time in everyone’s life, I think, when you realize you really need the truth. The facts. No sugar-coating and no prevaricating either. Maybe you’ve reached that point.

** I really hate linking to this website, so I’ve made a screengrab instead.

What the Mind Does

Funny how you’ll read something and it’ll spark this whole train of thought* … but here was an interesting thing that popped up: on the night I graduated from high school in Merced, California, Charles Ogletree Jr (yes, that one) came up to me and requested a celebratory kiss, and I obliged him (because, duh, I was full of myself back then, even with my boyfriend standing right there). It mightily annoyed said boyfriend, even though it was nothing more than a friendly—and quick—smooch. Charles was a scrawny kid, not tall, not possessed, yet, of the stature he would earn by his accomplishments.

He went on to Stanford University with a few of my classmates and from there to Harvard Law School, and subsequently a professorship at the university, where he taught, among many others, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson (later Obama, of course). You can read more about him here; his is an impressive career, an impressive life.

I snagged this photo from Ogletree’s page at his speakers’ bureau, Collaborative Agency Group.

It was announced in July 2016 that he has early-stage Alzheimer’s, and that news broke quickly in the world and among my old Merced crowd. None of us have seen him in decades, I should point out, but we were proud of him from a distance, and we’re all sorry to know this news. There’s been some better, hopeful news on the horizon for Alzheimer’s patients; one hopes he gets the benefit of the latest treatments and that his twilight years are exceedingly happy ones.

But what I wondered, though, that night in bed, feeling the synapses fire between the Coates and Ogletree, who sprang into my mind unbidden, was this: I wonder who else of my friends he kissed that night? Funny, how the mind works.

* It was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, the introduction to the sixth essay, which speaks of “how black families had been cut out of the FHA loan program and thus excluded from much of the suburban housing development in the postwar years … [which] was a great source of the wealth for American families.” Including me. My first husband and I financed more than one early home with FHA loans. This train of thought really got my attention—and broke my heart.

What Language Are You Speaking?

Today I left my appointment with a physical therapist and, since it was just after one o’clock, decided to drop by Panda Express. Call it fast food if you must—and it is, usually, fast—but they use fresh ingredients and you can taste the freshness.

There was a line. And it wasn’t fast today. Behind me, standing a little too close, two men carried on a conversation in a language that sounded vaguely Hispanic. (I say a little too close in the sense that we Americans like our personal space when we’re standing in line. But some cultures are comfortable standing closer, and I don’t believe in letting things like this bother me.)

Then one of the workers announced to those of us waiting: “We are out of to-go boxes and”—he named several of the most popular items on the menu. “I’m sorry, but our delivery didn’t arrive today.”

Several people peeled out of the line and left, but I wanted my Panda Express, dagnabbit, and another worker brought up a bunch of the little cardboard cartons you traditionally see used for Asian takeout, so we were in business. By “out of to-go boxes” they’d meant those awful Styrofoam boxes.

So I and the two gentlemen behind me fanned out in front of the buffet to see what was available, which was when I got a look at them. One of them had a full head and mustache of white hair and could have been mistaken for Omar Sharif. The other was younger, but probably not by much. They used English to speak to the restaurant worker and to commiserate with me, smiling, then turned to each other and had a conversation in …

“What language are you speaking?” I asked, putting my hand on the younger man’s arm* to politely interrupt. “I’ve traveled a little, but I’ve never heard this.” Oh! Those rolled Rs! This language was like music.

“Arabic,” he said, and they both smiled. I smiled. We were all smiling. The younger man said, “You should visit Jerusalem,” in the manner of passing on a well-kept secret. “It is beautiful.”

And that was it, just a few words, but it made me happy today.

* Later I wondered if, by touching him, I’d violated some social custom. But they are here in Tennessee, and I am a woman who touches people when she talks to them. Also, they didn’t react in any way other than to smile and keep the conversation going.

Not by appointment do we meet Delight
And Joy; they heed not our expectancy;
But round some corner in the streets of life
They, on a sudden, clasp us with a smile.
—Gerald Massey (1828–1907), The Bridegroom of Beauty

 

Do You Know Me?

Some years ago—back before I obsessively kept notes about these things—I read an interview with Frances Mayes (of Under the Tuscan Sun fame).

Mayes said that while she often asks about local customs when she travels outside the United States—how things are done and so forth—she is not often asked those things in return about the States. The reason, she believes, is because foreign visitors think they know us already. That is, our culture (think Hollywood) has been so vigorously exported that the rest of the world feels it already knows what our lives are like.

It’s something to think about.

The Year in Review

It’s been a strange year, yeah?*

About this time last year,** a woman I used to think kindly of posted some [ridiculous, biased, highly charged, partisan] article on Facebook with the comment, “The left can’t see the truth.” (Later in another post, she shared a similar sentiment: “The left can’t see past their noses.”) At the time, I wondered, What TRUTH does she think I am missing? It was a generic statement without a clear meaning.

Did she mean the truth about her candidate, the one she’d self-righteously announced she voted for because she believed he represented her Christian values? (Her words, from an earlier post.) What values,*** exactly, are those?

  • The multiple divorces and infidelities? (I know for a fact the Bible has commandments about those.)
  • The serial lies? (WaPo keeps a list of them.)
  • The lewd behavior? (The man bragged about the size of his penis in an election debate. He bragged about grabbing women’s genitalia. UPDATE: And it appears he had an affair with a porn star, to whom he paid $130K hush money during his presidential campaign.)
  • The white supremacists? (He can’t bring himself to disavow them. Of course, that’s because he’s a well-known racist.)
  • The talk to the Boy Scouts? (His profane performance was deplorable.)
  • Throwing around racially offensive comments like “shithole countries”? (I’ve mentioned the racism, right?)
  • Rounding up immigrants? (The Bible says: “For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. … Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” —Matthew 25: 42–43, 45)
  • I could go on and on and on.

But it’s not just this specific “friend.” (I say this in quotations because I don’t feel we are friends any more, frankly.) I can’t tell you how many times I have read (or had said to me), “She lost. Get over it.” (To which I think and might answer, angrily, that she didn’t actually lose.) A year later, people are still saying that, as if it is a meaningful response to this Seussian world we are living in. In which people like me are left saying, “But the facts are …” and “The law says …”

I realize now that this friend was just spouting some verbiage she’d heard, mostly likely on Fox (Not)News. Or that her husband read on Breitbart or listened to on Rush Limbaugh. “Talking points.” And for the last couple years I’ve been telling myself, Well, they’re just brainwashed. Remember, a year ago it had been six months since I’d spoken with my brother. I was already aware of the political brainwashing phenomenon. As an article about this issue in Vox points out:

Information [on the right] is evaluated not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

This is the frighting situation we face. There is an entire industry devoted to disseminating an alternate version of reality that is “good for the [Republican] side.” And the lunatic right wing is snapping it up and passing it around amongst themselves: a University of Oxford study has found that trump supporters and extreme conservatives consume and share more “junk news” on social media than every other political group combined. (You can read more about that here and here.) The McClatchy News Bureau spoke with the lead researcher, Philip Howard:

The findings suggest “that most of the junk news that people share over social media ends up with Trump’s fans, the far right. They’re playing with different facts, and they think they have the inside scoop on conspiracies.”

As a result, he said in a phone interview, it appears that “a small chunk of the population isn’t able to talk politics or share ideas in a sensible way with the rest of the population.”

When I was growing up, our family watched the six o’clock news every night without fail. (I continued this habit well into adulthood.) There were three networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—and each had a respected journalism unit that produced the news program. Everybody had a favorite, a preferred vendor for news. My family watched Walter Cronkite on CBS.

The networks were competing with each other, sure, although not for alternate facts. But now … we have the Fox network. It is utterly biased and often just lies. Fox is all about the “good for our side” (which is the far-right, conservative, wingnut version of the Republican party) and not particularly concerned about the true. I understand that some folks may have started watching Fox fifteen years ago, before this bias was so blatant. It’s like putting the frog in the pot of water on the stove and then turning on the heat—the frog is cooked before it knows what’s happened to it. And Fox viewers are boiled frogs; anyone watching Fox these days doesn’t know what the truth is, because they’ve been gradually brainwashed and thoroughly misinformed over a period of time.

Vox goes on:

From Reagan forward, the US has become much more politically polarized, but the polarization has not been symmetrical—the right has become far more extreme than the left. (That story is exhaustively told in Asymmetric Politics, by political scientists David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann.)

But it doesn’t help much to think of polarization as working purely along a single left-right axis, as though the right has simply moved further right. Instead, there has been a break, a divergence of political worldviews.

On one side is what we might call the classic liberal democratic (small-l, small-d) theory of politics. In this view, politics is a kind of structured contest. Factions and parties battle over interests and policies, but the field of play on which they battle is ring-fenced by a set of common institutions and norms. Inside that fence is “normal politics” — the subject of legitimate political dispute. Outside that fence is out of bounds, in violation of shared standards.

The “game” of politics is defined by explicit rules (e.g., the Constitution), enforced by various legally empowered referees (e.g., courts and the executive branch). But it is also defined by implicit norms, unwritten rules more informally enforced by the press, academia, and civil society. These latter institutions are referees as well, but their enforcement power operates not through law but through trust. Their transpartisan authority exists solely because participants in the game agree it does.

The idea is that when political participants step outside the ring fence and violate some shared rule or norm, they are called on it by referees and must pay some penalty, reputational or otherwise. In this way, political contests are bounded and contained, prevented from spilling over into violence or illiberalism. That’s how democracy—indeed, any framework of cooperation among large numbers of diverse people—works. Institutions and norms provide structure and limits, the shared scaffolding of cooperation.

That is the classic, some might say naive, view. But there has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.

That’s the view Limbaugh and others in right-wing media have consistently articulated. And it has found an increasingly receptive audience.

And so people like me sputter on the sidelines. It doesn’t matter how often people with nothing more untoward in their hearts except to point out that the law has been broken, people like my friend will call us names and post ridiculous memes and deny the evidence that truly is right in front of them. My friend lives in an echo chamber in which everyone is repeating the lies, in particular their news sources.

I honestly don’t know how to remedy the situation we find ourselves in. It’s tough to believe in the American ideal of the First Amendment when it forces us to tolerate people like Alex Jones (the proprietor of an unhinged, far-right conspiracy theory radio show and website), whose reason for existing on God’s beautiful blue earth is unclear at best. How a man who earns his living telling public lies (actually, I think he makes his living selling merchandise—T-shirts and suchlike) manages to stay out of jail is beyond me. In fact, in a child custody lawsuit (ex-wife says he’s unstable) Jones’s lawyer admitted Jones is a “performance artist” who is “playing a character,” though that makes no difference to Jones’s equally unhinged followers.

It’s a slippery slope, trying to make distinctions in the First Amendment, but I think that’s where we have to look. The European Union, which also prizes a free press, has passed some strong laws against hate speech. That’s a start, and we can look to the EU for what’s working and what’s not. There must be a way to preserve our free press.

But I think eventually as a society we’ll have to address the concept of fake news. (A good definition is this: Fake News is the deliberate attempt to publish hoaxes and/or disinformation for the purpose of profit or influence. That is, for the purpose of keeping the tribe in power.) As we learned in the documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad, when the filmmaker’s father could no longer watch Fox (Not)News, he gradually returned to the mild-mannered person he had been before he started watching. This truth is demonstrated even more dramatically in the story of Derek Black, a former white nationalist whose father started the first and largest white nationalist website, whose godfather is David Duke … and who went off to college and learned new things and met new people (got out of his echo chamber, in other words) and completely changed his way of thinking (read this post-Charlottesville interview with him here). Eventually he came out—that is, disavowed his racist mind-set and disavowed white nationalism altogether—publicly, first in a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center and later with an op-ed in the New York Times.

I find Black’s story very moving and inspiring.

It gives me hope.

* It’s been a strange couple of years, actually.

** This was on the day of President Obama’s farewell speech and public (right-wing) outrage about some comment Meryl Streep made.

*** Full disclosure: I’m willing to bet it’s the abortion issue, even though we have the data that shows countries with free access to abortion have lower rates of abortion than those which don’t, just for starters. Even though she would scream bloody murder about Muslims trying to establish sharia law in this country, and her desire to eliminate legal abortion would essentially establish “Christian sharia” law. But you knew it was a rhetorical question, right?

Ken Burns and Me

Lots of people have been asking me about this new multiepisode documentary from Ken Burns. Have I watched it?

No, I have not. I like Ken Burns’s work. I’ve seen some of his documentaries, and I know he’s a talented storyteller. But I’ll need to be in a really happy place before I sit down and watch The Vietnam War, which aired in the last half of September 2017. Because, you know, I lived it.

Have I said this before? My father never carried a gun; he had a government-issued one, but it stayed on a high shelf in my parents’ closet. He was not a gun person; he was born in the city (St. Louis), raised in the city. He hated guns (because he knew what they could do), and was vocal about it, and about war in general. (He’d studied military history in college. He didn’t think war solved much.) He was a guy who loved people but thought humanity could think up some pretty bad stuff.

My father was a US Air Force pilot (he enlisted during the Korean War, to avoid being drafted into the army). He went in as an enlisted man but was noticed as officer material and went first to OCS (Officers’ Candidate School) and then to pilot training.

My mother, who was crippled from polio when she six (one gimpy leg, always walked with a limp) was diagnosed with MS when I was six or seven (this would have been ’59 or ’60). When I was ten, she could no longer sign her name (too shaky to write). They barely knew what MS was back then, much less how to treat for it. So I became the joint signatory on my dad’s checking account and wrote out all the bills. Why? Because Daddy was on-7-off-7, because he was in SAC (Strategic Air Command—the guys who run to the planes when the sirens go off). He wasn’t always there to take care of those things, so I, the oldest child, did. I did the family grocery shopping and wrote checks for them. (Another ordeal, since in theory little kids don’t write checks, right?)

At that time Daddy was flying KC-135s. (These planes are for in-air refueling; I did not appreciate how dangerous a task this was until years later when I saw the movie Air Force One, such is the innocence/ignorance of youth.) But he had flown helicopters when he was—and we were—younger. Now, the Vietnam conflict had been going on for some years and they had lost a lot of helicopter pilots. Helicopters are hard to learn (longer training period), hard to fly—much, much harder than a plane. So Uncle Sam started rounding up people like my dad.

Jim Clarke. The best there ever was.

The year I was thirteen we learned he was to go to Vietnam—a thirty-nine-year-old with a sick wife and three young kids—so I had to get an emergency driver’s license, because by that time my mom couldn’t drive either (too shaky). This was unheard of; it was a MAJOR ORDEAL for that to happen. But it did happen, and I began doing all the family driving at thirteen while Daddy was in Vietnam the first time. I carried a gasoline credit card.

Daddy did a second tour, right near the end of the war. He took photos (slides, Ektachrome) during both assignments. A few years ago G took all our family slides—40+ magazines of 36 slides each—back to Dublin to put them through a professional-grade scanner, then color-corrected them and loaded three sets for each of us kids. Lots of these were growing-up family stuff but there were a few magazines from Vietnam. We’d seen the family stuff many times. We’d never seen the Vietnam stuff. It was eye-opening. Heartbreaking. He wrote captions on the slide-carriers, like “Sometimes I just cry.”

He was stationed in Thailand and flew into Vietnam, low, under the radar, at night to pick up downed pilots. Extremely dangerous. He also evacuated women and children from active war zones. It is a miracle he came back to us, twice. But after the second time he was done. He’d intended to stay in the Air Force longer, but he left after twenty-three years. He was never the same after Vietnam. (Although as a human, he was magnificent.) That first year after his return, he sat in the living room and stared at the walls a lot. He cried sometimes.

Meanwhile, of course, those of us back home got to see “live from Vietnam” reports every night on the six o’clock news.

Anyway, I have not yet looked at the slides, much less the Burns documentary. Vietnam profoundly affected my family, and I have been burdened with the unpleasantness of it my entire life. Maybe later.