Neverland

image courtesy of thehauntedlullaby.com.jpg

It’s not really a door in a tree or a passage through a grandfather clock, or even a wardrobe. We think of fairy dust and magic rings, an afternoon that somehow tumbles on and on, and we long for the tingling feeling which whispers that we are experiencing the impossible, hardly daring to hope even then that we are on our way somewhere else, somewhere magical. Most of all, we imagine that this tingle is a thrill. We would never believe that it is a horror. The elevator that plunges to the ground, trailing its severed cords above, provides a very different sensation. As we plummet, we long for impact. In our desire to live, we delay death as much as possible, yet when it is imminent, the wait becomes unbearable: the shaft will soon run out and the box will meet its cradle, but worst of all is that we do not know when. We unconsciously count the seconds, number the floors that must be rushing past. We cringe, and we wait, and we covet the end. Those seconds of anticipation are no longer precious to us. We have abandoned, in that moment, our desire for life, and the embrace of death appears as a relief. Those seconds, when stretched, are tortuous. They are not counted among the moments we spend living but instead are added to those we spend dying. And as the elevator reaches its fifteenth second in free fall, its twentieth, its thirtieth, there is not even then the room for hope. We find only the agony of the wait, the impatience for the crash, and as the climbing of those seconds continues long past the impossible plateau, there is nothing of whimsy or mystery in the air.

If only we knew that the door to another world is one that we would never willingly open, perhaps then we would realize why so few of us ever leave this plane. The journey is not through an enchanted forest, and there are no beckoning merfolk or sun-dappled paths along the way. There is only fear, mounting exponentially: the excruciating final moments of drowning that refuse yield, the terror of endless final gasps of air when buried in a landslide, the frenzied hurtling down a bottomless elevator shaft when all that we desire is simply to no longer be so that the nightmare will finally end.

That’s when the magic happens.

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Autopilot

When did it get dark? Late afternoon seems minutes ago, but now the sky is dense and inky. You adjust quickly, but the question hangs a moment. You don’t wonder so much why you didn’t notice it before. It’s more a question of what changed in your mind, what brought you back. But you glide past this, you glide into the darkness. Diamonds sparkle out of the corner of your eye, and you look over at them, covetously. Another “why?” You don’t need them, and a lonely soul like you has no business with diamonds. They would only get you into trouble, so you let the diamonds fade, along with everything else. Now it’s only the water, and inertia. The surge that happens when you see it. You’ve started to get that feeling again, like dying. You can’t remember it, what it’s like, but that’s not what the feeling’s about anyway. It’s how many times it’s happened that gets you. The water rolls along and you feel like you’ve died a hundred ways. How many lives did you move through to get here? How many times did you have to start from the beginning? You don’t like the idea of starting over, doing it all again. You like now, and something whips innocently past your eye that threatens you all the same. A shiver, a reset of the scene, and you’re sliding on. Your deaths recede, and you become immortal again. Dying is a joke played on the living, to frighten them. Even if it’s real, you’ll never know it, not for certain. You laugh at the warnings of experts and friends. It could kill you? Shit. The only thing with a perfect mortality rate is living. Life eventually kills everybody. So just slide. And you do. But now the sky has gone funny. Red halos blur your vision, and you feel a rush, but it’s not the good kind. You wonder if this is it, if this is what it all comes down to. But it’s not the end. You make another adjustment, your heart voices its annoyance, but the red has faded now. The cool darkness returns to the sky, and you laugh again, but you’re not thinking about life anymore. The diamonds have caught your eye. image courtesy of aesthet.comNot for you, my friend, but then who would know? They are there for the taking, and so you take them. You wonder where they might take you, but then your smile returns: they won’t lead you anywhere new. Everyone goes the same way, diamonds or no. They are worthless, a matter of expediency, nothing more. Some will take them, others won’t, but the path remains the same. Dreamy eyed, slipping forward, diamonds fading into dust. On you glide, your mind askew. Familiar sights float before you, but they slip back as you slide on. You don’t see them anymore, and it’s a while before you realize that familiar is far behind. And it’s dark. And the water, too, has left you again. You are alone. You are surrounded. You’ve gone too far, but it doesn’t matter. You have abandoned your diamonds, or they you, and yet you glide, you slide on, you slip forward into the darkness, the embrace of an old friend, but you turn it away just before contact. Your light rebukes it, pushes it aside, but it is not dismayed. It is forever filling in the path behind you, longing to catch up, just as its arms open ever forward to greet you as you cast it back, cast it back. A dance of light and dark, of worlds that never meet. You smile and wonder if that’s what it’s like, a meeting of worlds. Light embraces darkness, a reunion of severed halves, and death meets life with a grin and a tear, their separation having been so long. Your smile widens at this, and you glide on, glide on.

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Encounter

It was raining when I reached the station, and a knotted crowd occupied every inch of dry space underneath the platform shelter. No umbrella to hand and not quite soaked through, I opted to remain on the stairs, where there was at least an awning that shielded me from the growing deluge, and amuse myself with a book. It was a curious tale about the grazing habits of short-haired sheep, which makes it sound altogether dull, though this was far from the case. It was in fact a most engrossing affair, and the rain had stopped and so thrown open the invisible walls of the platform shelter before I again looked up from its pages.

The willingness of strangers to mingle at close-quarters is indirectly proportional to the size of their refuge and directly proportional to the discomfort of remaining outside and at the mercy of the elements. No sooner had the clouds parted (and sooner still, I’d wager, if there had been a period of intermittent sprinkling between downpour and drought), the new-found companions dislodged crook from shoulder and scattered onto the slick, grey cobblestones of the waiting platform. A meek smile or an awkward shrug was all that was left of their shared experience, but as their train pulled in to receive them, there was a brief huddle once more as man, woman, and child jockeyed for primacy in the great race to find an empty seat that was soon to begin.

And their train it was, in point of fact, for mine was yet to arrive on the opposite track. A few paces away stood the superior, if now forlorn platform shelter, which, in addition to its roof, was also outfitted with three glass walls. The wind had picked up again, if not the rain, and without a thought I abandoned the faithful stairwell for my new sanctuary, thankfully quite unaware of any potential jealousy or haughtiness on the part of one or the other that my action may have engendered. So unencumbered was I by such musings IMG_1962.JPGthat I had just lifted the book to my nose to find my place on the page when a man running up to the newly-filled train caught my attention.

He had the air of a gentleman about him, despite his present gait and lack of a hat, and was dressed in a long wool coat, dark trousers, and tapered leather shoes. He pulled once at the doors, to no effect, and then, although the carriage was already moving, and he must have noticed this, he pulled at the doors once more. They remained firmly shut, as all proper doors must under the circumstances, and I found myself nodding to them as they rolled past. “That’s the way, doors!” I might have said, but in fact I remained silent, for who in their right mind would address a pair of doors on a moving train, or any pair of doors, truth be told.

The strange man had moved further down the platform by the time I returned my attention to him, but I soon forgot him entirely because my own train was quick to arrive afterward, and I boarded immediately and settled myself in for the ride. I was beginning to lose myself in my book once more, the sheep having wandered down to a stream to drink, when a movement to my left drew my attention, and I spied the same man who had missed his train sitting across the aisle.

What nonsense! The train on which we both sat was preparing to whisk us in the opposite direction of the one whose locked doors he had so unceremoniously jostled. What could possibly be his aim in boarding this one? I was not about to allow his absurdity to put me off my reading, and yet try though I might to disengage from his aberrant behavior, I found myself continuing to turn the question over in my mind and fell to observing the man in hopes of finding some clue as to whether he had noticed his mistake.

This was not an altogether unpleasant activity as he was a most interesting looking fellow. His face was two-parts street tough and one-part polished university professor, this cooling of his features perhaps owing itself to the neatly trimmed beard that drew some attention from the bulging cheekbones, pronounced eyes, and sharply sloping nose. His was a lean face, a hungry face. It was of the kind that looked alert and rested, though one might distinguish within it a haggard quality from which it had recently recovered, like that of a werewolf on the morning after a long-waning moon. Unfortunately for my endeavors at divination, it was also an inscrutable face, offering no indication of what worlds might toil within the skull beneath it.

After a time I finally resigned myself to ignorance, but unable to return to my book for comfort, I instead directed my attention to the evergrey terrain beyond my window. As we shuffled past the rain-bedraggled landscape, I watched the sculptures of masons and carpenters give over to a world of living wood and stone, trees and meadows settling in earnestly as if I were witness to some weary reclamation carried out in reverse.

A quick look, and no more, I allowed myself at the man across the aisle. He was seated, as before, with his left knee covering the right, his face a perfect image of calm as he stared out of his own window. I turned away from this portrait but found my thoughts consumed by it, by the calm. My eyes had found the emerging forests, but my mind no longer felt my own. Inexplicably, I began to wonder the strangest things, such as what names the trees might give themselves. Upon crossing a bridge and seeing the water rush below, I asked myself what a river truly was. It could not be the raging torrent, I reasoned, for this was always moving, never there for long. The riverbed itself, by contrast, was something that wasn’t, not an object in its own right. Was that, then, what a river was? An absence of land, of a particular girth, filled with running water? The river as something permanent, I began to suspect, existed only in our minds.

I soon grew troubled by this line of inquiry and sought the comfort of the rational world. Here was this man across from me, the ideal opportunity for the application of logic. I could speak to him, I decided, looking away lest he return my gaze. I could certainly do that, and I could ask him what he meant by taking this train. Was it not possible, after all, that he was confused? Perhaps I would even be helping him by engaging him in conversation. This course would benefit us both, providing me with a solution to my questions and him with a speedier end to his wasted time! And in my mind, I suddenly knew precisely how the words would fall.

“Excuse me,” I ventured, catching his attention.

The man unfolded himself and turned toward me with a smile.

“Yes?” he offered.

“My apologies,” I began, “but are you not the same gentleman who was attempting to board the train to Maidenhead?”

A frown broke onto the other’s face.

“I’m not sure,” he answered, which was in itself so preposterous a response that I was tempted to abandon my investigations then and there. I pressed on, however.

“I’m certain I saw you trying to board that train just a few minutes ago,” I continued, “but it was already departing.”

At this my interlocuter nodded and smiled.

“Yes,” he confirmed, nodding slightly, “I was trying to board that train.”

His head turned slightly away from me then, as though he suspected that this would end our volley.

“And yet here you are now on this one,” I persisted, not about to lose my quarry so easily.

“Yes, here I am!” he beamed, and once more he seemed satisfied that this was a sufficient explanation for his behavior.

I paused, believing that soon he would have to offer something more, but nothing further came.

“But this train is going in the opposite direction,” I informed him. “The first stop is not for another half an hour or so.”

“Alright,” he nodded curtly, though his smile indicated that this was not meant to be hostile. Nevertheless, I was near exasperation.

“You’re going quite out of your way, sir,” I insisted.

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” he countered. The man’s thickness was positively intolerable!

“But weren’t you trying to get to Maidenhead?” I demanded, my voice carrying more of my frustration than I am wont to reveal.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” the strange traveler said, his smile widening as he leaned slightly in my direction. “It was never my intention to go to Maidenhead.” He nodded again, with his tongue in his cheek. “Or to go to any other place in particular,” he added. “Where is this train going, by the way?”

“To Oakton,” I replied, dumbfounded, “by way of Stanchion Lake. That is, it continues on some ways past Oakton, but…”

“Ah, excellent. Choices! But I believe I shall ride it to the end just the same.”

My indignation was making way for curiosity, but not entirely, and it was a struggle to keep my tone from registering this.

“I’m not sure I follow you,” I admitted. “You don’t want to go to Oakton, either?”

“No, not in the least,” he assured me. “Or rather, I wasn’t intending to go there.” I believe he descried the mystery that was forming within me, for he soon continued. “You see, I arrived at the station today with the object in mind of boarding the very next train, wherever it was going.”

“Is that so?” I asked, suddenly less amused.

“Yes,” he smiled. “I’m on an adventure of sorts!”

I frowned inside myself, having only then begun to suspect that I was conversing with a full-grown child. I must have frowned outside myself a bit as well, for the gentleman’s smile grew weaker, and he nodded kindly before looking off to the side for a moment.

The mystery was solved. No more riddle left to unwind. I could have left things alone and had done with it, resolving that the fellow across the aisle was some sort of lunatic, if an apparently harmless one. After all, who would choose to do such a thing? What madness must possess such a person to make him board a train at random on a flight of fancy? And one with the peculiar stricture that it be the very next train? Best would be to make an end of it and put the man out of mind. His quest, however, rang hollow for me, and that tenacious part of my brain that moments before had been wondering about trees and rivers refused to move on. Within a few moments, I hit upon it.

“But this wasn’t the next train, after all,” I challenged, calling him out of whatever reverie he had found with a slight jolt.

“I’m sorry?”

“This train,” I said. “It wasn’t the next train leaving the station.” It was the stranger’s turn not to follow, and so I led him further. “You said that your object was to board the next departing train, but you didn’t. The next departing train was the one to Maidenhead. The one you missed.”

The man cocked his head to one side, contemplative.

“So this really is the wrong train for you,” I summarized, “however you choose to look at it.”

It was not intended as a spiteful comment, by no means an attempt to put him in his place. In all honesty, I found myself somehow saddened at my realization. The man was soon grinning again, however inexplicably, and I knew that I had crossed a turning point and would not be able to rest until I understood precisely what was motivating this odyssey. He spoke before I had the opportunity to do so.

“You know, you’re right about that,” he admitted. “This isn’t the next train at all.”

“Then why are you smiling?” I asked.

“Because the spirit of the adventure doesn’t require following the rules to the letter.”

“But you’ll always know that you missed the next train,” I chided him. “How can you know that your adventure didn’t leave you behind?”

“On the contrary,” he laughed, “it did!”

I balked at this, but he was already speaking again.

“Or one did, I should say. The adventure of ‘the next train’ left without me, but I caught a different train with a different adventure. And I can always try again to catch the next train tomorrow, or the next day.” He paused for a moment, then said, “And if you think about it, there is always a next train. Any train can be that next train!”

His voice had taken on volume as he talked, and in spite of myself, I grew excited. The man’s passion was truly infectious.

“Fine, then,” I conceded, “I’ll allow that you make a fair point. But what is it that you plan on doing once you get to this adventure?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well,” I hesitated, not certain that I understood myself what I meant or why I was even interested in continuing this game, “your adventure is waiting for you at the last stop, correct? What do you think it will be like? What are you going to do once you get there?”

“My friend,” he exclaimed, the unexpected intimacy of the word resounding in my ears, “this is the adventure!”

I nodded, but it was a nod of uncertainty and quickly interpreted as such by my fellow traveler, who did not fail to elaborate.

“This ride on the train, meeting and talking with you, seeing whatever is at the end of the journey…this is all part of it!”

My confusion did not yet know an end.

“Then once you reach the end, and the train stops…”

“I shall have a look at where I am, take a turn through the town square or past the local churchyard or along the edge of the wood, whatever I may find there, and then board the next train back to where I started.”

Fascinating. That a man could be so intrigued by something so banal had never before occurred to me. I wished him well, for my part, I truly did, but I failed even then to see the gain in such a journey.

“And that’s all,” I pressed. “Nothing more. You won’t, say, have a nice dinner there at least, or take in a show?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea what awaits me there,” he shook his head. “There might be an old city, there might be nothing be grass, and I suppose my activities are somewhat dependent upon the local amenities, but not knowing what to expect is part of-”

“The adventure,” I supplied.

“Quite so…” his voice trailed off.

I sighed, not wanting to have hurt this man’s feelings but nevertheless still genuinely at a loss.

“But don’t you have a job?” I asked. “Responsibilities?”

“Surely,” he said, “Sometimes I do. Oftentimes, in fact. But then there are times when I require something for myself. So, I find an adventure. What do you do?”

On a level deeper than my conscious mind regularly penetrates, this question terrified me, but that was hardly something that I could admit to a strange man on a wild adventure aboard a train to points unknown. Again, this man seemed somehow to understand what vexed me concerning this. He leaned forward and halfway across the aisle.

“Why don’t you come with me?” he proposed.

“Where?” I sputtered, knowing full well the answer.

“Wherever we end up!” he laughed.

“But I have-”

“Responsibilities?” he supplied.

“Yes.”

“A job?”

“…Yes…”

The man nodded solemnly, finishing with another smile.

“Then take care of all of that,” he said.

The strange gentleman sat back again with a final, friendly nod, and contemplated the scenery once more. And for a moment, I was certain that I would go with him. After a brief assessment of the day’s agenda, I decided that there truly was not much that could not be done the following day, perhaps with greater efficiency after a break from the norm. I smiled to myself then, imagining what it would be like to simply ride the train on past my stop, taking it to the last station, a town whose name I only knew because it was the destination of my train. An adventure, even a small one, might be just the thing, I thought. So many books, so little actual experience! What could it hurt, really? What was I afraid of in the end? The time had come to carve out a day for adventure!

I turned away from my window, resolving once and for all to address this strange gentleman, sitting all twisted in his seat and yet somehow so calm, but the train was slowing, and he was rising. He scratched at his oddly slanted nose as he stepped out into the aisle, and my eyes followed him as he walked past me to the door of the train and stepped out. We had arrived at Stanchion Lake, the first stop since we had boarded. The stranger had not even looked at me. Why should he have done? Who was I to him? Simply another man on his way to work, just as he was.

As the man hurried toward the footbridge that led to the other platforms, it suddenly occurred to me that Stanchion Lake Station was a transfer point to Maidenhead. That was my mystery solved, then. There had been no need to talk to the stranger at all. My train was already moving again, and now there were only fifteen minutes more to Oakton. I wondered briefly if I might continue, take the train farther and allow the day to lead me as it would, but that was ridiculous. Frivolous banality, if such a thing could be said to exist. Nothing more, in the end, than the imagined folly of a stranger, a man who was himself doing nothing more than finding the most expedient means of reaching his own destination after arriving too late for his train.

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Missing Words

There’s been a lot of discussion around whether there’s a word missing in the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” There isn’t. To paraphrase a paraphrase, it says what it means and means what it says. It’s short and self-contained, and yet it’s bursting with insight that others have elucidated much better than I can. But there’s another bit that I feel I can discuss, and that’s the insight that the supposed missing words provide into our own assumptions and biases.

By now the phrase “All Lives Matter” is heard more often ironically than as a sincere response to the BLM movement (at least it appears that way, and I really hope this isn’t just my bubble talking). I imagine that’s less because most people have caught on about what “Black Lives Matter” really means and more a factor of the increasingly brief shelf-life that ‘pithy’ sayings tend to experience. Just because it’s fallen out of fashion, however, doesn’t mean that the sentiment has ebbed along with it in any real or lingering way.

But some of us liberals, in our quest to be helpful and informative, often don’t know when to leave things alone. In this case, we tried to get involved in the early days of this back-and-forth and “explain what black people really meant,” because “black people can’t do this for themselves,” more likely phrased as, “black people left out an important word that would have prevented all of this.” And shame on us, liberals. Will we ever learn? But we decided to involve ourselves in the “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter” debate because we could see where the breakdown was and we knew how to fix it.

“What they really meant,” we said, “was that black lives matter just as much as other lives matter. It’s not that they matter more, it’s that they also matter. Really, there’s a word missing, and it should be ‘Black Lives Also Matter,’ but it’s a bit late for that, so just take our word for it.” Bang up job, white people, just like always. And please understand, I include myself in this. I might as well be quoting one of my own responses to people’s Facebook posts back in 2015. I’m certainly no better.

But that’s not what they meant. They meant that black lives matter. That’s what they meant. Because that’s what they said. Sure, we can infer that ‘also’ there, and that’s great. We could even infer an ‘actually’ instead, as in: “Black Lives Actually Matter.” That might even be better than ‘also’ because it sets off the phrase as being less a statement of fact (of course black lives matter) pages.stolaf.eduand more an indictment of the state of affairs in our great nation. People weren’t acting like black lives mattered, so reminding everyone that they actually do makes sense.

The word ‘actually’ isn’t missing either, though. It’s just a word we can read into it, and we’re free to do that. We can fill in missing words in our own minds all we want, and we can discuss these nuances with our friends and with black people themselves (this is recommended!). But what we can’t do is say that this word, or any other, belongs as a part of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It doesn’t.

I think Michael Che put it best when he said, “We can’t even agree on ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Not ‘matters more than you,’ just ‘matters.’ Matters. Just matters. That’s where we’re starting the negotiations.” And this, of course, was in response to another attempt to infer a word in the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” In this case it was the predominately white, conservative assertion that what was really meant here was “Black Lives Matter More,” or as I also heard it, “Only Black Lives Matter.” “That’s what they’re really saying!” friends of mine contended. “You have to read between the lines,” family members assured me. “Well, it’s just misguided because it sounds like they mean, ‘matter more’ if you think about it,” still others reasoned.

But they weren’t thinking about it. They weren’t trying at all to think about it. What they were doing was the same thing that liberals were doing when we said, “What they really mean is that they also matter,” and conservatives would respond with, “Well, they should have said that!” or even, “They would have said that if they’d meant it!” We were leaving black people and what they themselves said out of the conversation.

And so, as with all things, we have a spectrum. There’s the well-meaning liberal who wants to interpret black people’s movement for them and help them express themselves better, while at the same time translating for scared white people. There’s the conservative who doesn’t know what to think, wants to believe the best about everyone, but just wishes people would do things the right way. And there’s the conservative who thinks they’ve seen the light, who thinks they know the hearts of all women and men involved in BLM to be entitled and lazy and reverse-racist. None of us is off the hook, though, and none of us is listening to black people and what they have to say. We’ve heard words and then reentered our own narrative, and that says a lot about us. As I said at the beginning of this post, the words that we go on to infer can even tell us who we are.

If you hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and your first reaction is to assume that the person saying that is trying to elevate themselves above you or imply that they’re more deserving than others because of their skin color, if you infer the word ‘only’ or the word ‘more,’ that inference reveals an underlying bigotry within you. I’m sorry, but it’s true. What that assumption does is out your inner racist misgivings; it gives that voice what it’s been quietly looking for while it waits inside you: evidence that black people really are different, or that at least there’s something to the idea that skin color can play a role. If “Black Lives Matter” means to you that black people are getting ‘uppity’ and too entitled and trying to get a handout or special treatment, then that says that this is something that you already inherently believe about black people. The phrase itself is innocuous. There’s no claim of anything other than mattering. What you add to the phrase comes from within you.

And if you protest that you heard others say this first, that someone told you that when people say that black lives matter, they mean that only black lives matter, and you thought they did their research or they’re someone you usually trust or feel is a ‘pretty with-it individual,’ then those words you are inferring reveal two things about you. First, they still reveal your inner racism because you were ready to swallow that explanation when it came along, and second, they show that you’re not using your own brain to come to your own conclusions. But don’t worry, liberals aren’t off the hook either, as I’ve said.

Before we liberals and ‘allies’ start feeling haughty, those of us who inferred words on the other side of that spectrum have something to answer for as well. Sure, we had the best intentions and our inferences are a lot closer to what black people mean when they say this, but when we go so far as to imply that “Black Lives Matter” is missing something that could make it clearer, we’re showing our racism, too.

The idea that black people (who started this movement for and about black people and the idea that their lives matter) didn’t get the name right is also racist, not to mention arrogant. Sure, it seems less offensive at first, but think about it: what we’re saying is that white people know better. White people speak better or write better or come up with slogans better or organize better or even just know how to talk to other white people better. Even if the last one is sometimes true, no one asked us to be mediators. No one assigned us the role of translating the black message to the whites. To say that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” could have been clearer is to try to take ownership of black lives mattering away from black people. I know, we didn’t mean to. But really, when was that ever a valid excuse?

So no, there aren’t any missing words in that well-known phrase. It really is just “Black Lives Matter,” and that’s all it was ever supposed to be. Those extra words we think belong there, they’re cries for help from our inner selves because sometimes the voice inside of us is not our conscience and not a deeper wisdom. Sometimes it’s the voice of our deficiencies, of our weaknesses, of our insecurities, of our fears, yes, even of our hatred. We have to learn to tell the difference before we open our mouths and give air to those voices, but we’d also better make damn sure we listen closely to them, and with a critical ear, if we ever want to learn and grow. And white people, we’ve got a lot of learning and growing to do.

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Precedential Fixation

Any fight against Trump must by necessity involve a struggle to reach the hearts and minds of those who support him. There can be no successful strategy against Trump that does not also include the one-quarter of the electorate that voted for him. There are many among that number who we might like to write off as lost causes. There are those who A man leans out of a Hummer shouting words in support of U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump while driving through Times Square in New Yorkbelieve that facts are simply not real, those who, like Ben Carson, believe that religion must be used to interpret science because science might just be propaganda. This is frustrating, and perhaps we will never be able to convince them that what Trump is doing is simply wrong. Not a matter of opinion, not a partisan disagreement, just wrong. There may even be some who truly are lost causes. But as of the latest count, just under 63 million people voted for him. That is not a number that we can simply write off. This is a demographic of its own, and we have to address it as such.

As I sit here on December 18th, the eve of the true election day, and contemplate what fresh misery tomorrow will bring, I feel an odd sense of resolve about the coming fight. I do not believe for one second that there will be enough faithless electors to force this decision on the House of Representatives, much less that there is a potential outcome that puts Hillary in the White House. The time for denial is over, and many, if not most, of us have known this for a long while and have been facing things head on and organizing for the struggle to come. No, Donald Trump will be elected tomorrow, and he will be sworn in in just over a month. It’s not Bernie’s fault, nor is it Jill Stein’s or Gary Johnson’s, or even the Russians’. The fault lies squarely with the American people, and it is there that our focus must remain.

The 2016 campaigns divided this country more dramatically than perhaps any in modern history, and the result will be the election to our highest office of a man with no political experience, very limited knowledge of how the government functions, a fundamental disconnect with the average American, and a surprising lack not only of diplomacy itself, but also of any interest whatsoever in gaining a deeper understanding of how one conducts oneself with foreign governments and emissaries. He has chosen to fill his cabinet with men and women who are either equally as inexperienced in the fields which they will be directing, or who are grossly unfit to serve the institutions that they will head. Not only that, but he is surrounding himself with his children, including his son-in-law, and a white supremacist as some of his closest advisers.

In the short time between the national election and the one that will be held tomorrow, Donald Trump has managed to flout convention to such a degree that lawmakers and legal experts have warned that he could be violating the US Constitution merely by being sworn in. He has not only refused to divest his stakes in his various international holdings that many argue could lead to a violation of the Title of Nobility Clause (often called the ‘Emoluments Clause’), he has also met or spoken with foreign political and business leaders (e.g. from India and Argentina) to ensure that Trump projects that have been stagnating in legal negotiations suddenly receive the green light. Finally, Trump’s international blunders have already threatened to upset the relationship with China that we have fostered for nearly 40 years, and he looks set to reward Putin’s land grabs and power plays with a lifting of sanctions, lucrative oil contracts, and a laissez-faire approach to Russian involvement in the Middle East.

The one unifying theme of all of this is that it is unprecedented—no matter how you spell it. And we have been using this word to describe it since long before the polls opened on November 8th. We have discussed Trump’s unprecedented attitude toward propriety, women, minorities, the rules of debate, and the use of social media. We have been appalled by his unprecedented attacks on journalists, on fallen soldiers and POWs, on peaceful protestors, and on people he generally dislikes. We now deride his unprecedented style of leadership, from his refusal to take daily intelligence briefings or hold press conferences, to his lack of concern with his ‘alt-right’ [fascist] supporters and his apparent witch hunts against scientists. We shout him down in one loud chorus, and the word we often find to voice our disgust is: ‘UNPRECEDENTED!’

There’s just one problem: his supporters are using this very same word, and they’re doing it to praise him. All of the articles we post, all of the evidence we cite, all of the arguments we make lead to a deceptively simple conclusion: this is without precedent. Its hidden complexity lies in the fact that, although everything about our current situation is indeed unprecedented, there are two very different ways of interpreting this word. When we seek to find common ground with Trump supporters, we imagine that showing them how unprecedented this all is will make them understand that it’s also wrong. In reality, however, we are only fueling the fire that we are trying to fight. It is precisely this aspect of a Trump presidency that appeals to his base, and the louder we decry that it is unprecedented, the louder they will cheer it.

What we have to accomplish in the coming months and years will require more than we may realize. While we are fighting against Trump and all that he tries to do, we must also be on the front lines with the very people we might rather dismiss. We have to come to terms with the fact that they are a force themselves, and although there is diversity among them, just as there is diversity within any group, they represent a demographic all their own. They may be privileged, but they see themselves as disenfranchised; they may be delusional, but they feel threatened. They are angry, and they are afraid. They are true-believers in the post-factual reality, and while they are by no means a monolith, they rally behind Trump for one major reason: he promised them that he would do things differently, and although he has already broken many of his promises and looks poised to break many more, the promise of being the un-president is one that he will likely keep.

Let me be clear: this is not a plea for coming together in a spirit of healing. This is not an entreaty to get along and let bygones be bygones. Everything will not be alright, and the nightmare that we are living is very real. This is a call to arms. There must be more than a fight against authoritarianism; there must also be a battle for the hearts and minds of those who refuse to believe that it is coming. Defying Trump, denying him the ability to do all of the things we believe are terrible, will not be enough. We must target him and his policies, but we must also engage with the people who want him there. We ignored them before, to our detriment. To continue to do so is to fight the effects of fear and ignorance but to do nothing about their cause. We cannot leave them behind and hope that they will go away. They are a part of us, and ultimately we must find a way forward together.

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Confronting the New Reality

That Donald Trump has been living in a reality of his own making (or at least one in which he sees his skewed world views reflected, whether he made this reality himself or not) is not surprising. We’ve known this for a very long time, and since he became involved in the election last year, this has become all courtesy-of-mydailynews-comthe more evident. But we’ve seen plenty of people come to the fore who arrive encased in their own impenetrable fantasy worlds with
hermetically sealed views that have somehow managed to prolong their lifespan. These folks gain some traction, primarily among those who inhabit similar reason-proof shells or seek change at any cost, but they never get very far. I’m not talking about people with whom we disagree ideologically here, like your McCains, your Romneys, your Bushes H.W., and even your Bushes just-W. We can say what we will about them, especially about the last one, but even if they sometimes play by their own rules, we at least recognize the game.

I’m talking about people who have a fundamental break with reality, who operate on a different plane of existence from the rest of us, and one that is by no means transcendent and enlightened. In their reality, only their impressions of the world matter, and facts are merely annoyances to be swatted away like the buzzing of mosquitoes. One might accuse such individuals of believing the truth to be subjective, but it goes one (very large and terrifying) step beyond that: these people absolutely believe in a single, objective truth, it just happens to be their own. It is an unstable truth, to be sure. It is shifting and ephemeral by its very nature, as it grows to suit the mind it possesses, but the one characteristic that remains solid and defined is its immutable, unassailable veracity. They are the sole purveyors of this truth, the real and final truth, and they alone have the clarity of vision with which to implement that truth. This myopia, combined with messianic convictions, is usually spotted underneath the ill-conceived, if not insidious, rhetoric that such individuals employ: ambition wrapped in patriotism, misinformation backed by fear, fundamentalism coupled with nostalgia, and ignorance masked by bravado.

What is different about Donald Trump is not so much that he won the election, but rather how he did it and the transformation in the national psyche that made his win possible. It is not fake news that swept him into power, but our willingness to believe it and to spread it. It is not that some sought change at any cost (for there are always those who do), it is that we were willing to believe that those costs were worth paying because the need for change was so acute. It is not that the white middle class has been disenfranchised to the betterment of minorities, but how easy it was to convince us that this is true. The difference with Trump is not that he has his own reality. We’ve seen this before, and in many forms. The difference is that Trump somehow managed to merge his reality with our own in the minds of so many Americans.

We have truly entered a new reality, and we must admit that and discover new ways to fight within it if we are ever going to set things right. This reality is upon us, and it is based on ad hoc impressions and anger and fear, driven home by simple repetition and a raised voice. We cannot give credence to this reality, even as we acknowledge its existence. We cannot play by its rules, lest we legitimize and entrench it. We must seek new ways of combating it, for our reliance on facts alone is no longer enough. To bemoan the loss of our old reality is to mourn it, however, and I am not willing to mourn. Our reality is not gone, it has not been destroyed. It still exists, hidden beneath this new one, and we have to dig it out. It will be difficult, and I cannot pretend to have the answers. I don’t think anyone does yet, at least not all of them, but this is why working together is so important. We will forge new tools, and we will carry on the struggle. We need to be fighters, but we also need to reanalyze the fight. In order to do this, we need to be seekers. We need to be diggers. We need to be learners. Otherwise, we’ll stand no chance throwing off this new reality and reclaiming our own.

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My Evening with Fidel

Yesterday marks nearly 16 years to the day that I met Fidel Castro while visiting Cuba in December of 2000. His death has sparked numerous articles analyzing his contributions and his mistakes, as well as decrying his despotic measures, and it has inspired countless posts on social media that range from sentimental displays of solidarity with the Cuban people (on both sides of the political spectrum) to unbridled enthusiasm for the passing of their leader. The man who had seized power and held it for nearly fifty years engendered both pride and revulsion, as is evidenced today by the reception of his death. Sifting through the jeers and the words of praise, I have been trying to come to terms with my own feelings about the man I encountered so many years ago in Havana, a man I had read and even written a great deal about as a student of international affairs. Rather than the sinner or the saint, however, it is the spirit of a revolutionary that has always been most memorable for me about Castro, and it is this spirit that I feel will be missed.

In the fall of 2000, I had the immense fortune of studying abroad with Semester at Sea, and during our 3 ½ months we sailed west from Vancouver and stopped in 9 countries on our way to New Orleans, where we finally disembarked at the end of our voyage. Havana was our final stop, the second time in a row that Semester at Sea had procured a special educational visa from the US Treasury Department, and I am told that students went back one final time in the spring of 2001 before the Bush administration canceled even these special visas to the island nation 90 miles off the Florida coast.

Now, when I say that I met Castro, I don’t mean that I was enjoying an ice cream while walking along El Malecón, Havana’s gorgeous esplanade, and happened upon the man who had defied the United States for over forty years. Nor did I have a private meeting with him to discuss global political strategies and the economic revitalization of our respective countries. It was not exactly a personal chat, in other words, but in no way do I mean to say that what transpired was not an intimate affair.

My shipmates and I only had about four days on the island, as opposed to the usual five that we enjoyed in most of the other ports of call, and that is hardly enough time to get to know any place, even a relatively small one. We had spent five days in China, for example, and to this day when someone asks me if I’ve ever been to China (or any of the other countries we visited), I feel compelled to reply that I was once in Shanghai for five days. I cannot claim to know China well, nor do I claim to know even a country the size of Cuba well after so short a stay.

I will be the first to admit that my personal and direct experience of Cuba is limited to the capital, Havana, and that mostly to the tours we took of local schools and hospitals. I point this out in case there are those waiting to jump on this and say that my time there was manipulated by the Communist regime to give me a favorable view of the country and its advances. I concede on this point fully and without hesitation, and although they did a remarkably good job, you don’t need to take my word or theirs for it. Independent analysts from the World Bank, UNESCO, the World Health Organization, and others attest to some of the remarkable progress that Cuba made under Castro. The country boasts the tenth highest literacy rate in the world at just under 100%, as well as a high school graduation rate of 94%. Meanwhile, the US ranks 45th in literacy with an 81% graduation rate. The life expectancy in Cuba, at 78 years, is on par with the United States, health care is free, and Cuba has the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world. There is also very little violent crime, and although cash poor, the Cuban people tend to have their basic necessities met.

Sixteen years ago, I walked the darkened streets of Havana, striking left and right through the barrios in search of an authentic sense of the place, and I had no fear of being robbed or attacked as I might on the streets of a city in another, “more-developed” country. I would later learn that my sense of safety was likely due, at least in part, to the fear of reprisals by the police if an American was hurt or robbed, and in part due to the fact that Cubans want to attract people to their country, not scare them away. Nevertheless, it was a singular experience visiting a place where the people, although poor, seemed so happy.

And yet, this all comes with a price, as we are aware. Political dissidence is forbidden, and Castro was known for harsh repression of ‘counter-revolutionaries,’ those who spoke out against the regime and his rule. He was, and this is without question, a dictator who was at times brutal and who always took a hardline approach to any who opposed him or the revolution. He jailed dissidents, restricted travel, made life very difficult for homosexuals (including sending many to jail or labor camps), and allowed the execution of around 500 officials from the regime that preceded his. The last move, Castro remarked at the time, was one of necessity for the safety of the revolution. Fulgencio Batista, the dictator from whom Castro seized power in 1959, had presided over the torture and execution of those who opposed him, and Castro saw the extermination of Batista loyalists as the only way forward. We may judge this decision as we wish, but we must look at it in the context of American apathy toward the Batista regime and the atrocities committed under Batista’s rule that Castro was fighting against.

The Cuba under Batista, we should remember, did not enjoy a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It has been described as a playground for the American wealthy, and US companies had strong ties to the Batista regime due to favorable trade deals and lucrative private industry in the country, much of which involved keeping Cuba dependent on the sugar trade. Before railing against Castro’s dictatorship, it is important to look at Batista’s as well. This is not to excuse Castro’s repressive measures, nor is it to justify his treatment of his own people. Instead, it is to better understand the man who died yesterday and understand why he did what he did, even if the corruption of power substituted its own agenda for that of the revolution along the way.

But my visit to Cuba took place over forty years after the especially harsh measures that followed the revolution. The Havana that I saw was full of music and laughter, and the stories I heard were compelling. One man showed me where he had hidden American dollars under his mattress, telling me that he loved Cuba and everything about it, except that there was no opportunity to make money. “I will go to America,” he said, “and I will make lots of money because in America you can make money.” “So you would rather live there?” I asked. “No, no,” he smiled. “I will make money in America, and then I will return to Cuba a rich man. Cuba has everything I want. Just no money. I don’t want to live in America for long. Just long enough to make money and come back here.” The man sold cigars to tourists for dollars and hoped that one day they would be legal in Cuba again so that he could finance his trip north. According to him, at least, money was the only thing that kept Cuba from being paradise. I doubt he was the only one who felt this way. I told him that money was part of why the United States isn’t paradise either, just the other way around, and he smiled and said, “Socialism is better! I will take money from the capitalists and use it here. That is the best way!” And what could I do but wish him well.

Castro himself is something of an unseen entity in Cuba. I expected to see posters of him everywhere, along with giant billboards and signs praising him. Instead, I only saw images of Che Guevara, “el espíritu de la revolución,” now immortalized in Cuba (and in the dorm rooms of many American college students). Castro’s face was nowhere to be found, and all references to the revolution and the spirit of the people were made about Che. Che, the man who was to spread the revolution in Africa and South America, only to die at the hands of Bolivian authorities when his mountain hideout was discovered (tipped off, so the theory goes, by Castro himself once he became paranoid that the beloved Che would one day usurp him). It was a clever move, I realized, making a martyr into the face of the revolution. As a fallen warrior, Che’s memory could never be tarnished, and Castro could play the humble servant of the people who ruled for the sake of Che’s ideals. In the land of “sand, sun, and socialism,” as the locals call it, Castro could wrap himself in modesty and almost be convincing.

But if he truly thought he was fooling anyone, he did not show it. The man who survived at least 8 CIA assassination attempts (and hundreds more, according to the Cuban government), and thumbed his nose at the United States for over fifty years from just 90 miles off shore, had a swagger and a penchant for bombast that belied any pretense of shyness. His speeches regularly went for hours, and it was a truncated, 2 ½ hour speech that prompted rumors that he might be ill.

This returns me to the night we met him. We had been told throughout the semester that there was a chance that he might speak to us, though the likelihood was slim. Upon arrival in Cuba, we again heard that the administration of Semester at Sea was in contact with Castro’s office and that there was the possibility of an appearance, although no confirmation could be given. Fidel Castro speaks to students from Semester at Sea in Havana, Cuba.And on the night in question we were told that we would be received as official guests of the Cuban government in the National Assembly, and that Castro might attend, but due to security concerns they would leave us in suspense. If nothing else, our staff informed us, there would be a dinner and a performance, and it seemed foolish to risk missing a glimpse of the world leader and major force of the Non-Aligned Movement, so we all boarded local buses at dusk and made our way to the reception.

We were greeted in the hall of the National Assembly by representatives of the youth council, and as luck would have it, I managed to find myself in the first row. The two chairs at the front of the stage were occupied by a man and a woman of roughly college age who introduced various officials arrayed at the flanking tables behind them, but Castro was not among them. The two students at the front explained how the National Assembly functioned and occasionally pointed back to one of the men or women who was responsible for a particular office. One chair, at the edge of one of the back tables, remained conspicuously empty, and I kept my eyes open for its would-be occupant, rewarded before long as Castro himself emerged from the wings and casually took his seat. The students continued speaking, and Castro sat with his legs folded, hands in his lap, and an expression of sincere attention on his face as he listened to them finish their speech.

Any minute now, I thought, Castro was going to get up and start doing his thing. He would begin running the show. But the students kept talking, and Castro kept listening. The translator dutifully continued the task of rendering Spanish into English, and no one seemed to think that anything was out of place. Finally, one of the students signaled behind them, and Castro rose, grinning and even blushing, to step forward. Dressed in his familiar military greens, he looked all the part of El Comandante. He then took about half an hour to tell us that he was not going to give us a speech. He laughed and said that we had all had the opportunity to hear him drone on and on at length, but that on that night he wanted to do things differently. The students remained seated at their table at the head of the stage, and they were to be in charge of fielding questions from us Semester at Sea students, which Castro would then do his best to answer. What followed was over three hours of questions and answers, in which the students, from start to finish, assumed the responsibility of calling on people and adding their own thoughts into the mix. The feeling that they were in charge and Castro merely an expert tasked with relaying information may have been an illusion, but it was an illusion that had a remarkable effect. Their leader appeared magnanimous and gracious as he held sway over his 800-member audience, as he surely intended.

What does one ask a septuagenarian dictator, you may ask? Given that his responses lasted around 45 minutes apiece for most questions, we only made it through about five or six. The simplest question, with the shortest answer, was: “What is your favorite color?” “Rojo, claro!” Castro replied. Red, of course! The rest were more serious, including one that referenced a political crisis that we were facing at the time. The Supreme Court had just called for a stop to the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election, and Al Gore had conceded to George W. Bush, prompting many to begin referring to the latter as the “president-select.” The symmetry of this story coinciding with one such tumultuous election and Castro’s death coinciding with another is hardly lost on me. But although Castro’s response was longer this time, his answer to the question was fairly concise: it was not for him to weigh in on our elections. He felt it best to remain neutral—another interesting parallel to the events of today, given the foreign meddling that has come to light.

His answers tended to meander, this I remember well. Castro would mull the question over for only a moment, and then he would begin to respond. It was always a very direct and relevant analysis of the question and its answer that would initially take shape. For five or so minutes it would seem that he would have little more to say than what might be obvious. And then he would leave things open, the question still unanswered, and begin to tell a story or wander a bit out loud with us though his own history and his country’s. Each time I caught myself thinking that I was watching a true politician at work: restate the question, pay it lip service, and then move on to something else that was relevant enough to fool people into thinking they’d gotten an answer. And each time Castro appeared to be doing just that. He would spend 30-40 minutes discussing various other things, constructing theories and beginning claims that he then left hanging and unfinished, and this prompted me to wonder if his mind was as sharp as it once had been. But then, in the last few minutes, these thoughts would be plucked back to the forefront, the theories knitted together and the claims substantiated with minimal further explication, and his closing thought on the subject returned us precisely to the question originally posed. Every moment of his rambling tale was then proved to be a salient point in his discussion, and the answer stood before us.

This remains to this day one of the most marvelous things I have ever experienced. A master orator, Castro displayed one of the few simple acts of brilliance I have ever had the pleasure to witness first-hand. It was a flawless performance, and regardless of what any may say about the power of charisma, for he certainly had it, there was a magic about that man that went much deeper than his ability to manipulate. He had a keen and capacious mind, and each of his answers was a work of beauty, crafted to perfection. They were not especially partisan, and I doubt anyone was converted to Cuban communism that day, but this had as much to do with the questions as they did with the answers. His audience was there to play hardball, for the most part, and Castro took this in stride. His attitude was more that of a historian than a politician, and he was as quick to poke fun at his foibles as he was to laud the courageous spirit of the Cuban people.

Another question I remember well from that night was especially pointed. “Why did communism fail?” someone asked. If I expected El Jefe to bristle at this, I was to be disappointed. Certainly, he contended that it had not failed, that it was in the process of being realized, but his answer slowly developed into the nuanced, multi-layered treatise that we had so quickly come to expect. Whether it was an attempt to convince us that communism had not failed or merely a way of presenting what Castro saw communism to truly be, I do not know, but his tone was not that of a lecturer or even of a teacher. It was rather that of a parent discussing a child, and here it was that we truly saw a glimpse of this man as the father of the revolution. In that moment, he seemed truly humbled. The next question, and indeed the last, if memory serves, was perhaps the perfect follow-up.

“Is there anything that you wish you had done differently?”

Castro grinned and nodded and thought for a moment. “I would not have been so quick to align with the Soviet Union,” he said. Perhaps I should not have been, but I was rather stunned. He went on to explain why he felt that this was such a mistake, what led to his decision, and how he felt things might have been different. “We became much too dependent upon the Soviet Union,” he continued, “and when it collapsed, we had nowhere to turn.” What followed this was a frank discussion of the Cuban economic downturn of the 1990s, along with a lengthy coda on why the future of Cuba was something to be positive about. In between, however, came a degree of contrition that I had not expected. He deplored the trade embargo placed upon Cuba by the United States, but he also said that the US government had not had a choice. It had been a different time, he noted, and quick decisions often spelled the difference between continued peace and the terror of renewed hostilities between nuclear powers. He mentioned what we call the Cuban Missile Crisis and said that he should never have accepted the nuclear arsenal that the Soviets stationed there, adding that this poisoned the waters for a long time to come and made negotiations with the US impossible. He pointed to the failure of the Cuban economy after the Soviet collapse as a direct result of his mistakes, and he apologized to the people, saying that he should have been better prepared. In the end, he said, the blame lay with him.

It ended on a high note, of course, with promises that the Revolución Cubana would continue and would thrive again. Castro even expressed desires that he would see come to fruition shortly before his death. He spoke of his hope for an improvement of relations with the United States and for greater bilateral partnership. He boasted of Cuba’s impressive health sector and admonished us that we had a lot to learn and that Cubans would help us do so if we asked. But mostly he said that he wanted to see more brotherhood between nations. He hoped that Cubans and Americans could be friends and grow together, making the world better for communists and capitalists alike. Sentimental? Perhaps, but we can forgive an aging dictator a mawkish parting remark, I believe.

I write this not to salute Fidel Castro, nor to condemn him. I hope that any who read this see in it a measured take on a man who straddled the rupture of a world order whose aftermath we are still at odds to define. A despot? Surely. A tyrant? Perhaps that as well. But ultimately, Fidel Castro was a man of his time, and a man who outlived that time. The last century saw myriad revolutions all over the world, and although his was not the last, Castro himself was the longest lasting of those revolutionaries. He overthrew one oppressive regime, and although he implemented another, he also dramatically increased the quality of life for poorer Cubans. There are untold stories here, to be sure, but this is an account of my glimpse of Cuba and my brief encounter with one of the most reviled and most respected leaders of the last sixty years. If the adage holds true that no one is truly loved who is not also truly hated, then Fidel Castro has certainly earned his place in the hearts of his people and in the history of both his country and the world. He will be remembered by more than those who miss him, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that his loss will not be felt for what it is. In many ways, Fidel Castro was the last revolutionary, and his death marks the end of an era.

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