How It Ends for Donald

Dear Donald,

I have seen your end. It’s not pretty.

It happens at a rally, of course. One of those rallies that you love so much, that feed the gaping hunger in your soul. You are on a roll, and they’re loving it, they’re eating it up, you can tell them anything, promise them anything, ask them to do anything…

But then you slip. You get carried away by the moment, by the intoxicating power. Something comes out of your mouth that you didn’t expect. Something that breaks the spell. The roaring cheer that you expect doesn’t come. Instead, there is silence – an awful, awkward, painful … silence.

You look to your advisors, but they are staring at you, mouths agape. That wasn’t in the script, their faces tell you. You weren’t supposed to go there, not yet, it’s still too soon…

But you went there. And now the crowd is turning.

What happens next seems to be in slow motion. The Secret Service men come to surround you, guns drawn, faces grim, but it’s too late. The crowd has every exit covered. They swarm over the stage like a tsunami, bodies climbing over bodies, the faces that moments before were radiant with adoration now twisted into masks of betrayal and rage. They reach for you, grab at you, yank on your arms, clutch your pants, your feet… and the last thing you hear as you are lifted over their heads, as you feel your joints and tendons giving way, your fine clothes tearing, your heart exploding, is their chant:

“FAKER… FAKER… FAKER…”

TORONTO AND THE PROMISE OF POLYCULTURALISM

Reports from the Road #2: TORONTO AND THE PROMISE OF POLYCULTURALISM

There were so many choices for dinner, just along that particular two-block stretch in Midtown Toronto, I hardly knew where to turn. Moroccan, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Chinese… I picked one more or less at random, a Chinese restaurant, and settled in with a Tsingtao and some delicious mushroom egg-drop soup. I knew I’d found a good spot when a gaggle of Chinese students came in for dinner. As I wrestled with some unfamiliar vegetable (gai lan, I found out later – Chinese broccoli), they kept up a steady stream of laughter and conversation, delighting in each other’s company. The staff was also clearly pleased to have them there, as they brought out dish after dish for a family-style repast.

It occurred to me that these folks had probably not come to Canada to gain an appreciation of poutine and hockey – that is, not to be assimilated or digested into some generic one-size-fits-all kind of Canadian identity. They also hadn’t come to take over and enforce their own cultural norms. Rather, they came to benefit from and contribute to a vibrant and varied society. I thought of the young Punjabi women I had talked to in Niagara Falls, who were studying nursing and early childhood education, and preparing to take their skills back home. I thought of the elderly Colombian gentleman I had met in a pub, a chef who had come to Montreal to work on his French before heading for culinary school in France – but who found love instead, and stayed put.

Toronto has a long-standing reputation as one of the most diverse and multicultural cities on the planet, and from what I’ve seen it’s well deserved. Conflicts here seem to be more class-based, as hard-driving developers (from many different nationalities!) put pressure on neighborhoods to allow more and more high-priced luxury condo development.  Ethnic communities, where they have developed, get nudged further out towards the suburbs.   

But they not only coexist, they interact, and cross-fertilize.

As I understand it, there’s a difference between “multiculturalism” – where different cultural communities exist in close proximity, but within distinct borders, and claim certain physical and ideological spaces as their own – and what some call “polyculturalism,” where there is more openness towards hybridization, and a recognition that the overall community is in fact greater than the sum of its parts. So we can see things here like “Pad Thai burritos” – and even a Japanese variant of poutine, French fries and cheese curds covered with Japanese curry gravy with seaweed and scallions.

One of the things that I am interested in exploring and learning more about during this trip is how such polycultural societies are created – and more importantly, maintained. It seems to me that learning to exist in multiple worlds, so to speak – to be a part of one’s communities of heritage but also part of something larger – could be an important skill for avoiding the kinds of intercultural conflicts that threaten to tear our country (and our planet) apart literally at the seams.

Report from Rainbow Bridge

 Reports from the Road, #1: Report from Rainbow Bridge

20 January 2017

It was cold, damp, and lonely on the Rainbow Bridge.

I was sitting quietly, alone, there on the bridge, quite literally on the border between the US and Canada, hundreds of feet above the Niagara River.  (Yes, you might say I was putting my butt on the line.) Hundreds of miles to my south-southeast, a scowling orange man was about to rest his hand on a Bible, and make a solemn promise that no one (least of all me) expected him to be able or willing to keep.

On either end of the Rainbow Bridge sits a city called Niagara Falls, one in New York, one in Ontario.  Both are studies in contrast, the ritzy hotels and attractions of the tourist districts surrounded by drab but adequate working-class neighborhoods. I noticed that from my viewpoint on the bridge, the two cities shared one common feature: the brightly lit word “CASINO.” (Curiously enough, the name of the man with his hand on that Bible in Washington DC had nothing to do with the casinos on either side, at least not yet.)

usa-sideI sat on the American side of the border to begin with. Only a couple of pairs of tourists walked by – young people, maybe even honeymooners.  They smiled at me sympathetically – perhaps they understood why I was there – but they did not stop long to talk.

I looked up at the two flagpoles in front of me.

flags

The Canadian flag on my left waved and fluttered properly in the mild breeze – but its neighbor, strangely enough, remained unmoved, flaccid, listless. It seemed depressed. Perhaps, in some sense, it knew what was happening in that city so far away.

As noon approached, I moved.canada-side

It was a simple enough act – a mere schooching of only a few inches – but I felt it.

It was my acknowledgment to myself that I was leaving something, something that would never exist again in quite the same way.

I sat in sober contemplation of this fact for a while – and then I heard the helicopter overhead. As I watched it fly by, it suddenly occurred to me that my position – and the small pack that I was carrying on my lap – might arouse suspicions. Perhaps one of those couples had made a comment – “There’s some guy sitting on the bridge, and he has a package in his lap. He seemed depressed about something.”

So it was time to leave – but I also realized in that moment that I had one more thing to do, one more gesture to make… an obvious one…

So I made a wall. A mime wall, following the border. I worked my way back and forth along it, across the sidewalk, for a couple of minutes, tears welling in my eyes.

Then I noticed the policemen coming from the American side.

.

cops

(Do you see them? Look closely.)

They weren’t running, exactly, but they were walking towards me with clear intent and purpose, and more than a little urgency. I decided to allay their fears. I walked away a few steps, turned, and waved a big “Don’t worry, I’m harmless” farewell wave. They waved back, regrouped, and returned (relieved, I imagine) to their side.

 

So I was seen. My little gesture got a response. Maybe they even understood.

That’s about all I could have asked for, I suppose.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: EVERY NEW BEGINNING

It’s not often that a rock song nails a deep philosophical truth in a single pithy lyric… but that’s just what the band Semisonic did back in 1998, with their anthemic hit “Closing Time,” which includes this great line:

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

In this case, 2009 was that “other beginning.” Barack Obama’s Inauguration was the crest of a wave, a flowering of post-Bush “si, se puede” optimism that unfortunately was quickly squelched (let us not say “betrayed”) by his own centrist pragmatism and the Republicans’ petty, partisan obstreperousness.

So now here we are, at that beginning’s end – and a new beginning. On January 20, we will see what I am calling the “Dysauguration” of Donald J. Trump – as massive a perversion of the democratic process as the planet has seen since the emperor Caligula supposedly named his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate.

I plan to see this event from a different perspective. By the time Mr. Trump intones the words “So help me God,” I’ll be across the border, in Canada. (You might want to join me, even if just in spirit, or just for the day. See the article “Vote With Your Feet?” on my website, skipmendler.wordpress.com.)

I’m taking advantage of this “new beginning” to stage a new beginning of my own. I am headed to Europe for an indefinite period, with two goals in mind.

One is to get involved with refugee assistance over there. I am aiming for the Greek Isles, but I might find that I can be useful elsewhere along the route. Ideally, I’ll be able to use my performing experience by hooking up with one of the groups like Clowns Without Borders that has been doing shows to entertain the kids in the camps, but I’m willing to do whatever. (Look up “refugee clown circus” for a raft of articles about what some folks have been doing already, and why.)

The other is to get some opinions and suggestions from activists and academics over there regarding what can be done to fix our broken system, and our fractured society. I am particularly interested in how they make multiparty democracy work, and how we might bring the American system more in line with European democracies in this regard. (See my September column, “Two Parties Are Too Damn Few.”) I also plan to attend the 2017 Global Greens Congress in Liverpool at the end of March.

At present, I’m thinking I should be away for six months to a year, maybe more, depending on what happens (and how long the money holds out). In the meantime, I intend to continue this column, but I’ll be focusing primarily on my experiences along the way.

I remain an “apocaloptimist”: I believe that things are about to get quite rough, but I also believe they will work themselves out in the long run. This particular “new beginning,” this onslaught called Trumpism, will run its course and eventually end, hopefully sooner rather than later, but end it will.

And then there will be more – and better – new beginnings on the way.

 

A Possible Explanation for Recent Events

Donald Trump opened his eyes with a start. What had happened? He had been at a party – he remembered vodka shots, raucous dancing, a woman named Rulina – and now here he was, strapped to an admittedly comfortable chair in a dimly lit but spacious room. “Ah, good morning, Mr. Trump,” came a familiar voice, tinged with perhaps a bit too much honey.

“Please, Vlad, I thought we were on a first-name basis,” said Trump. His eyes adjusted to the light. Yes, that was him, a few feet away, his eyes glinting, that damn kittycat in his lap. “You could have made an appointment, you know.”

The other man laughed. “You’re a busy man, Donald,” he said. “And I needed to see you right away.

“But I won’t keep you long, don’t worry. Your personal safety is not at risk, so relax. We just have a matter to settle…”

“The Ljubljana account, you mean?”

“Yes, Donald. But it’s not the money I want, substantial though the sum is. I want you to obtain – or shall we say, procure – something for me. Something that I think you will enjoy getting… because to get it, you will have to become President of the United States.”

“What do you want that I could give you? The nuclear codes? Access to intel?”

Vlad laughed.

“Oh no, Donnie,” he said. He leaned in close to the bound man. Donald could smell the other man’s poor dental condition. “No, Donald – I want to screw the First Lady of the United States.”

Crawl from the Wreckage

 

Through the months and the years
The pressure just grows
& then in a moment
It seems everything blows

She drops the bombshell
The storm systems merge
Tectonic plates shift
As two lives diverge

And then when it’s over
You open your eyes
Surprised to discover
That you’re still alive

(chorus)
Crawl from the wreckage
Pull out of the debris
Take a good look around
At what you used to be

Destruction seems total
Nothing remains
But you still have your hands
And you still have your brain

(chorus 2)
Crawl through the wreckage
Sort through the debris
Try to find what’s still useful
In what you used to be

You feel so abandoned
You think you’re on your own
But just lift up your eyes
You’ll see you’re not alone

Hundreds and thousands
Millions and more
Who have known devastation
This has happened before

(chorus 3)
Pull them from the wreckage
Clear off the debris
Try to make yourself useful
What else is there to be

 

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: GOVERNING FROM CENTER

(This was originally published in two parts.)

One of the things I appreciate about social media sites like Twitter and Facebook is that they expose me to many things that I might otherwise miss. Usually, these items are posted by the people and organizations I follow, but every once in a great while I actually see a relevant and interesting advertisement. The other day, for example, my eye was caught by an ad on Facebook.

“Click ‘Like’ if you are tired of the gridlock in Washington, DC!” it said.

Well, heck, who’s not tired of that? But before reflexively clicking the link, I thought maybe I should check out the sponsoring organization, which was identified as “Center Forward.”

After a bit of digging, I found that the organization was connected with the so-called “Blue Dogs,” the more fiscally conservative wing of the Democratic Party, whose presence and influence in Congress have been shrinking of late.  As you might expect, their chosen issues and approaches have a narrow range and a very business-friendly emphasis.

There have been many organizations like this cropping up over the past few years, ever since Ross Perot’s Reform Party knocked the system into such a tizzy back in 1992. Such organizations try, with varying degrees of success, to leverage America’s disillusionment and disgust with the present state of political discourse by rallying folks around something they call “the center.”

For example, consider the statement that tops Center Forward’s website:

“America is neither right nor left. Republican nor Democrat. Red nor blue. The solutions that will move us forward come from where they always have—the center.”

But what, or where, exactly, is that “center”? If you think of it as just “the middle of the road,” some position taken up between two extremes, then your definition is going to vary depending on how wide you think that “road” is.

There’s an interesting concept called the “Overton Window,” which describes the range of politically acceptable discourse at any given time. Conservatives have been very successful over the past half-century or so at moving that window to the right, and making it narrower and narrower. So for an outfit like Center Forward, “center” means the center of a fairly restricted set of possibilities.

(And by the way, as far as the “neither right nor left, Republican nor Democrat, red nor blue” part goes, that’s patently false. It’s not that America is “neither one nor the other:” it is, in fact, both. That’s the reality of the situation—and the problem—and the opportunity.)

For some, this elusive center presents an opportunity – and their search is motivated by a sense that there might be advantage to be gained by formulating an attractive vision of a unifying, centrist politics.  They calculate that the right person, with the right set of “non-partisan” positions, might be able to leverage people’s frustrations with business-as-usual and draw a strong following.

For others, perhaps less cynical, the motivation comes from a perception that the increasing polarization of our political system truly has made progress impossible, and stymied meaningful action on the many issues that confront us.   

This center, one supposes, would represent some kind of “middle ground” along the left/right spectrum, some place where enough people of good will from different sides could coalesce to reclaim power from the “extremes.”

But even if such a point of view could be coherently put forward, it would not transcend our divisions – it would only add another player to the practical and philosophical conflicts we have,  Entrenched partisans, from force of habit if nothing else, would resist what they would see as betrayals of their deeply-held principles.

We are an increasingly diverse nation, and I believe that when democracy is allowed to function properly, solutions can be crafted even from that diversity – because of it, not in spite of it.  Maybe we can and should go deeper. Maybe we can think in terms of our core values, our common interests, our shared goals. The Constitution, after all, begins with a specific list of defining purposes: “…form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Remember? Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be able to agree on what some of those words even mean, much less how to implement them in practice. But thinking in such terms might move us away from ideological wrangling and closer to actual communication and productive cooperation – closer to a government that is more inclusive and more diverse – closer to a government where everyone feels that they have both a voice and a stake.

For that to happen – for a government to truly be a government of “all the people,” then it must be rooted in a different kind of “center.”

This center is not simply a matter of compromise, or a mere averaging of extremes in the hopes of minimizing overall dissatisfaction.  This center would appeal, not to our “lowest common denominators,” but rather to our “greatest common factors.”

It would not be the middle of the road – it would be the ground upon which the road is built.

I am speaking here of “center” in a sense that is familiar, as a matter of personal experience, to martial artists and meditators, potters and performers.  It is a place of internal stillness even when one is in motion, of focused calm even in the midst of chaos.  When one is in contact with this center, one is able to respond to the requirements of the moment with minimal yet perfectly appropriate effort.  “The centered state,” says aikido master Thomas Crum in his excellent book The Magic of Conflict, “is simple, natural, and powerful.”  It is a state of heightened awareness, of insightful perception, of profound integration of body, mind, and spirit.

Now consider: what would it mean to govern from such a state – or to have a government that was not centralized, or even centrist, but truly, deeply centered.

Such a government would not be rigidly bound by ideology, but would be flexible and fluid.  It would respond quickly, but not reflexively; it would not be easily swayed by fear, anger, or panic.  It would not be monolithic, mind you – it would be broad-based and inclusive, but have effective and efficient decision-making mechanisms for identifying and balancing the various needs and interests of the different parts of society.  It would able to apply the right kinds of action to the particular situation at hand, whether such action might be labeled “liberal” or “conservative.”

Best of all: beginning the creation of such a government does not have to wait for the establishment of a new party, or the issuance of a think tank proposal.

It begins when we find where the true center is: within ourselves.

(2013)