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rebuildamerica2020

Dear Mr. Biden,
You now have what you’ve wanted. You are the de facto nominee for the Democratic party. I could say a lot about how I see that, but none of what I might say will change the facts. Our voting choices are you or Mr. Trump, or some protest vote, or not voting at all. Right now, I’m inclined to not vote at all, to be honest. I dislike the tactics the Dems used to install you as the nominee. I disliked you blustering and belittling people who disagreed with you in the debates. That might score points with the moderators, but it didn’t score points with me. But still, there you are. You’ve said nice things about Mr. Sanders, and about his movement. I hope you meant them.

Right now, I doubt it. I think you’re saying what you think I want to hear. I doubt those words will last past the election. Given the alternative, I hope you win, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope. I hope you prove me wrong. If you don’t, I probably just won’t vote. What would be the point? We need someone strong enough to combat the virulence of the GOP. I don’t think you’re that man. “Reaching across the aisle” is meaningless when the aisle has been shifted to the lawn on the right side of the Capitol.

I feel my vote has been stolen. If you want it, you’re going to have to prove that you will actively, passionately, and vigorously pursue the policies that are life and death to millions of us–one-payer healthcare, free college, and student loan amendment or forgiveness, paid sick leave, climate change, preserving the environment, financial regulation, racial, gender, common-sense gun regulations, and age equality, and legal reform to ensure that the laws work equally for all of us.

Right now–yes, during your “campaign,” which is now officially over for the primary–I want to see and hear you proposing and working to enact the reforms that Mr. Sanders has been advocating to stave off ruin for millions. Here’s a crazy thought–how about you work with him on those things? How about you use your brand new bully pulpit to fight for us, the people you’re asking to vote for you? Donald Trump said something last week about governors–he said that Federal support goes both ways–the governors who want Federal support have to be nice to him. He was dead wrong, of course, as he so often is. The governors did not get their positions because of his vote. They owed nothing to him.

But that was him. This is us, now, Mr. Biden–you and the people you are asking to elect you president. We do have the right to elect someone who will fight for our best good. We do have the right to expect that, if elected, you will be our advocate in the White House. So I’m asking. What are you going to do to earn my vote? And then, if you get it, what are you going to do to assure us all that you’re worthy of the trust we’ve placed in you? Who will you fight for?

Will you fight for the billionaires who fund much of your campaign? Will you pursue some demented form of “trickle-down” economics that only enriches those at the top? Will you continue to bail out banks, oil companies, and corporations that have already been the benefit of government largesse not once or twice, but over and over? Or will you look beyond the walls that money and political position have built around you to the millions of us who lie beyond those walls? Will we be real and worth fighting for once the election’s over? Will what’s happening to us out here in the small towns, the farms, and the just-barely-afloat small businesses keep you awake at night? Will you use our lives as your North Star, the guiding force of your actions? Or will you use us as political props until it’s no longer necessary to have our grubby, poor, undecorative selves on the platform with you?

Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” You might be nicer than Mr. Trump (that’s a pretty low bar, but I suspect true). But that’s not enough. The millions of us out in flyover land have been living with the evils perpetrated on us by the greedy, and by the “good men” in government who have done nothing. The time is past for that. We need warriors to fight for us, not nice guys who don’t want to rock the boat.

You want my vote, Mr. Biden? Prove it. Earn it by putting yourself on the line not just for me, but for all the millions of us out here who are losing our health insurance with our jobs, who are facing rent and mortgage payments we have no money to meet, who have children we struggle to feed, who have no bargaining power because the unions have been busted. We don’t need nice Uncle Joe. We need crabby Uncle Joe, who is pissed as all hell and is coming to kick ass and take names. We need a warrior. Are you that man? If I give you my vote, what will you do to show me you’ve been worthy of my trust?

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“Some Dreams Take Work”–because America might be beautiful, but it isn’t always easy. Available at my CafePress Store: http://www.cafepress.com/magicdogpress

I’ve been thinking a lot about patriotism lately. In the 2008 elections Sarah Palin talked a lot about “Ril Amuricans”-who they are, where they live, where they go to church, to whom they pray. She praised the screaming, rage-fulled crowds at her rallies for their american-ness. She spent a lot of time insinuating that then-Candidate Obama wasn’t  a “Ril Amurican,” that “he doesn’t see America like you and I see America.”

Many on the right side of the political spectrum have followed her lead. Patriotism has come to be associated with tight-jawed people in three-cornered hats, carrying guns to political and presidential events, with a set of values that disenfranchises millions, that seeks to impose a narrow set of religious beliefs in the name of “American values.”

I realized the other day that I had conceded patriotism to a political and social group that quite frankly frightens me–that seems to be trying to strip away the very parts of America that I find most important.

It’s the Fourth of July. I went out and sat on my lawn and watched The Boy and his buddy set off our legal fireworks. In between our beautiful, jewel-like little fire fountains I listened to the huge cannons, and oohed and ahhed at the gigantic golden chrysanthemums, the umbrellas of flickering fire, and the shooting stars the scofflaws on both sides of me were setting off. I don’t know where they get the fireworks, but it happens every July Fourth–the skies light up, and I sit out on my thoroughly-watered lawn, swat mosquitoes, and enjoy the show.

Tonight I thought about our town. I don’t know how much truth there is to it, but local legend holds that our skies full of fireworks happen because of our large migrant population–they bring their enormous fireworks, and come Fourth of July it’s like the battle of Fort Sumpter all over again, but with fewer blown-up buildings and burning boats.

The irony of this, of course, is that our most American of holidays is made more American because of the non-citizens in our midst. We have our problems–yesterday I noticed that somebody’s tagging around town, and that makes me sad. We are not perfect. But citizens or not, and despite our differences, we are all real Americans, and we all inhabit real America.

That means that I have to understand that America is big enough to hold the Tea Party and the Progressives, the GOP and the Democrats, ethnic and racial groups of all descriptions, lovers of all or no genders. America isn’t an apple pie–it’s a fruit salad, and some of us are fruitier than others.

And so today, I am a patriot. I love the symbolism of the flag. I choke up at the “National Anthem.” I believe Katherine Lee Bates had my part of America in mind when she wrote the lines,

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

I believe that everyone deserves the tools from which to build success–what you do with them is up to you. I believe that no child should go to bed hungry. I believe that we all deserve healthcare, housing, and education at a fair price. I believe that while success is American, success achieved by harming others isn’t. I believe in good neighbors, vegetable gardens, and keeping religion out of politics. I believe kids need to learn how to think clearly, to play fair, and to put themselves in others’ shoes.

I believe that we don’t have to have the same values, cultures, or traditions to like and respect each other. I believe we all make potato salad and fried chicken a little differently, and it’s okay. I believe we don’t all have to agree, but we do have to listen to each other, and differ respectfully.

And I believe I’ll go outside and watch a few more fireworks, and maybe sing “America the Beautiful,” until my throat tightens. Because America is beautiful, and I am lucky to be here.

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When I was a little girl, my dad used to talk about a poem he loved. It was called “The First Settler’s Story,” and it was written by Will Carleton, an American poet who often took the plight of the disadvantaged as his subjects. Much of his poetry was time-specific–his poem “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse,” for example, has largely faded from public knowledge. Likewise his poem about divorce, “Betsy and I Are Out.” Even “The First Settler’s Story,” has largely become a casualty of changing times, values, and worlds.

Will Carleton wasn’t one of our finer poets, but he did manage to produce four lines of text that have been quoted over and over–even if few remember where they came from. Here are the lines:

Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds.
You can’t do that when you’re flying words.
Once spoken, though you wish them left unsaid,
God Himself can’t kill them, make them dead.

Words have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are  unintended. In  “The First Settler’s Story” the husband offers them to us as the lesson he learns in the wake of his wife’s tragic death–that his cruel, angry words to her drove her to dangerous behavior that ultimately cost her life.

Words matter. That’s why we have laws against verbal abuse. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

Verbal abuse includes the following: countering, withholding, discounting, verbal abuse disguised as a joke, blocking & diverting, accusing & blaming, judging & criticizing, trivializing, undermining, threatening, name calling, chronic forgetting, ordering, denial of anger or abuse, and abusive anger.”[1]

What prompted all this? The onset of our political season. I watched a clip in which a woman at a GOP Town Hall meeting asserted that President Obama should be tried for treason. It doesn’t take a genius to track this back to the overheated rhetoric during the last political campaign, where various spokespeople asserted all sorts of untrue things–and, even when those things were proven false, continued to assert them.

A virtue was made of knowing nothing. Sophomoric behavior became what passed for public discourse. And, as verbal abuse does, the rhetoric and claims became more and more vile and less and less veiled as time when on.

And now we are starting all over again–but we’re starting at a point higher on the abuse curve than we did last time. We are starting with phrases like “Don’t retreat, reload” an established (and hotly defended, even in the wake of shootings that cost lives) part of our political lexicon. We are starting with GOP operatives considering allowing rally participants to attend political events–with loaded guns. We are starting with a mass of swirling falsehoods, all of which have been “flown” not inadvertently, but as part of a concerted plan to defeat a President who “is not like us” by destroying the nation and laying the blame at his feet.

That’s not to say that the Democratic Party has been blameless–there are falsehoods there, too. But a simple look at any of the reputable, non-partisan fact check sites (and I’m defining those as sites funded by non-partisan organizations and not affiliated with any candidate’s election or defeat)–heck, even a look at the email smears reported on Snopes.com–reveals that there is a serious credibility problem in the Republican party and its conservative base today. Count the smears. Do the math.

But it’s not just the number of smears in question–it’s the violent rhetoric at issue here. The right to keep and bear arms has been translated into the right to carry loaded guns into highly charged, heavily-frequented areas. The right to “political imagery” has been cited in defense of the crosshairs marketing congressional districts that are “targeted” for takedowns. Town halls as a means of conveying information have been compromised by concerted plans to shout down speakers–to prevent the exchange of information.

I teach writing. I’m a writer by trade. It breaks my heart to see words, a unique human invention that has allowed us to develop a sense of history, a concept of past and future, a body of literature unmatched in the animal kingdom, and  even a system of jurisprudence and ethics, misused to circumvent their intended purpose.

Words have become the weapons of those who take pride in their ignorance, who maintain that those who value studying the issues and weighing their merits are somehow the enemy. Words have become the servants of rage, the tools of racism, and the weapons of a group of businessmen who use them to turn the rage of the less successful against the very systems and ideas that might better their lot.

Words matter. The kites are flying again, and many of them are dark and drenched with blood. It is time that we took back our words, that we drew clear lines between spirited debate and verbal abuse, between legitimate discussion and incitements to riot, between the sorts of words that provoke us to think, and the sorts of words that can provoke some of us to pick up weapons and start shooting, or stabbing.

And so, to those most guilting (and we and you all know who they–and we–are) I would say, “We’re starting a new campaign. Let’s not make it an escalation of the last campaign. Let’s not turn what should be a uniquely American system of transferring power into a mockery of itself, and an excuse for encouraging the ugliest parts of our national heritage. Let’s not make this election be about how close we can come to actually advocating that someone kill the President.

Before we send up our kites, let’s think about who all is looking at them, and what they are seeing. Above all, let’s remember that while we might not bear physical responsibility for the actions that grow out of our words, we absolutely bear responsibility for the atmosphere our words help to create.

Will Carleton had it right. Words said cannot be unsaid, and like stones, they send out ripples. The time to recognize that–and to change the ripples we are creating–is now.

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Okay, I think that we’ve officially entered the Silly Season. First we have the sad story of Mitt Romney’s pooch, who was crated, strapped on top of the car, and taken on vacation. There are a lot of ways to spin this. the ASPCA roundly condemns the practice of strapping one’s dog–however crated–to the car roof and zooming off for a fun-filled vacation. Not surprisingly, many agree. Also not surprisingly, the Romneys are holding fast to their “he liked it, and it was better than a kennel” position. I am unconvinced that the car roof was the only alternative to a kennel for the vacationing Romneys–possibly Seamus could have stayed in one of their numerous homes–but to be perfectly honest, in the absence of a weigh-in by Seamus himself I am prepared to give the Romneys a pass on the whole dog on the car roof thing.

I’m willing to concede that Seamus may indeed have “loved it”–Irish Setters are famously beautiful but dumb. Maybe Seamus did love the prospect of an eighteen-wheeler roaring toward him. Maybe he did love the endless, incessant, inescapable buffeting of the wind driving him ever back, back, back against the back wall of the crate. Maybe he did love the way the crate rocked and shook as the car raced toward Ontario. Maybe he did love bugs in his teeth. Maybe the Romneys strapped the crate on sideways. Maybe it was indeed an ill-advised turkey, rather than terror, that caused Seamus’ sudden attack of diarrhea. Who knows? So–in the absence of any sort of word from Seamus, I’m willing to file this under “things that make me go ‘huh?'” and move on.

What is bothering me more these days is the GOP’s answer to the Seamus-on-the-roof story, and that’s their “revelation” from Dreams of My Father, President Obama’s memoir about, in part, his childhood in Indonesia, that in his childhood Barry Obama ate dog meat. The implication is that but for the eagle eye of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh the First Family would be barbecuing Bo in the Rose Garden. Apparently the plan is to use the story about child Obama eating dog meat in Indonesia as some kind of answer to Seamus-on-the-roof.

It would be funny, if it didn’t reveal how very insular, smug, and dim-witted the spinmeisters at the GOP believe us to be. In the first place, equating an action taken by a grown man, married, with children, and presumably in his right mind, with the action of a child, arguably still at the “eat-what’s-set-before-you” stage of life, is ridiculous. The two things simply aren’t equivalent. No matter what one thinks of Seamus’ car trip, there’s simply no way to equate the fact that the adult Mitt chose to strap his dog to the roof of the car with the fact that a young child ate a piece of meat he was given by a caretaker. None.

What’s more troubling, though, is what the “You ate dog” response says about the insularity and bigotry that we are being asked to embrace. Let me say right here that I do not eat dog. I have no plans to try. But I recognize that this is because of a powerful cultural bias, not because dog meat is inherently inedible. Biases are powerful things, and food biases are some of the most powerful of all.

Andrew Zimmern’s show, Bizarre Foods, regularly invites viewers to confront their biases by exploring how people around the world  meet the nutritional demands of their bodies. I watch. And sometimes I wince. But the show carries a profound message–one important enough that I used it as the basis for a writing class I teach. The message is this: Humans all have certain nutritional needs, and how we meet those needs is driven by where we live, what foods are available, and yes, our cultural and religious taboos. Understanding and respecting that fact is the first step toward understanding that humanity is truly all one family–we eat what is around us, and for millions in third-world countries–like Indonesia–that has prompted the acceptance of a much wider variety of protein sources than we, who live in a far wealthier world, are accustomed to. Like privileged children who turn up their noses at bread crusts, in the context of the world population we are picky eaters. We can afford to be. We’re rich.

To build a political “smear” on a simple fact of life–Barry Obama was living in a part of the world where the consumption of dog meat was acceptable, and one of his caregivers gave him some–says more about those who have crafted the smear than it says about President Obama, who no longer lives in Indonesia, who can make his own protein choices now, and who, judging by Bo’s continued happy existence, does not appear to number dog meat among those choices. It says that the crafters of that particular bit of propaganda live smug, safe, sheltered lives, lives in which they can afford to pick and choose what they will eat, rather than eating what they must, the way that much of the world does. It says that they can see no difference between the biases that govern all of our food choices and morality–possibly even religion. It says that they are willing to convict someone for being different, for having a broader, more inclusive cultural experience. At worst, it says that they are willing to condemn those who live in other parts of the world, who use other proteins, fruits, vegetables, and starches to fill out their food pyramid to either ostracism or malnutrition. Mostly, it says that they simply have no concept of or respect for the exigencies under which most of the world lives. It makes me wonder how much they understand about how the less privileged in America live, and the dietary choices being made in smaller, humbler homes just down the street.

That smear reeks of snobbism, self-congratulation, narrow-mindedness, and insularity. It is beneath us. And if you doubt me, reflect for a moment on the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans partake of beef in myriad forms, while half a world away there is a nation that holds cattle sacred–and that is probably as appalled by our addiction to McDonald’s as we are by the idea of eating dog meat.

At its root, this smear comes back to the same tired meme that stained so much of the last election. It is an appeal to the lowest human instincts, to racism and xenophobia. The smear is designed to remind us all that President Obama is different, other, and quite possibly dangerous. It is a return to the canard that “he is not like us.”

So here’s the question: Who is “us?” If the measure of “us-ness” is buying into this bit of ugliness, I hope to all gods that he is not “like us.” And I hope I’m not like “us,” either.

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