The Day After Election Day 2016

I just succumbed to a Facebook posting temptation.  You know what I mean — you read a post that really bothers you and type a reply and then, instead of hesitating and deleting it, you hit post.

This was a rant from a former student denouncing people who had the nerve to compare the way they feel today to the way they felt on 9/11.  I know it’s a personal topic for her; she’s married to a police officer and, like many on Staten Island, knew people who were lost that day.  She said that anyone who invoked 9/11 — as if it belongs to only some of us — should be ashamed.  And that if you couldn’t live with a Trump presidency, well there were options.

But you see, I was one of those people she was complaining about.  Last night, as the results were coming in, I posted, “I’m having flashbacks, seriously, to the way I felt on 9/11 in NYC. I feel like my country is under attack.”

I added the “seriously,” because I understood how it sounded, and I wanted friends to know I wasn’t being hyperbolic.  Even before I saw her take-down of my feelings, I’ve been aware that today feels like only two other days in my life.

One was 9/11/2001, when I was in Manhattan and the towers were struck and our country was attacked.  I was afraid, terrified for my family and my country, and desperate to get off Manhattan.  And acutely aware that, no matter what else happened, history’s course had changed and nothing would be the same.

The other was on 10/22/2001, six weeks after the attack, just as we were nervously adapting to the new normal that was security checks, national guard deployment, acrid smoke and the eternal burning downtown.  On that day, I got a phone call at work from a man who identified himself as a police officer and told me my mother was in Staten Island University Hospital. When I got there, I learned that she had been hit by a school bus as she was crossing the street.  With massive head injuries and a heart that kept failing, she died a few hours later.  We, her children and grandchild waited, worried, a few yards away, but never saw her alive again. The world, once again, changed entirely that day.

The point is, I know what it feels like when everything changes.

I don’t make these comparisons lightly.  I am a student of history, and I see no good coming from electing a president whose character, temper, and experience alone should disqualify him from the office, and whose positions and statements on fundamental democratic institutions like the press, the courts, treaties and the Constitution, should worry us all.  I have never really believed in American exceptionalism, although it’s certainly attractive to think that we’re a nation specially blessed by God and somehow exempt from history.  But the reality is, as I think I’ve taught, that we’re subject to the same kinds of weaknesses, interests and institutional degradation that affects all nations.  Except for our belief that “it can’t happen here.”

Well, it’s happening.  Because it wasn’t simply that a monstrous candidate was chosen by less than a majority of the voters (with a big chunk not voting at all), but we also saw an end to divided government.  The House, the Senate, the Presidency and, soon, the Supreme Court will all be in control of the party that has terrified half the nation.  Oh, and so are most of the states.  That means there’s no institutional checks on power (remember checks and balances?). Want to “free up” the libel laws to prevent the press from criticizing people in government?  That law might just pass.  And be upheld on appeal.  What if this president, known for a disturbing tendency to go after enemies, no matter how insignificant (remember Alicia Machado?), decides to use the power of the FBI, the IRS and other agencies of government to punish his political enemies.  Who’s going to stop him?

Maybe those are far-fetched worries.  And the fact is that my life is not likely to change drastically.  Yes, there might be changes to Social Security and Medicare that impact me, but I am of a race and class that can probably weather a few years of setbacks and bad government.  And I’m old enough that degradation that results from relaxation of environmental protections won’t degrade the air and water I depend on for the next twenty or so years of my life.

With all this in mind, I responded to the former student’s post.  I told her I thought it was a mistake to take people to task for their feelings; that you kinda had to take those on faith.  And I admitted I was one of the ones who said that, and that I stood by it, and I politely explained why.  And, of course, the very first person who replied was not as polite.  His profile picture was of Trump leaning out of the window of a limousine with a semi-automatic handgun in hand.  I imagine it was photoshopped.

Others agreed, saying that you couldn’t compare a presidential election with an incident in which people suffered and died, and where people were still dying years later.  That’s said from a position of privilege and safety, from someone who is pretty confident that the election isn’t going to be personal for them.  The truth, though, is that presidential elections ARE matters of life and death for some people.  Members of the military; civilians who will be gunned down in mass shootings because we don’t know how to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental health issues; children born here whose families will be broken up because their parents are undocumented; people who can’t afford decent health care.  The election is personal to them, and I stand with them.

I regretted having engaged.  I’m in the advocacy/hearts & minds business and I know that there’s no point trying to reach those who will not hear.  Focus your efforts on the ones who are receptive to your message, who will benefit from support and skills.  Tend your garden, not the weeds.

So, having done one thing I don’t usually do — enter the fray where there’s no one listening — I did something else I never do.  I unfriended her, not wanting to read the vitriol that, despite the president-elect’s call for unity, was certain to pour forth.

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Politics, Alabama Style

Contrary to popular wisdom, moving from New York City to Alabama produced little in the way of culture shock for Lifelongnewyorker, Mr.NYer or either of their two New York-bred cats.

The political shock, on the other hand, was both immediate and, it turns out, long-lasting.

When you’ve lived in one place for a long time, you absorb a lot of political knowledge that translates into a kind of shorthand, e.g. if someone were to say, “He’s a Guiliani-era throwback,” I’d know exactly what it means. So, even if a new name entered a race in New York, you could get a bead on a candidate pretty quickly just by toting up her political allies.  With my prior knowledge of Alabama politics extending only to George Wallace, I felt like I landed in a corn maze.

And I can’t say that I’ve found my way out, either.

Back in New York, Republicans were nearly an endangered species, except for the protected habitat of Staten Island, which sheltered a robust colony.  In Alabama, the Democrats are almost extinct.  Republicans have taken over the statehouse and the governor’s mansion.  They hold our two U.S. Senate seats and six of the seven seats in the House of Representatives.

But I would hesitate to call any of them representative.  Not of me and not of most people I know here.

Here’s what political life in Alabama means:

  • We have a 10 percent sales tax, including on food.  But real property taxes and state income taxes are quite low.
  • This year we had a budget crisis, during which the legislature was faced with a choice between raising taxes or drastically cutting state services.  At the 11th hour, they saved the day by transferring millions of dollars from the educational trust to the general fund, raising cigarette taxes by a quarter, and imposing a 5.5 percent cut on most state agencies.  Since then, the governor has closed DMV offices — which are one of the main places people go to get the government-issued ID they need to vote — across the Black Belt, the poorest counties in the state where, by the way, a lot of African Americans live.
  • During the last hours of the budget crisis, as the clock was ticking, one state senator, Trip Pittman, “attempted to introduce a resolution calling on colleges to stop scheduling football games before noon,” according to the Montgomery Advertiser.
  • Many municipalities in the state have decided one of the best ways to get revenue is to charge outrageous fines for minor violations and then jail people who can’t pay them and charge them court fees on top of that.  They’ve turned to outside collections agencies — called “private probation companies” — to manage the job.  In New York, we used to called this kind of thing — extorting money from people under threat — something different.
  • By the way, the extortion doesn’t always work, and people actually get sent to jail because they can’t pay fines.  Yes, they go to debtor’s prison.
  • If the court can’t get your money, it turns out it will take your blood.
  • And the hijinks don’t end with exploiting poor people.  One of Alabama’s members of Congress, Mo Brooks, has said that Hillary Clinton, should she be elected, could be impeached as early as Inauguration Day because she used a personal email server.
  • Donald Trump held his first mass rally at a football stadium in Alabama in August.
  • It’s not just driver’s licenses that are hard to get; you can’t get a marriage license in eight counties because the probate judges have decided that’s the price everyone has to pay so they can continue to deny the right to marry to lesbian or gay couples.
  • This is the state that re-elected Roy Moore to be the state’s chief judge.
  • This is also the state that out-did Arizona with its mean-spirited anti-immigrant law, the main impact of which was to deprive farmers of workers who could harvest their crops and cost the state a fortune to defend a raft of lawsuits.  Which Alabama lost.
  • In Gallup’s list of the top ten most conservative states, Alabama is #2.  Thank God for Mississippi.

Don’t talk to strangers

Anyone who has flown with Lifelongnewyorker knows of her aversion to striking up a conversation with seatmates on planes. To avoid the chance chitchat, Lifelongnewyorker prefers to fall immediately into unconsciousness, usually before takeoff. Should sleep elude her, she puts on headphones, studies the Skymall catalog or stares catatonically out the window.

Not that she condones rudeness. Lately she has taken to greeting her fellow traveler and engaging in Limited Small Talk (LST)

This week’s trip to Washington, D.C. was typical: sleep on the Montomery-to-Atlanta leg, on the next LST with my seat mate in first class.

Perhaps because I was feeling pampered and expansive after enjoying my upgrade, perhaps because there was no danger in being trapped on an escalator, I let my guard down on the moving stairs in DCA.

Here’s how it happened. I approached the escalator as an unending line of eager and excited teenagers, all wearing yellow wool caps and festooned, like matching luggage, with yellow nametags, flowed onto the steps. A man in his early 30s–clearly one of the chaperones–
paused so I could go ahead of him onto the escalator.

Once on, I turned, saw that he was a priest (no collar, but he too had a name tag). Frankly I was surprised to encounter a priest that young, given that the average age of American nuns is reported to be about 74. Fondly recalling the times I chaperoned student trips (a clear example of time adding a rosy lens to memory), I asked where they were all from.

“Louisiana,” he told me, and I responded that I hoped they were prepared for the cold. “They think they are,” says Bing Crosby, adding, “I’m not so sure.” Stepping off the escalator we laugh together. Since we’re walking in the same direction, I to the taxi stand and he to the baggage claim, I break the cardinal rule of LST: upon completion of a successful exchange, do not introduce a new question.

So, I ask, are these all juniors? I’m totally inside my own, ancient frame of reference — 40 years ago in NY, where the trip to Washington was a common feature of junior year. No idea if it still is. “No,” he responds, “they’re freshman to seniors.”

Now I’m puzzled. Can’t be a curriculum-related trip. Maybe they’re in some kind of competition, or members of the school band slated to perform at a national event. I forge on, “Really? What brings you all to Washington?” I ask, gamely.

“We’re here for the big pro-life rally.”

And now I’m speechless. I recall that a colleague’s daughter who is a ninth-grader at the local Catholic high school is also going to this rally, not because she personally has strong views on the issue, but because it’s a school trip to the nation’s capital with her friends. She’s excited: They’ll stay in a hotel, see the sights, and talk all night long. Oh, yeah, and go to this rally. Colleague wasn’t thrilled that her daughter was being enlisted as a foot soldier in a political cause that Colleague doesn’t support.

I can’t tell him I support the cause, and the rules of LST are clear: do not invite controversy with strangers. ” Humma humma humma,” I imagine myself saying, but it comes out as “I hope they don’t freeze.”

And at that very moment, mercifully, the door to to taxis is on my left. Baggage claim pulls him to the right. I head outside.

The big rally is the next day, and it’s getting going as I arrive for an event on a street that has been blocked off to traffic because of it. As others arrive, everyone comments about the march. Mostly, these fall into the same category as comments in New York when the prez is in town or the UN is in session– it’s all about traffic and metro delays.

One person remarked upon the fact that he saw mostly groups like the one I encountered at the airport; young people in matching outfits full of energy, and as excited as if they were going to a football game. He also reported seeing a lot of young priests, and we joked that every priest in America must be at the National Mall.

And that led me to another memory. I, too, was in the company of a priest for an event in a bitterly cold Washington once. I was 17, out of high school and the official bus captain for one of three buses of people from Staten Island headed to the capital on the day of Nixon’s second inauguration, which we protestors were calling his coronation. We were there to march against Nixon’s odious expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, and to demand peace.

On my bus was a groups of students from a local Catholic boys school, led by a priest whose name, I believe, was Fr. Tosh. We spent most of that very long and very cold day together. One thing I remember: we were somber. We were there for a serious purpose; it was no party.

Back at the airport today, I saw and heard people from the rally heading back home. Meanwhile, on the overhead televisions, CNN was reporting on the protest planned for today, in which people will rally against gun violence and in favor of stricter gun control.

And I couldn’t help but hope that at least some of those young priests led their charges to today’s rally,too.