Carol

The thing is, I really like and respect Carol. She’s one of the few women I’ve interviewed for this project who I knew before the election. If I scroll to the word “scrappy” in my mental dictionary, there’s an image of Carol, all 100 pounds of her, deep tan and blond-tipped pixie hair. She IS genuine—and often hilarious. Like Trump, she will blurt her truth regardless of who might be within earshot—though her outbursts tend to reveal a charmingly goofy character. I know she appreciates me and doesn’t care who I voted for. She would love me even if Hillary had won.

In the aftermath of the election, what am I to do about my friendship with Carol? How am I to feel about the millions of women like her who supported Trump? Was their ballot also cast against the sisterhood we hold dear?

Carol grew up in a middle class household, which was likely more secure than my own bohemian childhood. She had parents who were married and a house full of siblings. My parents were broken up by the time I was six; my half-brother didn’t arrive until I was 16. But instability can have its perks. Carol has not lived in a bunch of cities or travelled like I have. She did not feel compelled to earn advanced degrees in some desperate attempt to prove her worth.

Nor did Carol’s upbringing automatically translate into a cushy life. For a while worked at a bank. Then for over 20 years she ran her framing shop as sole proprietor and worker. Most of that time, she didn’t have the safety net of a dual income household.

Watching her get her new venture (the marijuana retail shop) up and running has given me a sense of the struggle of business ownership. I’m accustomed to being an employee; I can see that in the business world, that’s a bit like being a child. I don’t put the food on the table or the roof overhead. Someone else worries about revenue and how all the little mouths will get fed. I just eat off my plate.

If it weren’t for Carol’s scrappy nature, I don’t think she could have done it. Of the few new pot shops in town, hers is the only owned by a woman and not backed by a pre-existing corporation. I’ve witnessed her go toe to toe with officials at all levels of government. Just when she thinks she’s complied with every rule and regulation, new ones pop up as well as slight variations to old ones. We hear so much talk about the importance of small businesses to our economy, but from an owner’s perspective I can see how the relationship with government doesn’t exactly feel supportive. Small businesses have the normal fight of appealing to customers and generating income, but they also struggle with the entities tasked with their oversight. It’s a battle on all fronts. I’m sure this challenge is magnified due to the nature of Mary’s new business.

Carol might be right in assuming that under Clinton this situation would likely have stayed the same. I can understand why she thinks Trump might be more sympathetic. As a businessman, his has faced a similar struggle on a grander scale. Whatever the case, for me to pass judgment on Carol’s opinions regarding the matter seems inappropriate and disrespectful. Having never shouldered the responsibility of a small business myself, I don’t think I’ve earned that right.

But I had to know one thing. Carol is not conservative when it comes to social issues. She freely admits that had she been unable to have an abortion when she was younger, her life could have turned out very differently. She is glad to have had that choice.

“How will you feel if Roe v. Wade is overturned, which could make abortion illegal?” I asked.

“I don’t think that will happen,” she said. She is under the impression that existing civil liberties either can’t or won’t be turned back. “But if it does, I’ll be angry.”

Regardless, Carol had no hesitation voting for Trump. Several months before the election she enthusiastically declared her support for him. I laughed because I thought that was a funny one.

The joke was on me.

Janet, Carol’s best friend, cast her vote for Trump with far more angst. “He’s an egotistical bastard,” she told me in no uncertain terms. “But she’s an egotistical bitch. The big difference is she’s been in office all these years, which changes everything in my mind.”

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Trump’s Women

I wasn’t all in for Hillary from the get go. But in the months leading up to the election, I made up my mind and once I did that my passion ignited. A spark was lit that had sat dormant in me for years. I am a feminist! I had all but forgotten.

I was raised on Marlo Thomas’ Free to be You and Me record and book set, its gender-smashing message woven into the fabric of my identity. As a little girl, I fantasized about independence. When I played house, I wasn’t married with kids. I was a working woman  who had bought the place myself. As an undergraduate, I studied Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley, earning a minor from that newly formed academic department (along with a Political Science major).

In my daydreams, I wasn’t rich or beautiful or sexy; I was taken seriously. I commanded respect. I went on to earn two Master’s Degrees, the second at night while I worked full time.

I moved to Washington, D.C. and began building a career. My first boss made promotion decisions based on who played in his pick-up games of basketball, to which no female employees were ever invited. I got bitter. Then I got a better job.

Aside from issues, I didn’t like how Trump treated Hillary, how he kept blurting “Wrong!” while she was talking. I found him creepy, disrespectful. The 10-point scale he applies to women based on looks? That crap he said about Heidi Klum no longer being “a 10” now that she’s over 40? Wrong!

I thought women would be the backbone of Hillary supporters. But in the aftermath of the presidential election, it is clear that the one group that could have propelled Hillary Clinton to victory is the one to which she belongs and the one that seems to have failed her most spectacularly: white women. The majority of white women did not vote for Hillary Clinton (43 percent to 53 percent). Our younger counterparts are not to blame. Clinton won women 18 to 29 years old 63 percent to 31 percent.

The problem appears to have been with white women, like myself and Heidi Klum, who are dancing around middle age. I sat in a stupor all day Wednesday. It was like I’d had a stroke and the world no longer made sense. My first thought when my synapses began to fire again was: traitors! How could these women turn their backs on the progress of the women’s movement? We had inherited greater equality and rights from the work of Hillary’s generation. Now what of our legacy?

I knew I had to talk to these women—for my own sanity if nothing else. I want to understand and accept points of view other than my own. A None’s Story is based on this bridge-building approach. In it, I worship with people of numerous faiths, including fundamentalists. Many of the people I encountered could not have been more different from me and, yet, I managed to maintain an open mind. I had emerged with respect for their beliefs.

Somehow, this felt like an even greater challenge.

I put a call on Facebook for anyone with ties to a white woman who voted for Trump. Immediately, contact information began to flood in. I quickly had three interviews set up for Thursday, three more on Friday, and several since. These have been in-depth conversations, lasting anywhere from one to almost three hours. My focus has been women born in the 50s, 60s, and—like me—70s.

Carol was born in 1953. She has been a small business owner for 30 years. Most of that time, she had a little shop where she built custom art frames. She struggled to make ends meet but three years ago her prospects began to look rosier when she opened a retail marijuana store in Washington State. She is divorced and chose not to have children. She says she’s not crazy about the word “feminist” but admits that her life and choices are in line with those ideals.

In Trump’s impulsiveness, Carol sees her own. He says things that are stupid sometimes and she does the same. Her mouth has gotten her in trouble all her life. She says her vote had nothing to do with gender, though she does admit that whatever mystery lurks in a man is less mysterious than what you might find in a woman.

Carol and I approached the conversation from such different angles. Where I saw in Clinton a powerful and hardworking woman, she saw a member of the “old boys club” who had gotten rich greasing palms and patting backs. Where I saw a dangerously deranged billionaire; she saw a vulnerable underdog. Bogus businessman; a guy who reinvented and rebuilt his empire again and again. Tax dodger; money smarts.

I was at the looking glass. Beyond was a world where the translation for statements I knew to be true sounded like gibberish.

Could I listen until it made sense?

Holy ‘Affirmative Action’?

Here’s the question I’ve been pondering lately: How do lessons from faith traditions play out in secular society? What are the things we have done or can do to embody the best of what faith has to offer outside places of worship?

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the Native American philosophy of “seventh generation,” which encourages all of us to think in a broad context when making important decisions, examining the history surrounding a decision and what affect it will have in the future. It’s similar to karma, and the multi-generational view of time presented in the Bible. This concept is written into the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, which states that leaders must weigh the seventh generation in “your efforts at law making, in all your official acts.”

Though no such mandate exists in the U.S. Constitution, I think many of our policymakers sense the wisdom of considering the long horizon when creating new laws and guidelines, particularly when it comes to decisions about the environment and overall health of the planet. While I find this encouraging, I believe our leaders should apply it to far more decisions, especially those that determine the quality of schools in our country. Doing so would be consistent with the teachings of every religion I journeyed through, and perhaps every faith on the planet.

The only other policy in the U.S. that I can think of with this kind of “seventh generation” outlook is “Affirmative Action,” which is the right for employers and universities to consider characteristics such as race and gender in their hiring and admissions to increase the representation of historically disadvantaged groups. So surprised was I in realizing how unique Affirmative Action is—it is rooted in taking accountability and making amends, which is unusual among American laws—that I felt compelled to learn how it came about.

It actually didn’t start with such lofty ambitions. It was a term coined from an executive order signed by President John Kennedy in 1961, which included a provision that government contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson added to this. He signed an executive order that required government employers to take “affirmative action” to “hire without regard to race, religion and national origin.” He used the word “hire” and included “religion.” “Gender” was added to the list of characteristics in 1967.

These were anti-discrimination measures but they weren’t sure-fire diversity increasers. Employers could justify homogenous workforces as long as they based their hiring choices on qualifications alone—and it’s been shown that people are generally more inclined to see applicants that look most like themselves as best suited for a job. (It’s also difficult to prove instances of discrimination because they are usually not overt).

It wasn’t until 1989 that Affirmative Action as we know it today became official. That year, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a special branch of the United Nations that was created in the 1960s and in which the U.S. is a member, ratified that affirmative action programs may be required of countries to rectify systematic discrimination. The decision stated that such programs “shall in no case entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved.”

The implication here was that instead of trying stay “blind” to characteristics such as race or gender, hiring committees and other gatekeepers should pay special attention to them. This flipped previous notions of affirmative action on their head: exercise unequal rights but in favor of underrepresented groups. The goal—to increase diversity—was the same but the approach was more active.

Some employers and universities were already using this version of Affirmative Action before 1989. When I began college at University of California Berkeley in 1989, it was a well-known fact that students who came from disadvantaged groups received special consideration during the admittance process. The results of these practices created a beautiful sight to behold: a student body with ample representation by race, religion, gender—as well as a spectrum of physical “disabilities.” Years later, when I worked for the federal government, I was again in an environment that had benefited from Affirmative Action policies.

Opponents of Affirmative Action say it is “reverse racism” and therefore unconstitutional. The practice has been the target of many lawsuits, usually filed by white students denied admission to a university, and often backed by The Project on Fair Representation, a nonprofit organization that provides legal defense for white people who feel discriminated against. Since the first of these cases—filed against the University of California system in 1978—the courts have maintained the right for state universities to design their own admission processes that take into account race as one factor to build racial diversity on campus. In 2003, the Supreme Court preserved this decision, but with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor saying she believed such policies would no longer be necessary in 25 years. This summer—about half way to that goal—the Supreme Court upheld the right for universities to use Affirmative Action, though it was a narrow 4-3 decision.

Walking on the Berkeley campus today is a different experience than when I was a student. The University of California stopped using Affirmative Action in 1996, not long after I graduated, opting instead to take into account other factors, such as income, to promote diversity. Unfortunately, this tactic has been accompanied by a dramatic decrease in racial diversity on campus. In 1997, the year it was enacted, admissions of Black, Latino, and Native American students plummeted by more than 50 percent. In 2012, 54 percent of California’s high school graduates were Black, Latino and Native American but they comprised just 16 percent of UC Berkeley’s freshmen class.

Affirmative Action is a complicated issue and it’s no wonder our society continues to grapple with it. Technically, it is unconstitutional; but when the constitution was crafted, slavery existed. Perhaps no modern policy gets closer to the philosophy of “seventh generation”—or better embodies a concept so fundamental to most religions. Yet, some individuals, who may have done nothing wrong personally, will feel unfairly treated because of Affirmative Action policies. That’s why the Native American saying goes “we must consider the impact on the seventh generation…even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”

Can you think of examples of things taking place in a secular setting that you think represent the essence of faith teachings?

#Black Lives Matter

In response to my last blog post on accountability, a friend sent a link to information about the Native American philosophy of “seventh generation.” This is the concept that any decision made by an individual or collective should take into account its affect on more than just those who are presently living. As I dug around for more information, I encountered slight variations in how these generations were counted: seven into the future; yours plus three into the future and three into the past; seven into the future and seven into the past.

Whatever the specifics, the notion is consistent: we are asked to contemplate the results of our actions beyond our own lifespans. It is similar to the Jewish practice of standing in the shoes of generations both past and present, as well as the Buddhist concept of collective karma. “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation…even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” This is a common saying, often attributed to the “The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law.”

The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations says:

“In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right.”

As I read this, I wondered about the use of “nephews and nieces” instead of something more general like “children” or “youth.” I think the familial connection is key: it implies a close relation but perhaps without the emotional baggage one might have with his or her actual offspring. Maybe we are meant to consider all young people as our nephews and nieces. It applies to everyone, even those without their own children.

I found the wording significant in part because I have recently returned from a trip to the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, where I stayed with my sister-in-law and her family. My visit occurred a week or so following the death of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, who was pulled over for a minor traffic infraction in a suburb of St. Paul. After being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer he was a licensed owner of a gun and that his gun was in the car. Then, as he put his hands in the air, the officer shot him multiple times. The shooting was witnessed by Castile’s girlfriend and her young daughter, both of whom were in the car.

In response to this shooting, and others like it all over the country, my 17-year-old nephew and many of his friends began participating in a peaceful protest, more akin to a vigil, outside the Minnesota governor’s mansion as part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  When I arrived, he was still spending hours there every day as if it were one of his part time jobs.

My nephew, Simon, is white and clearly recognizes his privilege both racially and socio-economically. He speaks eloquently to this issue and without a hint of defensiveness. He embraces “Black Lives Matter” with such passion and clarity that spending time with him made me examine my own commitment to the cause.

When I first began seeing reference to Black Lives Matter in the news and on social media, I noticed the backlash about the wording. I read complaints by people who felt threatened, as if the statement implied that ONLY black lives matter. (I had to smile because these comments seem to reinforce the conclusion I came to as I made my journey through religion: each of us—no matter the degree of privilege we are born into—is inclined to think we are not good enough, that we’ll never do or be enough. This “original sin” is so deeply ingrained that when someone comes along with a radical statement of belonging, people tend to feel threatened by it. It’s the same thing that happened with the Jewish idea of being “chosen.” Instead of embracing this powerful notion of deserving one’s life—which, as I understand it, is meant for everyone—people feel more comfortable believing it excludes them. This better reinforces the natural sense of unworthiness.)

I understand this existential insecurity—I struggle with it myself—but that wasn’t the problem I was having. I believed the statement was too obvious, too basic. I thought, “well, of course black lives matter.”

When I brought this up to Simon, he made me see that the truth of this simple statement isn’t necessarily apparent. For people who have a history of being enslaved and marginalized (like the Jews), claiming worthiness is a radical act. When I looked at it through Simon’s eyes, I saw the statement for what it is: a beautiful and important declaration of belonging, one that invites healing for all sorts of errors and wrongdoings.

Accountability

One of the most important lessons I learned during my journey into religion is the wisdom of taking responsibility—and not just for my own decisions, but on a larger scale.

I’m thinking of teachings in Buddhism that would have us consider the consequences of our actions, how what we think and do affects the world around us, often referred to as “karma.” I feel inclined to also insert ideas from Judaism, how it encourages each of us to lay claim to a much broader identity, to see ourselves as the continuation of previous generations, just as future generations will be an extension of us. But I can’t stop there. I want to add a dash of Islam, specifically the notion that we all belong to a single society despite distinctions of race or gender or class or age. Islam would have us put our differences aside and be beholden to one another.

All of this leads me to stretch my concept of karma, to apply it to generations other than my own, to regions other than where I am, to people who are not me. The actions for which I am accountable transcend time and place. I encountered hints of this more far-reaching karma during my explorations of Buddhism. I heard mention of “personal karma” and “collective karma,” though how the latter played out was vague.

I understand it now as motivation to examine consequences extending well beyond those that result from my own actions. In a sense, this is an even greater challenge than considering personal karma because it means taking responsibility for anything that has created negative outcomes. It doesn’t matter if the actions were not my own; I am not exempt from sharing the blame.

It’s hard enough for most people to take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions, and almost unthinkable to ask anyone to be accountable for anything they didn’t do personally.

We are inclined to skirt responsibility. Maybe it occurred before we were born, like American slavery. Yet, the results from that horrible history continue to ripple out: anger at the injustices of the past and the current inequalities they have bred. If I am to truly take to heart the teachings from religion, I will do more than acknowledge the pain. I will collapse time to feel being both the slave and the slave master. I will experience the suffering of being dehumanized as well as try to understand the entitlement that allows a person to rob others of basic human rights. I will recognize how, in my current incarnation, I receive privileges left over from the favoritism woven into the fabric of this country. I also have to remain willing to recognize modern-day acts of racism, even if it’s my own subliminal thinking that I must pull to the fore and examine. If I go through life blind to these realities, I perpetuate inequality.

Okay, maybe that’s an easy one. As a white person living in the U.S., of course I should acknowledge the awful crimes of slavery and racism. Maybe it’s even a no-brainer that I would claim responsibility.

I want to take this exercise in accountability even further. How about his: I am not exempt from perpetrating sexism. Even as a woman who considers herself a feminist (Women Studies minor in college) I am not free from gender bias. I may be on the receiving end of it, but in small ways that I might not recognize immediately, it can influence my thinking. If I don’t own this, I can’t stay vigilant of the times this backwards ideology creeps in, which leaves me in the awkward position of firm entrenchment in a way of thinking I find loathsome.

So often, the examples we see in the media are of high profile people ducking responsibility for anything and everything, which is why, when someone in the public arena demonstrates accountability, my heart swells with gratitude.

One example is President Obama’s recent trip to Japan, specifically to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. As the first American president to visit there since we dropped nuclear bombs on cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (killing well over 100,000 civilians), Obama was criticized by many who believed his presence there would be seen as an apology. As a result, Obama never uttered the word “sorry” but I agree to an extent: his visit was a public demonstration of accountability for military tactics so extreme that they seem to me to have risen to crimes against humanity. When I saw the video footage of Obama embracing a weeping old man who had survived his city’s obliteration as a young boy, I couldn’t help but cry.

Many people viewed Obama’s actions as exhibiting weakness—but I saw them as a sign of strength. When you own the wrongs and biases, you are no longer powerless. You are part of the solution.

Friday Livestream

Dear Readers,

On Friday June 10th the talk and reading I will give at Books & Books in Miami will be available to live-stream starting at 8 pm Eastern time (5 pm on the West Coast). Go to Booksandbooks.com and click the live-stream link under my picture from the main page (it is free). If you watch live, a phone number on the screen will be shown, allowing you to call in to ask a question for answer in real time. The video will also be archived for future viewing. I hope I don’t do anything too embarrassing!