I promised in my second to last blog of 2016 to get back to writing fluffy travel pieces this year. And believe me: I really want to do that. I want to fill these pages with happy stories of the wonderful journeys I have been on, the interesting people I have met, and the strange edibles I have consumed along the way.
But I can’t, because frankly, these are not fluffy, happy times.
While I was recently experiencing the majesty of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a guy on the other side of the world was preparing to take office as President of the United States. Being all the way Down Under, this really shouldn’t have been of much concern to me. But many of my family, friends and loved ones happen to live there, and they are going to be directly affected by whatever that guy does.
Oh, and just btw, the office in question is supposedly the place from which the free world is led. So unfortunately, it does concern me, as that is the world I happen to live in. Like it or not, I am going to be directly affected by whatever that guy does, too.
A few weeks later, while I was exploring the wonders of Uluru in outback Australia, that same guy was readying his administration in-waiting. I hiked in the red center while he got busy nominating narrow-minded, bigoted people to some of the most important jobs in the world, for which they have no apparent training or qualification.
And in the process, causing me to question myself: am I perhaps the one who is being narrow-minded and bigoted, by not respecting democracy and giving these folks a fair chance? That guy was, after all, freely elected, and is only doing what he said he was going to do.
While I was sunning myself on Bondi Beach, that guy finally took office. And, in his first act as leader of the most powerful nation on earth, he chose to insist on the ‘tremendous’, record-shattering size of the crowd at his inauguration. Never mind how petty that seemed. And never mind the fairly clear photographic evidence to the contrary.
Which again caused me to seriously question my mental sanity: was what I saw with my own eyes – the empty fields and unfilled seats in the bleachers – not, in fact, real? And why the fuck does this matter, anyway – surely there are more pressing things to worry about in your first day as POTUS?
The next day, I attended the Women’s March on Sydney with my kids. Millions more gathered around the world at similar marches, to voice their similar concerns. And once more, I had cause to question everything I know and believe in.
Because as I marched, half of my world rallied with me, flooding my social media with messages of encouragement, pictures from other marches, and news reports in support.
While at the same time the other half of my world – including friends, family, and many people I hold in high regard – cringed, sending me messages filled with scorn and derision. I must be joking to have participated; it was wrong to involve my kids; I and everyone like me are being bitter sore losers, pedantic, paranoid, undemocratic and petulant.
Thankfully, I had my kids with me. For them – aged 13, 11 and 10 – it was their first experience of civil activism. And, much to my proud delight, they immediately got it.
Like my 13-year-old daughter, who looked at me in disbelief when I told her that once upon a time, women had not been allowed to vote, and only men were considered capable enough. She genuinely thought I was joking.
Or like my 10-year-old son, who asked what one of the protestor signs – “this pussy bites back” – meant. I explained it to him as gently as I could. To which his simple response was: “Oh. If I said that, I’d get expelled from school.” A response which made it kind of hard for me to then explain why the person in question had not been expelled from anywhere, but rather chosen to be President.
Even then, I tried to be balanced in my presentation. I tried to explain how some people thought what he said was not so bad because it was private “locker room talk”; he didn’t really mean it; we all say things sometimes we shouldn’t, or wish we hadn’t.
And once more, it took the clear-sighted innocence of a child to cut through the BS and call it like it is. In that instance my 11-year-old daughter, who listened to all I had to say, and then said: “But dad, he is the President. A President shouldn’t talk like that.”
For the three weeks since, it has been the same thing: a daily avalanche of spectacle and news, with each new dawn bringing yet another challenge to the peaceful enjoyment of my summer holiday, and yet another challenge to my inner sense of what is right and what is wrong.
Through all of which I have sat on the fence, willing to entertain the notion that maybe I am the one being difficult. Maybe the problem lies with me and my liberal sensibilities; maybe I am the one who needs to change his world view a little.
I have bent over backwards to try to understand both sides of the coin; to listen when some of my friends have waxed lyrical in favor of a new world era we are entering. I have sought out and tried to read right-wing media with an open mind; I have tried to rationalize that there is no black and white to anything, only shades of gray. I have internalized confusion, and have taken to questioning my own values, given that so many people I respect don’t seem to agree with me anymore.
An example: I work in the corporate world. I get it: “a new broom sweeps clean.” When a new CEO arrives, he wants to put his own people into an organization, and spread his own message. It is normal for a new boss to do that, an action-oriented approach that I instinctively understand and agree with.
But then, I ask myself, is it normal to put a lady in charge of an entire nation’s education system when her only qualification is money, and she thinks guns have a place in schools “to protect from potential grizzlies”? Is it normal to purge entire departments of Government, and then re-staff them only with those who blindly accept your authority, regardless of competence? Is it normal to summarily fire an Attorney-General who dares to question the legality of your orders? Is it normal to send your main press guy out into a room and order him to make statements that, on their face, are almost impossible to be true? And to then insist that it is the assembled media who are actually lying?
Or another example: I have written many times in my blog about the peril posed to our modern globalized way of life by rising fundamentalism. And I am one of those willing to pin most (but not all) of the blame, at this point in human history, on radicalized Islam. Facts are, unfortunately, facts.
So openly trying to address this threat is something that is long overdue, and has my wholehearted support. And I respect that any country has the right to secure its own borders; to say to those who would do it harm: “no, we don’t want you here.” I also get that in any such situation there will always be some people who are unfairly caught up in the crossfire; innocent people who, because of the misdeeds of others, find their lives made all the more difficult. Collateral damage happens.
But then, I ask myself, is this really the kind world I want my kids to live in? Does the cost of security mean having to become brutal, chaotic, fascistic and cruel? And anyway, is it really plausible that shutting out a few thousand refugees, and banning visitors from a few hot-spot countries, will make us that much safer? Is it really necessary to withdraw from free trade agreements, close borders, and spend billions of dollars building walls, just to keep the “enemy” out? Or is it all just plain-old fashioned racism and xenophobia, dressed up in a shiny new 2017 suit?
Most of all, for the last several months I have been repeatedly asking the same question of myself: “where do I draw a personal line?”
It wasn’t when Trump revealed himself to be a misogynist, or a narcissist. It wasn’t when he refused to submit to customary financial transparency for people who seek public office. It wasn’t when he took aim at anyone who seeks to even counsel women on the issue of abortion. It wasn’t when he fired half the Department of State, challenged China to a duel, appointed an unqualified civilian and possible anti-Semite to the National Security Council, tried to silence media and social platforms he doesn’t like, sacked his Attorney-General, and unilaterally shut out boatloads of refugees.
Through all of these almost unprecedented events, nothing was powerful enough to flip my personal switch. Nothing was able to move me out from the category of “deeply concerned but sitting on the fence while hoping for the best and willing to give it a chance.” And into the category of “holy shit, this is all far, far worse and infinitely more terrifying than anyone is willing to believe.”
That is, until the other day, when I had my kids “meet” my beloved grandmother for the first time.
Lea Leibowitz was a Shoah survivor and an extraordinary woman (see my prior blogs: ‘Lea’s Legacy’ and ‘A Story of a Humble Banana’). She died in 2000, before any of my kids were born, and is buried in Sydney. I thought therefore that International Holocaust Remembrance Day would be as good a day as any to visit my grandmother’s grave, and take the kids along. They were respectful and, I think, moved by the experience.
Later that day, we watched a video together.
You see, before she died, my grandmother had been interviewed by the Spielberg Holocaust Foundation. In 1995 a film crew had visited her in Australia, and for the sake of posterity she had meticulously recounted stories from her childhood, her time in the ghetto, and her experiences in various Nazi concentration camps.
I have copies of those interviews, and I put them on for the kids to watch – as much as anything to answer their many questions about what their great-grandmother was like, following their visit to her grave. I expected them to watch for a few minutes and then get bored. But they were enthralled, and together we listened to my grandmother tell us her stories, for almost two hours. It was a beautiful, and touching.
Almost at exactly the same moment, half a world away, the new President of the United States – a country whose army had liberated my grandmother from a German concentration camp in 1945 – issued a brief statement to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And in that statement, he neglected to mention Jews – unarguably the primary target of the Nazi’s attempted genocide.
Commentators immediately noticed the omission, but when called out on it, Trump’s people did not admit to any oversight, much less offer an apology. Rather, they doubled-down, and said that not mentioning Jews had been deliberate, and was somehow meant to actually be inclusive.
Even worse, to quote the White House Press Secretary, by merely raising the matter I was being “pathetic”, a horribly callous statement that was gleefully repeated and retweeted all over the right-wing blogosphere. Oh, and by the way, also according to the Press Secretary, the person who wrote the President’s statement was Jewish, so that made it all OK. Never mind saying that was akin to someone claiming not to be a racist because “some of my best friends are black.”
As this all unfolded, something unexpected happened: my self-questioning stopped. Finally, I was being challenged about something where I had not a shred of doubt: my grandmother’s experiences. She was there. She had suffered enormously. Her family – my family – was murdered. I saw her scars with my own eyes, I heard her stories with my own ears, and I felt her pain. Nothing could ever convince me that any diminution, equivalence or universalizing of what happened to my grandmother is acceptable.
No, for me, on this score there is no room for discussion or debate. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a day primarily about commemorating the six million Jewish victims of the Nazis. So they absolutely did deserve a specific mention in the President’s statement. And if you don’t think so, or try to argue otherwise, then you are wrong, period.
And to then tell me that not specifically mentioning the Jewish Shoah was deliberate, and actually the right thing to do, and to have the chutzpah to say that I am being pathetic for saying otherwise? That for me is utterly inexcusable, and utterly unforgivable.
Or to put it even more bluntly, dear readers – I am finally calling bullshit. Unless you are an anti-Semite or closet Holocaust denier, there is no right side to the explanation being offered by Trump’s people on this matter. Decent people would have dealt with things appropriately and sensitively; they would have backed down, or apologized, or admitted to having made a mistake. While by contrast the Trump gang chose to do the exact opposite, in the process revealing their true, ugly colors.
No matter how hard I may want to give them the benefit of the doubt, there has always been a clear bright line in my life – the memories that my grandmother shared with me. By sidelining her and all that she went through, and then insisting that it was the right thing to do, that line was crossed.
That was the thing that finally convinced me: the new American President and his people are, indeed, the hateful bigots I had feared they were, but sincerely hoped they weren’t. That was the moment I realized that we are all now dangerously balanced on a precipice, having pulled the Trojan horse of our own destruction into our midst.
So here is a challenge to anyone reading this blog, especially those who adore ‘that guy’, or those who don’t but are still desperately trying to give him a fair chance.
What will it take for your personal line to be crossed?
Because whilst your line doesn’t have to be the same as mine, unless you are a self-acknowledged racist or xenophobe, you must have one; there must be a point where you will finally be willing to say “OK, that’s enough, this little American flirtation with authoritarianism has gone too far.”
Ask yourself: if you had been living in Germany in 1933, would your line have been when Jews were kicked out of their jobs, or when the borders were closed, or when synagogues were looted and burned? Or would you have waited until your Jewish neighbors were deported on trains, never to return? Or would it have taken seeing people being gunned down in the streets to rouse your indignation? Or would you have been one of the millions who gradually accepted to it all, watched it all happen, and did nothing?
Then transpose it to today. Are you going to wait until abortion is made illegal and same-sex marriages criminalized? Will you change your mind when your neighbors pack up and leave the United States, fearful for their future in ‘the home of the free’? Or when media outlets are openly censored? Or when Muslims in America are ordered to wear armbands? Or when refugees are shut out not temporarily, but forever? Will you first need to see forced deportations of ‘illegals’? Or will it take mass incarceration of US legal residents and citizens, or worse, to finally flip your switch?
If you haven’t already done so, I challenge you to pick your line, write it down, and put it in a sealed envelope. Maybe also tell a few people, so you can’t trick yourself later.
Hopefully, whatever you wrote down will never happen and you will never have to look at your envelope again. In which case I will be more than happy to have been a stupid, paranoid, alarmist ass.
But what if it does happen? In that case I hope you can at least promise yourself one thing: that you will have the intellectual honesty to open that envelope and say: “Woah. I had hoped otherwise, but now my line has been crossed. And that means the time has come for me to stand up, say something, and do something.”
Because otherwise you will become one of the silent millions, well-meaning people who will slowly allow their hearts and minds to become desensitized. Such that if awful things actually do start to happen, you will not even see how terrible they are. And that too will be inexcusable, and unforgivable.