Last week President Trump visited Milwaukee. In class that morning, one student said, “He’s not my president.” The timing wasn’t right to go into the nuances of that statement, to correct the fallacy that blindly believes saying “He’s not my president” excuses us of his wrongdoings (when we, the collective voting citizenry, put him there) but merely excuses his ignoring us, so my response to her was subtler.
“Whether we like him or not, he’s our president, and we should respect that.”
I refused to get religious. In fact, “refuse” is the wrong word: I keep my faith wrapped around my neck but not gurgling through my vocal cords, so I never genuinely talk about religion with my students. Perhaps, this time, I should have.
There’s been a lot of talk lately (or perhaps forever; we just seem to notice it more now) about how seemingly good people can be radicalized to do horrible things (in thought and words and action) and how we can fight back against a sea of hateful opinions–how do we fight back the sea? It overwhelms us if we wade in too far, and if we stand idly at the shore, there’s always another wave to beat us back. Is it even possible to win?
Yesterday I watched the scariest video I’ve ever seen. Not The Conjuring, or Annabelle: Creation, or any of the Cube trilogy–all of which I’ve watched recently, but none of which compare to the 15 minutes I’m referring to. These horror films trick the mind with sleight of hand and special effects, a hefty spill of gore and gruesome deaths, and when the credits roll, I can stroll back to life, back to reality, to a world in which ghosts and demons hold no real power and the government doesn’t play Saw with civilians.
So what, you may be wondering, is the scariest video I’ve ever seen?
It was a celebratory post in honor of Tau Day, June 28. Tau–for the uninitiated–is 2*Pi, where Pi is the delightfully irrational mathematical circle constant, 3.14…. Vi Hart, a mathematics vlogger turned social commentator, called her video “Suspend Your Disbelief (or, how to ruin everything in 7 steps.” Chilling, isn’t it?
I had thought, on the outset, it would be a literary perspective–the suspension of disbelief, after all, is the key element of any storytelling. Suspension of disbelief is what allows the audience to enjoy all those horror films I described before–for a moment, we set aside our lived experiences and choose to believe in the world we’re presented.
What Vi Hart says, however, quickly takes a turn down the rabbit hole, and what started as a discussion of the algorithmic ways that websites recommend content to users (using a delightful ouiji board metaphor) soon becomes a lesson in radicalization. This, she says (without ever saying it), is how we turn good people in black-fearing, immigrant-bashing, gay-killing, journalist-shooting bigots and white supremacists.
As she drew her comical cartoons, just behind her lined paper, I could see the Tweets saying, “I was only joking,” to absolve a man of his guilt in a recent terrorist attack.
“It’s not my fault if they took it seriously.”
Oh, but it is, it is your fault. You followed Vi Hart’s seven steps as closely as any alcoholic taking twelve toward sobriety: You degraded your followers, convinced them your shared whiteness is under siege by liberal media and gay communists, comforted them until they could unravel pure reason with their own idiocy, and then you “joked” so seriously they took it seriously and five people got the bloody end of a bullet.
Truth, when we face it, is often the most terrifying thing of all. We cannot pause the movie and remind ourselves it’s only fiction. What’s true lingers after the end of the show, sticks around as autoplay rolls out cat videos or mathematical musings in the middle of made-up math classes, and that truth truly haunts us.
On the other end of this spectrum is a recent Twitter post about the importance of engaging with these hate-mongers with compassion, words of wisdom that seek to answer the question, “How do we engage with these people?” To ignore them–to unfriend every bigot on our newsfeed, even if they’re family–only builds for them a silo, an echo chamber in which the only opinions they encounter are their own. This singularity of stories creates a false sense of solidarity–perhaps slowly but certainly surely they enshrine these hateful beliefs and can no longer see the hatefulness inside themselves. This hatred is indignation, they say, this hatred is just and righteous. And all who disagree with me are the problem, the pestilence, the permanent enemy.
So quoth the RaDR: “It’s not a disagreement of equals if one side denies the humanity, right to exist, right to human rights and safety and freedom of another side.”
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg goes on to talk about “arguing for the sake of Heaven,” that is, “arguing issues while respecting and maintaining good relationships with the other side, making sure that your personal motivation is to come to the best solution and not just to win, admitting when you’re wrong.”
In arguments about equity and equality, about family separation and marriage rights and chain-migration policy and abortion, our people–the United States–argues not for the sake of heaven, but for the sake of themselves. People do not care what policy protects the rights of others and improves the wellbeing of the community; they only care about coming out on top, being the victor, the last one standing in this battle royale of faith and politics and daily service to the ultimate god–ourselves.
And this is why I wish I had gotten religious last week when my student said, “He’s not my president.” Because it goes beyond politics: it goes to the foundation of belief, the fact that if we believe in God, if we believe God created all things in His image, then even Trump and his white supremacists “on both sides” are God’s creations.
No more and no less than you or me.
God may have made Trump, but it’s generations of hate and bigotry that shaped him into the lying man he is today and that uplifted him to the highest seat in the land. I hate to take blame for his rise to power, but if I am to be honest, I helped put him there.
As a white man, as a natural-born citizen, I have not used my voice strongly enough to speak out against issues decrying people of color and immigrants. I sat blindly behind the wheel of Obama’s presidency: We elected a black man–not once, but twice!–we elected an ally to the LGBTQ community, and it was so easy, so disgustingly easy, to disregard the immediate and longstanding backlash “just because he’s black.”
I said that, I said it so much, but while I recognized the problem, I never attempted to be part of the solution: I didn’t try to engage with people on the other side of the political aisle, I didn’t engage with my white peers about Black Lives Matter or why Obama was a damn great president not in spite of being a black man, but because he’s a black man–and a good man, compassionate, invested in his country, in support of its people.
I chose to sit on the sidelines, tossing back mouthfuls of popcorn as I watched the world erupt in flames. Trump is my president, and although I didn’t vote for him, I was complicit in his election. I was a bystander as the GOP raped our country.
And it would be so easy to keep standing by, to sit on hold as elevator music plays in the background until the 2020 election (or the 2024 election) when the presidency passes on to someone else (or 2028, if Trump’s dreams of totalitarianism take place). But my faith demands my presence at the table; my faith demands my voice in the conversations. I may not be speaking to an audience of everyone, but so long as I engage wholly with every audience of one I meet from day to day, then my voice speaks for the sake of Heaven, and may my words uplift and enlighten.
Back in college, a role model of mine liked to say that when we speak with others about issues of social injustice, it may not be the first time they hear it, and it may not be the last, and it might not even change their minds or sway their hearts, but every time they are shown these stories–with compassion, not cruelty; with humanity and dignity, not distaste and bigotry–we bring them closer to that point of revelation when their gospel becomes the gospel of all humanity–when their hearts expand with true compassion.
I am a fan of fiery metaphors, and daily I am reminded of the fire that burns within, of the spark of God that resides in all beings–the righteous and self-righteous, the champion of justice and the white supremacist alike. Perhaps that spark has faded in some of us, perhaps it burns brightly upon dirty fuel, but it still resides in all of us.
And it’s our job to purify those flames, to stoke them until they burn with compassion and shine light upon the path toward justice and the footsteps already leading the way.
We cannot kindle the flames of kindness, however, if we first do not recognize the embers lying dormant inside all of us. The moment I deny Trump’s humanity is the moment I close my eyes to that spark of God lying inside him.
Trump rules from the top of a tower and I may never be able to influence him individually in one way or another–but if we have learned anything in the eighteen months of his presidency, it’s that he craves attention and popularity. So let’s chop down his tower at its foundation, let’s speak with his followers with dignity, with compassion, with genuine interest in coming to the best solution, not simply winning an argument.
The game is long and like the Cube trilogy, like The Perfect Storm, like The Hunger Games, there is no true winner, but the moment we stop playing is the moment we lose.
The moment we lose hope, the moment we lose our own humanity.