Tag Archives: america

The Call-to-Whiteness

The Call-to-Whiteness: The Rise of the New White Nationalism and Inadequate Establishment Whiteness Response

Note: This essay is not meant to present a unified theory of or definition of whiteness, but to point out that white identity is both a critical pivot point in American politics that remains understudied; and that we are undergoing a crisis of white identity that affects people of all races and ethnicities. As someone who reports on and engages online with white nationalists to this day, I am speaking with as much perspective as my decades of attention to these issues can offer. If you have different perspectives, I would welcome them but ask you reveal how much attention you have paid to the issues at hand.

Secondly: this is very long and somewhat discursive – definitely a draft and not a finished document. I welcome your thoughts and comments and will continue to refine it. Get a cup of tea and sit down with me. I hope you’ll find it worth the time.

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Did I/We Hear the Call to Whiteness?

There are many moments from my covering the American electorate this season that, in retrospect, I realize were more significant than I perceived.

One of them was when I interviewed a woman in Las Vegas about the election and she said she had more than once been told that part of the reason to vote for Donald Trump was to avoid the dilution of the white race. As the white mother of a mixed-race (black, white, Latino) child, she reacted with anger and horror. Though I recounted her position, a section was struck from the interview where she talked about how her daughter was studying World War II and the rise of Hitler. Her daughter asked, “How could anybody ever elect somebody who feels like this?” and the mother replied that they had a “front row seat to see how history is repeating itself.”

My editor struck that section from the short liveblog post when voicing concern about how we’d look mounting such a head-on critique of Trump without a passionate Trump supporter, a voice I later found. I don’t blame him for his choice since I didn’t challenge it, and especially since I often write overly-long. I’m not sure if the World War II analogy crossed the line for him because it seemed histrionic.

That said, I now view both her statement and my quick acquiescence to our deletion of it as significant. In retrospect, I realize how deeply this woman’s perception of her own whiteness had been challenged by the conversations she was having; and how unwilling I and we were as journalists to foreground this clash over the nationalist call-to-whiteness as part of the political narrative. This horrified mother was staring white nationalism in the face, and it was staring back at her. We as journalists, myself included, did not foreground in our reporting the struggles of white voters who heard and rejected the call.

Holding this minor anecdote in mind, know that I will mount an argument below that this election represents a call-to-whiteness to activate white nationalist sentiment; plus a suppression of the importance of this call in discussing our current politics, and a troubling inability to disaggregate the call-to-whiteness from other motivations for voting for Donald Trump. I do not believe all Trump voters are racially motivated or primarily racially motivated, but white Americans, regardless of who they voted for, are now being asked to make an implicit choice in endorsing or rejecting white nationalist agendas and their integration into the body politic. There’s a good argument using a “Cinemax”/cable analogy for the “bundling” of racial animus into every Trump vote, whether or not individual voters explicitly endorsed that.

As a reporter with 25 years of field experience in covering both politics and white nationalist movements, I see the two converging in ways we are woefully unprepared to cover or respond to because we as Americans have avoided the topic out of a mix of ignorance, fear, and aversion. I would argue we can avoid it no longer.

If you need to understand why the elevation of Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions, among others, as players in American democracy signals a rise of white nationalism – implicitly and explicitly – then you probably need to do a bit more research on your own before reading the rest of this article.

There has been a concerted effort — covert, overt, or both — to keep the narrative of white nationalism, including its violence and extralegal workings — out of the American eye. Much of it, I believe, comes from the inability of media and of many individuals to ascribe racial/group characteristics to whiteness in the way blackness is grouped and tracked, or, in the context of terrorism, Muslim beliefs. If blacks are a group and Muslims are a group judged on the violent behavior of some, then white nationalist violence and terrorism is much more organized and overt but gets less mainstream coverage.

The majority of the domestic terrorism before and after 9/11 was by white nationalists and white supremacists, including the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh was a white nationalist who helped bomb and murder 168 people including 19 children in daycare, and was subsequently put to death. And then there are smaller but no less heartbreaking attacks like white supremacist Dylan Roof’s killing of nine people including Pastor Clementa Pinkney at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

The alt-right is also known to use swatting and doxxing as techniques against people they dislike, disagree with, or turn on. Swatting in particular, used in online gaming feuds as well, can result in violence or threats of violence administered in person by the unwitting first responders who fail to realize this is a deliberate provocation by an unseen hand.

In other words, these are, as president-elect Donald Trump might put it, some “bad hombres.”

And now, their ideological cousins are moving into government, quite likely with an agenda to use the law to increase America’s divides rather than bridge them. This is a hostile takeover of the U.S. government by forces including people cozy with white nationalists. It is profoundly un-American — at least I think so.

The dialogues in our civic space should let us know how far the debate has gone. Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who drives an Uber in his spare time, has been engaging online with journalists and also challenging people who apparently hold white nationalist views. He responded on Twitter to one person who apparently argued that the 13th-15th amendments granting full citizenship and the franchise to black men was because “limited government failed.” (And here I was thinking it was because slavery failed — failed to live up to the unrealized promise in the first version of the U.S. Constitution.)

bensasse

Sasse battled back, Tweeting, “The Civil War & its 3 amendmts are not a rejection of the Amer’n Founding. Rather…a living UP to our universal/colorblind vision of rights”. The fact that Sasse, much to his credit for doing so, needs to say this at all speaks volumes about the depths of disregard for universal human and American rights right now.

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The Surge of the Pack-Mentality

Let me start with a story that has nothing to do with white nationalism, and everything to do with survival.

One time, when I was in Guatemala for three weeks doing an immersion program in Spanish, I was walking home alone after a night drinking with other students. It was a safe town near Lake Atitlan, and all of us were doing homestudies with different families. I wasn’t worried about being attacked by a human.

The road to my host family’s house ran parallel to the lake, which was about 300 yards away. As I walked down the road, with its shuttered and gated houses, I saw out of the corner of my eye two dogs way down by the river. They scented or saw me and I saw them break into a fierce run, the equivalent of a horse’s full gallop.

I had no possibility of outrunning them and no obvious place to hide. So knowing what I do of dog behavior, I kept walking slowly and steadily. Sooner than I would have liked, but just as expected, the dogs were around me, snapping and snarling. I did not make eye contact. I kept walking slowly and intently toward the side street that would take me home, with my eyes fixed on a streetlight. And after a time – how long, I will never be sure – the dogs stopped snarling and went away.

I did not act like prey. I did not act like a threat or challenge their dominance. I got home with nothing more than a bad scare.

But I can still remember that night vividly – the lake to my left, with scrub and rushes leading the way to the waterfront; the dark pierced by the street lights and the moon; the vector of the road that the animals sprinted down, and how I could not even afford to keep my eyes on it directly but had to peer out of the corner of my eye as I prepared to react to the threat. I remember because my life literally depended on my perception of and reaction to the threat.

Sometimes it seems like the call to American whiteness we’ve seen during this election is like the attack of those dogs: a sudden onrushing of power and energy and threat. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the best first action to take is often to remain very calm and still.

No, I am not comparing white Americans to dogs. That should be obvious but in our heightened times is not. I am comparing the pack mentality of the nationalist call-to-whiteness to the ferocity of these animals. We are seeing that pack mentality in operation right now. Better late than never we must examine the pack mentality; emphasize why white Americans must awake to what’s being invoked in their names; and also why the reactions of the broader white community to “extremist” constructions of whiteness will help determine the future of our nation.

I’ve been covering white nationalists and supremacists in person for more than two decades. I once met Klanspeople in a blizzard to get part of a larger story about women in the white supremacist movement. The Klan is, perhaps, the ceremonial figurehead of white supremacy but hardly the most powerful influence and considered quite outdated by today’s digitally sophisticated nationalist alt-right. At the time I did that investigation of female white supremacists in the 1990s, I spoke by phone with a woman from a dysfunctional wealthy family who had run off to join the violent Aryan Nation, a group that was later bankrupted by civil lawsuits for violent assault. The woman described how her family, which was part of the Social Register, so turned her off with their lack of regard for nurturing their own children that she sought out a new family in white supremacy.

The woman from the Aryan nation also explained something that would stick with me throughout my reporting career. I asked why she would grant me an interview, and she said that a fraction of the people who read the article would be persuaded to her cause, and that was reason enough for her to grant an interview to someone she perceived as hostile to her white supremacist mission. While depressing in some ways, the knowledge of her beliefs – which I have come to believe as well, as an inevitable cost of doing the reporting I do – was enlightening. After that point, I rarely feared whether people who perceived me as hostile to their racial separatist, nationalist, or supremacist interests would grant me an interview, and I have found that to be the case.

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Can You Be Objective If You Can’t See Whiteness?

Since then, I have continued to study whiteness as part of my reporting on American politics and culture. It has seemed a particularly important part of my work, and frankly, one that is sometimes viewed with suspicion by my own journalistic peers, as if studying something makes me unqualified to understand it rather than particularly qualified to do so.

It also gets to an ongoing debate in journalism over objectivity. I admit I am not neutral about race, racism, or white supremacy. I do not believe that disqualifies me from reporting on it as long as I am fair to those I report on. I have always found a common human bond with white supremacists I have reported on. I do not view them as demons; more as lost, confused, and sometimes dangerous cousins. I see whiteness in ways that my white colleagues often seem to ignore, as if it cannot be seen at all.

In my experience the white people I’ve met that seem most attuned to the power struggle over American whiteness are immigrants and people who grew up as working-class white Americans and moved into other circles where they were judged as different from established or powerful white norms. One friend had grown up largely in France but partly in central Florida, and he understood and acknowledged the layers of meaning people ascribed to him was different in both places. I also found common cause with people who moved to big cities and found themselves thrust into new American cultures, often Americans from rural or exurban areas. I found their “double consciousness” familiar and comforting, as it was an analogue to my own.

As context for how I do the work I do, know my childhood shaped my journalistic pursuits. First, there’s the fact that my parents were both journalists at different times and met at the graduate school of communications at Syracuse University before moving to Zambia to start a newspaper. In that sense, reporting is in my blood; but the way I perceive race was also seared into my consciousness by a childhood dis- and re-location both physical and metaphorical in nature.

The summer before I entered first grade, my family moved from Central Park West and 100th street to a virtually all black neighborhood in Baltimore. In New York, my friends were not just black or white. My best friend was half black and half Jewish; my extended friend circle included Cuban-American girls who were clearly Afro-Cuban, but who were not asked to choose a side in the black/white dichotomies of American racial taxonomy. My friends were blond and Asian and black and it was all very Free to Be You and Me.

When we moved to Baltimore, to a tree-lined street of 1920s and 1930s wood houses near the city line, I was plunged into a world where there was only blackness and whiteness, and the two were engaged in a fierce cold war. My sister and I were suddenly chided or rewarded by other black people for “speaking proper” and viewed as small Martians by white Americans. Everyone, regardless of race, was confused as to how I could have an African father – a real actual African man with an accent and a PhD! I’ll spare you an endless string of anecdotes about moments when I understood how much and how differently I was being observed by others in my new city.

This dislocation/re-location meant that by the age of six I had laid out some of my fundamental principles and psychology that remain with me today, and have shaped my perspective as a journalist.

  • First, I came to believe that humans lived in “reality zones” with quite different rules about identity, fairness and achievement. Inside each of these zones was an internally consistent reality, but as one crossed barriers of geography, class, culture, religion and race, the rules changed entirely.
  • Second, that whiteness, which was inconsequential to my early childhood, was of the paramount importance to understand.
  • Third, that I was able to cross these worlds and remain self-aware of how I was being perceived; and that usually it was not in my best interest to reveal that I understood how others were viewing me, because it made others uncomfortable. If I made people aware that I was observing their construct as intently as they were observing me, that made them observe their own construct in new and discomfiting ways. So I remained friendly and engaged on the outside (and inside) while keeping the more piercing aspects of my cultural studies to myself.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, coming from the above: that whiteness could be observed, even in fearful times, if one got close enough and stayed relatively silent.

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Disaggregating White Nationalism from the Trump Vote

I have spent this election observing politics, race, and the rise of a particularly passionate, disruptive, and dangerous form of white nationalism.

As people look at the outcome of the election, we are left with questions about disaggregating political behavior like voting from intent. Given the rise of white nationalism and its integration into our government, was Ted Cruz simply not Anglo enough to be a viable candidate for president? Was Jeb Bush’s marriage to a Mexican woman part of the reason he was viewed so tepidly by Republican voters? These are questions we probably didn’t measure for at the time – and if there is research on the matter, please let me know – but in retrospect I really wish we had.

I have also not been afraid to see Trump voters for who they are, in their many forms, and realize that what I know so far, despite my reporting, is simply not enough. In some ways, the real work of understanding motivations and disaggregating voter intent and how the message hit the target is just beginning.

The other day I sat across from a woman on a crowded Amtrak train at one of their four-tops. She was black, or appeared so to me, though she later emphasized on an exceedingly loud and profanity-filled phone call that she was Brazilian (which I mention simply because she seemed to be distancing herself from American blackness in the remarks). She was wearing clubwear (kitten ears; revealing hyper-sexualized gear in more of an electronica/post-punk mode than anything vaguely hip hop); mentioned she was a bartender; and when she wasn’t on the phone spent the ride hitting on a baffled Asian-American businessman next to her and generally being an enlightening (to a reporter like me) nuisance on the train. Before I moved away to get some ear-space from her aggressive monologue on the phone, I learned that she was a Trump voter; she and the friend on the other line were mocking non-Trump voters; and she saw her vote as a flag planted squarely in the center of her identity.

What I learned from her conversation made me think: maybe this woman thought of Donald Trump as representing freedom. And what’s more American than that?

She didn’t want to be put in a box, and as she and her friend apparently mocked non-Trump voters, her rhetorical emphasis was on what a maverick her vote for Trump made her.

Hillary Clinton, for all else you do or don’t think of her, was committed to an establishment path to power. Donald Trump, vulgar by his and his family’s own admission, clearly spoke to this woman on a personal level. On some semiotic levels, Trump functions as an American antihero, someone who gives people permission to imagine themselves as just as vulgar and just as powerful, and winning not despite their vulgarity but because of it.

Listening to this young voter put together one more puzzle piece of the many reasons people, including some people of color, voted for Trump.

And I have to confess, Donald Trump has been liberating to me too, in one sense.

If a man who has settled out of court on charges of educational fraud and racially discriminating in housing can be our next white male President, I double down on my rejection of the conceit of exceptional blackness, aka “better than” syndrome.

The demanded performance of exceptional blackness is a pernicious part of the construct of American meritocracy. By “exceptional blackness” I mean the idea that blacks not only have to work twice as hard as whites, but specifically that doing so means we will be liberated from discrimination and transcend race. I may be better than white peers sometimes; and I at other times I will not be; but that alone will not change the construct of race in America. But if Donald Trump can be president, then I can at least be black and free.

Be clear that what I am rejecting is not the urge for excellence or self-improvement, but the idea that my excellence and self-improvement is a blood price I must pay to prove black Americans’ worthiness of a true meritocracy. You either believe in working toward a true meritocracy or you do not, and I will not bribe you into belief by my individual performance. Are you for equality, or are you not?

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White Nationalists Challenge the Fiction of American Meritocracy

In many ways, the white nationalist crowd is calling out the lie of American meritocracy from its own admittedly ideologically bent perch. In my conversations online and off with white nationalists, they admit a reliance on the law to enforce a dominance that they then also claim a birthright to.

When a self-described white nationalist and other members of the alt-right I was in conversation with on Twitter claimed America was a white nation, I pointed out that blacks have been in Virginia since the first half of the 1600s, and that the founding of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the nation’s oldest capital city in 1610, indicates that the oldest Americans in our current geographic configuration were Latino (Spanish; indigenous, and mixed) and not Anglo Saxon white. They then admitted that America was not truly founded as a white nation, but that laws made it so. Their claim to a white homeland is better understood, then, as a claim to their right to use the law to protect their dominance when neither history nor meritocracy is on their side. This is similar in result to European white nationalism, but with an origin story more like the claim of South African Boers to lands, which provoked the clash of power known as the end of apartheid. White Afrikaaner nationalist calls for a volkstaat, or white homeland, persist to this day.

Their admission that the law must be leveraged to protect white dominance in America also indicates a profound fear of erasure – returning to the idea of the dilution of the white race cited by the woman in Las Vegas – and a fear of a true meritocracy. For all the criticisms of welfare and entitlement programs, whiteness has been the biggest wealth-building and land-grabbing entitlement program in America.

The white nationalist stance on American meritocracy should be extremely troubling to what I call “establishment whiteness,” a construct that believes that evocations of whiteness by and large do not challenge the access to advancement of other people. These white nationalist claims explicitly reject the “post-racial” and “color-blind” putative politics of establishment whiteness.

As a journalist, after all these years of reading headlines about the crisis of American blackness, I must ask when are we going to see an equal number of journalistic explorations about the crises of both American whiteness and global whiteness? (The far-right National Front party in France has taken a once-unthinkable polling lead in the upcoming elections, and I have written about the rise of Europe’s far right parties here.) Isn’t it about time for a serious and sustained inquiry?

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It is Up to White Americans to Hear and Fight the Call-to-Whiteness Being Raised in Their Name

I have learned as much about whiteness as I have because it was critical to my survival and my personal, intellectual, and professional development. The question I have now is whether white Americans feel they have a stake in understanding whiteness as well. For this call is being made in all white Americans’ names, and to claim you are a bystander is a dangerous thing to do. This is a culture war, and as in all wars, bystanders are likely to be bloodied in the melee.

American whiteness, when activated in this particularly aggressive nationalistic way, will be worse for me and my family than it will be for many white Americans. On the other hand, I am well prepared for this moment in time. Based on my upbringing and my field studies on the world, I never presumed America was a safe place for me, although I love this nation dearly.

I have studied the geography and culture of America as intently as I have studied whiteness. I am going in December to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and on that trip I intend to visit both North and South Dakota, which will complete me having visited all 50 of the U.S. states. I have family by marriage in South Dakota, and if the fates are willing I will see them on this trip. As I remain in the adoption pipeline, and my life will change dramatically once I have a child, I hear the everything-ness of America calling me to an adventure, perhaps the last one of its kind for a while.

This is my land, and no white nationalist will tell me otherwise. However, I do believe in their ability to harm me and my nation. If establishment white Americans do not recognize the challenge that the call-to-whiteness presents to their lives as well as to mine, my struggles and our nation’s struggles will be materially more difficult. But I can’t determine anyone else’s actions, only my own.

It thus remains very much up to white America to control the baser urges of the call-to-whiteness. You are not above it, particularly if you have not bothered to learn about it — and especially if you claim it doesn’t exist or doesn’t concern you. The call-to-whiteness is being invoked in your name. Can you hear it now? And how will you respond? The world is waiting to know.

Troubleshoot

The Messy Majesty of America

America: Vast, Messy, Magnificent

When my grandmother was dying of cancer I pulled out my tape recorder. Her life story unfolded like a trusty map annotated with Xs over hidden traps and circles around secret pleasures; worn with creases; warm from being folded in a back pocket. Mary Catherine Stokes was a Depression baby, raised in part by her own grandmother, who’d had the strength to leave a husband who confined her. My grandmother’s grandmother moved to a white-stooped Baltimore brownstone after leaving her husband, and worked “in service” for a white family who let Mary Catherine study with their children. An ace student, but poor, Mary would graduate in the top echelons of her high school class but not be able to afford college. By the time she was eighteen she was married. By the time she was nineteen, she was a mother.

Cab Calloway performed at the big high school dance in Mary Catherine’s day, an era filled with style and panache and trouble and heartache. Her stepfather worked at the steel mill, back when a man could make a solid living with his body. Her mother, much to her chagrin, was a numbers runner. The kitchen table was a place of conversation and commerce, petty gambling and neighborhood connection. By the time I knew my grandmother’s mother she was old and frail and tame. But back then, Great-Grandma Emma was a woman with large appetites for adventure, which didn’t always mesh with having a family. My grandmother Mary, as she told me many times, always had a baby on her hip — one of her own siblings when her mother went out to play. I can imagine her standing there as a child, a heavy toddler against her hip, looking out into a horizon which she knew was bigger than her beginnings.

My grandmother’s story is an American story through and through. She had six children and then pushed her way into a workforce that offered no path of least resistance for middle-aged black women. She stood up to racial discrimination in her workplace; was blacklisted from promotion for seven years; and emerged with honors and citations for her valor.

When I think of my grandmother, I think of the messy side of the American Dream. Romanticization of the past is a fool’s game, a divertissement for the weak of spirit. We cannot, and should not, turn back the clock to antebellum or the wars against Indians; to eras where women could not vote and slaves were forbidden to read. Closer to the moment, why should we dream of white Christmases where girl-children were told that the power of their gaze would lead them down the path to a shameful pregnancy, while the young men were exhorted to pursue sexual explorations? (Or when women’s jobs were categorized separately in the classifieds’ than men’s?) Any time a nation or a people pit one group’s happiness against another’s, heartache will follow.

With all this in mind, it makes perfect sense that the mantle of Commander in Chief would eventually pass to a man who challenged Americans’ notions of Americanness. The man in the Oval Office is the descendent of a slave… via his Caucasian mother and ancestors who passed from blackness to whiteness long ago. He’s an emblem not just of diversity you can see in the skin, but that which lies beneath. As the scene in Invisible Man hints (with the drops of black paint blending without apparent impact into a vat of white) we are all our other. American identity is predicated upon a quiet absorption of the narratives unfolding around us.

America isn’t perfect, and I love it still. I’ve touched the soil in almost all of the fifty states. In Alaska, a young Inuit leader told me about the winters where for months no car could reach his people, and the impact distance learning was having on their prospects. In Arizona, people at Tea Party rallies framed a politics of wounded desire for better times, in ways I didn’t always agree with but listened attentively to. In Utah, a divorced Mormon woman told me about why she cherished her faith, even though she felt a certain sting of judgment at her marital status. I can remember their faces and their places…. the thin powder of snowfall on my windshield and the blistering desert sun. This nation’s body is majestic terrain, whether naked or scarred by highways and clothed in buildings.

How much of our lack of political harmony comes not just from ideology, but the lack of contact among the citizens of this vast nation? How many of us feel siloed in our communities of choice? Having traveled around the world, I know no culture is flawless. Instead of seeking out jingoistic confirmation of our superiority, perhaps we Americans can embrace a loving consciousness about where we’re succeeding and failing. We citizens can act as parent-shepherds of our nation-state, steering it back towards harmonious growth rather than driving it towards fear and inequality.

It’s time for a turning in this country. We’re growing from adolescent into adult, from a powerful nation convinced of its invincibility into a powerfully grown nation which knows the harshness of war and terror and joblessness — and still rises to create and innovate. We have stripes on our back, but that should not sap our determination to find our way. Instead, we have to root down and look for the new commonalities that can bind our polyglot, polytheistic, avaricious and ambitious society together.

So when we are in the throes of another election year, and we feel the need to retreat to our false sense of aloneness, let us remember we are part of a grand experiment. Compared to the cultures of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the American admixture is still wet clay. We can shape it, or be stuck in it. We can choose, and we can dream, as my grandmother did. My grandparents’ dreams of achievement, of living fully in the world, reshaped our family’s destiny. Like it or not, in America we’re all family. All of our dreamings are not the same, and not equally weighted with influence. Yet if we think we can de-couple ourselves from our friends and neighbors, or even from our perceived enemies, we’re stuck in childish notions of our nation-state, not the beautiful and messy reality at hand.

The Gulf: Can We Bring Empathy Back Into Politics?

America is too big to wrap your brain around, at least all at once. So, apparently, is the GOP. At times, speakers at the Republican National Convention contradicted each other. Rand Paul’s argument for cutting military spending was followed directly by John McCain’s critique of military cuts. Ann Romney’s ode to love was followed by NJ Governor Chris Christie, who criticized politicians for wanting to be loved. He expanded on the point, saying America in general has to choose between love and respect. “I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved.”

What’s healthy about that is that it shows less of a party moving in lockstep (or, to use a beauty metaphor for lockstep, think like the strands in Callista’s hair). But the Republican party has yet develop a new rhythm for incorporating differing ideologies. The entire 2012 race on the Republican side has been driven by the social-conservative grip on the party as a whole (witness its platform on abortion) being led in this race by a fiscal conservative and social moderate. His move from passionately defending womens’ right to choose in 2002, in the gubernatorial election, to pronouncing himself a strong pro-life conservative in 2012 is striking. Although, unlike the party, Romney favors exceptions for rape, incest, the life and the health of the mother, that still means he publicly desires an end to legalized abortion as we know it.

The Guttmacher Institute, an independent research group that was once a part of Planned Parenthood, wrote a paper stating:

Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. One analysis, extrapolating from data from North Carolina, concluded that an estimated 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions occurred in 1967.
One stark indication of the prevalence of illegal abortion was the death toll….. By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher.

I remember sitting in the back of a cab in Washington, DC, during one of the election seasons with George W. Bush. The driver, who was African-American, told a very graphic story about finding his dead cousin slumped in the barn after she’d bled out from a coathanger abortion. With palpable scorn in his voice, he said, “I can’t respect anyone who doesn’t vote. They don’t know what we’ll go back to.”

It was one of those rare moments where I am quiet as a mouse, just listening and visualizing all too clearly the young dead woman propped against a pole, the lower part of her dress soaked in blood.

That’s where my mind goes when people talk about banning abortion. For some people, their mind goes to the tiny broken fetuses removed in abortions. We’ve all seen those pictures hoisted at anti-abortion-rights protests. Even as I remain opposed to the specific protests that harass women entering clinics, I can understand why an image would hold such power, and also give the person marching the feeling of defending the powerless.

The New Testament, John 13:34 reads, “I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” The Dalai Lama says, “All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.” Many Buddhist teachings ask practitioners to live in love and acceptance of all circumstance — including bad breaks, outrageous fortune, and everything in between. Another Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote in his book True Love: “So if we love someone, we should train in being able to listen. By listening with calm and understanding, we can ease the suffering of another person.”

Convention season puts our listening skills to the challenge — not just to note the badly broken facts, but also the silences. America espouses a belief that anyone can become rich. Statistics show that you are less likely than ever to become rich if you are not already, i.e., diminished social mobility. The Republican convention became a meta-dialogue on class and social mobility. Just about every speaker, including Mitt Romney, talked about humble beginnings… if not theirs, then a parent’s or grandparent’s. It’s a better strategy than Romney being defensive about his tax returns, but a worse strategy, to me, than him talking about how he uses his tremendous wealth for good. If he does use his wealth for good, in a religious context or otherwise, now would be the time to talk about it… the same way he finally introduced church members he had helped at the convention.

As I watched the convention, I thought of all the different places in America I’ve been. A tea party rally on a pristine new college campus off the lettuce fields of Yuma, Arizona. The Tohono O’Otham nation… far afield from any city; straddling the US and Mexico. Skid row in LA, where I saw a man drop his glass eye while being rousted by police for smoking crack. The mansions of LA — bright and gaudy, some of them, but a revelation to a New Yorker like me. Katrina. Covering Katrina changed me. I saw starving dogs on the streets of New Orleans; people trying to ride it out without gas and electricity; and even sat in on a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney while traveling with the military in Biloxi, MS.

The thing I remember most from Katrina is actually the downtime. A friend of mine gave up her house in Baton Rouge to family from New Orleans. She was staying with her friend, a mother of 2 tweens. The kids were charming and funny and welcoming beyond belief, considering their mom had just taken in strangers. We were black and white, local and from far away. A couple of other people came to stay at the house and volunteer. Even if there were disagreements, it was all done in a sense of love and healing.

How can we bring that spirit of dialogue to politics… maybe not during the fraught election season, but more of the time? I think our country depends on us figuring it out; getting out of political gridlock; and making tracks for higher political and economic ground.