The Summer of My Discontent

For three months ten years ago during the summer of 2007, I held a position with a title that sounds sort of prestigious: acting director of the Pennsylvania CASSP* Training and Technical Assistance Institute. The reality, however, is that it was one of the hardest jobs I ever had.

Backtracking to March 2007: Shortly before Dale and I left for vacation, a friend and colleague at the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS), the entity that provided the grant to fund the training institute, informed me confidentially that there was a plan in the works to close the institute and use the funding to begin a new statewide training initiative. She further told me that while everyone else would lose their jobs, I would be able to retain a position with OMHSAS. So I left for vacation with this difficult reality hanging over my head. While I was gone, the rest of the staff was informed.

From March until June, we carried on with our regular duties, trying to remain professional even though we were all strenuously opposed to the decision to close the institute and tried to plead our case with various higher authorities. I even remember having a brief conversation at a restaurant with my state representative, who happened to be a high school classmate of mine from way back. As staff, we were particularly upset that we had no input prior to the decision, and no one had given us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and meet the desire for a new kind of training. We continued to offer statewide continuing education to children’ mental health professionals, and in April we conducted a highly successful conference (celebrating the conference’s 20th anniversary) for about 1,000 mental health professionals, child-serving system partners, youth, and family members. We also amused ourselves and relieved our stress with gallows humor that was probably not always fair to those we felt were responsible for our demise.

We were scheduled to close as of September 30, 2007, but by the end of June, our small staff of seven had shrunk to five, as two people found new jobs. One of those who left was our director, meaning that we needed someone in charge to oversee all the details associated with closing down shop after 14 years. That someone was me, likely chosen because I was continuing with OMHSAS after September 30 and I had been at institute longer than anyone else. Being acting director meant I was responsible for the following:

  • Functioning as “supervisor” for colleagues whose jobs were ending with no new prospects in sight. Not surprisingly, one or two of them took advantage of unused sick days even when they likely weren’t really sick. I asked them to let me know when they wouldn’t be coming to work, but that didn’t always happen. Being put in a quasi-supervisory role while also wanting us all to continue as equal partners at the Institute created significant internal tension for me.
  • Making decisions about how to dispose of everything we had produced: curriculum on a wide variety of topics (youth suicide prevention, writing effective treatment plans, writing psychological evaluations, working with children with autism, mental health and juvenile justice, etc.), a set of core competencies for children’s mental health professionals, and so on. All of a sudden all these products into which we had poured so much professional skill and emotional energy in a desire to help improve the system of care for children and adolescents and their families seemed devalued. Throwing stuff away often felt like throwing parts of ourselves away.
  • Keeping track of the institute’s financial status and making sure that there would be enough money to pay all our expenses. This included staying in touch with people at Penn State’s University Park campus, which administered the grant from OMHSAS that funded the institute. (Technically, we were all Penn State employees.) Not being a finance person, my head often spun as I examined financial reports and tried to make sense of them.
  • Being a member of the committee that reviewed the applications for the grant for the training institute that was going to replace us. This was perhaps one of the more bizarre duties I had. On the one hand, it made sense since I was continuing with OMHSAS and would likely be working with the new entity and I already had experience with one training institute. On the other hand, it felt like some kind of cruel and tone-deaf joke to be asked to participate in the cause of our demise. To make matters worse, one of the meetings of the committee was even held in our conference room. I pre-warned the rest of the staff so they could plan to take one of their sick days on the day of the meeting!
  • Packing up a suite of offices (seven staff offices, a conference room, common areas and work space, etc.) and figuring out what to do with all our stuff. Think conference tables and chairs, multiple office desks and filing cabinets, computer equipment, book shelves and books, a significant stash of office supplies (boxes of binders, copy paper, etc.). There were only five of us to do all this packing, and we were on the third floor of an office building on Front Street in Harrisburg with a tiny and slow elevator. Besides, we continued throughout the summer with regular work in keeping with our mission. Everything ultimately belonged to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and we were bound by our lease to be out of the office suite by September 30. But how and where to move everything? I kept asking OMHSAS for direction, and I kept being put off along with vague assurances that it would all be cared for in the end. Well into September, I still didn’t know who was going to do the moving, where the stuff was going, or any specifics for how we should prepare for the move. Eventually, and just in the nick of time, arrangements were made with the PA Department of General Services to move everything to an unused building on the grounds of the former Harrisburg State Hospital.

I have no idea what ultimately happened to all that stuff. Later, after the institute closed, I went with some staff from OMHSAS to help retrieve some things for their use, and saw how the movers had just dumped everything with no attempt at any semblance of organization. At the time, I felt somewhat responsible for not having made sure the unloading happened in a more systematic way, but also frustrated because I felt like we had so little support from the powers-that-be for what seemed like an impossible task.

My anxiety level was extremely high that summer. Those three months were awful in the ways I’ve described above, plus even though I was keeping my job (unlike the other four remaining staff who would be unemployed and thus were dealing with their own stress), the contract arrangements moved slowly and I wasn’t sure until the last minute that my employment status would be uninterrupted – something critical to maintaining my health benefits. I felt like I had a lot of responsibility but very little control – a sure recipe for psychological distress. That May, I had joined Weight Watchers and managed to stay on target with my weight loss goals throughout this very stressful time. Many mornings during the summer I took a break and went for a walk alone along Front Street, mostly for the exercise that was part of my weight loss regimen but also as a stress reliever. By the end of 2007, I had achieved my weight loss goal, and I credit at least part of my success to the fact that weight loss was something I could control when I had very little control over what was happening at work.

Ten years later, I can acknowledge that there have been good developments in Pennsylvania children’s behavioral health system of care as a result of the training institute that took our place. I can also honestly say that the final eight years (five full-time, and three more in semi-retirement part-time mode) of my work with OMHSAS were good ones during which I learned much and enjoyed new professional challenges and opportunities. Yet I still remember clearly the difficulty of that summer, and I believe that the institute’s closing resulted in losses to the system and there could have been a healthier process by which the fate of the institute was decided. And I never ever want to be an acting director again.

 

*CASSP is an acronym for the Child and Adolescent Service System Program, envisioned in 1982 as a comprehensive system of care for children and adolescents with mental health needs and their families.

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Every Man Dies Alone: Why Resist?

I discovered the 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone in a conversation about books with a friend on the beach in Cape MayThe novel was written in the aftermath of World War II, by Hans Fallada, the pen name of a German named Rudolf Ditzen with a history of mental illness and substance abuse who spent time in mental institutions, prison, and rehab. He wrote the book in 24 days in September and October 1946, but died before it was published in 1947. In 2009, when the English translation was finally published, the book gained a whole new audience, becoming one of the New York Times “notable books of the year” in 2009.

I’ve read lots of novels set in part during World War II: All the Light We Cannot See, Life after Life, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Lilac Girls, Moon Tiger, The Girl from the Train, and The Paris Architect are a few relatively recent ones. Each of those novels portrayed some aspect of the war that I didn’t previously know much about. However, it’s been awhile since a novel has made me think and engage in self-examination as much as Every Man Dies Alone, likely because of the times we are in and the questions I ask myself regularly about how to respond to many things that are happening in the world that seem to me to be so very wrong.

Based on a true story, Every Man Dies Alone is about an ordinary German couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who resist Hitler and the Third Reich. Their act of resistance is carried out in an environment in Berlin where many ordinary citizens believed the hype that Hitler really was ushering in a new era of German greatness (making the awfulness of the war worth it); they willingly spied on and reported neighbors who acted suspiciously. Others became part of the system of oppression as police and members of the Gestapo. Still others were skeptical and privately opposed Hitler, but because they were afraid of the Gestapo, they remained silent or turned in anyone they suspected of acting against the government. Any kind of dissent was treasonous, and people were arrested, imprisoned, and executed for minor offenses.

When their only son is killed in the war, Otto and Anna are “radicalized” and begin their resistance. Otto decides to write postcards against the Hitler regime (“he needs an outlet for his rage”) and drop them surreptitiously in random places throughout Berlin, hoping they will be picked up and read by passersby who will be influenced by their message. The first postcard reads: “Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son! The Fuhrer will murder your sons too, he will not stop until he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”

Anna, angry and sick with grief over the death of her son, initially says the act is too small and won’t do any good, but agrees to participate. Otto convinces her: “They all will read the card, and it will have some effect on them. Even if the only effect is to remind them that there is still resistance out there, that not everyone thinks like the Fuhrer.” Later he reflects again on the possible success of their efforts: “I’d like to be around to see it [Hitler and the Third Reich] all collapse. I would like to experience that. We’ve done our bit to make it happen.” Together, they imagine that their postcards will change minds and create a larger movement of resistance. Ultimately, after more than two years of postcarding Berlin, they are discovered and arrested, brutally interrogated, charged with treason, tried and found guilty in a farce of a trial, and sentenced to death. Otto is executed by beheading, and Anna dies later during an air raid when a bomb falls on the prison.

After his arrest, Otto is devastated when he learns that out of 285 postcards he wrote, only 18 were not turned in to the authorities. He is at first convinced that nothing good was accomplished, that their act of resistance was a complete failure. Eventually, as he languishes in prison, he comes to understand the value of his act of resistance and before he dies attains the kind of serenity that comes from knowing he did what he thought was right.

So what is the point of resisting when the act is so small and/or it stands almost no chance of being effective in the long run? Several conversations in the novel sought to answer that question and resonated with me as I ponder how and whether to resist the many things that are wrong in the world these days and often wallow in feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.

At one point, Otto and Anna’s son’s former fiancee Trudel and her husband Karl consider hiding a Jewish woman in their house. Karl says, “There’s nothing we can do,” to which she responds, “If everyone thought like that, then Hitler would stay in power forever. Someone somewhere has to make a start.” The narrator continues: “She was desperate to do something against Hitler, against the war. In principle, he was too, but it mustn’t carry any risk; he wasn’t willing to run the least danger.” I ask myself: what risks am I willing to take to do what is right?

In prison, Otto shares a cell for a time with a musician, Dr. Reichardt, who was arrested as a communist sympathizer. They talk about what Otto did with the postcards and his belief that his efforts were futile:

Otto: “They didn’t do any good!”

Dr. Reichardt: “Who can say? At least you opposed evil. You weren’t corrupted. You and I and the many locked up here, and many more in other places… – they’re all resisting, today, tomorrow…”

Otto: “Yes, and then they kill us, and what good did our resistance do?”

Dr. R.: “Well, it will have helped us to feel we behaved decently until the end.”

“Decently” seems to be another word for “with moral integrity.”

On another occasion, when another cell-mate sadistically destroys the only photograph Dr. R. has of his wife and children, Otto accuses him of being too soft because he didn’t fight the man. Dr. R. responds: “Do you want me to be like the others? They think they can convert us to their views by physical punishment. But we don’t believe in force. We believe in goodness, love, and justice.” Otto retorts: “But in life you need to be tough sometimes!”

Dr. R. responds: “No, you don’t. And a saying like that is justification for every form of brutality!” An argument for nonviolence if there ever was one.

According to German legal protocols, Otto’s defense lawyer goes through the motions of submitting a request for clemency following his death sentence, despite not having any sympathy for or understanding of what Otto did. The lawyer asks Otto, “What made you do it? Write those postcards. They didn’t accomplish anything, and now they’ll cost you your life.”

Otto replies: “Because I’m stupid. Because I didn’t have any better ideas. Because I thought they would accomplish something, as you put it.”

Lawyer: “And don’t you regret it? Aren’t you sorry to lose your life over a stupid stunt like that?”

Otto: “At least I stayed decent. I didn’t participate.” Again, that word “decent.”

Often the meaning of the title of a novel is not immediately obvious, and so when I read, I keep my eyes open for something that will explain it. In this case, the title seems to come from a conversation Otto has with Dr. Reichardt who says, “It would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what we have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.”

I need that encouragement and challenge right now, when I feel helpless against a barrage of what I believe are unjust, mean-spirited, self-centered, short-sighted, hypocritical, and racially-charged attitudes, actions, and policies. I want to stay decent and act with integrity, and to be able to believe that in the end decency, goodness, love, and justice will prevail.

 

*Disclaimer: The book, clocking in at more than 500 pages, is much more complex with many more characters than this summary and analysis would indicate. It’s a gripping story, with lots of suspense – in short a good read!

Preschool Lessons in Persistence

Last week’s “Camp Grandma” with the youngest two grandchildren (five-year-old Selena and three-year-old Piper) was exhausting, mostly because they hardly ever stopped moving and asking, “What can we do now?” Dale and I planned various activities, but it’s amazing how quickly you can go through things to do with preschoolers who sometimes have the attention span of a flea. As I tried to keep up with the little girls (or, preferably, stay one step ahead), I couldn’t help thinking of the motto on my current favorite mug: “Nevertheless, she persisted” – or in this case, they persisted.

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock the last few months probably knows where those words come from: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s reprimand of Senator Elizabeth Warren. The words instantly took on meme status, as they encapsulated not only the eternal struggle of women to be treated with respect and fairness but also the need for the persistent pursuit of what’s right and honest and decent during what many people are experiencing as a very distressing time in the United States. Persistence feels difficult and almost futile, as undignified and nasty tweets pile upon unjust and damaging policy changes. There’s just too much to persist about, and I find myself getting really tired. However, as I watched my precious little granddaughters, I thought about the nature of persistence and tried to draw just a bit of inspiration from them.

If you want something, ask for it. Piper has a routine list of things she wants to do every time she comes to our house: watch a PBS Kids show on my iPad, have real tea with milk and sugar using the toy tea set, etc., and she’s not shy about asking for the next thing on her list. We don’t always have time for everything, and sometimes she’ll say, “What didn’t we do yet?” or” We didn’t do ___ yet.” One thing she doesn’t want to miss is getting a little “treat” from my supply of candy on top of the buffet cabinet in the dining room, and she wants to get it herself. As soon as I move toward the buffet to respond to her request, she quickly moves a chair over so she can reach the treat all by herself. She makes sure we know what she wants and takes action to make it happen.

Ask nicely for what you want. Selena doesn’t whine when she’s with us (although I’m sure she does sometimes at home – she’s a kid after all), but she is persistent about repeating her requests over and over again. When we went to Lake Tobias Wildlife Park, she was most looking forward to petting and feeding the goats. There were other animals to see on the way to the petting zoo where the goats were. She was definitely interested in all of them and enjoyed seeing and watching them, but she got impatient and would very respectfully repeat as Dale and I lingered at various venues, “I really want to feed the goats.” At home, she knew I had various craft activities for us to do together, so periodically when there was a lull in her play, she would say, “I really want to do a craft,” not in a fussy tone of voice, but a gently effective reminder of what she wanted.

Don’t hesitate to act when an opportunity presents itself. Selena and Piper’s independent play had wound down at one point, and I knew I had to come up with something else for them to do. So I said, “How about we get the little pool from the basement and you can play in the water in the backyard? You’ll have to put your swimsuits on.” The words were barely out of my mouth before Piper had her clothes off. The day before at the pool at Little Buffalo State Park when we went to the cafe for some lunch, Piper wanted ketchup for her pizza. Why wait for Grandma to get it, or give you permission to go get it, when you can dash from your seat to the other end of the cafe and get the ketchup container for yourself? (Never mind that this was a “community” container not really intended to be taken to individual tables!)

When we went to Playland at Paulus Orchards, they both immediately spied the ice cream cone sign at the entrance. I tried to deflect them from thoughts of ice cream, suggesting the food stand might not be open yet since it was still fairly early. Undeterred, Piper marched straight up to the order window to check, and of course there was someone there to ask this cute little girl what she wanted. The answer: “Ice cream.” “What kind would you like?” “Chocolate.” “Do you want it in a cone or a cup?” “I want it in a cup with a cone,” said as though this three-year-old has had years of experience ordering ice cream.

Know the way to the person’s heart you wish to influence. For Selena, I think it’s smiling – her smile is quite simply irresistible. Perhaps she doesn’t consciously know the power of her smile, but she certainly uses it well. I’m also not sure Piper consciously knows what will win my heart, but this definitely did: she was eating yet another helping of my made-from-scratch baked macaroni and cheese, and she said, “When I come again, can you make macaroni and cheese? I like yours better than the kind my mommy and daddy make.” You can be sure I’ll make it for her again, especially since it’s one of the very few non-snack things she will eat at our house!

  • If you want something, ask for it.
  • Ask nicely for what you want.
  • Don’t hesitate to act when the opportunity presents itself.
  • Know the way to the person’s heart you wish to influence.

How do I translate these lessons in persistence from the preschooler context to the larger world in which I am trying to make a difference but feel especially helpless right now? I think my biggest takeaways are that I need to continue to try to be nice and polite, and not resort to nastiness no matter how strong the temptation or the provocation, and I need to persist. I need to keep asking and working for what I want, for what I believe is in pursuit of the common good for everyone. When I’m tempted to throw up my hands in despair at the unparalleled awfulness of what is happening in Washington these days, I should remember my preschool grandchildren and simply persist. I’d like them to say about me some day, “Nevertheless, Grandma persisted” to protect the world and make it a better place for them.

White Working Class: A Personalized Book Review

Over the last two years, I have tried hard to understand how a group of people who are mostly good, decent, hard-working, and generous have come to support politicians and policy proposals that are antithetical to so much of what I believe is right. The “white working class” has become the shorthand label for this group. In many ways I feel like I have always been part of the so-called white working class: I am white, I work(ed), and I usually self-identify as being about in the middle of the middle class. And yet, it has been difficult for me to relate to the decision of so many in the the white working class to support someone like Donald Trump, and I often feel alienated from this segment of American society. Perhaps I have long since left the “white working class” and become one of the “elites,” even if I have never felt particularly elite?

Joan C. Williams’ recent book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017) has helped me understand some of the reasons why on the one hand I still identify with the white working class, but on the other hand, feel alienated and disagree with where many have ended up politically. In this review, I want to summarize several of the issues Williams identifies and then respond personally (my personal responses appear in light italics).

Who are the white working class? Williams says that her editor and she had a “lively discussion” about terminology and agreed to call Americans who are neither rich nor poor (i.e., in the middle) the “working class,” and to refer to the people at the top as elite.” She acknowledges the confusion this creates: for example, the 2015 median income of the elite was $173, 175; the 2015 median income for Americans in the middle was $75, 144; and the term “working class” has often been used as a euphemism for “poor.” By these definitions, I am most definitely not an elite, but fairly firmly in that vast middle of Americans who are neither very rich nor very poor. And yet….

Why does the working class resent the poor? For many years, as the social safety net has expanded, those at the lower end of the working class have not benefited (because their income is just above the cut-off for benefits) and yet have struggled to make ends meet. Even when they qualify for some benefits, there is a strong tradition of self-reliance and personal responsibility that mitigates against taking advantage of those benefits. Meanwhile working class tax dollars are used in part to help the poor.

My grandparents and parents often struggled to make ends meet; I clearly remember the stress associated with my father’s difficult search for meaningful and adequate employment after our return from Africa; for some time he worked as a school janitor, a job for which he was overqualified.  In the early years of our marriage, Dale and I were often financially stressed, but we never relied on programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) even when we might have qualified. However, I was always aware that others struggled much more than we did, and I don’t remember ever resenting the fact that we struggled while others were received food assistance. While I can understand some of the resentment some working class people feel toward the poor, I can’t agree with it.

Why does the working class resent professionals but admire the rich? The professional managerial elite (PME), according to Williams, are often seen as “snobs.” They can send their kids to private schools, shop at organic food stores, eat at trendy restaurants, call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” etc., and are perceived as looking down at those who don’t. The working class hold strong traditional values, including strong family and place rootedness. Williams says, “The professional class seeks social honor by embracing the edgy; the white working class seeks social honor by embracing the traditional…. For many in the working class, becoming a member of the professional class is an ambiguous achievement – you have more money, yes, but you also have to adopt new folkways.” So “[b]rashly wealthy celebrities epitomize the fantasy of being wildly rich while losing none of your working-class cred.”

For me personally, this description of the divide between the working class and professionals feels artificial. By going to college and graduate school and choosing a career first in teaching and then in communications (writer, editor, etc.), I entered the “professional” class, and I admit to valuing the sophistication, boundary-breaking, and creativity that Williams attributes to professionals. Yet, I also fully embrace the traditional values, family rootedness, stability, and dependability she attributes to the working class. I am more put off by ostentatious displays of wealth than wishing I could be fabulously rich myself.

Why doesn’t the working class move to where the jobs are? Here the issues are those same values of stability and family rootedness that characterize the working class: “Non-privileged people, whether poor or working class, tend to be more rooted than American elites…. they rely on close networks of family and friends for many things more affluent folks purchase on the open market, from child and elder care to home improvement projects. Moving would eliminate this safety net….” On the other hand, “the rootlessness of the PME makes sense in their lives: they have friends and classmates throughout the country or the world, their job markets are national or global, their family ties are chiefly emotional rather than practical or economic.”

On this issue, I feel a little split: Having grown up with an unrooted childhood, I am now firmly planted in south-central Pennsylvania, I never wanted to move somewhere else for a better job, and most of my family and friends are relatively close by. I understand completely why people would not want to uproot themselves to find a better job. And yet, I know the world has changed, we are part of a global economy, and the internet and technology have revolutionized the way we can interact with each other to mitigate geographical isolation. If I were young and just starting out, I might be willing to move for a job I really wanted.

Why doesn’t the working class get with it and go to college? Williams documents the ways in which the American higher education system operates as “caste system,” widening class divisions. Beyond that, however, are other reasons why going to college isn’t as high a priority for many in the working class: fear of ending up with an expensive degree and massive debt and still failing to get a job, not wanting a “pencil-pushing” job, not feeling suited for intellectual work. According to Williams, college “may not be as good or as safe an investment for working class kids. They’re not ignorant and lazy. They just live in different worlds.”

I come from a family where education was highly valued, so it was somewhat shocking to read that fully two-thirds of Americans do not have college degrees. Both my parents were the first in their respective families to graduate from college, and they worked hard to pay their way through college and achieve their goal. It was a clear unwritten assumption that I would go college when the time came, and my parents supported me when I decided to enter graduate school immediately following college. I always assumed my children would go to college too. When one of them dropped out (twice, in fact), my dad said rather wistfully, “He’ll be my only grandchild not to graduate from college.” I understood where he was coming from, but I was also hurt and angered by the comment. College is not for everyone, you can make a perfectly good living without a college degree, and I agree that it is an unattractive elitist attitude to look down on people who have chosen not to go to college.

Why don’t they push their kids harder to succeed? Noting the “all-consuming nature of elite parenting” (or “concerted cultivation” with busy schedules of soccer games, music and dance lessons, play dates, etc.), Williams compares it with the “ideology of natural growth” more prevalent among working class parents, where children are primarily provided with the basics of comfort, food, and shelter. She continues: “What’s the unspoken message of helicopter parenting – that if you don’t knock everyone’s socks off, you’re a failure? What’s the better message: that the key is to be a good kid, or that every child needs to be above average?”

Sometimes I have felt guilty because we did not push our kids to be involved in all kinds of sports and music activities (although we tried to make it possible for them to follow their own interests). Now, I am glad I am not parenting young kids because the pressure to do so would be significant. We did expect our kids to do well academically, and both Dale and I spent many hours “tutoring” them and helping them with school projects. Perhaps we put too much pressure on them? On the other hand, as I said before, the world is changing, and we have to help our children and grandchildren be prepared to function in that world. Wishing things would stay the same will probably not work long-term.

Is the working class just racist? Williams makes the entirely valid point that racism is not confined to the working class; it’s just a different kind: “[s]ettled working class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on morality and hard work, stereotype black people by conflating hard living and race. Professional class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on merit, stereotype black people as less competent than whites.” She also names fear as a motivator, noting that “mass migration returned to the United States in the 1970s for the first time since 1910 – which has coincided with the white working class’s fall from blue-collar grace. It’s easy to confuse correlation with causation, and there’s some of that going on, associating the good old days with the old white days.” And she suggests that elites have just as much of a moral obligation to address injustices experienced by working class whites as those experienced by black and brown people.

I believe that, with some notable exceptions (e.g., the white supremacists whose influence seems to be surging in the current political environment), most people do not want to be racist and it is hard to acknowledge one’s racism when that is not the intent. But rather than respond with defensiveness when the charge of racism is levied, I wish we could all engage in a little more thoughtful introspection to determine to what extent the charge might be true and what we can do to change our (sometimes unrecognized) attitudes and behaviors. For me, one of the most insidious examples of racism in public life has been the delegitimization of our first African American president by promulgating the absolutely false notion that he was not born in the U.S. and demanding that he produce papers to prove he was. That the U.S. is now led by the biggest peddler of that conspiracy theory tells me racism is alive and well, even among people who probably genuinely don’t want to be racist.

Is the working class just sexist? Williams asserts that Hillary Clinton’s quest to shatter the glass ceiling by becoming the first female president and the devastation that many women felt when she lost the election did not matter to the white working class. Williams further asserts that this is not because they are sexist but because gender equality means something very different in the working class context. For example, “What working class women see is that blue-collar jobs with good pay are heavily gendered as male; men ensure they remain so through severe sexual harassment of women who try to enter.” She also posits that working class men felt threatened by Clinton in part because “they value stability and tradition, including gender traditions – rather than gender flux.” Just as racism is not confined to the working class, neither is sexism: “the average working class man is less likely to espouse egalitarian[ism] than his professional class counterpart, but he spends more time caring for his children than does his elite counterpart.”

Let me say personally that I believe that sexism and misogyny played a far larger role in the 2016 election than many people – both working class and professional elites – would like to admit. Just think back to the charge leveled at Hillary Clinton that she was playing “the woman card.” Would anyone ever tell a man that he was playing “the man card”? Of course, there are all kinds of other reasons she lost, but sexism was certainly one of them.

Why don’t the people who benefit most from government help seem to appreciate it?  Williams cites a 2008 survey asking Americans whether they had ever used a government social program. More than 56% said they never had, when in fact 91.6% had. Williams believes that showing working class Americans “how they benefit from government programs needs to be a major priority…. We need a bipartisan campaign to educate the American public about the positive roles that government plays in their lives,” especially in two major areas: public safety and economic stability.

I have never understood the antipathy toward government that many people seem to feel. Yes, rules and regulations can sometimes be onerous, and the wheels of government often run very slowly and/or inefficiently, but I receive and appreciate many benefits from government: timely snow removal by my local township government, roads and highways maintained by the state, my health insurance provided by the federal government (Medicare), safety standards for cars, neighborhood firefighters, national parks, to name just a few.  

Conclusion: Williams ends by saying that her “book describes a relationship gone bad: that between the white working class and the PME.” While empathy is a good place to start, she continues, more is required. She accuses the PME of leaving “the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life” and of committing to equality for everyone else while dismissing the white working class, thus alienating them.

Williams’ analysis pricked my conscience about the negative and even condescending attitudes I’ve had toward the white working class, especially regarding their political leanings, perhaps proving that I have in fact become one of the elites even though I don’t feel like one. I also gained a new understanding of some of the challenges faced by the white working class and the reasons many felt that someone like Donald Trump could help them. 

And yet, and yet…. While I understand some things better, I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that so many people were and still are able to overlook, ignore, or deny character traits and behavior in Trump that are not in keeping with their traditional values (honesty and personal responsibility, to name just two). I also fear that they have been sold a false bill of goods: already, the promises to cover everybody with much better and cheaper health insurance and not to cut Medicare or Medicaid are in danger of being blatantly broken. Maybe I’m still missing something?

 

 

Three More Birthday Wishes

Last year, on primary election day in Pennsylvania, I listed three wishes for my 68th birthday: a fair electoral system, a world where my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren can survive and thrive, and the ability to age well. I won’t comment on the progress on those three wishes except to say that at least two of them appear to be “wishes deferred” for now. Today, on my 69th birthday, I’m adding three more birthday wishes.

I wish for more success in following the advice of the psalmist to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10). In a topsy-turvy world that often feels unstable and unpredictable and where a lot of wrong seems to be prevailing (or, in the language of Psalm 46, a world where “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” and “nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter”), it’s difficult for me to be still. There is so much going on that disturbs me: consumer, environmental, and health protections being undone or in serious danger; ongoing assaults on the foundations of democracy, like a free press and voting rights; threats of draconian budget cuts to important programs that meet needs and contribute to quality of life; the normalization of unselfconscious and jaw-dropping hypocrisy and blatant dishonesty (several degrees worse than the kind of spin we’ve come to expect from most politicians ); the threat of potentially devastating military interventions rather than an unwavering commitment to peacebuilding and ever more serious diplomacy; lingering and serious questions about Russian connections and political conflicts of interest; and the list goes on.

With things happening almost every day that trouble me, I find it really hard to rest in the first words of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear….” My activist and impatient self wants to do something to make it all stop, to make a difference, to speak out and act on behalf of those who are most vulnerable right now. I have a difficult time taking the long view of history, trusting not only in God as my refuge, but also in the ability of the world’s oldest democracy to survive what feels like an existential threat. As I’ve said before, it’s not an either/or thing (that is, either I become politically active, or I serenely rest in God’s providence to work it all out while I plunge myself into local and family endeavors); it’s definitely both/and. But still the balance is difficult and my soul needs the rest that comes from “being still” and trusting in a God who cares about the world, individual people, and me.

A typical scene from my current life: Sophie the cat and a mug of tea sustaining me while I edit yet another article.

I wish for a continued (relatively) sharp mind so I can keep doing the things I enjoy and that give meaning to my life: editorial and writing projects, knitting, reading and writing, conversations with friends, travel with my husband, time with my children and grandchildren, volunteer work. Along with a sharp mind, I wish for good eyesight. I’m headed toward cataract surgery in the not-too-distant future, proof that the aging process moves inexorably forward. So much of what I enjoy doing requires not only a sharp mind but good eyesight as well.

Last year in my birthday post I mentioned my annual wellness visit and the three words I had to remember briefly to prove that my short-term memory is intact: apple, table, penny. At this year’s wellness visit, I pre-empted the test by repeating those same three words to the nurse before she had a chance to give them to me – proof, I thought, that my mind is still sharp! I don’t feel like my cognitive skills are slipping, but it’s hard not to have a moment of panic when I can’t remember something I think I should be able to remember (like someone’s name or a phone number I used to know really well or where I put something). Most of the time I tell myself that such memory lapses are normal for anyone who has filed away a lot of detail in her brain over 69 years – it’s not always easy to access the correct file of information from that brain! I also remember something my son said when he was six years old and half-listening to someone dispel some myths about aging. When he heard the speaker talk about “forgetfulness” as a stereotypical characteristic of old people and give the example of going upstairs and then not remembering why, Derek turned to me and said, “I do that sometimes.” Even six-year-olds can be forgetful, so I should give myself a break!

I wish for an attitude of gratitude for all the privileges, blessings, and opportunities that have come my way throughout my life. I don’t want to take anything for granted or assume any sense of entitlement, knowing that many people have not had access to the same privileges and opportunities. I want to be grateful and not bitter or envious about things I sometimes wish I had but don’t. I recognize the fragility of much of what I have and know it could easily be taken away. I also want to be grateful at some level even for the hard things that have been part of my life, not because I enjoyed them, didn’t wish them away at the time, or wouldn’t be just as happy if they had never happened, but because they have become part of who I am – part of my story – and have taught me valuable lessons. Many times, gratitude is not my first instinct, but I would like to be able to get there more quickly than I sometimes do.

The ability to “be still,” a sharp mind, and an attitude of gratitude: three more birthday wishes as I head into the final year of my 60s. Are they too much to ask?

Adventures in Advocacy

In January, I wrote about my “existential crisis,” and mused about several things causing that crisis, including the tension between choosing to speak out on public policy matters and choosing to “go about the ordinary routines of my life, committed even more to being kind and compassionate.” It’s a choice between two different kinds of advocacy: speaking truth to power and asking the powerful to act in ways that help rather than hurt people who are the most vulnerable, or acting in more personal and direct ways. In some ways, the more personal acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity are easier, more satisfying, and might produce quicker results, but the systemic nature of injustice (racism, inequality, sexism, etc.) seems to require something different to create structural and lasting change. I believe both kinds of advocacy are needed, and that it is important to act out my beliefs both personally and publicly.

At the beginning of a presidency that I find disturbing on many levels (no news to anyone who has been reading this blog for the past year and a half), I’ve been engaging in more public advocacy than has been my custom. This past week, that took three forms: I wrote letters/emails; I visited Scott Perry, my U. S. representative, in his local office; and I attended his town hall meeting.

The office visit: Dale and I went with four other people to meet with Scott Perry. We were scheduled for 30 minutes, and ended up having about 40 minutes with him. Our main goal was to introduce ourselves and hear a little about what he considered his legislative priorities, in the hope of beginning to establish a relationship with him for future meetings on more substantive issues. Time went went by VERY quickly, the conversation was congenial and nonconfrontational, and I hope we laid the foundation for future conversations.

The town hall: When Dale and I learned that Perry had scheduled a town hall meeting, we immediately registered, and took a friend with us. To get in to the meeting, we had to show our tickets and a photo ID to make sure that only residents of his district attended. At least 400 people came, but the venue was not full, even though all the tickets were reportedly gone in three hours and there was a wait-list of about 500. Apparently some who had registered were not able or chose not to come after all (there were some weather concerns). Neither Dale nor I had ever attended a town hall before, so this was a new experience, and probably not at all like town halls in the past when 20-40 people would show up, if that many. Clearly, there is a lot more energy for these things right now!

Some observations from the office visit and the town hall:

  • We’re glad we went, and we’ll probably go again.
  • I was very conscious once again of my “minority” status in our congressional district. Only about 33 percent voted as I did in the last election; Perry was re-elected in 2016 by a 2-1 margin. Given this reality, my question is: how can I know that my concerns are represented, or do I have to simply resign myself to the fact that I “lost,” shut up, and just get over it? (Online comments on the news report on the town hall said as much.)
  • Related to the town hall specifically:
    • Perry deserves much credit for holding the town hall – apparently he’s the first Pennsylvania congressman to hold one. While he got impatient occasionally, he handled himself well. He said the right things about this being part of what a representative democracy is about, and he promised to hold future town halls. I appreciate that!
    • A lot of the attendees were members of organized groups and had met to prepare ahead of time. We were simply concerned citizens attending on our own to observe and be counted.
    • The format was different than I expected. Instead of people being invited to a microphone to ask a question, everyone was invited to submit a written question, along with a name, mailing address, and email address. Then someone read the questions, one at a time, until time ran out. It seemed like the questions were read randomly, rather than pre-selected. Perry promised that his office would respond to every question, even if it was not featured at the town hall; it will be interesting to see whether he really addresses the question I asked or responds with one of his generic answers.
    • There were four major themes in most of the questions: 1) the president’s proposed budget and the draconian cuts to important programs that help address very real needs (like Meals on Wheels, low-income energy assistance, etc.); 2) opposition to the wall and the recent immigration raids (for example, one elementary school principal noted that immigrant parents are afraid to come to school for their citizen children’s PTO meetings; 3) the president’s behavior (lies, assaults on the free press, refusal to release tax returns, possible ties with Russia, etc.); and 4) the Affordable Care Act and its proposed replacement, the American Health Care Act, which according to the Congressional Budget Office will result in millions of people losing their health insurance.
    • We did not enter into the “raucousness” of the event. There was a lot of shouting and booing and interrupting, although not as much as I expected there might be given what I had seen on TV from town halls in other parts of the country. While I may have agreed with the reasons for the boos and interruptions, I am personally not comfortable participating in that kind of behavior. I applauded when I agreed, but kept mostly silent when I disagreed (well, except for muttering under my breath or to Dale or my friend!).
    • A town hall like this one is simply not a good forum for genuine dialogue, and I doubt whether anything different will happen as a result. Probably the most important thing is that it let Perry know that the 33 percent in his district who did not vote for him (and perhaps some who did but are now upset by what’s happening) would like to be heard and represented too. It also helped me see with my own eyes that we are not alone in many of our concerns, even though in our district we are in the minority.
    • The audience was very white, even though the district includes the cities of York and Harrisburg, both of which have significant African American populations. We thought about the importance of helping to ensure that those communities are better represented at future meetings. And we couldn’t help thinking about the effects of gerrymandering right here in our own backyard: the district includes much of York and Adams Counties, a little piece of Cumberland County (including us), and the city of Harrisburg, effectively negating the city’s influence.
    • Perry often did not answer questions directly, but went back to his talking points, obfuscated (in my opinion), or simply avoided the question entirely. Of course, he’s not the only politician who does that!

Ultimately, both the office visit and the town hall contributed to my feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. During the meeting in his office, Perry talked a lot about the strictures that are placed on House members and how they often have to tow the party line regardless of their own opinions and preferences. I couldn’t help wondering how, given the realities he described, constituents can ever feel like their concerns will be taken seriously. He kept mentioning that he has 720,000 people in his district, the clear implication being that the majority rules, and we were in the minority. He doesn’t really have to listen to people like me to be re-elected.

On the other hand, I think it’s important to continue speaking out. I’m reminded of that quote attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” There are obviously many ways to change the world – including practicing our values and beliefs (in my case Christian) in our everyday lives at home, in our neighborhoods, at work, in and through our churches, and elsewhere – but I believe that speaking out publicly as a “thoughtful, committed citizen” (which I hope I am) is one of them.

 

God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions

worldFrom the moment of my birth, I have been inextricably linked to three nations – the United States, the land of my mother’s birth; Canada, where my father was born; and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where I was born. Even though I carry a U.S. passport and have now lived in the U.S. for more than 55 years, I’ve never forgotten my deep roots in and ties to Canada and Zimbabwe (and Zambia, where I also lived as a child). So there’s something in me that instinctively recoils when I hear the words, “America first.” It’s not the association of that phrase with the 1940s and anti-Semitism (disturbing as it is) that makes me recoil; rather, I dislike the idea because it seems to suggest that America is more important than other countries, that we should always be self-interested at the expense of other people in other places.

My own experience and understanding of Christian faith doesn’t fit well with the idea of “America first.” My missionary kid birth and upbringing conditioned me from the beginning to think about other countries besides the U.S. Even after returning to the States, my parents kept in touch with people in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and they were deeply interested in what happened in those countries. As former missionaries, they also maintained their connections with Brethren in Christ Missions in other countries, such as India, Japan, and Cuba.

Except for Canada, I didn’t travel outside the U. S. after we returned from Africa in 1961 until 30 years later in 1991. By then, I was an at-large member of the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. I served on the board for 19 years, including nine years as chair. While serving on the board of MCC, which works in approximately 50 countries, I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, Zimbabwe , Zambia, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Indonesia. These visits always affirmed the fundamental value of individual people of all races and colors and creeds. I have wonderful memories of the people I met, and when I think of these countries, I often think of specific people, especially women, who worked hard and cared for their families just like I do, often under very difficult circumstances.

[Aside: I’ve written before about how my international travel taught me much: “Stories from Around the World, Part 1 and Part 2.” I’ve also written about “Books to Expand My World” highlighting books that remind me there is a world out there beyond the United States. Here’s Part 2 of the post about books.]

From a Christian point of view, caring more about one’s own country and its people seems to be at odds with the concept of being citizens of heaven and the kingdom of God, rather than earthly kingdoms. Jesus didn’t say, “God so loved the United States” (or Palestine, where he lived); he said “God so loved the world.” God created everyone in God’s image, not just Americans, and if we truly believe that, then we should care about the welfare of all people, not just those who live in the United States. John’s vision of a huge choir composed of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (a multi-ethnic and multi-national kingdom of God) points to a much less ethnocentric and nationalistic view of the world than what is currently being promoted in many places.

All of this is not to say that I’m not patriotic and don’t appreciate the kind of life I enjoy in the United States. I confess to feeling a fairly high degree of patriotism during the Olympics, as just one example, and I can’t help breathing a little sigh of relief when I set foot on familiar American soil again after traveling internationally. I also don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t integrity in taking care of our own people; there is a bit of hypocrisy in railing against poverty, inequality, oppression, and discrimination in other places when we aren’t working hard enough on those issues here at home. Self-interest is a good thing (as Jesus himself suggested when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”), although not when it ends up always putting personal interests ahead of the needs of others, or hogging the lion’s share of resources when others are suffering.

As Christians, we are connected to a global fellowship, a worldwide church; we care about the welfare of everyone, regardless of where they live. But beyond that, as human beings,  we are all connected to people all over the world. The contemporary world is inextricably interconnected and interdependent, more so than at any time in history, given the relative ease of travel, increased technology, and the ubiquity of the Internet. What we do here affects people in other places, and what other people do affects us; this is especially true when it comes to the use of limited natural resources. Globalism seems to have become a dirty word, but that doesn’t make sense to me. The “America first” mentality seems to operate out of a zero-sum philosophy: we have to be first, which means that no one else can be first; we can’t contribute to the well-being of others in other places because that means we can’t take care of ourselves. Why does it have to be either-or; why can’t it be both-and?

The time-honored ending to every presidential speech is “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” I understand and respect that, knowing and appreciating that presidents speak as the chief representative and promoter of and advocate for one specific country. But sometimes I also can’t help wishing they would add, “And God bless the whole world, no exceptions.”