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?

 

 

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.”

 

An Existential Crisis

If you’ve read this blog over the last year, you know that I was deeply troubled by the presidential campaign and did not vote for or support the man who is now the president of the United States. As I’ve tried to process my feelings since the election, and come to terms with an outcome I don’t like but at least at some level must accept, I’ve experienced far more of an internal struggle than I expected or ever have before following an election that didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. I have been shaken to my core, and I don’t quite know how to deal with the ongoing existential crisis I feel. Maybe it’s a bit of hyperbole to call it an existential crisis, but let me explain.

On caring more about politics than I should as a Christian: In his inaugural address, Donald Trump said, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America.” That sentence really bothers me as a Christian and should bother everyone who calls themselves Christian. Total allegiance to my country, above all else? Really? And yet, in the depression and anxiety I have felt over the future of the United States under politicians whose positions seem in direct conflict with values I hold as a Christian, I recognize the possibility that my allegiance is more divided than I want it to be, that perhaps I am putting more faith in democracy and political systems than in God. I really do believe that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is or is not elected president or the policies we enact, but I also believe that some of the very foundations of our democracy are in danger right now. How do I navigate that tension without compromising my primary allegiance to God’s kingdom? And somewhat relatedly, how do I interact with fellow Christians who see things so differently than I do – some of them within my own church, family, and circle of friends?

On truth and facts: I feel like I am living in some kind of alternate crazy-making universe, where people speak in all seriousness about “alternative facts,” as though there is no such thing as objective truth. As I said a couple weeks ago, “I feel like I can’t function in a world where facts aren’t facts, where you can just make up stuff and present it as true and real, dismiss a story based on facts that don’t suit your particular bias by calling it ‘fake news,’ or demean and dismiss journalists and newspapers that have dedicated themselves for decades to telling the truth.” The “gas-lighting of America,” including the deliberate efforts to undermine reputable news organizations that have been doing credible reporting and investigative journalism for many years, is dangerous and smacks of authoritarianism, and it has continued into this first week since the inauguration. Truth matters!

On speaking out/protesting publicly vs. living and acting according to my values in my own little corner of the world: I do think this is a false dichotomy; both are needed, not one or the other. However, I feel this tension very personally. I am not a protester kind of person; I’ve never literally marched for or against anything, even though I have often agreed with the reason for the protests or marches. On the other hand, back in the 1980s, my husband and I resisted paying the portion of our federal income taxes used for military purposes because of our commitment to nonviolence. That was a form of protest. I have visited congressional offices (admittedly not often) to advocate for something I believe in, and I’ve written letters and made phone calls to my senators and representatives. Those are forms of speaking out. Right now, I think I could spend my whole day writing letters or making phone calls, joining one protest or another, signing this or that petition to speak out against or in favor of some action on issues I care deeply about. But is that how I should spend my time? Perhaps it is more important to go about the ordinary routines of my life, committed even more to being kind and compassionate, welcoming to people who are different than I am, generous, etc., and leave the speaking out and protesting to others for whom it might come more naturally?

One reason why this is not a simple choice is that systemic issues are at play that I’m not sure can be resolved by acts of kindness and generosity, important as those are. For example, how will my individual acts of treating everyone the way I want to be treated ensure that voting rights are respected and not restricted, or ensure that people who are in danger of losing their health insurance will be able to get the health care they need and deserve?

On practicing empathy when I don’t feel it: I believe it is important to put myself in the shoes of those who are pleased with the new president. While I’m convinced that some people voted for Donald Trump for not-very-noble reasons (his appeal among white supremacists being one notable example), I also know that many people genuinely believe that certain moral values were being lost and now hope they will be restored, or felt abandoned economically and now hope for recovery. I may not agree or be convinced that this presidency will solve those problems, but I understand that there are legitimate reasons why many people wanted a stark change in direction. I confess this is difficult for me because I am repulsed and offended by so many of the words, behaviors, and policy proposals of the new president, but I still must try to understand .

On choosing the right battles: Two articles I read recently have helped me begin to choose my battles. The articles suggested not spending too much time on issues that are “part of the normal ebb and flow of government and changes in party control,” but paying attention instead to issues and policy proposals that have moral (or theological) implications or are assaults on democracy itself. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to make this distinction, because they are often intertwined, but it could help me focus my attention and action on a few things when it feels like every day there is something new to address.

For example, I am opposed to the recent executive order suspending the Syrian refugee program and restricting immigration from certain mostly-Muslim countries; the Bible tells me not to be afraid, to welcome strangers as if they were Jesus himself and to care for the alien and the oppressed; plus there are the words on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”) articulating the traditional aspirations of this country. I am also concerned about the not-so-veiled threats against the press when it dares to report the truth or critique the president (see above item about truth and facts), and I am worried that discrimination on the basis of religion is being normalized. These are threats to American democracy.

On not wanting to be guilty of the same thing I hated during the Obama presidency: The day he was inaugurated, Republicans deliberately planned to obstruct anything President Obama proposed. Even though they didn’t succeed in preventing his re-election, and he left office more popular than many outgoing presidents (certainly than his predecessor, a Republican), the obstructionism generally worked and now we have undivided government. So the obvious temptation is for the opposition to respond to the new president the same way – to obstruct and resist everything. I have been told to “give the new president a chance,” which seems fair and certainly within the spirit of not returning evil for evil. But what am I to do when already what I consider immoral/unChristian actions are being taken, people have been nominated for positions for which they are not qualified or in which they could do great harm (to public education or the environment, for example), and untruths and blatant falsehoods are being perpetuated by the new administration? How do I “give him a chance” while also speaking out and resisting?

Other aspects of my existential crisis: 1) I have a hard time spiritualizing the election, taking comfort that God’s will is being done or God’s sovereignty is at work. I am especially put off by arguments that somehow God intervened to elect Donald Trump for some spiritual reason. I do take comfort from Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God,” preferring to believe that God is still God no matter what happens and cares about and understands my feelings. 2) I want to love my enemies; speak the truth in love and not let “unwholesome” talk come out of my mouth (or pen or typing fingers); and bear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). But it’s sure not coming easily these days! 3) I don’t want to live in a constant state of outrage. It’s not healthy, nor is it particularly productive. How do I channel my outrage into something more productive and less stress-producing?

I wish I had sure-fire strategies to ratchet down my levels of frustration and concern over what seems to be happening that is antithetical to so much of what I believe is right and just. I realize that there are many who don’t share my angst, either because they support the direction being charted by the new administration or because they’ve found strategies for coping that work for them. I suspect, however, that there are others like me who are struggling. Maybe articulating some of the sources of my current “existential crisis” will not only be therapeutic for me but also encourage others who are on this same journey.

Re-Reading Obama

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I first read Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, after he entered the national consciousness following his memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention but before he became a candidate for president. The book was originally published in 1995, and then reissued in 2004.

At the time I read the book, speculation was beginning that Obama might run for president, and he had just been elected to the U.S. Senate. Clearly, one of the reasons the book was reissued in 2004, with a new foreword by the author, was because he had become a national figure.

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Watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama with colleagues on January 20, 2009, State College, Pennsylvania

In April 2008, before the Pennsylvania primary, Dale and I went to an Obama presidential campaign rally in Harrisburg, and we both volunteered in very small ways with the Obama campaign in the fall of 2008. And on January 20, 2009, I watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama on a laptop in State College with some of my early childhood mental health colleagues. We paused during our quarterly meeting to take in this historic occasion of the first African American becoming president of the United States (see photo at right). It was an emotional moment for all of us.

Over the past 10 years of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate and then president, when false conspiracy theories about his birthplace and religious faith persisted, and criticism and obstruction of practically every single thing he ever tried to do increased, I often thought of Dreams of My Father and my observations about the book at the time I read it – before any of the craziness. So this week as the nation counted down the days until the end of the Obama presidency, I reread parts of the book. I was curious about whether my observations held up. and about what insights reading the book now might provide into the man we came to know as our president.

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Me doing a thumbs-up with a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama during a trip to Washington, DC in 2010.

I remember thinking and even commenting during a book club discussion in 2006 or 2007 that I appreciated reading something written by a politician before the person became famous, entered politics, or thought he needed to measure his words and omit inconvenient details. While I think now that a career in politics may have been in his mind while he was writing the book, I honestly don’t think it greatly affected the way he told his story.

Two things in particular stood out to me when I first read the book:

  1. He does not always paint a particularly flattering picture of himself, and is very honest about his struggle to find his identity as a black man with a white mother, an absent black father, and two white grandparents who helped raise him.
  2. He describes the development of his Christian faith and the moment of his “conversion” with authenticity and conviction.

As I reread the book this week, I looked for re-affirmation of those two observations. The first – the unflattering picture of himself and his struggle to find his identity – still rings true. He writes honestly of his partying and drug and alcohol use during adolescence and college, his cockiness in certain situations (perhaps a harbinger of the self-confident way he has carried himself throughout his presidency), his lack of seriousness about his studies, the conflicts in his family, his ambivalence toward his father. He tells about reading a story in Life magazine when he was about nine years old and living in Indonesia that greatly affected his view of himself. The story was about a black man who had undergone treatment to lighten his skin. That was the first time he came face to face with what it meant to be a black man, and he noted that his “vision had been permanently altered.” He began to notice things like there being nobody in the Sears Christmas catalog that looked like him.

The struggle for his identity as a black man continued into adolescence and young adulthood. Two quotes illustrate this:

  • At around age 15: “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant” (p. 76).
  • On trying to navigate between his family of “white folks” (his mother and grandparents) and his black friends: “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two would would eventually cohere” (p. 82).

Today, Obama seems comfortable in his own skin, and has resolved the identity issues that plagued him as a young man. But you could hear echoes of those struggles in his responses to racial issues, especially when unarmed black teenagers were killed. His comment that “Trayvon Martin could have been me” is almost literally true; in the book, he writes about how he was well on his way to becoming a “young black man” statistic, and so I can imagine that every time a young black man is gunned down, he thinks about how his life could easily have turned out if he had made different choices.

My second observation about the development of his Christian faith still rings true as well. Whenever I have heard people deny his Christian commitment or claim that he is a secret Muslim, my mind goes back to this book. Obama writes about his grandparents and mother not having much religious faith and he mentions his father’s Muslim faith, but he claims no belief for himself until something changed during the years he was a community organizer in Chicago before he went to law school. He wasn’t making much progress in his efforts in the community until he hooked up with local churches. There he learned to know people whose Christian faith motivated them to work on behalf of justice and whose hope was found in Jesus. He writes of a Sunday morning service not long before he left for law school at Harvard. The title of the sermon was “The Audacity of Hope,” and the preacher spoke eloquently of how even in the midst of adversity, his grandmother would be singing, “Thank you Jesus,” and “thanking [God] in advance for all that they dared to hope for in me! Oh, I thank you, Jesus, for not letting go of me when I let go of you!”

Obama then writes that while the choir was singing and people were walking to the altar in response to the sermon, he found himself with tears running down his cheeks. Beside him, he heard a woman whisper softly, “Oh, Jesus. Thank you for carrying us this far.” That section of the book ends there, but the clear implication is that something profound happened to Obama at that moment, the culmination of spending time daily with people of faith. I choose to believe he came to personal faith that day and has been a Christian in the real sense of the word ever since.

At the first National Prayer Breakfast after his inauguration in February 2009, he told a version of this story. After noting that he wasn’t raised in a religious household, he continued: “I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck — no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose — His purpose.” His words rang true then and they still do.

Significantly, the preacher’s sermon title, “The Audacity of Hope,” became the title of Obama’s next book, published after he became a U.S. Senator, and hope was one of the major themes of his first presidential campaign. The theme was echoed in his farewell address last week: “I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.” And it was echoed this week in the answer to the final question at his final press conference: “We’ve tried to teach them [his daughters] hope and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world…. I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That’s what this presidency has tried to be about.”

I have not always agreed with President Obama; I’ve wished he had done some things differently or not at all. For example, he does not seem to be as committed as I would like to the kind of peacemaking that does not see violent responses to evil as justified, and at times he was infuriatingly passive when it felt like he needed to be far more active. But I’ve also supported many of his accomplishments: the Affordable Care Act, actions to reverse climate change and protect the environment, normalized relations with Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and criminal justice reform, to name a few. Apart from his policies, I have always felt like I could respect him as a person, a husband, and a father, and I have deeply appreciated the dignity, grace, and civility with which he has conducted himself amidst a never-ending barrage of ugliness and negativity. The fact that he is being succeeded by someone who is the polar opposite and who has made promises to undo much if not most of what he has accomplished is hard to take, to say the least.

As President Obama leaves office, I need a dose of his optimism and his reminder that “the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.” I began to understand some of what makes him tick when I first read Dreams from My Father, and it’s been encouraging to discover upon re-reading the book that his presidency was built in positive ways on what he learned and experienced as a child, teenager, and young adult. The person I met in those pages is consistent with the president I admired and respected. I will miss him!

Truth Matters

Regular readers of my blog know that I have used this forum to tell stories from my childhood, to write down for posterity memories of my early life. As I have done so, I have been keenly aware that there are many details about my childhood I don’t remember but really wish I could. On occasion I’ve discovered that my memory of a certain event was not entirely accurate. Along the way, some people have generously encouraged me to write a book, but I have always resisted in part because I compare what I could write to other memoirs I’ve read and I can’t begin to match the detail that others seem to recall about their lives. How is it possible, I ask, for memoirists to write in such detail about something that happened when they were three years old, when my memories of my three-year-old self are sketchy at best and mostly nonexistent? Do they just make up stuff? Did their parents and others write down everything down that happened, and now they’re using that information to tell their story? Do they “enhance” their sketchy memories and other contemporaneous recollections to paint a scene that is plausible but probably didn’t happen exactly that way?

If I were to write a memoir, it would be important to me not to make up facts or incidents, and not to ascribe to others things they didn’t do or say. Or, if I used my imagination to fill in the missing details in sketchy memories, I would be honest and admit what I was doing and suggest that even though everything didn’t happen exactly as I’ve described it, the intent was to convey the reality of my life as I experienced it. I would call it something like a “fictionalized memoir.” Truth matters to me!

In my career as an editor and a writer, it has always been important to me to be sure that what I am writing and publishing is true and does not deliberately distort the facts. I am not a journalist by training, nor am I an academic researcher, but I value the ethical commitment in both disciplines to go where the facts lead and not make claims that are not supported by the facts. Much of my writing and editorial work over the years has been of the opinion, commentary, or memoir variety, driven more by individual perspectives, interpretations, convictions, or memories than painstaking research. However, I have always been careful not to be inflammatory in my opinions, even when I have expressed them strongly and without apology. And I have always tried to acknowledge that the facts might lead others to different opinions.

Since I was appointed editor for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society four and a half years ago, I have developed an even greater appreciation for those who research the past and write history, whether family or church history. Of course, historical research and writing often reflect the particular perspectives and biases of the researcher/author. Those unique perspectives and biases sometimes offer an alternative view of history that is important to consider (as in the case of American history as written from an African American rather than a white perspective). But, to be effective in helping us understand history, they also have to match the dictionary definition of truth: the information they impart has to be part of the “the body of real things, events, and facts.”

In today’s environment, however, there is so much that doesn’t pass that simple test. Truth doesn’t seem to matter anymore, and we don’t even seem to be able to agree on what a fact is. It’s apparently okay to just make stuff up or claim that something did or didn’t happen when there is what we used to consider irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

Many things upset me about the 2016 presidential campaign and outcome, but one of the most upsetting is what seems to have happened to truth, and what some have called the “gas-lighting” of America – that is, a form of psychological abuse where we are being manipulated into doubting our own memories, perception, and sanity. I feel like I can’t function in a world where facts aren’t facts, where you can just make up stuff and present it as true and real, dismiss a story based on facts that don’t suit your particular bias by calling it “fake news,” or demean and dismiss journalists and newspapers that have dedicated themselves for decades to telling the truth. The promotion and perpetuation of misinformation and falsehoods (okay, let’s be real and call them lies) destroys order and upsets our sense of equilibrium. The constant drumbeat of criticism of the press and journalists who are investigating the truth and correcting misinformation is a serious threat to the First Amendment and democracy itself. The dismissal of factual and well-researched stories as fake news not to be trusted or believed leaves everything up for grabs. Some days it feels like we can’t even trust that grass is green and not orange, or the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west, or that up is in fact up and not down. If nothing is really true anymore, if there are no such things as facts (as some political operatives have actually claimed recently), how can we have any sense of being one nation?

Functioning in this crazy-making “post-truth” world where even our highest elected official lies and engages in gas-lighting on a regular basis is difficult, but I’m trying to adopt a few strategies:

  1. Continue to trust that there are journalists who are committed to facts and who are doing their best to tell the truth. I choose to believe the news sources I have trusted for many years that have tried to be fair and have shown themselves willing to investigate the truth. These include NPR and Time magazine, both of which I’ve been listening to and reading for decades. I’ve also added Reuters and BBC News to my Facebook feed as sources that provide a less U.S.-centric view. I do so knowing that even these reputable sources have their biases, but also trusting that their journalists and reporters subscribe to a basic code of ethics.
  2. Be skeptical of stories that don’t make sense and sound unbelievable. And then, refuse to spread questionable information unless I have verified it through other sources, including the fact-checkers (my favorites are FactCheck.org and Politifact, and sometimes Snopes.com).
  3. Recognize bias and account for it, and make deliberate efforts to sort out the facts of the story from the interpretation. In web-based articles, there are often links to the primary source material from which the author drew his or her conclusion or interpretation. I often check out those primary sources to decide for myself whether the author’s interpretation is fair.
  4. Relatedly, look for the full context. Yes, the Bible says, “There is no God,” but if you check the context in Psalm 14:1, what it actually says is, “Fools say, ‘There is no God.'” Big difference!
  5. Call out lies.
  6. Be willing to change my view if the facts lead there.
  7. Always tell the truth myself.

I don’t expect that these strategies will always keep me calm and sane, but I hope they’ll help. I have to do something to protect myself from what feels almost like an existential threat, not only to my personal sense of well-being but also to the nation and world in which I live. Truth matters!

Post-Election Angst

I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts and get out from under the oppressive cloud of disillusionment, sadness, anger, and grief that has been hanging over me ever since the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. I admire those who were able to eloquently write and speak words of wisdom almost immediately, but I haven’t been able to do so myself, and I’m not sure that what I’m writing now is particularly wise. Perhaps it’s more of a cathartic exercise and a personal reminder of what I want my priorities to be.

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Me after voting in honor of my mother, who was born before women were allowed to vote. I wore a white sweater she knit for herself many years and which I inherited.

On Election Day, I proudly cast my vote for Hillary Clinton, feeling optimistic that after 240 years, we would finally elect our first female president. That was not by any means my only reason for voting for Hillary, but it was an especially meaningful one. As I said in my pre-election post, it was not a perfect vote (it never is), but I generally felt good about voting for Hillary and very good about voting against a man who I believe is unqualified and unfit for the presidency. He is the antithesis of pretty much everything I stand for, with his vengeful, bellicose, torture-promoting, dishonest, fear-mongering, demeaning, insulting, bullying, sexist, misogynist, racist, and xenophobic behavior and/or speech both before and during the campaign. But today, that man is the president-elect, and how do I respond? Everything in me wants to rant and say I will never be able to support him, but that isn’t either right or productive.

Mental health therapists I have known would say that it’s important to allow oneself to feel what one feels – no matter how negative and unpleasant the feelings. I’ve been surprised at how deeply disappointed I am that so many Americans chose Donald Trump as their president. For the first 24 hours after the results came in, I felt almost physically ill and like I was sinking into another pit of depression and anxiety. I’m better now, but I’m still sitting with my feelings of anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief.

  • I grieve over the racism directed at President Obama from the beginning and perpetuated by the president-elect, crystallized in the absurd and patently untrue conspiracy theory that he was not born in the United States and thus was not really our president. It feels wrong on so many levels that the same person who deliberately and repeatedly delegitimized the first African American president should now be the one to take over from him.
  • I grieve for the many immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, and other marginalized people who are afraid of what is going to happen to them. I grieve for all the expressions of hatred toward these people already in the wake of the election. I grieve for my granddaughter’s friend who is worried that his Mexican father is going to be taken away.
  • I grieve that someone who openly brags about committing sexual assault can be elected president.
  • I grieve because whether he intended it or not, whether he denounces it or not, Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists like the KKK and given renewed permission to some white people to express their racism openly and proudly. This is so not okay!

I could go on, but I have to get past all this anger. I won’t be participating in any “not my president” protests. Instead, I have to figure out how to channel my disappointment, anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief into positive action. I have to find hope in things like the graciousness with which Hillary conceded defeat and President Obama welcomed the president-elect to the White House to begin a peaceful transition of power, and the more conciliatory tone Trump seems to be striking at the moment. I have to remind myself what I have written over the past year as I’ve been trying to process this most difficult election campaign:

From December 9, 2015, commenting on the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”: I really need the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem during this particular Advent and Christmas season, which does not leave us in despair but resoundingly reminds us of the long view of history and of our faith that somehow, the wrong will fail, the right will prevail, and there will be peace on earth:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

I realize that my own attitude toward those who are espousing ideas, beliefs, and practices that are antithetical to what I believe is right and good is not always as loving and kind as it should be. I don’t think that means I should not speak out and confront that which is so wrong, hateful and unChristian, but it does mean I always need to do so in a way that reflects this core value of my faith and my church: “We value all human life, and promote understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.”

From February 15, 2016: At its best, political correctness reminds us of the real people who are at the other end of our words. It makes us think before we speak. It helps keep our discourse, whether spoken or written, less inflammatory and more civil. It includes rather than excludes, and it should make us think about how we might be using our personal power and privilege to demean and minimize the feelings of others.

From April 26, 2016: I will work at overcoming my fear of speaking out and not be silent in the face of great wrong, and I will remind myself repeatedly that this election will not usher in either the end of the world or the kingdom of God!

From July 20, 2016: Donald Trump is a human being; he is made in the image of God, just as I am. He is someone’s son, husband, brother, father, grandfather, and friend…. He feels like an enemy to so much of what I believe is right, but Jesus said I am to love my enemies….

One of favorite Bible verses is “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18)…. Simultaneously comforting and convicting, the verse challenges me to pursue peace when it feels difficult or even impossible. With such extreme division, polarization, violence, and hateful speech these days, the challenge to live at peace with everyone feels greater than ever. I constantly ask myself: do I truly value all human life? Am I choosing to value those who seem unlovable, who commit unspeakably cruel and evil acts, who don’t value life themselves? What difference might it make if I do?”

From September 20, 2016:  I long for political discourse that is honest, that doesn’t throw truth to the wind and repeat lies upon lies upon lies. I don’t want to live in a post-truth world. I also believe that speaking the truth is important when we believe that great wrong is being done. And that’s where I am frequently confronted with the tension between forthrightly denouncing unacceptable and despicable attitudes and behaviors (speaking the truth) and still affirming the essential worth and dignity of the person. Words matter.

From November 7, 2016: One good thing that might come out of this election is some soul-searching and thoughtful re-examination of what “being a Christian in a post-Christian world” (the subtitle of my pastor’s excellent current sermon series) should mean. Perhaps many Christians will come to a renewed understanding that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is elected president of the United States, and acknowledge that perhaps we’ve expected the government to help us be like Jesus and too closely married our faith with our politics.

I have a magnet in my kitchen that says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To do that, I have to help heal the wounds and be a reconciling force in the world; I have to be kind, empathetic, compassionate, generous, civil, understanding, forgiving; I have to listen to those who disagree with me and see things very differently. I want to echo Hillary’s scriptural admonition to her supporters in her concession speech: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). I’m not completely there yet, but I want to get there.