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?

 

 

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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.

 

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.

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.

momandme

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.

 

 

Seeking Relief for Election Stress Disorder

“Election stress disorder” is a real thing – almost a diagnosable mental health condition! Last month, a Harris Poll, conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association, showed that more than half of Americans say that the 2016 election campaign is a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives. I didn’t participate in the poll, but if I had, I would have been counted among those who have experienced some significant stress this election season.

Where does my stress come from? Let me count the sources!

  • The polarization feels worse than anything I’ve ever experienced, and is reflected every day on my Facebook feed. I feel almost schizophrenic sometimes, with dualing posts from friends on both sides of the political spectrum. I experience ongoing bafflement that intelligent and nice people can look at the same situations and interpret them so differently.
  • There has been so much that is sordid about this campaign (“sordid” defined as “arousing moral distaste and contempt,” with such synonyms as “sleazy, dirty, seedy, seamy, unsavory, tawdry, cheap, debased, degenerate, dishonorable, disreputable, discreditable, contemptible, ignominious, shameful, abhorrent” – all of which seem to fit!). But it’s like a train wreck or car accident that you can’t look away from. Every time I think I can’t watch another news program, listen to another radio broadcast, or read another online article, I get sucked into trying to learn more about some new revelation or change in poll numbers.
  • The rhetoric of “you can’t be a Christian and vote for ___” or “you can’t be a Christian and vote at all” frustrates me. Christians on both sides have written thoughtful analyses and made cases I can respect, even if I don’t always agree. But Christians have also engaged in fear-mongering in apocalyptic language, along with guilt-tripping and downright nastiness toward other Christians who come to the issues with different suppositions and assumptions.
  • It feels like we’re living in a post-truth era, where it’s okay to spread conspiracy theories and falsehoods that have been repeatedly debunked. I hate living in a world where facts don’t seem to matter, pants-on-fire lies are told every five minutes, and people seem to get away with it!
  • Unlike some people I know and like, I am not a single-issue voter, and prefer a more holistic approach. I don’t like the judgment I feel from those who think that one issue is more important than all the others combined. Issues are complex, intertwined, and rarely black-and-white, and a single-issue approach seems like it fails to recognize that complexity and ambiguity.
  • I often wonder how we got to this place. Where are the candidates I can embrace wholeheartedly, whose personal and public lives have been above reproach, and who will inspire the nation to live up to its highest ideals? Why does it have to take TWO WHOLE YEARS to elect a president? After the election is over, can the news media PLEASE take a break and not immediately start speculating on the 2020 election? And after the election can every elected official PLEASE make a pact to “play nicely with others” and not continue to obstruct?

Finally, and perhaps most personal for me is the stress I have felt over my own response. The phrase “vote your conscience” has been invoked a lot, with good reason, but I wonder what that really means: should I not vote at all, register a protest vote (for a third party candidate or a write-in who has no chance of winning), vote against the person I consider a threat to all that is right and decent and honorable, or vote for the one I “like” the most? What is the “conscience vote” that will have the most integrity for me? In some ways, it has been an easy choice, but I’m well aware of the compromises my choice entails. I also sometimes feel like I have become too caught up in the drama of this election, too worried about the outcome, and have lost perspective and made too much of one presidential election.

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, acknowledge that perhaps we’ve expected the government to help us be like Jesus and too closely married our faith with our politics.

My vote on Election Day will not be the perfect vote. It will involve compromise and will not be cast with the belief that if the person I vote for wins, all will be well. I’m not that naive, nor do I think it’s wise put that much trust in a single person. The values that affect my choice include a desire for justice and fairness, compassion, generosity of spirit, care for the marginalized (all the “least of these,” in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25), respect for the essential worth and dignity of every human being wherever they live, a desire for all people to flourish. I believe that one candidate more closely embodies these values in actions and attitudes, but I am under no illusion that this person will always govern accordingly.

14650062_1293456324006921_4994076222190052526_nTo remind myself that I am first of all a citizen of God’s kingdom, and that God is in control and God’s kingdom is not threatened by the outcome of a U.S. presidential election, I’ll be attending Election Day Communion tomorrow evening at my church (Grantham Brethren in Christ Church, Mechanicsburg, PA). Participating in this ritual with my sisters and brothers in the church will be a good stress reliever and a soul- and mind-cleansing time at the end of this difficult election season.

 

My Internal Political Struggle

I struggle daily with the tension between being vehemently opposed to and repulsed by pretty much everything Donald Trump is and stands for, and knowing that he is a human being made in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect and care. Almost every day, it seems like there is some new statement or action by him (or his surrogates) to horrify and worry me, and confirm that he should not be president and in fact could be dangerous for the country and the world. To me he is the personification of the emperor with new clothesa textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder, and he lacks the thoughtfulness, humility, compassion, and temperate personality that I look for in a president.

The list of things he’s done and said that offend everything I believe in is long: derogatory comments about women, Muslims, Mexicans, people with disabilities, and others; a penchant for schoolyard bullying tactics and personal insults; stoking the flames of conspiracy theories (e.g., that President Obama was not born in the U.S.); inciting, condoning, and not condemning violence at his rallies; shameless lying, even after repeated fact-checkers have proven statements to be pants-on-fire false; shameless pandering to various groups (e.g., to evangelical Christians) to get votes; support for torture that is morally wrong not to mention illegal; promises to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; suggestions that he might ban Muslims from entering the U.S. or require U.S. Muslims to register; support for white supremacists and authoritarian (dictator) leaders; playing to our worst fears, especially of “the other.” This list doesn’t even include his well-documented questionable business practices and multiple affairs.

I keep thinking I can’t be surprised or shocked by anything else Trump will say or do, but then there he goes again, with some new thing to outrage me. Or, he gives a speech that is completely incoherent (with sentences that defy any kind of grammatical structure that could actually be diagrammed!), all about himself, and devoid of any actual policy content. Journalists repeatedly ask him to explain how he would actually implement something, and he deflects their questions with some version of “believe me, I’ll do it, and it will be the greatest” but he gives no details.

Part of me understands Trump’s appeal, because I can understand the frustration, fear, and anger of people who feel they have been left behind in the new global economy or feel like the world they felt comfortable in is slipping away. I also understand frustration with “politics as usual” and the inability of Congress to work together to get anything done, and the hope that someone from outside the political system can make a difference. But a large part of me continues to be genuinely flummoxed by his appeal. Surely we are better than this, I think. Surely the American people don’t want someone representing our country on the world stage, or making decisions with potentially devastating consequences, with his temperament, unchecked narcissism, tendency to lash back at anyone with petty insults and name-calling, and repeated habit of saying whatever comes to mind without regard for how it might inflame a situation.

I also suffer from a significant case of cognitive dissonance when I hear many evangelical Christians unreservedly support him. I’m not so much bothered that he might not be one himself or that he can’t speak religious language that sounds convincing to those of us who have grown up in the church. After all, there is no constitutional requirement that the president be a Christian. Rather, I am bothered that many Christians seem to overlook (and in some cases even condone implicitly if not explicitly) so much of what he says and how he acts that is antithetical to many of the values we hold. I am deeply saddened by the undertones of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and mean-spiritedness that have come out in the open and threaten the monumental efforts the United States has made to welcome and embrace everyone. Think Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Not being politically correct has come to mean it’s now okay to express out loud the worst that’s in us. (See my earlier post, “A Defense of Political Correctness.”)

BUT: 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. As members of his family have demonstrated in their speeches at the Republican National Convention this week, there are people who know a different side of him than what he has shown to the public before and during this campaign and who seem to genuinely respect, care for, and love him. He feels like an enemy to so much of what I believe is right, but Jesus said I am to love my enemies.

What do I do with my daily struggle? How do I reconcile the need to show respect and care for Donald Trump the human being who has faults just like the rest of us with the importance of speaking out against the no-holds-barred campaign he has run, the nasty way he has behaved toward others, the policies he has proposed that I believe are wrong and/or immoral, and the kind of president I fear he would be if he stays true to form? How do I deal with the internal struggle of knowing that as a Christian I am obligated to love a person I really really dislike and who I believe is wrong on so many levels?

I recently wrote an article for our denominational publication called “Heart Check,” in which I analyzed one of my favorite Bible verses: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In that article, I noted, “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 went on, “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?”

I don’t think it’s possible for me to over-state my opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy for the president, but I hope it is possible for me to do so without de-valuing him as a person.

 

Three Birthday Wishes

Harriet-1948 1

One of the earliest photos I have of myself – another treasure from that vintage suitcase. Circa 1948, Matopo Mission, Southern Rhodesia.

As I celebrate my birthday on primary election day in Pennsylvania, in the middle of one of the oddest and most frustrating presidential campaigns ever (in my memory, at least), there are many things I could wish for, but I’ve limited myself to three wishes. One relates directly to presidential politics, one looks beyond this year’s election to the future, and one is more personal as I edge ever closer to my seventh decade.

I wish for a U. S. political system that is fair and based more closely on the concept of one-person, one-vote. An upside of this crazy political season has been the exposure of a system that doesn’t really operate that way. Instead, it relies heavily on arcane and complicated rules and the behind-the-scenes machinations of Republican and Democratic Party officials; during the primaries, it disenfranchises many voters who choose not to register as Republicans or Democrats; it allows states to enact new laws and procedures that in effect make it more difficult rather than easier for many people to vote; it feels like wealthy individuals have undue influence on the outcome; it rewards gerrymandering by both parties. While I understand how difficult it would be, both logistically and politically, to change the system, I believe democracy would be so much better served if we could. Perhaps one positive result of the 2016 presidential election cycle will be some steps in that direction. I wish….

I wish for a world in which my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren can survive and thrive. That kind of world is in many ways summed up in the “fruit of the Spirit,” as enumerated in Galatians 5 – a world where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control abound. Just writing those words makes me feel like my wish is a pipe dream, completely unattainable, and the stuff of unrealistic idealism that doesn’t recognize the realities of evil in the world. But, what if everyone truly tried to embody those characteristics? Or as a start, what if everyone who claims to be Christian did?

In the world I wish for, my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren will:

  • Live with hope and optimism that they can make a positive difference in the world, rather than be ruled by fear and apocalyptic pessimism
  • Be part of systems that are generous and compassionate toward the dispossessed and marginalized
  • Have plenty of clean air and clean water, along with beautiful natural spaces to explore and enjoy
  • Live in safe neighborhoods, not threatened by random gun violence or other threats to their well-being
  • Be able to get an excellent education and quality healthcare without saddling themselves with huge debt
  • Have equal opportunities and not be discriminated against, regardless of their gender, race, or ethnicity
  • Learn how to be peacemakers and resolve conflicts in ways that don’t depend on violence and hateful rhetoric
  • Be willing to forgive and show mercy to those who might not deserve it
  • Recognize that their own freedom should not come at the expense of others
  • Treat others the way they wish to be treated

I wish to be able to age well. When I think about what my parents were like at the age I am today (68), I remember them as already seeming old, even though they lived to be really old (91 and 93, respectively). When I think of myself, I don’t feel old; in fact, except for those periodic aches and pains (like the “crick” I’ve had in my shoulder for the last few days), I feel like I’m still in my 40s. But I have one child who is in her 40s, and another who is approaching that milestone, so clearly I’m not. I might not be old yet, but I’m certainly well on my way!

At my annual wellness exam in February, the nurse checked my mental status – something I assume is a standard part of wellness exams for those of Medicare age. She gave me three words to remember while she conducted some other tests, and then instructed me to repeat the three words. This test always panics me a bit: what if I can’t remember the words? But I had no trouble, and in fact still remember the three words: apple, table, penny. If I remember the words all the way to next year’s exam, will that prove that there is no cognitive decline?

If I had my wish, good aging would include the continued pleasure of good and loving relationships with family and friends, interesting hobbies, travel, meaningful activities, and being able to contribute to a better and more peaceful world. It would be free of excessive pain and devastating disease, and it would not include cognitive decline. But I know that what I wish for may not happen. I have some control – for example, I knit, read, play word games, and write, which are all activities that are supposed to keep one’s brain active – but there are many things I can’t control. When the inevitable aging process begins to take its toll in significant ways, I wish for the patience and grace to accept it and not become a difficult person, filled with anger, bitterness, depression, and regrets. I may not want to “go gentle into that good night,” but I also don’t want to resist it so much that I make myself and everyone else miserable! I want to age well, and then to die well.

Three wishes for my birthday. Which ones will come true?