We 21st century humans are pretty good at studying and learning the lessons of history but terrible when it comes to turning this knowledge into action. Consider the myriad books that have been written about the two World Wars, the Vietnam War, Stalinism, the Rwandan Genocide, the HIV / AIDS epidemic, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other events that have led to mass suffering and death; we know what leads to tragedy and how to avert it. Not only that, but we appear to be equally good at applying those lessons in real-time and not just retroactively. For instance, anyone paying attention to Germany in the early 1930s could predict what was coming (something Churchill did for nearly a decade): massive economic instability coupled with lingering anger about the outcome of World War I and a desire to find a scapegoat created the perfect conditions for Hitler to come to power. Nor did he hide his intentions; nearly everything he did conformed with ideas and plans he first outlined in Mein Kompf and in subsequent speeches and other propaganda. And based on my extensive reading and the opinion of many scholars and historians, had we heeded Churchill’s calls for action up to even 1939, we could’ve stopped Hitler in his tracks–no second World War, no holocaust, and perhaps even no Cold War.
So why, if we not only understand the causes of evil in retrospect but are even able to identify its rise in real-time, does evil still abound? Why is Vladimir Putin, a murderous thug, still in power? Why are the Rohinga in Myanmar living in fear and as refugees, forced out of their homes, murdered, stripped of their rights? Why is corporate power consolidating, climate change accelerating, and democracy in decline? The answer isn’t easy. For starters, it is hard to know what to do with horrifying information; faced with an avalanche of bad news, we freeze in place. Also, life is hard enough as it is—we are busy earning a living, taking care of a never-ending to-do list, dealing with death and illness and loss and heartbreak. How does one fit into the moderately controlled chaos of day-to-day life a concerted action to prevent or end injustice? What’s more, it’s not even clear what we should do: sit-ins a la the civil rights movement? Boycotts? Protests? Donations? Strikes? Does it matter? Will it be enough?
Take climate change as an example. A global issue, climate change is a function of global-sized challenges: deforestation, meat production, manufacturing, travel, consumerism, public policy at the level of local, state, federal, and international levels. Yet the consequences of inaction are grave—assuming you actually believe in the clear scientific evidence: not only rising sea levels that will radically reshape human society, but increases in extreme weather events, war over resources, and disease and hunger. Faced with this confluence of factors—the scale of the problem and the consequences of avoiding it—we do what we can: “Eco-friendly” consumers dutifully recycle, purchase hybrid or electric vehicles, install solar panels on their rooftops, make use of programmable thermostats, and try to purchase products made of post-consumer recycled materials. But let’s face it: even if every person on the planet took these actions (and the reason many cannot are that to take these steps, one must enjoy a certain level of material comfort, and it is those who enjoy said comfort that are the biggest contributors to the problem to begin with), we would still only be scratching the surface of solving the crisis.
Put another way, when it comes to climate change and similar challenges, the scale and urgency of the challenge requires radical and urgent action of the kind that disrupts the status quo. But the status quo is powerful, not only because humans like their routines but also because the wealthy and powerful who benefit from the status quo do everything in their power to avoid a change. The ultimate questions, therefore, are: How do we disrupt the inertia that allows evil to come into being and / or to proliferate? Can we do so without radically altering our daily lives? At what point do things become so urgent that we have no choice but to alter our lives? And finally, once we come to this conclusion, what exactly should we do?
Which brings me to why I’m in McAllen, Texas. As you may know, recently the Trump Administration implemented a “zero tolerance” policy with respect to immigrants coming to the U.S. / Mexico border. This policy resulted in over 2,500 families torn apart—babies torn from their mothers’ arms and thrown into what can only be described as concentration camps, forbidden from hugging one another, crying and begging to be with their parents, and treated worse than many animals. Here again history makes it easy for us to understand how we got here. Donald Trump began his presidential campaign by demonizing immigrants, describing them as murderers and rapists. He ran on an America First and Make America Great Again platform that was barely concealed code for “Make America White Again.” He questioned the ability of a Mexican-American judge to be impartial. He got his racist, xenophobic crowds to chant “Build That Wall” until they were whipped into a terrifying fervor of hate and anger. And then over the past few months he has turned to calling immigrants animals (yes, he claims he is joking or talking only about MS-13, but both his supporters and anyone with a brain know what he means—brown people are sub-human).
Again, history doesn’t lie: the first step to killing people end masse is to convince the killers that those they are killing are not human. The next step is to divide and segregate the demonized group, emotionally and, now, physically. What’s horrifying is that once you get to the point of putting thousands of human beings in cages—the point at which evil rhetoric becomes evil actions—you are perilously close to the final step: genocide. And let’s be clear. Despite the outpouring of anger, the proliferation or lawsuits, the millions of dollars donated and hundreds of thousands of people who are protesting, Trump has basically gotten away with step 8 or 9 of genocide. Neither his political party, which is in control of the House, the Senate, much of the Judiciary, and of course the Executive Branch, nor his supporters have spoken out against the policy. In fact, we—people of good will—are engaging in debate about the issue, as though there were anything to debate when it came to splitting apart families and throwing them in cages when their only offense was to come to the United States of America seeking asylum. That is to say, there are even moderately intelligent Americans defending the indefensible, and of course Trump’s predominantly brainless supporters are following him lockstep—and in all likelihood would stand behind him no matter how far he took his bigotry.
Many times we ask ourselves what we would’ve done in 1930s Germany or 1960s America (or numerous other periods, such as in the 40s when Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps on U.S. soil). Well, this is our moment to find out what we will do when the evil we face is truly a matter of life or death. I am thus in McAllen to try to answer that question. I knew that Trump’s presidency had the potential to devolve into madness, and little of what he has done—the Muslim Ban, sabotaging the Affordable Care Act, breaking laws and codes of conduct left, right, and center—has surprised me. Still, I was more or less able to swallow the shitshow unfolding daily. But the moment they—he—began violating human rights in the most blatant and egregious manner I knew that he had crossed a line, as did millions of other Americans of conscience.
But now what? The ACLU has sued, Trump has rescinded the policy, and a judge has ruled that the Administration must reunite the families. No matter how quickly that happens, the brutal fact remains: Trump pursued a policy that shocks the conscience, and did so with a smile on his face and a collective shrug-of-the-shoulders from his supporters and enablers. We can’t know exactly what form his next human rights violations will take, but we know that there will be more and that they will each build on the last. Even worse, as the Mueller investigation closes in on him and threatens his political and financial survival, he will increasingly look to distract us, all of us, with egregious rhetoric and action.
Yet given these brutal facts, I’m unable to determine a reasonable path forward. For instance, while I am in Texas to protest child separation, I am under no illusions: I am a white, upper-middle-class New Englander flying down to the border for two days to try to bring attention to a catastrophic situation. All I can do is bear witness to this travesty and write about it so that I and others understand what’s really going on. I am here to learn more about what Trump is doing and how that is affecting children and families. I am here to share my findings. I am here to connect with others far braver and more committed than myself.
But on Monday I’m going to go back to work—to be sure, a nonprofit that makes loans to vulnerable people, including immigrants, but still a tiny enterprise relative to the size of the problem—and the children will still be in cages. And before you think it, yes, I am aware of the story of the starfish and know that every little thing we do matters, including the loans Capital Good Fund makes for things like fighting deportation. Nevertheless, I can’t escape the feeling that it’s time to take things up a notch—engage in hunger strikes, civil disobedience, mass boycotts. For if we don’t take drastic action now, are we not risking our finally doing so when things have gotten so bad that it’s too late? How much worse can it get? I mean, the President of the United States is effectively an agent of Russia, unabashedly corrupt, and willing to subvert the law to further his own interests.
Certainly, one of the most important things we can do right now is to ensure that the Democrats take both the House AND Senate. That way they can obstruct Trump’s policies and hold him to account. Toward that end, there are some concrete action steps:
1. Donate to organizations like Indivisible, Swing Left, and individual campaigns
2. VOTE. If you can vote and don’t vote you don’t deserve to criticize anything
3. Help register others to vote. Phone bank. Knock on doors. Volunteer.
4. Post on social media and remind others to vote—family, friends, strangers, anyone, anywhere
But what happens if we don’t take back all of Congress? Or only the House? What if Mueller comes out with his report showing dozens of reasons for impeachment and nothing happens, or the House impeaches and the Senate fails to convict? What if the Democrats take back the Congress but, as they are wont to do, lose their spine and go soft on Trump? What if we experience a terrorist attack and Trump decides to implement emergency laws that effectively make him a dictator?
These what-ifs are not only scary but perfectly reasonable to contemplate. These also lead ineluctably to the conclusion that we must act now and not wait for the mid-term elections or the Mueller report to come out, or anything else. Ah, but it’s not that easy, is it? No matter how much I would like to, it would be very difficult for me to drop my job as CEO of a rapidly growing nonprofit and get arrested or go on hunger strike, and I also have a pregnant wife and bills to pay and dog to take care of, etc. So I am left doing what I can: donating, traveling to Texas, blogging and writing poetry, and educating myself on the issues. Unfortunately, that leaves me in the position history teaches us to avoid—unable / unwilling to take drastic action until things are so bad that no matter what we do, it might be too late.
Yes, we are good at learning from history, but acting on knowledge is so, so very hard. I wish I could end this post on a more positive and certain note; truth is, I don’t have a great answer to the question, What do we do? I’ll conclude by saying this: Let’s push ourselves as far as we are able. Let’s take care of ourselves so that we are not so numb as to be ineffective. Let’s maintain our sense of humor and optimism even in the face of darkness. And let’s remain alert to what is happening around us and adjust our actions accordingly.
Together, we can stop evil and injustice. Together, we can create the world in which we want to live.
¡Hasta la Victoria, siempre!