Maybe I should give to those I see

Never before 2020 can I recall handing cash to poor people waiting at street lights. I believed, and I’m pretty sure I was told, it’s better to give to the organizations that can help them find housing, food and employment.

I see weathered men with the handwritten cardboard signs that say, “Anything helps,” or “Need $ for shoes.” I think, you probably have shoes. You made it to this median, to stand next to a traffic light near a popular freeway on ramp. And now the shoes are in the backpack next to you. These days, though, I start to shift around in the drivers seat to reach my wallet, power down the window and hand over a few dollars. Because who the hell am I to know? The truth is there’s a person who is very clearly telling me they could use some money, and I am literally sitting on cash as I look at them.

Don’t get me wrong. We all should support the charities and nonprofit organizations that support the homeless and near-homeless. They get people in need what they need — warm food, warm beds, warm showers. My sister works for a food bank, and she will tell you writing a check to your local food bank helps people. Food banks can get more food for the dollar than you can, and they can more efficiently deliver it to the people — adults and children alike — who need it.

The person who got me to literally open my wallet, in addition to opening my checkbook, was Pope Francis, in comments that took a few years to sink in with me.

 “There are many arguments to justify oneself when you do not give alms. ‘But what, I give money and then he spends it on a glass of wine?’ If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that is fine. Instead, ask yourself what you do secretly. What ‘happiness’ do you seek in private? Or, on the contrary to him, you are more fortunate, with a house, a wife, children, which leads you to say, ‘Take care of him yourselves’. Help is always right.”

Pope Francis

I took it as a reminder that we shouldn’t anoint ourselves social worker, judge and financial advisor to beggars. They are people. A person asked something of you, and God considers your response to that fellow human, not your analysis of the causes of poverty.

It got me to thinking about who is in my mind when I do give. First, I’m not that generous overall. Something to work on. But on top of not being especially generous, I used to give only to organizations, not to individuals. Then I realized when I made donations online to do-gooders, maybe subconsciously I imagined I was giving it to a more trustworthy person. A person like me, with a house and a degree and pants that fit.

What I definitely was not doing was giving to the poor people I saw with my eyes in real life. I was not responding to the signs written in black Sharpie, or the words repeatedly directed to me on sidewalks and in parking lots: “Do you have a few bucks you could spare?”

What I would say is, “Sorry, man.” And yes, it’s almost always a man asking — not actually always, but nearly. But maybe what I meant was, “I don’t give money to people with missing teeth, or unwashed hair, or three coats on.”

So, I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to do something that’s hard for me, which is to physically part with my hard-earned cash. To give that money I got for doing my professional job to a stranger who will do whatever he damn well pleases with it. Because that’s what is being asked of me.

Just to be clear, I am not holding myself out as some kind of expert on donation, or even as significant donor to any cause. As my wife frequently remarks, I can pinch pennies until they scream. So you do what you like, fair reader. I’m not the judge. I’m just sharing a way of thinking about giving that has been meaningful to me. I think I’m not supposed to begrudgingly make my donation via the mail or Internet to an abstract good cause just so I can ignore the panhandler and still feel like I’m a contributing member of society.

It’s been dawning on me that I am probably supposed to be listening to the fellow humans who come up to me and ask me for a favor. I don’t have to do as they ask. I’m allowed to consider and choose. But I should actually consider. I should listen to the real voices reaching my ears, the signs my eyes behold out in the sun and rain.

I didn’t know it until I wrote this post and looked up the Pope’s full comments, but Francis also reminded people to use their eyes — to look into the eyes of the poor. Here’s the rest of his comment.

“Certainly, it is not a good thing just to throw a few coins at the poor. The gesture is important, helping those who ask, looking them in the eyes and touching their hands. Tossing the money without looking in the eyes, that is not the gesture of a Christian. Teaching in charity is not about offloading one’s own sense of guilt, but it is touching, looking at our inner poverty that the Lord understands and saves. Because we all have inner poverty”.

Pope Francis

There’s a Robot in My House

Behold, my mechanical servant. He rolls with a pleasant humming sound, but not with a plan in mind — there’s no mind in that can. He’s got program on board that jogs his disc body 20 degrees left when encountering an obstacle. We were told by the manufacturer the disc needed a name. Son No. 2 said, “Sven.” Now the robot has pronouns (he/his/him).

The three year old (Son No. 4) likes to wake him up in the morning. He summons Sven with the remote control, pressing the button with crushing force. Sven beeps, whirs his brushes and emerges from the darkness under the couch, on patrol for breakfast crumbs. Son No. 4 believes he eats these, and they do end up in his “tummy.” Daughter No. 1 is skeptical. Son No. 3 wants to paint a face on him. Son No. 1 says, “How long before he makes us his slaves?”

Domestic robots were a nerd’s fantasy. Then they were the rich person’s luxury. Now, when we are working and schooling from home, this one is affordable. It’s awkwardly animate. It, Sven, gets stuck under the one chair, heaving it’s disc over and over without making it across a leg. Then we have to rescue it. If it gets lost for too long, it sends a distress signal to my wife’s phone. One more moving object to track in a house with a few of them already.

But Sven does get the job done. He sweeps up the debris twice a day so we don’t have to. He goes right to the edge of the stairs to get that stuff. His disc teeters on the cliff, an inch from toppling to the doom of his plastic housing. Then he backs away, obeying the sensors and the program, and heads off again, 20 degrees to the left.

Modern living, friends.

Why Portland Protesters Will Never Tire

The Battle of Portland rages still. Having worn down federal agents and local police, leftist protesters spent a recent weekend in gas-choked melees with a motley, right-wing “Back the Blue” rally. 

The remarkable endurance of these protests is subject to debate. The May 25 death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a historic outcry against police brutality and racism. Three months later, marches under the Black Lives Matter banner have faded away elsewhere, but protesters — mostly white — are still in Portland’s streets. Why? 

My take: Portland, uniquely, is home to a far-left branch of a warrior culture that exists mostly in conservative areas of the United States.

Well documented by historians of cultural geography, this group originated in the war-ravaged borderlands of England, Scotland and Ireland. Displaced by aristocratic landlords in the 1700s, they bypassed America’s coastal settlements to settle in the Appalachian Mountains, far from government regulation or taxation. They moved south and west, dominating areas like Kentucky, with some following the sunset through Missouri and across the plains.  

Wherever they settled, they brought their aggressive ethos. Overrepresented in the US Marine Corps, they have supported every war the United States has ever fought. The group has been credited with producing hard-charging American presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In Oregon, Puritan-type New Englanders first arrived by ship and quickly took over the government. But they were outnumbered 15-to-1 by individualistic Appalachians who came along a certain famous wagon trail. In Portland, especially, the result has been a unique blend of Yankee politics and bare-knuckle tactics.

Today, hard-to-trace groups like Antifa and the Youth Liberation Front are active in recent protests. But based on my reading of history, there’s only one cultural group that — instead of clever signs and uplifting songs — brings skateboard helmets and baseball bats to a protest. 

Conservative heirs to Appalachian culture recognize these protesters like a Hatfield knows a McCoy. In May, would-be militia members with long rifles and body armor took to the streets of Spokane, Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. They were ready to stop what they believed was a pending Antifa invasion from Portland.

Turns out President Trump did the invading. In July, federal officers dressed in camouflage and without badges appeared and reportedly threw protesters into unmarked SUVs. Protesters shifted their attention to the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse. They used leaf blowers against tear gas and chanted “Stay together! Stay tight! We do this every night!”

Portland leaders, including some in the Black community, questioned what was being accomplished through continuous street combat.

“The focus has been moved from where it is supposed to be and made to be a spectacle, a debacle,” said the president of the Portland NAACP, the Rev. E.D. Mondainé.

Ferocious portesting is dangerous. A leftist videographer was beaten by a group of men on suspicion of being a police informant. Another man was pulled from his pickup, kicked in the head, and left unconscious on the street.

Ferociousness is overwhelming.  Federal officers made a “phased withdrawal” from Portland. Protesters turned to police union headquarters — first attempting to break down the doors, then running a hose into a window, then attempting to burn it. Next came the “Back the Blue” confrontation, complete with bats, fireworks and pepper spray but no intervention by law enforcement, local or federal.

Dakota Means, a former Marine of mixed race, was knocked out when a pro-police protester shot him in the head with a paintball gun. But the day ended with the Back-the-Blue crowd retreating and Means standing his ground.  

“They’re not welcome in the city. I’m gonna make sure they are run out,” he said.

When will it all end? Based on the history of Appalachian culture, I would say they won’t stop fighting. The best you can hope for is that they find someone else to fight.

The “III” Symbol (Car Decals Decoded)

This interesting and cryptic symbol includes the Roman numeral three, “III,” and usually a ring of stars.

What III means

The three refers to the 3 percent of the American population that supposedly fought in the American Revolution against the British. We should say “supposedly,” because I don’t get the sense this was an especially well-researched figure, approved by historians. But maybe so.

The stars are a reference to the American flag during the Revolutionary War, often referred to as the Besty Ross Flag. It’s often shown along with various other symbols, such as period-specific muskets and the like.

If you are displaying these, the idea is you are part of the noble but tiny minority of people who will actually put your life on the line to defend freedom.

What actual battle you are fighting or what “freedom” or “liberty” mean in these instances is up for grabs. These stickers definitely seem to be linked to Second-Amendment-type sentiments, as in, the freedom to own firearms, and the threat being the United States Government, not foreign powers.

In some areas, the “Three Percenters” are numerous enough to form actual organizations and chapters, hold rallies and participate in paramilitary activities like marksmanship training. They recently made headlines in Washington State, where members appeared at the state Capitol in Olympia heavily armed, in support of a lawmaker accused of participating in domestic terrorism.

The Punisher Skull (from the Field Guide to Car Decals)

A few years ago a long-toothed white skull began appearing on the back windows of pickups on my local highways. Always curious about the symbols people display, I looked it up. It’s the Punisher skull, and it has traveled from Spider Man comic books to the killing fields of Iraq, to your local Trump supporter’s trunk.

Identification of the Punisher Skull

The Punisher skull or logo is easily distinguished by its elongated teeth (four of them) and lack of a bottom jaw. It’s always shown face-on, with empty eye sockets conveying menace.

Habitat of the Punisher Skull

The logo frequently is found on pickups, a vehicle of choice for members of the military who popularized it. Consistent with its fan base, it is also frequently found near firearms-related symbols and other conservative causes. The photo above shows it displayed on a sedan, with a patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme and “Trump” printed on it, near a National Rifle Association sticker.

History of the Punisher Skull

The skull is the symbol of the comic book character the Punisher, a Vietnam veteran who takes the law into his own hands after his family is killed in mob violence. The Punisher is described by creator as an “anti-villian,” some one who does the wrong thing, like torturing his victims, for the right reasons.

Although the Punisher was introduced in 1974, his icon surged to fame after 2014, when joint Iraqi/U.S. forces were fighting a brutal enemy, ISIS, for control of parts of the country. The same year, biopic “American Sniper” told the story of Chris Kyle, who belonged to a military group that called themselves the Punishers and painted the skull logo on everything they could.

“As a poorly-guided vigilantes, the Punisher is a well-suited icon for the Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militia that have been accused of looting towns, burning homes and murder in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).”

Time Magazine in 2016.

Meaning of the Punisher skull

When used by soliders fighting ISIS (which was known to burn captives alive) the skull was clearly meant to symbolize their own bad-assedness. That is, they literally dealt death to their enemies.

On sedans parked near grocery stores, the meaning is less clear. Certainly it conveys toughness, and a sense of deadly resolve, especially when near other symbols of weapons. It seems to say that the owner is armed and dangerous.

This, of course, is not a welcome message for some. In 2017, a Kentucky police department stopped using the skull logo on its cruisers after complaints. And in 2019, published an article titled “The Punisher skull: Unofficial logo of the white American death cult.”

Our Politics Aren’t As Red vs. Blue as You Might Think

After the 2016 presidential election, I decided I didn’t understand America as much as I thought. So I spent the last few years readying American history. And you know what? Despite the many, many news stories saying otherwise, there isn’t a red/Republican America and a separate blue/Democratic America.

It’s true that we are deeply polarized politically. A recent in-depth poll by Pew regarding the impeachment of President Trump found 86 percent of Republicans think the Senate trial should end with Trump remaining in office, while 85 percent of Democrats thought he should be removed — exact mirror images. But we shouldn’t take findings like that to mean there are Republican and Democratic Americans sprinkled evenly across the country, torn in half like two sides of an open book. It does not imply we have each carefully considered our own philosophies of the proper role of government, the meaning of freedom and the goals of public policy.

In reading history, I noticed one state kept popping up in the text — South Carolina. You don’t read much about South Carolina, at least where I’m from. More than anyplace else, it seems to pop up in politics, especially during the presidential primary. But it’s not Texas, New York or California, dominant in economics, pop culture and politics. Once I realized South Carolina seemed to be disproportionately historical, if you will, I began to notice a sort of echo in the history books — Massachusetts. If you see one mentioned, you can expect that nearby in the chapter there is an answer from the other.

Following this intriguing thread of regionalism in political history and perpetual power struggle, I found Colin Woodard’s work American Nations (actually first in a NYT op-ed, but this was based on the book). Woodard will lead you to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. These two works do more to explain the American polictal dynamic than any others, in my experience.

I wish there was a snappy name for their approach, but I haven’t come across it. The premise is simple, however. America was not a single culture, founded on Plymouth Rock and spreading west to Waikiki. England and other European powers colonized North America more than once and in more than one place. Each one colony, even those from the same mother country, had its own cultural approach to freedom, government, power, labor, class, religion — all of it.

Massachusetts and South Carolina represent the seed beds of the two most dominant of those cultures, the former founded by priggish Puritans, and the later by slave-holding planters from Barbados.

Most of us have a place on the political spectrum, but that spectrum is set by the culture in which we live. A Boston conservative is not necessarily in much agreement with a Charleston conservative. When we look at the map, we see that there isn’t a blue America, in which everyone mysteriously agrees with the Democratic Party. Rather, the Democratic Party has it’s power base in the land of the Yankees, and to the degree it can flex to attract dissidents in other regions, it creates a map of blue America.

Likewise, the definition of what it means to be a Republican has evolved to resemble a prototypical patrician of the Deep South.

The upshot is this: America hasn’t been pulled apart into red and blue camps of liberals and conservatives. American political parties have been pulled back into alignment with the oldest and deepest divide in America itself — North vs. South.

What this is all about

I’m launching this blog to advocate for seeing American politics and society differently.

All politics are identity politics of a kind. I say this as some one who has spent his adult life working in and around politics. Some of it is beneficial to society (“We’re the kind of people who care about kids”) and some is harmful (“Those people want to hurt our kids”).

For some time now, the harmful species of identification has been growing in the ecosystem. While much of it is well-intentioned, an effort to erase longstanding injustices, or create new levels of acceptance for marginalized people, some is definitely not. All of it has side effects. For now, I’ll just paraphrase Alan Abramowitz by saying more and more, we see people of a different political stripe not as people with whom we disagree, but a different kind of person all together. In identity terms, we could see the other side as belonging to the same national group as we do, but a different political sub-group. Instead, most of us see the other side as a whole different tribe. We see them as “them.”

To me and my reading of American history, this is dangerous ground.

What I would like to do here is start questioning our hardened political identities. I want to talk about what are actual differences between us, and what are perceived differences. What are the strong, deep divisions, and what are the small differences that happen to be apparent on the surface. I want to start a conversation that starts from the premise that we are people with differences, not different peoples.

That does not mean we have to check our values at gate of the public square. It doesn’t mean we declare ourselves “united” and quit talking about imbalances within our unity. This isn’t about preserving the status quo.

What this conversation is about — and I hope it becomes a conversation — is talking with respect and integrity. It’s about talking about different views with passion, and caring. Its’ about zooming out a little bit to remember every one of us has many identities, but we are all — all — human.