America’s real entitlement problem: An anecdote

This morning, I feel compelled to share a short story illustrating the type of people with whom I find it challenging to share this nation. Since November, I have been striving to divert myself from negative to positive thoughts; sometimes, though, one simply needs to get something off one’s chest.

As I was driving to work today, I was briefly stuck at a green light behind a car waiting to turn left. I considered using the right turn-only lane to get around, but it was clearly illegal and unwise at a four-way intersection. I stayed put. The traffic soon cleared and I proceeded through the light, not terribly surprised to find a shiny pickup truck struggling to make it around me in the path I had decided against. In retrospect, I suppose I maintained speed rather than make it easier for him. I figured he didn’t need my coddling.

On the truck, which successfully gained a half-second’s lead on me, was a bumper sticker reading, “Save the world – spay and neuter…” I leaned forward to make out the last few words: “…democrats and liberals!” Charming!, I thought, vaguely recalling the UN definition of genocide. The truck pulled off a ramp to the right, and I was treated to a view of the driver resolutely holding his middle finger against the window.

I’m still somewhat puzzled over how exactly I earned the gesture. I guess he expected me to yield to his passing on the right, or maybe he didn’t like my bumper art – an old Ranked Choice Voting decal and a small US Marine crest in honor of my cousin. Either way, I was moved to imagine what percentage of the time this man can possibly drive without flipping the bird.

What type of worldview results in somebody having little respect for the law, yet becoming upset when they are not accommodated in inconveniencing (one might argue endangering) others? Surely not one which imagines depopulating America of liberals – the only people who will first jump to the conclusion, “I’m sure he was just having a bad day. Let’s see if he needs our help!”

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Maybe She’s the President We Need

Maybe She’s the President We Need

I’m very glad I took the time to watch this short piece by Ezra Klein for VOX.

I’ve been avoiding election coverage for months now, totally disgusted by our national descent into a pit of shrieking raptors hungry for more negativity. I, for one, have had my fill. Klein’s video is a refreshing bit of non-sensationalist, intelligent journalism. It digs into Hillary Clinton’s strengths: listening and getting shit done. I’ve also recently been reading Deborah Tannen’s “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words“. You should too. Clinton may really be the President we need right now – an extremely hard-working bridge-builder who can, perhaps, ease the toxic polarization that is currently suffocating our democratic processes.

2008 Obama and 2016 Sanders were the presidents I wanted. They promised a progressive vision of our future, in which our national gifts could be shared more equally and America could remake herself as a responsible actor on the world stage. But perhaps what we need most at this moment is a temporary step back from ideological battles so we can focus on healing the system and rebuilding trust in our public institutions.

I’m incredibly tired of hearing my fellow Americans speak of our government as though it’s a useless entity, totally outside our control. Sharing frustrations with the status quo seemed like a great way to bond with people across the political aisle during primary season. I have a lot of frustrations to share – my whole life remains on hold as a result of our dysfunctional immigration system. At some point, though, I began to tire of the “every candidate sucks” memes. I’m a progressive. I believe we can and should do a lot better. But we also have a precious gift in our Constitution, national resources, and general level of institutional function.

I spent almost 6 years living in countries with really big problems. Economies so underdeveloped that everyday shopping was a surplus and salvage experience. Capital cities lacking reliable power or water infrastructure, still scarred by bullet and shell-holes from civil wars two decades past. Pay-to-play governments unable to materialize such basic necessities as garbage collection and presidential elections. Education systems failing everybody from the poor to the rich. Entire areas controlled by non-state actors. Women and children wandering the streets in rags.

You know what kept me safe, employed, and accommodated by the local bureaucrats? My American nationality.

Fuck that rude charlatan posing as a “successful businessman” and Republican presidential nominee. America Is Already Great! We take for granted a panoply of government services and high-functioning institutions that make us healthier and freer than the average humans on planet Earth. (This is not to say we are free of major, unacceptable failures to serve every citizen effectively.) I do fear that we’ve lost appreciation for our blessings to such a degree, that our national conversation has devolved into such a relentless bitching session, that we risk sliding backwards. We need to learn how to take a deep breath, listen to each other as human beings again, and wrestle control back from our lizard brains. That goes for everybody, and triple for politicians.

I do not think that Hillary Clinton is perfect. She will undoubtedly disappoint me with many of her policy positions. She has made mistakes and will surely make more as President. But I’d rather see progress through compromise than paralysis through partisanship. Hillary has already demonstrated her commitment to bipartisanship by inviting Republicans and Sanders supporters alike into a “Big Tent”. I could choose to feel angry at her for sharing the DNC stage with the likes of Michael Bloomberg, but instead I choose to celebrate her willingness and ability to engage with colleagues of all political persuasions.

This woman could be enjoying a luxurious retirement. Instead, she has fought her way through two brutal election seasons seeking a job that will place enormous stress and responsibility on her shoulders. I believe she is motivated to serve us, and that she has the skills to do so competently. When it comes to this year’s presidential election, which cannot come soon enough, I’m with the sane adult.

Why America doesn’t empathize with refugees

On #WorldRefugeeDay, I’d like to share a theory of mine about why so many Americans remain hostile to settling a number of refugees commensurate with our resources and global responsibility.

I think most Americans can’t truly empathize with refugees because we are so seldom restricted by borders. How can we understand the desperate need of a Syrian mother or Honduran child leaving everything behind if we can’t imagine ourselves in their shoes?

As an ex-expat, I know just how easy it is for an American citizen to travel the world. Typically, we hop on a plane, pay some money, and waltz right in. As of 2012, Americans could travel to 166 countries (of 196) without obtaining a visa first. Contrast that with the 25 countries (mostly remote island nations) to which my Syrian husband can freely travel.

In my personal experience, Americans have a poor sense of their relative privilege. Over the course of the past year’s struggle to bring my Syrian husband to the US, I have been asked by many people, “Can’t he just come here with you?”

To the knowledgeable, that may seem hopelessly naive. But it’s natural for people to assume others have the things they themselves take for granted. If a group of Americans felt unsafe in the USA, surely all but the very poor could legally find another place to live. Our education and reputation, and the fact that almost everybody speaks our mother tongue, would undoubtedly ease our transition abroad. Why would we ever need to burden other nations with “aid” and “resettlement”?

The very idea of Americans being forced out of our country is somewhat absurd. The USA is huge, diverse, and powerful. We enjoy strong rule of law and effective defense. Even if a natural or man-made catastrophe struck an entire state or region, we would have room to resettle within our own borders.

Each of our states can be compared with entire nations in terms of land areapopulation, even GDP. If you want to live somewhere sunnier, cooler, more conservative, more liberal, busier, more relaxed, better for your business, cheaper, more or less diverse, whatever… Just pack up and go! If your state government adopts laws you hate, you can vote with your feet. No visa, no checkpoints, no questions asked.

Most refugees are fleeing nations considerably smaller and more homogeneous than our own.

For all the Americans out there, I want to walk you through a thought experiment. I’m going to use my home state of Maine, which is in some ways an ideal example.

Imagine that each state in New England is a sovereign nation. Let’s assume that, like many regional clusters, people can travel visa-free and easily gain employment throughout. As long as peace prevails, this suits the states’ mutual interest just fine. Quite a lot of Maine youth travel to states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts seeking a better job market. Those states’ people enjoy cheap vacations in the rugged mountains and coast of Maine. Everybody’s happy.

Now imagine that civil war breaks out in Maine. (Perhaps some stubbornly independent Northerners have taken up arms against government agents attempting to create a national park in the Katahdin region!) New Hampshire revokes visa-free travel. Canada mobilizes military forces to quarantine the violence. Your sons and daughters working for Boston companies are suddenly unable to renew their Massachusetts visas, but you tell them to stay put. It’s just not safe at home, besides, there are even fewer jobs here now.

Things get worse, and you start to consider getting out of dodge. Hundreds of Portland residents die fleeing by boat in dangerous winter conditions. You finally shell out $3000 to a smuggler who promises safe passage to New Brunswick, but he leaves you to find your own way across the border from a remote trail head.

Can you even imagine?

I can. But that’s because I have Facebook chatted with friends as they rode rubber boats across the Mediterranean, hiked through Eastern Europe, and started new lives in Germany. I’ve watched my mother-in-law struggle to protect her children when all four are in separate places and varying states of danger. I’ve paid extortionate sums to the Lebanese government so my husband could travel with me to an uncertain future. When I see pictures of exhausted, hungry families trapped in camps, I cry. When I hear American politicians demonize these same people, I rage.

We are uniquely privileged in our ability to seek out greener pastures both at home and abroad. For most of the world, that freedom and convenience is inconceivable. We must work hard to truly appreciate our privilege and open our hearts to refugees.

This vote is personal.

A lot of people agree that this election sucks. On a typical day, I cannot scroll through Facebook for more than 15 seconds before some version of this meme pops up:

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In some ways, I sympathize with this feeling. However, I know better than to think my choice doesn’t matter.

Without going into my own political theories and leanings, I just want to share a very specific plea to those considering casting their vote for the “presumptive Republican nominee” (henceforth The Nominee, as I personally believe he has received more than enough publicity). We are all aware of The Nominee’s stated and confirmed claim that he would institute a “temporary ban” of Muslims entering the United States. I need you to understand what that really means.

My husband, Zac, is a Syrian exile. We met in Lebanon in November 2013, fell in love, and got married almost exactly a year ago. We are such an awesome match and an amazing team. Our marriage is based on shared passions (music, cultural pluralism, and social justice), blunt communication, and a willingness to tackle every challenge sent our way, together. Due to Zac’s nationality and a string of unfortunate circumstances, we have been separated for about 9 months of the past year. Our first year of marriage. Including our first anniversary.

Zac has spent that time laying low in Nepal and now Malaysia, two of the handful of countries willing to issue visa-on-arrival to Syrians.* Zac is now staying with incredibly generous friends of mine in Kuala Lumpur. His visa expires in about a month, and his passport expires in less than six months. This means he cannot legally stay or go anywhere, except for his home country where he would be A. forcibly conscripted into Assad’s murderous military forces, B. tortured or disappeared due to his association with Syrian opposition activists, or C. crucified by extremists whom he also refuses to endorse. That is, if he doesn’t die of starvation, untreated illness, or a bomb first.

Needless to say, I applied for his US green card as soon as I could.

I have been begging the US government to expedite Zac’s visa for the last several months. Anybody who has gone through it knows how expensive, difficult, and slow it is to bring a foreign spouse of any nationality to join them here. We are not alone. But if The Nominee is elected President of the United States, we could be.

The Nominee would ban my husband from entering the US, because his Syrian-issued passport and identity documents label him “Sunni Muslim”. Zac did not ask for those words to be printed there. The only time I’ve seen him step foot in a mosque was to ask about a particularly beautiful recording of the call to prayer. As an outspoken hip-hop artist whose civil rights have never been guaranteed, he has put himself at more risk speaking against Muslim extremists than The Nominee ever will.** Not that any of this should matter. Even if Zac was your average, moderately religious Syrian pursuing an apolitical career, he would still deserve to be protected and reunited with his wife. Bottom line: A blanket religious exclusion will leave my husband and others like him vulnerable, abandoned.

I honestly don’t know what we will do if The Nominee wins. All of our hard work and hopes will be instantly tossed away. Zac will become a refugee in the true sense of the word, and I will have to leave my home country to be with him. I don’t know where we will live, how we will provide for ourselves, what legal rights will be stripped from us.

All I can do is share our story and hope that my husband gets his visa before Inauguration Day. I ask that come November, you consider our future.***

 

 

* As of January 2016, Nepal no longer issues visa-on-arrival to Syrians.

** To be sure, Daesh and Al-Qaeda love The Nominee. He is a fantastic recruiting tool.

*** If you can’t stand the idea of voting for Hillary Clinton, check out Vote Pact for an ingenious alternative to “wasting your vote”!

On Russell Brand and my silly millenial life

Russell Brand on revolution

I developed a soft spot for Russell Brand’s political side way back when I saw him kill the Westboro Baptist Church with kindness. (If you never got to see this glorious ten minutes of indefatigable love, check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBA6qlHW8po) To be honest, the guy’s never really been on my radar, and he strikes me as an unsalvageable doofus. But that may be why I enjoy it so much when he does politics.

He can be serious about something without taking himself too seriously. He can speak passionately and disagree without dehumanizing his opponents. For a doofy ex-addict popstar, he’s way ahead of most of the other talking heads today.

It’s truly rare to find a person, let alone a political personality, willing to honestly and publicly acknowledge his or her own imperfections. We tend to think we need to assert our moral superiority in order to successfully argue on ethical issues. But Brand inserts healthy doses of self-deprecation in his writing. On talking today’s politics:

Like when I’m conversing and the subject changes from me and moves on to another topic. I try to remain engaged but behind my eyes I am adrift in immediate nostalgia; “How happy I was earlier in this chat,” I instantly think.

So he’s a self-involved celebrity. Can we really hold it against him if he admits it?

I also respect the way Brand employs anecdotes of his rough and tumble upbringing and history of drug abuse without losing sight of his current privilege.

I don’t want to get all “Call me Dave, I was chatting to my plumber, man of the people” here, but the fact is I’m a recovering junkie so that means I have to hang out with a lot of other junkies to keep my head together, some of whom are clean, others who are using. Hear you this, regular New Statesman reader, browsing with irritation that the culture of celebrity has just banjoed the arse of another sacred cow and a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk has been undeservedly hoisted upon another cultural plinth, but – young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics.

Anyway, reading Brand’s New Statesman article and watching the video that’s recently gone viral of him talking on BBC’s Newsnight, I felt something I don’t often feel: the vindication of having somebody whose views I actually identify with get their ideas heard en mass.

I never really thought about it this clearly before, but the reality is, I am a citizen of a country whose political and social leaders simply do not represent my interests. I’m a bit more left leaning, particularly socially, so I voted for Obama in 2008. I mainly liked his inclusive rhetoric, and though I knew better than to expect both Hope AND Change, I was happy to settle for a president who at least allowed for the possibility of Real Americans to be not always straight, white, economically privileged Christians. However, I have come to realize that not only (apart from maybe healthcare) do none of the American ruling class give a shit about my needs, I don’t think those issues are even on their radar!

The one issue I care about that I’ve seen positive progress on is marriage equality. Though it does not benefit me personally, I think it’s extremely important for the social fabric of our nation to make every family legal. I’m thrilled that one of my childhood friends has already taken advantage of this new opportunity to marry his partner! But guess what? I wasn’t even able to be there, because I can’t seem to earn a living wage in the United States while doing something meaningful and productive.

I have a bachelor’s degree from an excellent (not quite Ivy) university. I graduated summa cum laude with two internships, solid work-study experience, and some good old-fashioned summer job cred under my belt. My prospects upon graduation included an offer from a summer camp and an expenses-paid volunteer position in a failed state. OK. I chose the latter, correctly assuming that I would gain invaluable experience and maintain my financial independence. Two years later, I returned home totally burnt out but hopeful that I could find a decent nonprofit job while I recuperated. I worried that people wouldn’t believe what I was accurately stating on my resume. But otherwise, I (incorrectly) assumed that my challenging experiences and passionate cover letters would eventually generate interest.

Out of over thirty applications, only one responded to me. After a brief phone interview, they emailed their rejection: the previous young candidate had left for grad school after just one year, and they assumed I would too. Thanks guys!

Granted, my job searching strategy was probably a bit anemic. After my seasonal summer job ended, I tried hardcore networking. I did a free trial of LinkedIn Premium and cold-messaged interesting people. I drove 6 hours to Boston a few times to meet with several people in the interfaith field. Interesting chats, but still nothing materialized. I thought about just moving there and working any old job while volunteering, until I found out that Macy’s paid $8/hour in a city where you could live in a closet for $500/month. I started applying for PhD programs. Well, I thought, I could commit to academia for 6-8 years as long as my rent was paid. (Spoiler alert: 6 out of 6 applications were rejected.)

Meanwhile, I found a seasonal call center gig with decent pay but unreliable hours. It was sufficient as long as I lived with my mom, which I did. I love you and thank you so much, Mom, but please don’t let me live with you again. Even though I told myself it was temporary and tried to take advantage of the support of family and friends, I felt a huge hole. My job consisted of repeating, “Thank you for calling LL Bean, how may I help you?” 60-100 times per day and selling nice stuff to privileged people who usually didn’t need it. (Don’t get me wrong, I had really fulfilling interactions with some customers, but there was no denying that this was boring as hell and far below my abilities.) While I diligently distracted myself with exercise, language study, and application-writing, I also made a lot of mindless purchases at the mall and online. I started using OkCupid and went on lots of dates with random dudes. I regularly went driving around in a sobbing rage until I had to pull over. I was pretty sure that if something didn’t change drastically pretty soon, I was going to atrophy into a vegetable. Maybe I was being a little impatient and overly dramatic. But it sure as shit felt real at the time.

Then one day, a former coworker suggested that I apply to teach with him in Yemen. Another peanuts-paying job in a failed state? Was I that desperate? FUCK YEAH! A few weeks later I was happily leaving all my frustrations (and disappointed loved ones) behind.

Hope you enjoyed my first-world problems story.

But seriously. Is it really reasonable that I can’t make a decent living in my own country, the country that constantly claims to be the Very Best in the Whole Goddamn World? Doesn’t it seem a little odd that my “dream life” includes making about half the yearly cost of my alma mater, eating rice and beans in a shared apartment (or I could do ramen and a studio), and working to correct the shameful ignorance we as Americans still aren’t wise enough to overcome? Yes, that would be my dream life.

And while I am determined to make this modest dream come true some day, I know it’s not going to be as easy as I’ve been told things would be for me all my life. It won’t be as easy as it would have been for my parents. And it won’t be as easy as it would be if we had a sociopolitical system geared toward developing human beings rather than protecting the wealth and power of those who are already wealthy and powerful.

It goes without saying that I enjoy a higher standard of living than a vast number of people in the US and the rest of the world. That acknowledged, I feel entitled, as should Russell Brand with his even higher level of privilege, to criticize the current sociopolitical order in the West. I feel this way on the basis of two basic principles:

  1. My full productive potential is not being utilized under the current system. In fact, I am an example of “brain drain.”
  2. I have essentially no safety net, which in my opinion is unnecessary given the ample resources and technology of my nation.

I would like to continue this to discuss why I think we Americans are operating under a faulty and indeed damaging set of assumptions about society and government. For now, I will leave you with a few Russell Brand-related articles.

People are already elucidating actionable ideas in response to his ideas.

People are also catching on to the fact that Brand is voicing the concerns of a new generation, and the old guard may not yet understand why we are so fed up with the way things are.