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Giving Up Hate for Lent

I think it’s fascinating when you stop to consider what people “give up” for Lent. Americans swear off all kinds of things and I was no exception this year. More often than not the things we give up are harmless luxuries or petty vices that we can easily do without. The usual suspects like chocolate, fast food, chewing gum, smoking, alcohol, cursing, etc. seem to make everyone’s list. One year I gave up caffeine, but I really don’t think it made me a better person. All it succeeded in doing was make me very irritable. I wasn’t exactly engaging in solemn spiritual reflection. I was just jonesing.

Why do we do this? What do we accomplish, or hope to accomplish, when we give up something for Lent? More importantly, why do we keep choosing trifles to “sacrifice”? It matters more than we think. But the vast majority of us who give up something for Lent don’t give our decision a second thought. Lent comes and goes every year with all the life changing power of our New Year’s Resolutions.

The word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “lencten”, which simply means “spring.” It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. It lasts forty days (not counting Sundays) and is intended to represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness to strengthen and purify himself before his ministry in the world began. For Christians, it is intended to be a time of repentance and self-examination as we await the coming of Easter. It is a time of spiritual renewal. It is a time to remember Christ’s sacrifice and if one pauses to consider what Christians believe he gave up for humanity on the cross, abstaining from eating candy bars seems a trifle immaterial if not completely frivolous.

Well, how about “giving up” something that might make a real difference to one personally? Something lasting that actually has meaning other than some painless self-denial. This year, the minister at my church presented our congregation with a far more compelling challenge this Lenten season.

How about giving up hate? How about giving up resentment, mean-spiritedness and bile? How about giving up bitterness? How about giving up anger? Think about that for a minute. Given today’s social and political climate, this is likely a far more difficult and daunting prospect for Americans than simply eschewing soda for a few weeks.

So this year, I gave up something different for Lent. I decided to give up being angry on social media and refrain from political commentary.

Do you know how hard that is? Especially if you’re somebody like me who reads the Washington Post and the New York Times daily, watches MSNBC and CNN whenever possible and generally tries to consume as much news as I can. It usually takes only about thirty seconds for me to become blind with fury at something this bone-headed administration has done, is doing or is trying to do. And usually, I vent that frustration on social media. When I stepped back, I saw that my Facebook feed was filled with politics and fury at Donald Trump. So were the feeds of most of my friends. They tend to be just as angry with the state of our country as I am and it fed my frustration and rage.

And you know what? I found that it wasn’t particularly healthy and furthermore it generally accomplished nothing. Not for me at any rate. I discovered I was one of millions in the choir preaching to millions of others in the choir. I hated anyone who didn’t share my views on Issue “A” or Candidate “B” or just posted an opinion contrary to my own personal orthodoxy. I was paying attention to the commentary on my favorite evening political shows only in the hopes of catching a snarky soundbite to post.

That ended, at least for a while, on Wednesday, March 6, 2019 and what a difference 46 days makes.

The only “current event” I posted about during Lent was the fire that all but consumed Notre-Dame in Paris. Everything from the college admission cheating scandal to the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the failure of Congress to override Trump’s “state of emergency” at the US-Mexico border are things I normally would have spent a lot of time online railing about. And it would have accomplished nothing except making me upset and sick to my stomach.

In choosing to step back from the keyboard for a while, it occurred to me that nothing ever changes just because of social media anger. Everything was, regrettably, just as screwed up on Ash Wednesday as it was on Easter Sunday. The only way things really change is when people vote. And when we are between elections, things change when people march and demonstrate, volunteer, donate and make phone calls. When people give of their time and their talents to make this country the place that it should and needs to be, that’s when the ground starts to shake beneath the White House’s feet.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t wish to imply that people who are politically active online and only post about current affairs are somehow wrong. I didn’t wander into the desert and have a vision that taking a break from political and social commentary is The Way Everybody Should Go. Make no mistake. It’s still important to keep writing. It helps keep people aware of what’s going on and is an important way to make our voices heard. But fundamentally, nothing good ever came from just bellyaching nonstop on social media (unless your last name happens to be Putin) and that became crystal clear for me personally during these few weeks.

I consider myself to be an educated man. I think I know the issues. I’m fairly certain know the candidates. I unquestionably know what’s at stake next November. But in no way does any of that mean I have to angrily broadcast what’s on my mind in all caps to everybody on the planet every chance I get.

During Lent, I continued to read Facebook but through a different lens and it was a joy. I learned some really neat things about my friends. I know a lot of very talented and creative people, full of humor, warmth and compassion. You just have to cut through all the garbage other people post, which can be a Herculean feat on some days. And life became better offline. I rediscovered my love of Stanley Cup playoff hockey. I spent more time on the phone. Not texting…actually on the phone talking with friends instead of just messaging them. I was able to dedicate more of my mental energy to helping my denomination, the United Methodist Church, fight a renewed effort from within the church hierarchy to crack down on gay marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. You can’t do that on Facebook. When there weren’t constant voices yelling about the issues, I could get more out of what I did read from “traditional” news sources. If you go away from social media for a while and then come back, it becomes really clear how easy it was for Russia to screw with our election process. It sometimes seems that everybody out there is a troll of some kind.

Not being so angry all the time also gave me the ability to focus on the more personal matters that came my way. A childhood friend who lost her husband and just needed to talk. Another who is dealing with the loss of his best friend and his mother in the same week. Trump’s Twitter antics seem really unimportant when you are confronted with things like that.

All of this is not to say I personally won’t get political again on Facebook. Of course I will. I’m me. I just will likely do it a lot less and let The Contrarian Blog do it for me. His job is to be an opinionated prick. Mine is just to try to be a decent person and a good friend.

Online and off.

For the Good of Virginia, and America, Ralph Northam Must Stay. But He Won’t.

9a8816bb-10e5-4b08-adc7-2708f31163aa-large16x9_AP19033530536053The outrage expressed against Virginia governor Ralph Northam over racist photographs dating from his medical school yearbook in 1984, which as of this writing may or may not even be of him, may at first glance appear to be a perfectly warranted reaction to discovering a horrible bigot is wandering the halls of power. On the other hand, the furor may also be hysterical and wildly overblown, given that his actions as a public servant since then are completely inconsistent with being a hopelessly irretrievable racist deserving of nothing but contempt.

Now in the interest of fairness, if upon closer examination Northam does turn out to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan and has a long history of quietly working to undermine the black community…wait a minute. What am I saying? Of course he isn’t really a racist Klansman. The tragedy is that many people in Virginia, regardless of race or political affiliation, seem to understand this. But at the national level, there is a near total inability to process one basic reality: Ralph Northam did an unbelievably stupid thing over thirty years ago but apparently nothing more than that. This essential disconnect is the reason why we’re experiencing this national freak out to begin with. If it was clear that he was and is just a hateful bigot, then there would be no controversy whatsoever. It would just be good riddance to bad garbage. But apparently it isn’t clear. Not clear at all, and the insistence of Democratic party leaders and progressives in general to have his head put on a pike outside the Capitol building in Richmond as a warning reveals something far more ugly than any yearbook picture from the eighties. It shows a Democratic party, and perhaps the progressive movement as a whole, in a state of disarray and division. We may be looking at a nation desperate to lash out at anyone who can represent Donald Trump in effigy. It’s a perfectly logical reaction. The foulest bigot America can’t be stopped, at least not right now, but we can still make ourselves feel better by taking down anyone who may resemble him, no matter how shadowy that reflection. It will help contain our rage until we get to step into the voting booth again in 2020.

I have watched bemused while many of my fellow progressives are rubbing their hands together with self-righteous glee at bringing down another fine and long-serving representative of the people for an unsavory infraction committed years ago. What, Al Franken wasn’t enough of a sacrifice for you? I guess I’ll just have to wait until Cory Booker’s 2020 campaign is dismantled for being too cozy with Big Pharma. But simply organizing another circular firing squad is not enough for Democrats, although the formation of one was wholly predictable. There is also, understandably, a longing to return to a time when we our politics weren’t so toxic. But nobody is quite sure how to get there or even if we can get there. A good case in point is the obsession so may of us have with restoring credibility to Michelle Obama’s notion of “when they go low, we go high.” This idea, marvelous though it is, now seems almost ridiculously naïve when confronted with the reality that no Republican would ever resign under similar circumstances that Northam is facing, and that official would have the entire GOP, locally and nationally, backing him up. Even the most hardened progressive must concede that the hypocrisy of Republicans calling for Northam’s resignation while their party’s standard bearer is the most powerful racist the country has seen since the Civil War is enough to make the gorge rise.

Have we learned nothing in the Age of Trump? An elected official’s past, as checkered as it may be, is something people don’t seem to fundamentally care about, at least not anymore. Our recent electoral history has borne that out. Consider the President himself. The “Access Hollywood” tape came out, his whole racist past as a New York slum lord in the 1970s and 1980s was a matter of long-standing public record and we still gave him the keys to the kingdom. Never mind final vote tallies or electoral mathematics. He shouldn’t have gotten anywhere near 1600 Pennsylvania. Trump attacked a Federal judge because of his Mexican heritage. The manner in which he has consistently referred to women is far too disgusting to be given the dignity of recall by this writer. And you know what? It’s not just him. Look at how close a pedophile like Roy Moore came to beating Doug Jones in Alabama. The protests against Brett Kavanaugh’s ascendance to the Supreme Court evaporated once he was sworn in. People are even now completely ready to give Bernie Sanders a pass even though women kept coming forward to report sexual harassment and abuse while working on his campaign. There was a $30,000 federal discrimination settlement with two former employees of the Sanders campaign but no reproach from national Democrats. I could go on, but nobody wants to be late for their dinner.

Now Ralph Northam is the enemy du jour. Some say he must be resign or drag down the re-election hopes of future Democrats in the state. That’s a disturbing and frankly cynical thought, as it implies that this issue is not really about racial justice, but about legislators keeping their jobs. Or just as problematic, the presumption that Ralph Northam can personally and single-handedly brand the entire Democratic party of his state as racist by remaining in office. I hate to say it people, but this is Virginia. Elected officials here of both parties are and have been racist for a long time and without any help from the likes of Northam. Some people who are particularly dense are calling for his impeachment. Never mind that having a racist yearbook photo doesn’t even come close to qualifying as “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor” as stipulated in the Virginia Constitution. With progressives salivating daily over fantasies of Trump being impeached, it’s hardly any surprise that this has become a mythical panacea for all that ails America with respect to politicians you don’t like.

If you look hard enough, you can find a disqualifier for every legislator at all levels of government in this nation. There’s just one problem. Republicans aren’t purging their ranks of bigots. They didn’t even entertain the notion of calling for a vicious hatemonger like Steve King to step down. The GOP just stripped him of his committee assignments but the man is still in Congress. Democrats, on the other hand, keep eating their own and it’s liable to guarantee Donald Trump’s easy re-election in two years. Well, if we’re going to do down this path, and it appears inevitable that we will, then I would like to offer a word of caution.

I had better see all of the progressives calling for Northam’s head to be delivered on a silver platter working night and day between now and November 3, 2020 to bring down the occupant of the White House by hook or by crook because right now I don’t. I just see a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. I see progressives hoping and praying Robert Mueller will swoop down and save America. But he can’t. I see fair-minded, honest, hard-working Democrats announcing their bids to oppose Trump in 2020 only to have other Democrats begin long lists of why they shouldn’t be elected or have no chance to begin with. In two years, Donald Trump has done more to sow division and discord on the national level than any major political figure in the last half century. In addition to his record of discriminating against blacks that spans his entire career, he has ardently defended white nationalists, incarcerated thousands of helpless migrants, including young children, because they are poor and have brown skin, effectively banned people from entering the United States because they are Muslims and disregarded the destruction of an entire island with over 3 million Americans on it because they speak Spanish.

And yet many progressives, the vast majority of whom don’t even live in Virginia (full disclosure: I live here), are demanding the resignation of a good and reliable public servant because of a yearbook photo from over three decades ago and replacing him with someone presumed to be beyond reproach because of the color of his skin, which is in and of itself patently absurd because all of us are subject to being prejudiced, regardless of what color we are. We don’t want to believe that about ourselves, but it’s true. The only ones who get the moniker are simply the ones who get caught in the act. So if you believe that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, or any of us, have stainless histories or minds completely devoid of hate and bigotry, you’re deluding yourself. Maybe we should do a full background check on Fairfax just to make sure a conservative website doesn’t dredge up some horrible skeleton he’s got tucked away in his closet.

Whoops. Too late, it already did.

Accusations of sexual assault against Fairfax as recently as 2004 resurfaced just days after Northam came under fire and by the same outfit that found those now infamous yearbook pictures. To make things even messier, Fairfax admits the incident occurred but it was consensual, a stance derided as a convenient fallback for the guilty. With the #MeToo movement in in full vigor grappling with this latest dilemma, suddenly just showing Northam the door and giving the keys to the Executive Mansion to Fairfax becomes a much, much less easy option. It seems clear that the Democratic Party in Virginia is being subjected to a coordinated hit job by conservatives with all the efficiency of a Russian social media attack. We probably should expect the GOP in Virginia to pose the question rather soon: “Who do Virginians want to be leading our state? Do you want the Democrat who’s a racist or the Democrat who’s a rapist?” The answer will be obvious: choose a decent, moral, God-fearing Republican, pure of mind and spirit, of course. And we are falling for it hook, line and sinker. Anyone care to bet on when something disturbing will surface on the evening news about Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring? Because if Herring can somehow be forced from public office, then who becomes the next Governor of Virginia? Why, Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) would. And he would get to work with a General Assembly controlled by Republicans. Fancy that.

One of the most craven spectacles I have ever seen was sitting there watching every Democratic politico in the country giving us the usual cookie-cutter statement in near unison: we must stand up to racism wherever we find it, the public trust has been violated and because we hold our political leaders to a higher standard, Northam has lost the moral authority to govern and must resign.

That is a steaming load of crap.

We don’t hold our leaders to any such standard. American politics is today about hate and hypocrisy. We wave signs that declare “Love is Stronger Than Hate”, but we know deep down that isn’t true. And then we lie to ourselves about it. Shame on us. “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Good advice. Especially in America 2019.

The Washington Post recently wrote that Virginia must heal and that Ralph Northam has an important part to play in that process. “But not as the governor of Virginia”. I have a few questions to ask about that. How will it help Virginia to heal if we excise either of these men from political life while simultaneously believing that they are both fundamentally good and decent? How does it help Virginia to heal if we replace an accused racist with an accused rapist? How does it help Virginia to heal if we keep finding reasons to despise each other when it is clear that both of these men want nothing more than to dedicate themselves to serving the people of the Commonwealth they both love?

The answer is it doesn’t help. Not one bit. What we are witnessing are progressives looking for a pound of flesh that is not their own. It is the continuation of the search for someone to punish for a cataclysm we loosened upon ourselves. It is a reflection of how deep the anguish continues to run in a party still committing self-flagellation to atone for the sin of losing the 2016 Election to the monster who currently inhabits the Oval Office. This whole brouhaha isn’t about healing. It’s about revenge. It’s about electoral politics. And it’s about cowardice. It is far easier to come down mercilessly on a term-limited governor like Northam or a relatively obscure Lt. governor like Fairfax who can do little harm outside the confines of their own state (I’m looking at you Progressives who don’t live in Virginia) than it is to continuously rally, protest and demand the resignation of an autocrat like President Donald Trump, a man with a fanatically loyal and highly motivated base who just might assault or kill you if you oppose their Dear Leader.

That’s why you’re pissed off.

But if this is the way that Virginians want it, fine. Let Northam resign. Fairfax has already spoken out against him. Well, of course. Who doesn’t want a promotion? So when he eventually becomes the governor by reason of Northam’s resignation, making his predecessor the first Virginia governor to leave office early since Reconstruction, he better do a really damn good job and do it completely free of scandal or controversy, which is extremely unlikely given his own dubious past. If he screws up by one inch, in any way, shape or form over the next three years (possibly seven), or if the accusations leveled against him have even a shred of truth to them, I for one will call for his immediate removal from office by any legal means at the disposal of the Commonwealth.

And don’t say it’s not fair because under the current exigency, it is.

More than fair.