Friday, February 28, 2020

“It means 'together.'” - A Glimpse of a New America

I stopped by the nearby Target Sunday afternoon on the way to a panel discussion of African, Haitian and African-American art at the Crealde Gallery. Target recently replaced its snack bar in our local store with a Starbucks counter (they do still sell their famous popcorn, thank goodness!). I’ve found it’s the only place I can order anything brewed (I really don’t much like pour-overs) other than the Pikes Place regular coffee among the four outlets within the three block Colonial Drive commercial strip after about 11 AM. 

I prefer Starbuck’s dark roasts and even though it costs a little more, I’m willing to pay it. I’ll even brave the consumer hordes at Target to get it. 

Given that my mind was already leaping ahead to the exhibit I was eagerly anticipating, what happened next took me by complete surprise. Before it was over, I would be afforded a moment of gratitude for a snapshot of life in this blue urban island I love and a hopeful vision of a New America arising from the ruins of Trumpland.

 It Means “Together”

When I got to the counter I was three customers back from the register, dutifully standing in queue next to the strategically located, attractively displayed temptations in the glass display case. This day they ranged from breakfast melts with goat cheese and sundried tomato to Bundt cakes and banana bread treats. At the head of the line the single clerk behind the counter (I often observe these kids are required to do two or three actual jobs for the price of one in this market fundamentalist culture) was trying to help a customer with limited English skills who was receiving an order over her cell phone. 

That was when it began to get interesting. 

The clerk whose name tag read “Sadiq” was a handsome, bearded young man. My guess is that he was Muslim and quite possibly the child of immigrants. His customer was a middle-aged black woman whose conversation over the telephone was being conducted in Spanish. My guess was the she was from somewhere in the Caribbean. 

In the midst of trying to locate the deserts the woman wanted, the clerk suddenly began to query his customer in Spanish. Pointing to the pumpkin bread she had selected, he asked, “Caliente? (Do you want this heated?).” The customer nodded, “Si, si” and then pointed to the next lemon slice next to the first. “Caliente, tambien? (Do you want this one heated, too?).” “Si, si.”
The clerk rang the sale up and hustled off to get the treats into the oven. He then turned back to the counter to wait on the two overweight white women just ahead of me in line pushing their half-filled carts, their appearance suggesting working class backgrounds. 

It was at the point he was standing at the oven that I noticed the tattoo. It had been imprinted on the back of his neck, a Chinese character, its black ink standing out very clearly against the mocha colored skin of the young man. 

Within minutes it was my turn to step to the counter. I ordered my usual medium dark roast with a little room. At 2 PM I wouldn’t be able to drink the entire coffee (it keeps me up at night) but I always save the remnant of my afternoon Starbucks self-indulgences in the refrigerator to mix with my morning coffee the next day. 

As I paid the clerk I told him I only had two questions for him. “Donde aprendiste su EspaƱol? (Where did you learn your Spanish?).” I’m not sure if it was my poor pronunciation (my Spanish reeks of Gringo) or his level of comprehension or both but he asked me to repeat it. 

Switching back to English I repeated my question and he said Duolingo, the online free tutoring program. We talked a bit about the value of such programs and he said he was now learning the tenses (Ugh! Bane of my existence as a foreign language student). I told him that the best way I’d found to learn a foreign language was to do exactly what he was doing, to try to use it with people who spoke the language and being willing to take chances, to be corrected and try again. 

Note: Google provided this translation of the character.
I am hoping it is correct. 
Then I asked my second question: “What does the character on your neck mean?” The young man broke into a big, toothy grin. “It means ‘Together.’ It’s the way I see the world.” “That’s beautiful,” I said. He smiled and thanked me. We finished our transaction, I thanked him for the coffee and headed over to dilute the strong black coffee with the non-fat milk I always use to take a bit of the edge off. 

The Gifts That Could Ultimately Save Us 

As I walked away from that encounter, it suddenly occurred to me that I had just been given a gift. I had experienced something unexpected and quite valuable. 

Panel Discussion, Crealde Gallery, Winter Park
I felt a wave of gratitude come over me realizing I am fortunate to be able to live in such a rich cultural milieu. Orange County, Florida is a majority/minority county now. There is no single language or cultural group that is the majority. If all of us minority groups are going to get along, we have to learn how to relate to, respect and ultimately value one another.

But we need to be clear that this is a major challenge and there are clearly break downs along the way. The heated discussion at the art exhibit over cultural appropriation that afternoon would readily prove that. But the potential arising out of such a rich culture is truly unlimited. This kind of diverse cultural richness is an incredibly valuable resource to a community that learns how to appreciate and appropriate it. And, in the end, it is worth the hard work and enduring the tensions it generates.

From the ongoing studies of the causes of the rise of Trumpland, I also realize that it is precisely this kind of diversity and the loss of presumed cultural dominance it means to groups who formerly enjoyed it without question that many find so frightening. And one doesn’t have to go far to encounter that fear and loathing. 

The red sea of rural and suburban Trumpland begins just a half hour drive at most from the heart of downtown Orlando where I live. In all honesty, I try not to spend much time out there these days. Between growing up there and the years of teaching I offered the children and families of those who lived there, I have done my time in the red sea. And at this point in my life I am clear I am not capable of ever living there again. Indeed, I am probably as uncomfortable there as many of the denizens of the red sea feel when they visit the blue urban islands.

Mural, Pulse Memorial, Orlando
But I also see a much larger pattern developing that I think is lost on the current culture wars between the red sea and the blue islands. For it is in rich diverse urban cultures like Orlando’s that a synergy arises from the disparate cultural groups that has the potential to address the enormous challenges that face our country and our world in the very near future. I know. I was fortunate to have a four-year stint in the Bay Area of northern California 30 years ago when Silicon Valley was just beginning to boom. 

I know potential when I see it. 

Just as slaves built the original America and immigrants revived it at the turn of the 20th CE, it is immigrants like Sadiq and his family who, just as in years past, have gifts to offer our floundering nation struggling to find its soul. And I believe it is those gifts that could ultimately save us. 

But, as the young man’s tattoo reminds us, it will take all of us working together to build a New America. It will mean those of us in blue islands must learn to value the experience and the gifts of the folks in the fearful red sea. They, in turn, must come to grips with their fears of a changing world. It will mean that the blue urban islands must recognize that we cannot survive without the gifts the red sea routinely offers us including awareness of our condescension. And the folks in the red sea must realize that the markets for their products are largely in the cities and the progenitors of the technologies they have come to rely upon are almost always the products of the blue islands. 

If we are to survive as a people, indeed as a species, we are going to have to relearn how to respect one another and work together.  

On the Far Side of Our Dark Night of the Soul 

This Sunday I believe I caught a brief glimpse of that new possible reality. I sense that I was looking at the face of a New America already beginning to be born. It is a New America that will be stronger in its diversity than the America which as often as not failed to live into the noble ideals of the “Equal Justice Under the Law” inscribed over the portico of a once venerable Supreme Court and the “liberty and justice for all” our schoolchildren have been taught to recite as if self-evidently true - even when it was not. 

A New America is going to demand that our actions match our talk. 

"It Cost to Hate," Ruby Williams, paint on wood  (2016)

I believe that this New America could be more vibrant and much stronger in its intentionally valued diversity than the tense black and white monochrome of the segregated America in which I grew up. I realize that a return to that old America – a segregated, white Christian dominated America which felt free to routinely ignore its own ideals -  serves as the fervent hope of many Trumplanders. But it is a dream that simply cannot be realized. 

We simply can never unsee evolution once it has begun to manifest itself.  

Cultural evolutions always face enormous resistance the closer they come to the point when the wheel of life begins to turn. Backlashes are expectable when a status quo in flux begins to change. Beneficiaries of any status quo rarely relinquish power without a fight. 

Such is the reality in which we find ourselves today. And we are hardly alone.

Two recent speakers at the Gladdening Light celebration of arts and spirituality at Rollins College pointed to that reality. Rabbi Rami Shapiro spoke of a “global crucifixion of civilizations worldwide.” Writer Mirabai Starr described this time as a global “dark night of the soul” of which Trumpland is but one of many manifestations. From Brexit to the destruction of the Amazon to the persecution of Muslims and Sikhs in India, that pattern is playing out across our globe. Despite our tendencies to see ourselves as somehow exceptional, our country is part of something much larger than ourselves. 

But both speakers hastened to add that the important thing to remember is that on the other side of that dark night lies a new life at a higher level of consciousness. And on the other side of crucifixion lies resurrection. What that will look like, I have no idea. But Sunday, I think I caught a peek preview. And I have committed myself to a Lenten discipline to reflect on what that looks like and what my calling will be in helping that new reality come into being.

This day I am grateful for a glimpse, however brief, of what I pray will be that new reality. And I pray that I may live long enough to see this dark night of the soul lifting long enough to reveal it. I pray for the strength and courage for all of us to weather this global crucifixion knowing that we have the capacity to become a new people, build a new country, create a new world. 

As I finish this post where I dare to be hopeful, I return to the young man’s tattoo: “It means ‘Together.’ It’s the way I see the world.”

Indeed. As I see it, that’s the only way our world will survive.   

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida 

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston, 2020

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Just Call It What It Really Is: Impunity

On October 11, 1991, I attended a National Coming Out Day rally at Sproul Plaza on the University of California Berkeley campus, the famed site of the Free Speech Movement in the early 1960s. I had previously heard of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence but never encountered them. On the stage stood Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch, one of the founders of the San Francisco based movement that draws into question understandings of gender, sexuality and the way religions have historically constructed them.

This day Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch had an important message for me and the crowd there assembled. She said,

“Instead of calling heterosexuality ‘normal,’ call it what it really is: common.”

The Sister was raising an important point, drawing into question the tendency of the majority to see its own experience as normative for everyone else and thus morally correct. In truth, normal simply means statistically prevalent. Any conjecture about its moral status is purely subjective and often self-serving.

But this demand that we “call it what it really is” has stuck with me all these years with an application well beyond the immediacies of National Coming Out Day in Berkeley those many years ago. This week at the conclusion of the sham proceeding in Washington, that question came back to me.

It is highly problematic to describe the vote of the Senate as somehow “acquitting” Donald Trump. Acquittals come at the end of an actual trial. The verdicts are based on the testimony of witnesses who can be cross-examined by defendants in front of jurors who have pledged to be impartial. The proceeding is governed by established rules of evidence and procedure.

None of those things were true in this circus in the U.S. Senate. So let’s call these things what they really are.

1. A Trial That Wasn’t – Sham Proceeding  

As a former practicing attorney and a constitutional law instructor, I shuddered as I watched the slow-motion train wreck that was proceeding in the Senate. Part of the problem is simply the language we use to describe it. This was a removal proceeding, not a trial. At a bare minimum, trials demand at least an appearance of transparency, impartiality and objectivity if they are to be seen legitimate.

None of these things were true here. Many senators announced up front that they did not intend to consider any of the evidence actually presented at trial. Some were ready to vote to let the impeached official off without any of the evidence even being heard. Jurors like these in a real trial would have been eliminated in the process of voir dire, jury selection.

In the end, these Senators demonstrated that they never intended to be jurors; they were aiders and abettors.

Trials require verdicts to be rendered based upon competent evidence presented by witnesses and relevant physical and documentary evidence.  In this case, it wasn’t that the evidence wasn’t available. It’s that it was never allowed to be heard, initially by the stonewalling of an administration who refused to honor subpoenas to produce relevant evidence and also forbade public servants from testifying. The administration was, in turn, aided and abetted by a judiciary now stacked with Federal Society ideologues more than willing to delay rulings on such evidence production. This allowed them to avoid having to blatantly tip their partisan hands in rendering foregone conclusions in their rulings.

This circus may have been a lot of things, but it wasn’t a trial. Those of us who are lawyers know this and most of us cringed as we watched this constitutional process being prostituted to a partisan charade that flaunted the very Constitution which created this body. All attorneys are members of bars who must take an oath to defend, protect and preserve our national and state constitutions. Watching this blatant dismantling of the dreams of the Framers was like experiencing a dagger through the heart.

Students of history know this is hardly unprecedented. A failure to hold wrongdoers accountable even in the face of horrific crimes thus granting impunity to the malfeasants has a long history in this country. There is a long string of Klansmen committing lynchings who were never charged with their crimes. Worse yet, there is a history of those who were actually charged with deadly church and home bombings who were quickly acquitted by all white juries.

Our homegrown terrorists have far too often gotten away with murder, quite literally.

Any proceeding that is predetermined in outcome, going through the motions for public appearances, allowing wrong doers to benefit from their malfeasance without any accountability, may be a lot of things but it is not a trial. It is ultimately little more than an attempt to legitimize illegitimate actions.

So, invoking the Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch imperative, let’s just call this Senate proceeding what it really was: A Sham.

2. A Senate That Refused to Do Its Duty: Abdication

It was the hopes of the Framers that a responsible Congress would prevent an imperial presidency from doing the very kinds of things that Mr. Trump has done:

·         engaging in behaviors that were designed to enrich himself at the cost of the national interest
·         allowing foreign interests to influence domestic electoral processes
·         betraying allies in other countries in pursuit of personal gain
·         lying to Congress and the people about all of this
·         preventing relevant evidence from being discovered. 

These are precisely the kinds of behaviors which prompted the Framers to create the provisions for impeachment and removal. And they are precisely the actions which this Senate, whom the Framers left with that responsibility, refused to consider.

There is one exception to this sweeping condemnation of a Senate so fearful of this demagogue that its majority party refused to even consider his misdeeds. Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican representing Utah, offered a moving speech that reminded me a good bit of his father. George Romney was one of the last respectable Republicans to sit in the Congress and one of my heroes as a child. In announcing his vote, Mitt spoke of his faith and his moral compass. And then he became the first member of an impeached President’s party to ever vote against his party leader in a removal proceeding.

It does my heart good to know there are still Senators willing to take action based upon ethical considerations rather than expediency. And it is particularly gratifying to see that not every Republican is willing to cower to the hegemony of Trumpland’s money machine. Mitt Romney has come a long way from his condescending statements about “the 48%” and boxing up his family dog in the luggage rack atop his car and driving cross country. Even white boys of privilege have the potential of maturing into responsible adults.

Somehow, I sense that George Romney is smiling this day over the performance of his son.

Sadly, Mitt is a glaring exception. The remainder of his fellow Republicans were more than willing to sell out the Congress, the American people and empower the very imperial presidency that the Framers feared and several generations of their predecessors have fought. It was a shameful performance from a body that has sadly come to be predictable in such shameful behaviors.  

So, invoking the Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch  imperative, let’s just call this performance what it really was: Abdication.

3. A Frightening But Predictable Outcome: Impunity

Given that this proceeding was not a trial, either functionally (the Senate is empowered to remove impeached presidents, thus it is a removal procedure) or actually (see No. 1 above), calling the result an acquittal is highly problematic. It suggests that the impeached official here was found not guilty. That does not correspond with the facts of this proceeding.

Even some of the cowardly Republican who abdicated their duties to the Congress, the Constitution and the people were willing to admit the President had engaged in wrongful actions. It was clear from the very wording of the Constitution that this was precisely the kinds of behaviors the Framers sought to prevent. But in an age when there is no Truth and any appeals to the same evokes the adolescent response of “That’s just your opinion,” the majority of Senators avoided their duties by deferring to the logical fallacy of appeal to opinion: “In my opinion this is not what high crimes and misdemeanors means.”

In all fairness, it does not help that this charge is not spelled out in the Constitution itself. Like many aspects of our founding documents (“…all men are created equal,” “equal protection of the law,” “Due Process of the law…”) the overarching principles that the Framers and their successors sought to instill were intentionally vague, designed to be interpreted contextually as they were invoked and evolved over the ensuing years.

But the many examples of the Trump dynasty enriching itself at the public till, not the least of which was the required quartering of military personnel in Trump hotels overseas, are precisely the kinds of behaviors the emoluments clause was designed to prevent. The prohibition against the role of any foreign interests in the national electoral process applies directly to the blackmailing of foreign officials to create dirt on a political opponent back home. And the blanket stonewalling of officials and documentary evidence that has marked Trumpland since its inception is precisely the kind of behaviors prohibitions on obstruction of justice are designed to prevent.

Donald Trump was guilty of all of those things. Everyone knows it. But in the end, those charged with responding to impeachable behaviors chose political expedience and raw power over justice.

It was a sad day, even for Trumpland.

When a Senate is unwilling to do its duties to remove officials they know to be guilty of behaviors which violate the Constitution, whatever the reason, this marks a very dangerous turning point in a constitutional republic. It sends a very clear message to wrongdoers from the lynchers and bombers of the Jim Crow South to the money grubbers of Trumpland that they can engage in their wrongful, harmful behaviors without any accountability.

The predictable result of such a message is that such behaviors will likely increase.

This was not an acquittal. There was no real trial, no impartial jury. In this sham proceeding with decision-makers willing to abdicate to power and political gain, there could be no acquittal. What happened here was that a wrongdoer was simply given a pass. And we can be assured that he will see this as a greenlight to engage in such wrongful behaviors in the future.

So, invoking the Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch  imperative, let’s just call the result of this sham proceeding what it really was: A Granting of Impunity.

So What Next, Trumpland?

The America which existed prior to its devolution into Trumpland was always an imperfect democratic republic. Its imperfections were judged by its own constitutional ideals. But with the rise of Trumpland, this experiment in self-governance that always saw its very best as merely a step toward “a more perfect union,” is over. If there were ever any doubts that it has finally given up the ghost, those doubts were removed Wednesday, February 5, 2020 on the auction floor of what was once an august body.

What comes next is unclear. The devolution of America into Trumpland has the actual majority within this country - which has never supported Donald Trump - worried. We increasingly find ourselves barred from power in the stacked deck that now includes all three branches of government. Our hopes of undoing the harm and repairing the damage becomes increasingly difficult and farther and farther away. Even if it begins in the next election, the recovery process will not occur overnight, no matter how much we well-trained consumers believe ourselves entitled to instant gratification.

Even those possibilities were mortally wounded by the Senate’s granting of impunity to an electoral cheater. The chances of a fair election have diminished greatly as a result.  

In granting this impunity, Senators bought into the cynical words of his self-promoting lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, who echoed another corrupt president who left power to avoid impeachment and removal. Those were the days when Senates still remained accountable to the Constitution and the people. Richard Nixon had asserted that anything the President does, regardless of its legality or moral depravity, is legal. Forty three years after a responsible Congress refused to buy that self-serving argument, a cowardly Senate has given a corrupt businessman with a long history of cheating in his dealings with others, hiding his records and lying to anyone who would listen a green light to proceed with his depraved business unimpeded. 

That includes the coming election.


It is hard for many of us to watch the country we once loved, served and sought to require to live into its own ideals of creating “a more perfect union,” descend down the slippery slope to utter depravity. If there is any consolation this day, it is that brave souls like Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch will continue their demands on their countrywomen and men that we be honest with ourselves and each other and that courageous souls like Mitt Romney will continue to hear that call to honesty and accountability and respond.

For the rest of us, little remains but to watch, weep and hope to begin the long road to recover in November. Truth be told, I’m not sure the Trumpland disaster has bottomed out yet. My guess is that there is more suffering to come before things turn around. I admit I’m not very optimistic. And yet I remain hopeful.

Refusing to Hate, Resisting the Depravity

To those who read these words and nod your heads affirmingly, know you are not alone. It’s true that misery likes company. You’ve got mine. And to those who refuse to consider (or even read) these words because the truth that a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence requires of you is too much to handle, I will work diligently toward respecting your person even as I will oppose your thoughts, words and deeds at every juncture.

Most importantly know that I absolutely refuse to hate you. You should not confuse opposition to ideas, words and behaviors one finds harmful with being a “hater.” To do so is sloppy thinking and engages an adolescent behavior that does not merit respect. You’re capable of better.

As Sister Helen Prejean has taught us, no one is reducible to the worst thing they ever did, even being enablers of the depravity of Trumpland. But please know I and many others will resist that depravity every chance I get. On that you can depend.

May the America which once commanded the respect of the world, which merited our loyalty and gave rise to our most fervent hopes rest in peace. And may this dark night of the soul that is Trumpland go the way of the dinosaurs very quickly.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston, 2020