On ‘The View from Flyover Country’

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten AmericaThe View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If we ever hope to move beyond that which divides us, we must collectively rip off those band-aids, acknowledge various problems that plague us as a nation and society, and begin the truly difficult discussions in order to find long-term and permanent solutions to address those problems.

This book helps with that first step: ripping off the band-aids, and highlighting how we did not simply arrive at this particular moment. We should have expected it. And, anyone living in or from a flyover region most likely intuitively knows this. Class. Race. Gender. All of these issues have divided us for much longer than the current political rhetoric of divisiveness. Really, rather than collectively rising up against a system rigged from day one to benefit those already in power at the expense of the rest of us, we fight one another based on characteristic X [insert identity here]. Yet, we all continue to struggle. We all continue to lose our footing or positions. And, we all continue to work harder to move towards attaining that American dream as we navigate the worst sort of nightmare.

Thank you, Sarah Kendzior, for this collection of rather timeless essays and commentaries on the condition of life in flyover America. It’s brutal. It’s real. And, it’s completely necessary.

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On World AIDS Day 2018

Red AIDS ribbons concept tree. Vector illustration layered for easy manipulation and custom colouring.

This World AIDS Day, as with many in the past, I am hopeful. More cautiously optimistic than equally hopeful, however. Thirty years ago, the first World AIDS Day passed, allowing us to collectively raise our voices to raise awareness of HIV. Globally and locally.

This morning, as I scrolled through my news feed, in addition to the traditional AIDS red ribbon tree of life I’ve posted for years on this day, another image gut-punched me, just as it did the first time I saw it and every time since.

The men in white represent the surviving members of the original San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Eric Luse, 1993. 

This image of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus reminds me why this day isn’t so much a simple celebration of how far we’ve come, but of how vigilant we must remain in our resolve to continue to respond to this most pernicious virus. But, more so, we must resist and overcome the various prejudices and judgements attached to HIV. Far, far too many have died senseless, needless and agonising deaths only because we refused to act to prevent further infections, because we isolated and demonised those living with HIV, and because we refused access to live-saving and life-preserving treatment for those who desperately needed it. 

Why? 

Fight AIDS, not people affected or living with HIV. Fight the damn virus and the cultural, social, political and economic institutions which continue to allow it to spread and allow people to die when, today, they don’t need to. Fight the injustices borne through stigma and fear that allow the virus to flourish.

Do not fight the individuals most affected and least wanted by society.

HIV doesn’t care where you live, what you look like, what you do for a living to simply survive. Nor does it care who or how you love.

Today, and every day, we must collectively remember what inaction and isolation do to those affected when society shuns them and deems them unworthy and undesirable. Every. Single. Day.

So, on this World AIDS Day, here’s to all those affected and living with HIV, and here’s to all those who continue working damn hard and often thanklessly to ensure no one is left behind and that we can all live in a world more just and more equitable. For all. 

And, here’s to those we failed. Your memory lives on and you will not be forgotten. 

Vote. Please.

I voted weeks ago.

The process as an overseas American voter was relatively easy and straightforward for me. My biggest concern was that my voter registration information made its way to the Voter Registrar’s office in Connecticut by the deadline, and that I’d receive my ballot with plenty of time to mail it back ensuring its arrival before election day.

My registration arrived. My ballot arrived (via email—a first for me). I printed it off that day and mailed it back in early October. My civic duty was fulfilled.

This process is not new to me, given that I’ve voted via absentee ballot in every election since 2000.  I miss the I voted stickers, naturally. But, each year, I complete and fill in the overseas voter registration forms, mail them off and wait. It’s a pain, but it is necessary. Particularly now.

Please, vote. Far too many individuals do not take the time to exercise their right and civic duty by voting, particularly in mid-term elections. Far too many individuals assume that their one vote doesn’t make any difference at all. Far too many individuals think that politics has absolutely nothing to do with their daily lives.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t think of mid-term elections or my one absentee ballot as all that important. That changed in 2012, when I watched my husband vote in a municipal election in Finland.

Because we are residents in Finland, who have lived here for more than two years, we are granted the right to vote in municipal elections — not national elections since we are not citizens. But, we can exercise our voices on matters related to community-level issues, issues which perhaps affect us more. Those elections coincided with elections in the US, and I found myself researching candidates on both sides of the pond for both of my homes. But, I also watched as my husband took his civic duty incredibly seriously.

It wasn’t until after he voted that I fully understood how meaningful that experience was for him. Immediately after he voted, he said to me, ‘That’s the first time in my life that I’ve voted and known that my vote would be counted and it mattered.’ He was 52 years old at the time.

As a Cuban, who lived at times in the US and Russia, he was never able to take part in elections other than those in his home country. Cuban elections are not exactly ‘elections’. Given this experience, he understands perhaps more than most just how important showing up and exercising that privilege is. And, he understands voting as a mighty powerful privilege granted to few. He has not nor will he miss an opportunity to vote in Finland since being granted that right.

[To give you an idea of how seriously he takes this, during the last municipal election, he again researched candidates and platforms, discussed it at length with me, and then voted, and helped me get to the local polling station before they closed. Those elections coincided with a particularly awful bout of the flu which had me bedridden. As much as I was ready to blow off voting, he all-but offered to carry me to the polling station. I ended up voting about 30 minutes before the polling station closed.]

Voting is a beautiful thing to witness. That democratic process carries immense power, if only we exercise it. It conveys even more meaning and power to those who enjoy it later in life and do not accept it as a given. Voting is precious and can just as easily be taken away. We must exercise that right and we must protect by making informed decisions which matter not just for our own personal selfish reasons, but also for our society as a whole.

Please, vote. Encourage your friends and family and strangers to vote. Take the time to help someone vote if they need assistance finding or getting to their polling station. So, so many individuals wish they had the opportunity, right and privilege so many of us take for granted.

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On ‘A Perilous Path’

A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the LawA Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law by Sherrilyn Ifill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d love to have these same individuals revisit each of their discussion points as we approach the midterms and nearly two years into the Trump administration’s reign.

What a brilliant dialogue, and a necessary one. Despite the despair and frustration and outrage many of us feel daily, it’s important to hold on to hope. And, that is the message that rings through in the final pages of this short, but eloquent read.

‘Never again.’

Perhaps these words need to become slogans in today’s America. One of the most profound realities expressed here ever-so-poignantly and clearly is that we will never begin to move beyond our history of repression until we fully accept, acknowledge and understand it’s consequences. Perhaps more so, we must open our eyes to the full-scale of those atrocities.

From the decimation of indigenous populations and usurping their existence and power to the long history of slavery and the aftermath in Jim Crow and segregation both real and imagined. History has consequences, and sweeping those horrors under giant carpets won’t suffice in moving beyond and tackling the various issues which continue to persist.

If we want a country guided and fueled by hope, acceptance, justice and equality if not equity, we also must work within our communities to create those realities. Yes, the national conversation is important. But, change is change, no matter how large or small, and most of live lives within small communities, both real and virtual. Stand up (or sit down), speak truth to stupid and power, and find ways to create communities which reflect those ideals of just, hopeful, righteous and kind. Those ripples we create may travel far, and that is the only thing which will change the national fabric in any long-term and lasting way.

‘Never again’, indeed.

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On ‘The Fire Next Time’

The Fire Next TimeThe Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, and just about anything else written by James Baldwin, remains relevant. It’s spooky and altogether tragic that pieces written in the 1960s reflect the current realities lived by black communities and individuals in the US today.

Eloquent. Honest. Brutally clear and well-reasoned throughout, The Fire Next Time, much like all of his works, should be required reading for us all. They also serve as a stark reminder of the as yet unfulfilled promises of the Civil Rights era.

We will never move beyond the divisions we face now if we do not honestly and openly sit down and listen to one another and attempt to understand what it means to grow up black in the US.

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[Religious] liberty?

I don’t mind religion. Nor do I hate the idea of belief systems. Religion, of any sort, simply doesn’t work for me, and really hasn’t since I was 5. I’ve explored them, studied several rather intensely, and honestly I just do not get it. No offence intended.

To be honest, I don’t even really take offence at anyone’s religiosity or the teachings of a particular religion precisely because it’s not mine. Some ideas and notions are incredibly offensive to me—condemning homosexuality or gender nonconformity, subjecting women to positions of inferiority and essentially removing them from the possibility of holding positions of power or subjecting them to standards based on their worth defined by men, etc. I find these notions more a matter of interpretation rather than simply a matter of religion per se. Individuals will always find ways to justify their propensity for shittiness and attempt to maintain their positions of power. To my mind, doing so through religious dogma remains particularly effective as a method rather than necessarily a matter of religion alone.

Keep the masses uninformed or unexposed to different ideas and, of course, they’ll follow along blindly. Teach them to not question authority by using scare tactics ranging from punishment in the here and now to an eternity of misery and damnation, and likely they won’t critically examine the shaky foundations upon which those beliefs are based.

But, that’s not my problem with religion. I do question beliefs. And, I do question authority. My own, and those specifically I’m told I must believe. It did not make sense to me at 5, and it still baffles me.

Whilst I don’t mind the religion of others, I do mind being forced to adhere to and follow the beliefs and ideology of ANY religion. It matters not a jot if that religion is Protestantism, Baptism, Catholicism, Satanism, Hinduism, Islam or ANY other dogma that professes to be ‘The Truth’. Not just one capital T, but two. Unless there is verifiable, testable, replicable evidence to back up a claim, I’m not interested. Call it blasphemy, and call me a heathen. You will not be the first.

Believe what you need to in order to cope / manage / understand  / make sense of this crazy world around you. But, creating laws based on any religion is not evidence-based nor does it allow for religious liberty for ALL religions. Anywhere.

So, if we’re going to venture down the rabbit hole of creating a task force to ensure Christians are not persecuted due to their religion, will we do the same for those Muslims who associate with Daesh or who follow Sharia law? How about Rastafarians? (I’m fine with that, although I suspect Jeff Sessions won’t be.) How about the polygamous practices and child marriage practices of some sects of Mormonism?

In the United States, the framers of the US Constitution sought to ensure that no religion stood above any other, and that no religion was a part of the State or government. They felt it so important that they made it the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I’m looking specifically at Thomas Paine here, but they all had important points to make specifically in relation to this:

Religion

On ‘Embracing the Infidel’

Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey WestEmbracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West by Behzad Yaghmaian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s rather fitting that I finished this book on 20 June 2018, World Refugee Day. And, it’s rather fitting that I read this book, now as the furor over migrants to my own country reaches a fever pitch.

In Embracing the Infidel, Behzad Yaghmaian allows us to walk in the shoes of those very much unlike ourselves. At least very much unlike myself. I do not have to be an asylum seeker or refugee to understand the desperation involved in fleeing one’s home, legally or clandestinely.

But, this rather heartbreaking book allows us to understand not just the reasons individuals risk their lives and their children’s to cross imaginary lines. It allows us to understand just how difficult it is to do so legally and safely, if not altogether impossible those conditions for migrating are for some.

Most of the individual life histories presented here focus on those fleeing various forms of violence—both mental and physical, state-sponsored and familial in origin. And, even when they attempt to follow laws, both local and international, the migrants described herein face additional forms of abuse and violence in the countries to which they seek peace and freedom.

Himself an immigrant, Yaghmaian compassionately and intimately allows each of those he meets on his two-year journey across Europe to shape their own narratives. From their reasons for leaving their homes to their progress (or inability to progress) across various lines drawn on maps by powerful men to the few who have reached ‘the West and what once promised a quiet life in peace, each of these individuals’ stories are important. They are crucial to understanding the migrant ‘crisis’ that dominates headlines and political discussions. They offer a narrative missed by those declaring their support or outrage at various policies.

Despite being published more than ten years ago, we’re still plagued by many of the same issues and the same inertia when it comes to finding solutions to conflicts or granting legal status to those in seemingly hopeless situations. No answers are provided here; but, that’s not the purpose of this book. If anything, this book provides a lesson in empathy, one we could all use a bit more of to my mind.

It’s worthwhile to understand that so many around the globe are currently living as refugees. 68 500 000 million of them in fact. Each of them deserves a chance to be heard. Each of them is important.

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