Let’s not talk about politics

A friend of mine just shared this particular comic with me, and it could not have been more appropriate.

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©Emily McGovern. Brilliant image capturing how I suspect many are feeling at this particular moment. For more, visit http://emilymcgovern.com/category/comics/.

Feel familiar?

So far today, I’ve read more about the President’s damn tweets, more on potential collusion between Russian hackers and various Trump campaign officials, the assault on access to healthcare that is the GOP/Trump plan to reverse Obamacare, the completely unstaffed Science Division of the White House as of yesterday,  and the rather bizarre request for voter registration information from each state based on misinformation non-existent evidence of ‘widespread’ voter fraud within the US voting system.

I’m exhausted and it’s not even 9.00 on Saturday. And, we’re not even six months into this administration’s first term?

There’s too much. Too much noise and nonsense news and misdirection. As disgusting and demeaning as our current President’s tweets are, the agendas being pushed through as we’re all distracted by his unbecoming behaviour are even more infuriating. For instance, one little tidbit buried in news headlines is a lovely provision in a spending bill currently in the House. This provision would eliminate funding to the IRS to enforce a law prohibiting churches and other non-profits which are tax exempt from endorsing specific candidates for public office. (The law is known as the Johnson Amendment and was signed into law by President Eisenhower.) I don’t mind if churches and other non-profits want to enter the political fray; many already have. I do mind if they want to continue to claim their tax-exempt status.

And, down the political news rabbit hole I go…

My husband and I try to step away from our computers and work and other nonsense each day. On our peripatetic bonding time-out each evening, we typically experience a moment eerily akin to that captured in the image above. Particularly that last panel.

We support evidence-based policies.

We support policies which uphold and respect the human rights and dignity of all rather than a select few.

We support funding for the arts and sciences because they typically assist, benefit and enlighten more than a few, if not today then in future.

And, more than that, we support respectful, open and fact-based discussions on how to move forward on any particular issue.

I don’t for a moment believe that all those with opposing views to my own are idiots. I just wish the discussions about various policies wouldn’t assume that all of us are idiots.

Forget the bloody tweets. Let’s get back to what’s happening with and on specific policies. Precisely because it is so damn infuriating and exhausting.

The Keys to Cuba

I must warn you. This will be a rambling rant of sorts. As with all things Cuba, it’s complicated. And, working through various issues requires a long roundabout detour replete with potholes the size of Texas and an old ’57 Chevy with a Mercedes-Benz engine. [If you’ve never ridden in an Almendrón, none of that will make sense. So bare with me.]

The day I’ve been dreading and awaiting equally has arrived: later today, President Trump will finally announce his policy plans for Cuba. I can’t say that I look forward to this announcement. Waiting, yes. But, certainly not with any sense of hope or excitement.

I don’t know what the ‘best’ policy is towards Cuba. But, I do know that closing off diplomatic relations and taking a hard-line approach hasn’t work and won’t do anything to change the way things are in Cuba today or tomorrow.

I have seen change, however.

My first trip to Cuba in 2008 was eye-opening for a multitude of reasons, primarily because I was finally able to begin assembling my husband’s life into some sort of concrete reality, one only possible after seeing those faraway places and meeting those faces populating his narrative. His life before we met became tangible rather than imagined, if you will. And, I learned so, so much about Cuba and my own country’s role in her history. It is a troubled history, filled with injustice and absurdity and hypocrisy.

I am not a Fidel apologist. Far from it. But, to understand Cuba is to understand the place of Fidel and his merry band of revolutionaries and what they offered all Cubans. Fidel—another complicated personality with a contradictory and odd record—granted many rights to all Cubans which Americans still hope to one day gain. Equitable education to all, resulting in one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America the world. Universal healthcare with an incredible track record for standard of care, resulting in incredibly low infant and maternal mortality rates given the country’s GDP and high life expectancies for both men and women. All of these statistics surpass those in the US by quite some measure. In addition, running water, electricity in every home, a home were granted as rights for all Cubans. These things may seem like idealistic socialist notions, largely because they are. But, prior to the Cuban Revolution that ousted US-backed Batista and installed Fidel, his brother Raúl (now El Presidente until 2018), Che and Camilo and their band of revolutionary heroes at the helm, all of these basic human needs were available only to the rich and powerful.

None of this means that life is perfect in Cuba. Far from it. The obvious human rights issues continue to trouble anyone who gives a toss about humans in general let alone Cubans in particular. But, this is where what we know abroad and what the current situation in Cuba become less clear.

Demonstrations, however insignificant and small, are increasingly visible. Several years ago during one of our visits, a friend went to an event put on by several actors in the underground art scene. A portion of that agenda was openly mocking of Fidel and the Cuban government. Local police raided the event, arresting and carting off those in attendance to the political prison, a place feared by all and in which unspeakable things do occur. Yet, those law enforcement officers most concerned with any voices of opposition at all were completely uninterested in why all these individuals had been hauled in. In fact, their reaction was, ‘Why are you all here? You shouldn’t be!’ Thus, everyone was let go. Anti-Fidel or Anti-Raúl graffiti now pepper walls with ever-increasing frequency in Havana. It’s shocking to see, even for an outsider, particularly alongside the prolific pro-revolution and socialist propaganda throughout Cuba. But, it’s also a sign that Cuba is relaxing its attitude towards dissent however incremental that change may be.

Obviously, Cuba has a long way to go before she will see anything like the sort of resistance-to-Trump marches taking place in the US these days. But, we’ve had several hundred years to get our shit together. Cubans are relatively new to this. And, tentative first steps are still initial steps, however impatient others may be to see ‘real’ change, whatever that means, in Cuba. It isn’t up to us from other lands to set the pace.

More than anything, here’s my take on Cuba: We—the US—need to back off. Lift sanctions. Lift the embargo and allow travel between our countries. Freely and openly. Why? Because it allows our two people to interact and exchange ideas, and learn from one another. We understand and become more compassionate once we talk, and we realise that fundamentally we are just people. What our governments do is one thing; but what we want for ourselves and those we love is fundamentally the same. A roof over a heads and a place to call home. Enough in our cupboard and bank account to sustain us and possibly afford a treat when appropriate. And, essentially, we want the ability to life our lives to the best of our abilities given various other variables.

The embargo hurts Cubans, average Cubans, far more than it hurts the government. Fidel is dead. I won’t say thankfully, but I can’t really shed a tear either. He wasn’t my leader. But, if we’re looking for a win against him, that battle was lost last November. He outlived the embargo and nine US presidential administrations. Raúl is stepping down next year. So, if the embargo remains in place until then, ultimately it will have done nothing to oust the individuals it was intended to usurp. Who wins? No one, other than two leaders we in the US wanted to replace. Who loses? Cubans. Mostly Cubans. The people I love desperately and who would give me their last cup of coffee if such a thing were conceivable. The people who have made me weep with their kindness and sense of equity which should shame anyone from elsewhere obsessed with the latest and shiniest and best model gadget de jour. The people who, despite language and cultural barriers, have welcomed me as a fellow member of their tribe simply because I married a Cuban and came to visit. The people who I love and only want to let live so that they may simply, finally live.

I felt immense hope in Cuba in 2014 when President Obama announced an opening up of diplomatic relations with Cuba. That hope exploded in 2015 with the announcement that President Obama would visit Cuba. Both of those announcements coincided with our visits to my second home, and I was immensely proud of my country and my adopted second home. President Obama’s visit proved to be an incredible moment for all Cubans, many of whom still spoke of it when we were there last Christmas.

November 2016, however, brought grief and uncertainty, first with the election of President Trump in the US and then with the death of Fidel.

Channeling my inner Moulder, I want to believe that things will be alright for Cuba, that enigmatic country I’ve come to love so, so much. But, today, we shall see. I hope for Cubans that reason and rationality prevail. The keys to Cuba’s future should be left to her people. We, as Americans, should allow those keys to turn and perhaps supply a little WD-40 to help loosen long-idle and unused openings. If I’ve learned anything from my 12 years with one particular Cuban, that which binds us is far greater than whatever differences we may possess.

¡Viva Cuba libre!

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I have no idea what the title of this piece is, but it was incredible. Hundreds of keys arranged in the shape of Cuba. Investigating it are Pedro the Philosopher and Martica the Marvellous. On display at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, December 2016.

Loving

Flashback to June 2005.

Little did I know that a meet-up with a rather crazy lovely Cuban from an online forum of Moscow expats would become so meaningful and life-changing. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew prompted a private message, and an invitation to chat about and swap music. (This was the third bit of music he and I virtually bonded over, the other two discussions consisted of gushing over Alison Kraus and Union Station and all things bluegrass, and, naturally, waxing silly and paying tribute to the Grateful Dead.) We didn’t keep track of the specific date when we met for the first time (at which point neither one of us was thinking anything other than ‘new friend with whom to geek out over music’). Nor did we really make note of our first ‘date’, which wasn’t intended as a date, but ended up sparking ‘something’.

But, thanks to Google, we can trace it back. How fitting that our first date / non-date fell on 12 June, a rather significant date for far more important reasons.

The decision in the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia, the case that invalidated laws criminalising mixed-race marriages, fell on 12 June 1967. Prior to that case, mixed race couples in the US were rare. More significantly and perhaps why they were so rare, prior to Loving, mixed-race couples who defied laws (and cultural norms) and wed faced jail time and prison sentences along with being ostracised from their community and outrage from their families and friends.  The laws changed, but attitudes persisted. Mixed-race couples continued to face rather unwelcome words and glances, if not outright discrimination and recrimination, some of which persist today. Today’s reality is certainly better than the era of the 1950s and 1960s, but that uneasiness continues today, at a time when 17% of newly married couples in the US involve individuals from various ethnic backgrounds.

The New York Times paid tribute to the Lovings along with other mixed-race couples on the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision. It serves as a stark reminder that even today it isn’t easy for couples claiming various backgrounds who fall in love with someone ‘different’ from them. Different from their community. Different in terms of how they look and what they ‘know’.

The Cuban and I are lucky, I suppose. We don’t look that different from one another despite coming from completely opposing worlds. Middle America / Texas hill country versus Havana, Cuba. At times, we both marvel that we have anything in common at all let alone that we even met. But, given how similar we look given our fair complexions and lighter coloured eyes, we are still not free from those long-held notions of who should marry whom. It’s exceedingly rare amongst our circles, thankfully. But, given our respective backgrounds, we have felt the assumptions others make about us. We have experienced stereotypes and some rather odd statements regarding our relationship and marriage, and its validity in the eyes of some. I can’t help but wonder what we’d experience if we weren’t living in Europe.

We may be living out our relationship 50 years from that landmark case. In some respects, we in the US are nowhere on truly becoming tolerant and, well, loving. For everyone. Even if we have come far from jailing mixed-race couples, there is still further to go.

Love is love. And it is a beautiful thing in whatever form it takes. Maybe we should spend a little more time loving and little less time deciding who may love whom.

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Just the two of us being us on holiday. The Malecón, La Habana, Cuba. January 2017

Giving voice to survivors of sexual assault

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College TownMissoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You’d have to be living under a rock this year to avoid stories of entitled, young male athletes sexually assaulting young women and serving little or no jail time for such crimes.

Missoula, Montana may not be unique in the number of young women who are vilified or simply not believed when they step forward naming their assailants. Jon Krakauer gives those young women who’ve survived rape a powerful voice, one we should all listen and respond to.

Whatever we are teaching young men, it shouldn’t be that they can get away with rape. From prosecutors to communities, we all have a responsibility to clearly and definitively say, ‘this is not okay’. Perhaps, we’ve woken up in the wake of cases like Brock Turner’s outrageously light sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman. Judging by the reactions and words of his father — diminishing rape to a mere ‘20 minutes of action‘ — as well as some of the reactions and character assassinations all too common in Missoula and elsewhere, we have a long way to go.

Whilst Krakauer pens a particularly difficult book to read given the understandably horrendous descriptions and details throughout, it’s an incredibly important read. We need to listen to those who come forward after being sexually assaulted. We need to approach their assaults from a place of belief and seeking truth and justice rather than giving their attackers the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, the shame and guilt and fear each woman experienced in the immediate aftermath of their living nightmares will never heal. They will never find peace.

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‘Please, be kind’.

As with most of the world, Paris has been on my mind. Not merely because of the tragic and senseless loss of life and, along with it, our collective loss of naïvety and innocence (once again). But, mostly because of our indefatigable ability to dichotomise one another.

Us versus them. Black versus white. West versus East. Developed versus undeveloped. Peace versus war. Trust versus suspicion. Right versus  wrong. Christian versus Muslim. Ad nauseum.

What happened in Paris obviously horrified me, just as it did everyone else. But, what I found particularly difficult to process was not the events themselves, but our collective inability to find any sort of empathy or understanding of how our words affect one another. The way in which we talked about terrorism and those who seek to terrorise left me nauseous. The words we chose and to whom we directed them horrified me more in some ways.

I watched as individuals I trusted and respected very quickly spewed the worst sort of hate speech and condemned entire groups of individuals, casting the term ‘them’ cavalierly, thus rendering specific groups entirely unworthy of trust or dignity. Unworthy of a chance. Or unworthy of a better life.

I watched and read how we should divide ourselves further, even if we fundamentally agree with one another. ‘Let’s put larger, stronger fences whilst bombing others into the last millennium.’ Facts and statistics didn’t matter much. Only that there was an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, and these were completely categorical with no shades of grey nor replete with ambiguity.

Many posts and rants left me thinking, ‘the terrorists have won’. This is somehow more troubling than the events themselves. And, it’s this that has left me sleepless on more than one night.

I don’t have any answers regarding how we collectively address terrorism or prevent / foil another 9/11 or Paris or Beirut or how to make those ideological differences less divisive. But, I do know that hating someone simply because they are different from me isn’t going to help me feel safer. It’s certainly not going to do much to make my world safer. Partitioning my world to include only those who are right whilst excluding those who are wrong merely begs the question: who defines who’s right and who’s wrong? If our impulse is to cast doubt on those different to us, or assume that all members of group X are to blame for the actions of a few or are all somehow inferior to group [insert demographic here], we are doomed.

There will be no solutions and there will be no safety nor security. And, there will be many, many more Parises in the years to come. Hating is easy; acceptance and understanding are hard, but necessary.

This past summer, at the conclusion of a five-show run of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, drummer Mickey Hart implored us all to ‘please, be kind‘. Challenge accepted, Mickey. Those words have played over and over and over in my mind since July, and ever more increasingly in the wake of Paris.

‘Kill them with kindness’ shall remain my mantra and modus operandi, although I certainly hope no one dies. It costs nothing and may prove invaluable. Rather than engage in hatred or vehement disagreement, I shall choose respect and quiet contemplation. It may not make much difference. But, it beats the alternative. And, in my mind and heart, love will always conquer hatred.

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*NB: This post was inspired by a discussion with a close friend who lives far-too-far away. Thanks, Karen! x

Struggling to make sense of it all

This year. This year brought with it hope and joy and goodness. It also brought unspeakable tragedy and despair, and what at times seems like an endless stream of senselessness. I find myself struggling with it all like never before. I suspect I am not alone.

Mercifully, none of these tragedies or despair are my own. Yet, as I attempt to absorb the news of each new tragedy, finding some glimmer of kindness amongst my fellow humans can seem like a futile quest. ‘What is wrong with us?!’, is a question far too often repeated, becoming equally and increasingly incredulous and louder with each passing week.

Most recently, like much of the world I have tried and failed to understand why we seem incapable of preventing the needless and horrid death of a young Syrian boy, whose only ‘crime’ was being born to a family living through what surely must be hell on Earth, and who tragically made a most desperate attempt to find peace and security in Europe.

But, it’s not just the images of Aylan Kurdi which haunt my consciousness; it’s how my fellow privileged folk in the peaceful and calm developed North react. Whilst messages of #RefugeesWelcome bring me a sense of awe and hope, the voices of hate and vitriol ring just as loud, if not louder and more persistent, drowning out those seeking and extending compassion and kindness.

This theme, which did not begin recently, seems to repeat itself over and over and over again. Each new injustice and each new tragedy, each new viral story of the idiocy and ugliness which pervades this world is accompanied by hatred so intense and profound that I find myself speechless. Who are these people? What has happened to them—to us—to inspire such intense feelings of hatred for another human based on seemingly insignificant traits or differences? Are we really that different from one another? Are our stories so vastly divergent that we share absolutely nothing in common with ‘the other’? What has happened to our humanity? And, can we find it once again? Or are we hopelessly lost?

It’s the worst sort of rabbit hole to find one’s self in; climbing up out of it can seem insurmountable.

We need a reset button. Collectively and individually. I include myself within this targeted mass re-calibration. Wars will end and new ones will begin. The outward traits of tomorrow’s refugees may differ from those of today, but they will all seek a life which is free from worry and fear for themselves and, mostly, for their loved ones, perhaps more so for the youngest and oldest in our midst. Will we ignore them, choosing instead to leave families who look different to simply exist in horrid conditions and ‘camps‘? Will we help them to find a different, less crisis-laden life amongst us?

Perhaps we simply need to re-focus our energy on those tiny bits of goodness each one of us can pass along to those in need. Re-train those individual strengths and talents we each possess to create a better, safer, more just world, which when combined may result in lasting change that benefits us all equitably. Re-image and discover that one common trait we share with those who seem so outwardly so entirely different from us.

We must do something. Otherwise, we are lost. And, ultimately, we all lose.

This week’s viral escapade featuring the worst sort of pigeon-holing, most troubling in that it was directed at a young boy with what appears to be a promising intellect, provides some hope. If we can collectively step up and police those who seek to profile based on antiquated and bigoted perceptions, perhaps we can create a better world.

So many stories remain untold, while each one is worth telling. Maybe that re-telling is our first step on the arduous path towards understanding and making sense of it all…

 

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Proud to be an ally; not proud that it is necessary

It’s Pride Week in Helsinki. My husband and I will be there to march and show our support and allegiance with not just Finnish but all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals during a week we’d rather be celebrating marriage equality for all. Alas, Finland has yet to adopt a measure which would allow all couples regardless of their genders to marry legally.

Now, more than ever, it seems crucial that we do something, anything, to show our solidarity with all LGBTI communities.

We unequivocally support everyone’s right to love who they want and to show that love for one another openly and without fear of being persecuted. Love is love. It’s a thing of beauty in its many varied forms, shades and expressions. And, the world and all of us could benefit immensely from a bit more love and a lot less contention and hate.

But, as we in much of Western Europe and North America works towards marriage equality, LGBTI communities in places like Uganda, Jamaica and Russia among far too many others face situations much worse and far more dangerous. The reality in these contexts for individuals suspected let alone known to be gay, lesbian or transgender is akin to what I’d imagine is hell on earth. There is an element of extreme hatred towards LGBTI communities, where violence and criminal prosecution for simply existing are daily realities. And, yes, LGBTI individuals fear for their lives.

What does this have to do with me? Well, my fellow countrymen are complicit in creating these realities. It goes without saying that I do not support their actions nor their efforts and will do what I can to call them to account.

God Loves Uganda tells the story of how American evangelicals, primarily those affiliated with the International House of Prayer (a more sinister use of the acronym IHOP), work to ‘spread the good news’ to Ugandans (and others further afield). Unfortunately, rather than spreading messages of loving they neighbour, the growth of evangelicalism in Uganda seems to be fanning the flames of hatred and bigotry.

Essentially, interpretations of Biblical dogma legitamize and grant licence to allow hate, violence and in extreme cases death to individuals identified as LGBTI or their allies. During a two-conference lead by Americans in Kampala in 2009, my fellow countrymen provided justification and fodder which ultimately resulted in a law which would make homosexuality a criminal offence.

It’s sick. And, quite frankly, the worst sort of application of religion possible. In all honesty, I’m struggling to describe the film in a way that isn’t just as hate-filled as the rhetoric it captures.

Perhaps it is because it is Pride Week here that we feel compelled to act and even more motivated to voice our allegiance. As an American and as an American who grew up in a relatively conservative Christian household, I find myself particularly proud to be an ally. I am not, however, proud that it is necessary.

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