Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

In the “What Would Jesus Do the Exact Opposite Of?” category, you can file this wicked little slip of paper, left under my windshield wiper while I was at lunch.


My car has an Obama sticker on it, because I support President Obama and a good many of his policies. I put a sticker on my car to show that support publicly. It’s my car. If you want to discuss my public statements with me, all you have to do is wait by the car. Sooner or later I’ll come back, and we can discuss anything you like. If you’re in a hurry, you’re welcome to leave a note with your email or a phone number and we can talk that way.

That’s not the way this person who identifies him- or herself as “a good Samaritan” chooses to do it. Instead he (I’m assuming he’s male) left this slip, making the joke that some knucklehead vandalized my car by putting the bumper sticker on it.

Here’s the thing.

I’m fine if you don’t agree with my support of the president — I pass by bumper stickers I don’t agree with all the time. Those people, like me, express their opinions where others can see them, and that’s just fine. But I don’t leave snide notes on their cars, because that’s bullshit. You have an opinion, express it — and stand behind it. A bumper sticker does that, even in a small way, because anybody can trace it back to you with a minimum of effort.

An anonymous note does exactly the opposite. It expresses an opinion privately — nobody could see that note, presumably, but me, and my friend who happened to be with me when I read it. More, the person who left the note cannot be traced. The note isn’t even handwritten — it’s typed and cut out of a piece of paper, meaning that someone sits around the house printing and cutting out these slips of paper just to make sure he has them available to leave on people’s windshields. Anonymously.

Let’s think about that for a minute. My bumper sticker overtly says, publicly, what I support — and what I do not support. If it has any effect, it lets everyone who sees it know: one more supporter of the president out there. If you’re wondering how many there are, there’s information for you. My support for the president may make you happy or may make you mad, but it’s public information, and as I’ve said you can wait around to talk with me about it if you like.

This note, again, does exactly the opposite. It mutters its message privately, like a threat or an obscene comment. And it offers no information: I already see lots of public expression of disagreement with the president, and I have no way of knowing whether this note comes from someone who’s publicly expressed his feelings already.

More, since I think we can fairly make the presumption that this person is not trying to change my opinion — he didn’t express himself like someone trying to convince someone — the slip of paper had only one goal: meanness. The person who left this note doesn’t want to express himself publicly; he doesn’t want to discuss matters with me. He just wants to make me feel bad.

So that’s nice. Someone walking down the street left me a note designed specifically to hurt my feelings. It’s really no different than if he had left a note saying I was ugly or smelled. He took a specific action to do nothing more than make another person feel bad.

So he’s not a very nice person, but he’s also uneducated, at least about the Bible, which in this case is ironic. Anybody who knows anything about this whole Bible business knows the story of the good Samaritan. It’s not just about someone — a Samaritan — being nice to someone else — a Jew — who’s in trouble. The Samaritans and the Jews were enemies — so the Samaritan who helped the robbed and beaten Jew was being kind and helpful to someone whom he despised, which is pretty impressive whenever you encounter it.

The person who left this note identified someone he despised — me — and left a note trying to make me worse off than I was when he found me. That’s exactly the opposite of what the good Samaritan did. And just think how proud Jesus would be of someone making actual plans — cutting slips of paper to be prepared! — to lash out at people he doesn’t like, in a way that gives them no chance to respond. That’s some full-throttle Jesus gospel, right there.

So, anyhow, I think this kind of wicked-spirited low-level viciousness thrives only in anonymity. The whole point of the anonymous note is that he said something mean to me and I have no chance to respond, so he gets to win. So I thought I’d put it out there and give the person who wrote it the opportunity to level the playing field and stand behind his words. Public anonymity occasionally allows threatened people to say things they would be punished for if they said them publicly. More often, anonymity simply allows knuckleheads to say things they’d be ashamed or — most often — lack the courage to say or do publicly. Think of most Internet comments threads — or of the un-uniformed soldiers taking over buildings in the Ukraine. Or, closer to home, of the hoods of the Klan. Anonymity occasionally enables the oppressed to speak truth. More often it simply provides cover for meanness and cowardice.

So, you — whoever left this note. Believe what you believe, support what you support. But the rest of us here are going to figure that you’re sneaking around leaving mean-spirited notes on people’s windshields for the most common of all reasons behind anonymity. Because you’re a coward.


Avoiding Another 9/12

Two years ago I had the honor to be the Piedmont Laureate, an honorific given to a writer each year in central North Carolina. I was very proud. As Laureate I got to write a blog, and this is a piece I wrote in response to the ten-year anniversary of 9/11.  I thought it was worth repeating, so today I share it again:

In a New York restaurant a couple months after 9/11 I witnessed a remarkable thing.

As my extended family and I sat around a big table there was some kind of hubbub across the restaurant. Those were nervous days, and we all responded anxiously — we tensed muscles, sat up, craned necks. Soon, though, it became apparent: it was just a drunk guy, standing up, waving a bottle of wine around, singing, as one did in those days, “God Bless America.”

You scarcely need me to describe: the touching, the hugging, the tears, as the whole restaurant swayed and sang together.

The whole restaurant, that is, except for me and my brother-in-law. We sat across from one another, sunk in our chairs, faces set, arms crossed. After the song came the fierce questions. What was wrong with us? What was wrong with a display of  patriotism? Why couldn’t we just enjoy the moment?

My brother-in-law delivered a small lecture about the word “jingoism,” as I recall, though nobody was really buying. For my turn, I came at it from a different angle.

“You think you are in the Marseillaise scene from ‘Casablanca,’” I said. “But you are not. You are in the beer garden scene from ‘Cabaret.’”

We didn’t yet have the full glory of the Department of Homeland Security finding a way to make airline travel even more hideous, but we already had the Patriot Act, of course. And we had already, like a heartbroken 1:30 drunk reeling around looking for someone to hit before the bar closed, found in Afghanistan a good outlet for our rage and madness. We hadn’t yet gone looking for trouble in Iraq, but with a government freshly empowered to tap our phones and read our emails and even look over our shoulders at our library books, that was already visible on the horizon to anyone who cared enough to pay attention.

Few did. We bought duct tape for our windows and put gallons of distilled water in our pantries. We wept on streetcorners and sang “God Bless America” — a truly crappy song, if we can just be honest — at sporting events and theaters and school assemblies. And we flew the flag and we went shopping. And oh, yeah, we spent a few trillion dollars or so on blowing up people and stuff in Asia. Feel better? Feel safer?
Ten years later we assassinated Osama Bin Laden, and I don’t think anybody is likely to feel too bad about that — he’s a bad actor and caused us terrible pain and we’re glad he’s gone.
The rest of it though, has been a mistake. Some terrible people did a terrible thing on 9/11, and since 9/12 we have been finishing the job for them. You can look for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction and threats all over the globe, but once you get your population to suspect everybody, to resist the conclusions of science, and to believe the solution to its problems exists out there somewhere rather than right here where we’re all sitting, there’s not much left to fight about. The bad guys win because we become the bad guys.
I explain it this way. A few years back in a garden-variety checkup x-ray, some freaky spots showed up on my lungs. A parade of increasingly scary scans and procedures led to scarier and scarier results until finally, to our great relief, I turned out to have nothing more than sarcoidosis. That’s an autoimmune dysfunction in which basically your immune system panics when it sees not very scary stuff — say, pine pollen — and instead of a light allergic reaction it goes nuts, encapsulating the stuff and forming nodules that look awful on x-rays and can actually affect function.
The doctor tried to explain it, but I completely got it. “Simple,” I said. “My body has what my computer has, what my country has.” Quizzical look.
“Incapacity to distinguish an irritant from a pathogen.”
Yep. That is, just like my body is willing to possibly compromise my breathing in order to protect me from the terror of pine pollen, I have a computer that very occasionally lets me write — when it’s not too busy protecting itself, and me, from Internet threats that it constantly wants to fight. And just the same, my country wants to spend all its time looking out there — in Asia, these days, but if we run out of Asian bad guys we’ll go somewhere else — when with millions unemployed, trillions in arrears on vital domestic spending, and a population gone mad and seemingly willing to believe the sun rises in the west, we’ve got stuff enough to do at home, to say nothing of securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
Yes, of course — I’m a crank and annoyed. And nobody’s saying 9/11 wasn’t a terrible thing: 2,977 people died. But can we try to get some perspective?
That 2,977 was almost one-thousandth of one percent of our population. I’m not going to say that’s an irritant rather than a pathogen, but I’m going to note: Since then, we’ve spent a trillion dollars on those wars — that’s about 3 percent of our total spending in those ten years. And the U.S. alone has lost 1,760 people in Afghanistan and 4,474 in Iraq, to say nothing of that odd trillion dollars or so. That is, Osama Bin Laden caused almost three thousand people to die on 9/11. If you add up only coalition forces, more than twice that number have died in our response. As for the very lowest estimate of civilian deaths in Iraq? A hundred thousand plus, though estimates rise to ten times that. In Afghanistan? Estimates range all over, though 25,000 seems to be right around the middle.
And as bad as all that is — and please, can we just agree that it’s real bad? — the worst thing is what’s happening at home, with people so focused on threats to our freedom that money is no object, while kids go uneducated, streets go unpaved, wires unmaintained. We spend millions worrying about protecting the grid from attack — and then some guy pulls the wrong switch in Arizona and San Diego goes dark. The traffic stops; the pumps stop; computers go dead. Find money in the budget to improve our infrastructure? You’re crazy — we’re poor! But find money to go blow up some more people far away so they don’t attack the grid? We’ve always got money for that.
This is what started on 9/12. This is what comes of reacting; this is what comes of embracing fear. This is what comes of looking for enemies instead of looking to solve problems. Of worrying about perceived cultural impurities — gay marriage? a quarter of the population is out of work, the planet is frying in its own petrochemical oils, and we can’t afford to educate our children, and you think the problem to solve is gay marriage? — instead of tending to business.
And the candidates line up to ignore data and deny science — to find bad guys out there rather than right here; and now the climate-change deniers and the bad-guys brigade starts to get the upper hand. And I suspect even powerfully conservative planners are now asking each other what progressives have been asking all along — what in “Cabaret” Brian asked Maximilian as they left the beer garden:
“Still think you can control them?”
If we want the next ten years post-9/11 to go better than the last ten, maybe that’s something we should be asking every day.


Yep. I am writing this post mostly just to share this image, perhaps the most slam-dunk conclusive proof that “funny” goes with “progressive” like “tone-deaf” goes with “NC Republican.”


On second thought, I can see how NC got confused on this one.

Seriously. I wish I could be this funny, but since I’m not, I’m just sharing it so that everybody can see it. Whoever created it (I got it from the usual beginningless forward chain), please tell me and I’ll sing your praises.

The context, of course, is the bill normal people have taken to calling the Motorcycle Vagina bill: SB 353, which took a not harmful motorcycle safety bill and dumped a whole lot of the anti-abortion language from HB 695, the anti-foreign law bill that they tricked out into an anti-abortion bill last week and that brought so much positive attention to our state. Both bills were sneak attacks, both are probably unconstitutional, and both represent everything abhorrent about conservative my-way-because-I-said-so bullying.

Anyhow, I couldn’t take another day to go protest some more, so now that the dumbasses have passed the stinking thing, I just wanted to say that though the dumbasses are winning in the legislature, the good guys are funnier. Way funnier.

So anyhow, there’s that.

Stand Up, Miss Jean Louise

I’ll tell you the moment when I suddenly believed we were going to win.

ImageIt was probably around 6:15 or so. The Moral Monday speeches were still pattering on, we were chatting with various progressive folks around the big empty plaza among all the big boring state buildings, already thinking about dinner, when there was a gentle press towards the center of the crowd. A Moral Monday veteran, I quickly recognized what was happening: the march of those willing to be arrested had begun. People lined their path, applauding, cheering, chanting – doing everything but cast rose petals.

I didn’t think. I swept Louie, my eight-year-old, up in my arms as I had not done in years, lifted him until he sat on my shoulder, bouncing there as I ran to the edge of the crowd. “Look,” I told him. “Look! Those are people brave enough to go to jail for knowing what is right! This is why we are here – this is who we are supporting.” He watched. Once Louie had seen, up went Gus, age five, for his own look. I was moved, suddenly, almost to tears, so profound was my gratitude that those people were willing to march off to be arrested, to make the kind of noise that though the dumbasses causing the demonstrations won’t hear it still will reach the ears of the nation.

It’s not just those being jailed, of course – Moral Mondays are a product of the thousands Imageof us who come out every week “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” They’re the outcome of limitless effort by the NAACP. They’re the result of hundreds of leaders and thousands of people from dozens of organizations — religious, secular, political, community. The movement spreads because Rev. Barber constantly harps on it never becoming violent or disrespectful; it spreads because every time it meets, tone-deaf Governor McCrory refuses to address those grievances; it spreads because dumbasses like Tom Goolsby and Tom Apodoca put their feet further down their throats every time they even speak of it. It spreads because GOP attacks on women, on voting rights, on freedom of religion, on schools, on healthcare, on science are so shocking and barbaric.

Above all it spreads because the dopes were just too stupid to wait long enough: we are just this very summer hitting the fiftieth anniversary of the last time the people had to fight these fights, and there are too many people alive who fought too hard then. We haven’t forgotten yet. They’ve overplayed their hand.

But though that’s all thrilling, that wasn’t what gave me my chill, my sudden flash of hope. There was something about that moment – something about showing my kids the importance of the walk those brave citizens were making, something about showing those people our respect. That resonated with … something.

Later, at home, I figured it out and told my wife. It reminded me of the moment in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch, having lost his case, exits the courtroom and Scout, seated in the balcony with the town’s black population, doesn’t notice the people around her have stood up. “Miss Jean Louise, stand up,” Reverend Sykes tells her. “Your father’s passin’.

And your hair stands on end.

It’s much like the moment when Huck Finn decides to go to hell rather than allow Jim to be captured: a tiny but decisive moment, the kind of detail literature exists to underscore. Examples of what it means to care enough to be truly human. Examples of what courage looks like, and how we should respond to it.

We can’t all of us be Huck, we mostly lack the guts, and we can’t all be Atticus – we mostly lack the skill. But we can all try to show courage, and we can all certainly stand in respect of those Hucks and Atticuses among us, and I can’t think of anything more important to teach our children.

ImageAnd, to be sure, our children are learning. Louie and Gus, who have shown some reluctance to attend boring old speechifying Moral Mondays, today bent to make signs, and urged us to go to jail for our beliefs. We might. We got lots of loves from passersby, praising us for bringing our children. When the volunteer helping us remember to leave signs behind as we headed for the legislature said “Welcome home! This is your house!” people praised us for explaining what would happen if the legislature tried to lock the doors (“we would get a judge to make them open them back up”).

We explained what would happen if our protests succeeded (“everyone would be allowed to easily vote; everyone could see a doctor; women could make their own medical decisions; everyone would get to go to a good school; if you lost your job, we would help you; we would take care of our planet”), what would happen if their mom or I did get arrested (“we would be home later that night”). Louie said that if we did get arrested, in solidarity he would not sleep that night until we got home.

And it’s all beautiful and wonderful. I’m proud of our little sign-making boys and their Imageenormous hearts (“but why would someone want to make it so other people can’t vote?”). And I’m happy enough that each week this festival of resistance grows stronger and more fierce.

But I’m thrilled to say that for the first time in years I believe. When you’re standing up for the same things that Huck and Atticus stood for? You can be fairly sure you’re in the right. I know that in 2012, like Atticus, we lost a rigged case to a crooked jury. And I know that despite these appalling steps backwards gerrymandering and institutionalized wickedness will hamper all attempts to win on appeal. But I also feel swept up: the appeals will continue. We’ll stand as our Atticuses go by, one after another, until there are enough of us standing that the Apodocas and Goolsbys and McCrorys will eventually, in shame, sit down.

Do I Have to Do EVERYTHING Around Here?

Look, people. I am on deadline — deadlineS. I have work to do. I have things to get done to keep the mortgage paid and my kids’ mouths full of peanut butter, of macaroni and cheese. So I don’t really have time to write the column that the News & Observer failed to write this morning.

But since they didn’t, I will.

At least the smart and funny people are on the right side.

At least the smart and funny people are on the right side.

Here’s the story. As you well know, the dumbass Republicans in the NC House introduced the dumbass HB 695, which basically protects North Carolina citizens from foreign laws. Because, you know, in between taking over local school districts and municipal water systems, the party of small government needs to protect us from the government of, say, Ecuador deciding to come in and, I don’t know, retest us on our driving licenses or something. The bill, by the way, has been called the “anti-Sharia law,”  because it’s based on a template by anti-Sharia activists, and Republican legislators genuinely do appear to believe that somehow Sharia law can be forced on you right here in North Carolina.

That’s so stupid I won’t even begin to discuss it. There’s nothing real in this world the bill would actually protect us from, but it doesn’t restrict any meaningful rights either, so the remaining normals in the legislature didn’t worry much about it and just planned to debate it when it came up. It was a two-page piece of dumbassery. These guys love dumbassery, and it didn’t look like much more than the usual mischief.

It passed the House. Big deal. Then it moved to the Senate. Big deal. Except! Then late in the day on July 2, NC Senate Republicans amended it to within an inch of its life, filling it full of crap limiting abortion rights, especially language forcing abortion clinics to follow the same rules as surgical clinics, which would force virtually all of them to shut down. Now it’s called the Family, Faith, and Freedom act, because nothing says “dumbassery” like alliteration.

It’s standard sneak attack stuff — as a sign among the hundreds protesting this morning

This rather says it all, does it not?

This rather says it all, does it not?

said, “if you can’t be right, be sneaky.” It’s also, of course, cowardice. If the bill is good law — it’s obviously not; leaving out the health effects and other things we’ve just debated to death, it’s flat-out unconstitutional — introduce it, debate it, defend it, pass it. Hell, Republicans have the numbers to pass any damn thing they want — as they’ve demonstrated. If it’s not good law, wait around until you can think of a good law, then pass that. But seriously: “Slip it in when nobody’s around”? That’s your political philosophy? That’s what you teach your kids? Wait around until you think people who disagree with you aren’t looking, and then run something unspeakable by them? The great justification for your reactionary rewriting of the state’s law book is “because we can”? That’s your response to what you call — with plenty of justification — years of Democratic mismanagement?

Shame on you all.

Now — again. The thing is unconstitutional, as courts have upheld, so the whole farce is basically an enormously expensive practical joke played by the party of fiscal responsibility. And look, if we have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars — or more — to fight the thing all the way to the Supreme Court to hear them tell you that you’re not allowed to limit women’s access to health care like this, we’ll do that. It’s expensive and stupid and a waste of time, but expensive stupid wastes of time seem to be what Republican legislators like. Remember the bill against sea-level rise? Remember the one in favor of state-sponsored religion?

The arc of history bends towards justice. Because people like this push it that way.

The arc of history bends towards justice. Because people like this push it that way.

So last night, after watching Josh Stein’s impassioned defense of our rights, I messaged to a friend that I wondered what the chances were that the News & Observer would have something on its editorial page — whether by columnist or editorial staff — addressing this outrage in today’s paper. He felt sure someone would. I doubted it — back in the day, the paper used to have columnists who would drive back to the paper if they heard about this kind of thing going on just to get a word in the next day’s paper. The paper’s editorial staff is down in the thirties now.

Guess what — I was right! Even though a columnist or editorial writer would have to go no further than his or her desk to make an addition to the print or online product, nobody stepped up. Those days are gone. The N&O had a front-page story on the GOP sneakery, but nothing on the editorial page. I’m sure they will tomorrow. But guess what? The vote was today. Bad guys won. The moment for taking a stand before the final vote has passed.

I went down to stand with the protesters, of course. This kind of madness ruins lives, destroys communities, makes North Carolina look like a backwater full of madpersons. It makes the state much less attractive to business, by the way, which one would think would interest the supposedly pro-business Republican party, but it appears that when up to the mischief of limiting women’s rights and creating bad law that hits the badness trifecta — it’s bad for health, it’s bad law, and it’s embarrassing to the state — nothing stops these guys.

And, oh, yeah — the whole irony of stuffing provisions treating women like property and restricting their rights into a bill supposedly against Sharia law, which is perceived as treating women like property and limiting their rights? The irony there is so extreme I’m not even going to bother.s

To sum up though. This law is indefensible on a health basis (limiting abortions only causes abortions to be less safe, not less in number), on a legal basis (bills like it have been challenged, blocked, and overturned), and an ethical basis (go ahead, I beg you — try to defend the position that a blastocyst has the same ethical standing as Governor McCrory, that your preteen daughter, pregnant from rape, is carrying a being with the same rights as hers; if you don’t, then you’re prochoice — you just think you get to make the choice, not each individual woman).

Each senator — and state rep — who voted for this bill is either ignorant, stupid, or wicked. It’s that simple. And people who are ignorant, stupid, and wicked are in charge. That’s why I was out there this morning. And that’s why I spent the rest of the morning writing this instead of doing my job.

So. I’m going back to work now. I went out to protest, because as a citizen what less could I do? I did the News & Observer’s job because, as a writer, what less could I do? Now, as a businessperson, I have to meet deadlines and do my work. Because … well, you know. And okay — meet “-ish” those deadlines now.

But seriously: what are our options?

A Passover Tale


This picture shows something we found this week scrawled in our closet — a closet currently being built for us by contractors. As usual, the remarkable June Spence has the most appropriate response, but how could I fail to respond myself? 

Passover starts Friday night, and we remind ourselves, as we do every year, that there’s always somebody looking to get rid of the Jews — and then instantly remind ourselves, as we do every year, that of course it’s not just the Jews at all: somebody is always looking for some Other to cite, to blame for their own problems, to place at the root of their own fears. Whether it’s the family of Trayvon Martin or anyone affected by North Carolina’s hellish Amendment One or for that matter anyone who ever wore a hoodie or looked or felt or believed in a way that someone else tried to crush by hatred or force, so many of us are all, always, fighting to prove that we count just as much as you, that you can’t just get rid of us by fiat, by weapon, by amendment. No matter how much you try.

So I look at this ugly slur, scrawled in Sharpie and then apparently painted over on the inside of a closet, as in a way a small blessing. How fortunate we are — with healthy children, a loving family and friends, a warm house, enough money to pay some people to build us a closet — that we have nothing more terrifying to face this Passover than this small, mean, cowardly expression of ugliness and hatred. We have, at the moment, laws to protect us, as much as laws can, from physical violence. We have safe and comfortable lives, in which a slur like this means only, “Heave a sigh and talk to the contractor,” not “Grab what you can carry and run.” 

But the distance from here to there is short. And the journey starts with things like North Carolina’s Amendment One or Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws, all of which propagate the lie that those others — the people who look different from you, the ones who believe or feel different from you, the ones who make you afraid or uncomfortable — they’re not the same. They are different, they are less, they can be the victims.

No they can’t. No we can’t. Or anyhow, we won’t, any of us. Again — a small blessing, this ugly scrawl on our closet. Well timed to remind us: We’ve got to look out for each other, because alone there’s always someone looking to do something stupid. The contractor, when I showed him the word, of course apologized. Too many subcontractors have been in and out for anybody to quickly assign blame. But he said: “We’ll take care of that. We’ll paint over that.”

Oh no, I said. No you won’t. 

We’ll save that to remember.