Open Letter to Paul Ryan on Guns

Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Speaker Ryan,

Yet another young man with yet another AR-15 semi-automatic rifle has killed yet more people in a place that should be safe.

And you, yet again, have said that it is not the time to talk about it. It is too soon. We don’t have all the facts. We have to wait.

The problem with not talking about these things because it is “too soon” is that it’s always too soon until it’s too late. We need to talk and take action now. Right now.

You may not realize this, but we have been waiting to deal with ending gun violence for years. We have been waiting almost twenty years since Columbine, since Virginia Tech, since Fort Hood, since the Aurora theater, since Oak Creek, since Sandy Hook, since San Bernadino, since Charleston, since the Pulse Nightclub, since Las Vegas, since many other tragedies (Binghamton, San Ysidro, the Baptist church in Texas, a shopping center in Omaha, and more, many more). We can’t wait any longer. It is time for talk and then for action. It is past time.

Maybe we don’t have all the facts from this week’s shooting yet. Do you think maybe we have enough facts yet from any of the previous mass shootings to start the discussion? Here’s a fact for you. Just in the mass shootings named above more than 300 people died and hundreds more were injured and many of them were children. That fact alone should tell you that it is time not only to talk, but to take action to prevent any more deaths from senseless mass shooting events.

If you are hesitant to talk because of all the money you’ve taken from the National Rifle Association perhaps it is time to give it back, buy back your soul, and join the majority of Americans who want to see something done about this issue. $171,977 is a lot of money to give back, but you would earn it back in good will and votes from the American citizens you are truly elected to represent.

Unlike Citizens United which allows politicians to accept virtually unlimited campaign donations it is understood that the Bill of Rights was designed to protect all of us. Admittedly, there are those on the extremes who do want to take all guns out of the hands of citizens and on the flip side there are those who believe we should have access to even more deadly weapons. Most of us are in the middle. Most of us believe in the Constitution. Most of us believe that the Second Amendment guarantees citizens the right to bear arms. We are okay with that. We come from hunting communities or collecting communities or communities where fear convinces people to buy guns to protect their homes and families. We are okay with people buying handguns or rifles for personal use. We are not okay with citizens holding weapons and arsenals that are designed solely for killing people efficiently. We are tired of waking up to stories about lone gunmen killing dozens of people for unexplained reasons.

Most of us also understand that the history of our nation is a history of compromise. You don’t get everything you want, I don’t get everything I want, but we both get something. We understand that compromise doesn’t happen without first engaging in conversation–not partisan debate with no respect for the opinions of others, but real dialogue.

You represent my state in Congress. You are the Speaker of the House. You should be a leader on this issue. You should not tell us it is too early to talk or refer to the calls for talk and action as knee-jerk reactions. You need to listen to all the people, not just those who support you with votes or cash. You are also a father with children of your own. When you see American children dying needlessly you should lead the charge in figuring out how to prevent that from ever happening again. Your constituents expect nothing less and we are watching, not just this week because of the most recent shooting, but we will be watching every day until we see the change that we so badly need.

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Will they know

Roselawn Cemetery

Roselawn Cemetery. Photo by Callen Harty.

When they dig up these bones

what will they find on the skeleton of my life?

Will they be able to read the hieroglyphics on my skull

and the petroglyphs of my soul

etched in the decaying calcium

before them?

Will they interpret the chips and nicks

and understand the life that once

filled what

remains?

Will they know the love that was harbored

in the cavity where my heart once resided?

Will they see the strength behind my chest,

the frailty of human beings and

the weakness of being human?

Will they know the passion of my bones?

Will they understand the complexity of the man

who inhabited the corpse beneath their shovels?

And will they understand in the end that their bodies, too,

are nothing more than dust and bones?

Will they know more than I was a man

and am now an empty shell?

Will they understand that they, too,

shall lie wrapped in a shroud

wrapped in the earth that bore them?

Will they know that this, too, is their home?

That love, anger, hate, curiosity, empathy,

all

falls into dust?

And will they know that the energy of all

love and hate and

all else

lingers long after the soul departs the body,

lying on the bosom of the earth above their bones?

 

When they dig up these bones

will they know that they are my bones;

that they are their own bones?

Will they read the writing left upon them?

Will they understand that mortality is in the bones

and that immortality is in the love and energy left behind?

When they dig up these bones

will they know? Will they know.

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On Trump and Racism

Boy with Flag

Boy with Flag. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

Donald Trump is a racist.

That is it. Period. Donald Trump is a racist. There should be no further discussion. It is a fact. But in this day and age there apparently are no “facts”, only “fake news”, lies, and smear campaigns. As a result, there are those who would argue against the idea that Trump is a racist. There are apologists for his behavior who will do everything they can to justify his words and twist them into something so innocent-sounding that it could be construed as treasonous to say that he is a racist. Trump himself, like all racists, denies that he is a racist.

Seemingly every day he does or says something that offends a huge swath of the world’s population. Yesterday and today newspapers, websites, Twitter, and citizens both in the United States and abroad were in an uproar over a report that on Thursday Trump described African countries and Haiti as “shithole countries”, asking why we would want immigrants from such places.

The reality is that Haiti and much of Africa and many other parts of the world are harder places to live than the United States, in large part due to years of American and European colonialism, capitalism, and exploitation. The citizens of those places may be poorer financially, but that does not make them poorer in spirit, less human, or less desirable as neighbors, co-workers, and friends. It does not mean that as immigrants they cannot contribute greatly to another nation’s economy, culture, and more. The struggling economies of the countries that Trump disparaged yesterday also makes it more understandable why they might want to and should be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Generations have come here for the dream of a better life that Lady Liberty has promised. It is why Italians, Chinese, Irish, Hmong, and others have sacrificed to come here. It is why Trump’s family came here. Regardless of Liberty’s call to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Donald Trump does not want the poor or huddled masses. He does not want any more immigrants–unless they are white. This is not an exaggeration. His words betray him.

Today he denied using the word “shithole”, noting that he used “tough” language in talking about the issue, but did not use that term. Trump and his supporters are missing the point. Most people in day-to-day life use foul language on occasion, if not regularly. Presidents and other politicians swear. On the Watergate tapes Richard Nixon used the “F” word more times than most people have in their lifetimes. It is not the specific language that is the issue–though we should expect a higher level of discourse and propriety from our leaders–it is the attitude behind that language.

Whether Trump specifically used the term “shithole” does not matter. What matters is that he questioned why we would want immigrants from Africa and Haiti coming into our country. At the same time he suggested that we should allow more immigration from places like Norway, where blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans are the norm.

Whatever equivocations and denials may be used about the specific words, what remains is that Donald Trump is a racist. This, also, is not an exaggeration.

If yesterday’s incident were the only instance in which Trump said or did something along these lines, it would still be enough for anyone who understands the insidiousness of racism to say that he is racist. However, one doesn’t need to rely solely on yesterday’s meeting. There is a long history that can be reviewed, going back to his resistance to renting his properties to African-Americans decades ago, to his view of Mexicans as rapists, to his response to the neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville, to his desire to ban Muslim immigrants to the United States, to his descriptions of American black communities during the election, to retweeting white nationalists. This is only a partial list. There are other instances of somewhat more careful language that also hint at a racist man.

The obvious conclusion that can be drawn from Donald Trump’s actions and words is that he is a racist and a racist is not someone who should be leading the world’s melting pot. Period. His views on race and immigration cannot be supported. There is no justification for his words or his beliefs. There is no place anywhere at the table for a racist, but especially not at the head of the table. If it were my house he would not be welcome any longer.

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Letter to Ron Johnson on the Tax Bill

Dear Senator Johnson,

While the Republican party has long promised some kind of tax reform, the bill that is currently before the House and Senate changes tax law, but does nothing to improve the circumstances of the vast majority of American citizens. In addition to it being a giveaway to the wealthiest of our countrymen, it is an insult to middle class and poor Americans.

If anything the tax rates for corporations and wealthy individuals should go up, not down. Those rates have been steadily decreasing over the last hundred years, while the burden of taxes has fallen more heavily on those who can least afford to pay more.

The bill also sabotages health care for all Americans while doing nothing to improve the lot of those who cannot afford insurance or staying healthy. This is a sneaky way to undermine the Affordable Care Act, a law that since its introduction has increased in popularity and use despite the constant Republican drumbeat against it.

Also, allowing drilling in the Arctic in this bill, something that has nothing at all to do with taxes, but has been a long-time unachievable goal of your party, is again a sneaky way to reward large corporations while ignoring the will of the American people. The majority of us want to see our environment–and especially those areas of it that have been designated for protection–left alone.

This tax bill has been rushed through without the possibility for thorough review by the members of either party, let alone the American public. Since it was unveiled, however, it has been shown to be incredibly unpopular in poll after poll. You and all of our elected officials have been elected to represent your constituents, not to enact legislation that benefits corporations and the wealthy over the needs of the many. Further, holding out your vote until other Senators agreed to an amendment that will further line your own pockets is a despicable act. It will be remembered come the next election.

Though I’m confident my plea will fall on deaf ears, I wanted to let you know how I feel and to add to the record another citizen whose vote you will not represent if you vote for this bill and whose vote you will not get once you do.

Tax the Rich

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Daily Triggers

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor on stage in Madison, Wisconsin, 2017. Photo by Callen Harty.

Trigger Warning: This post is about sexual abuse, harassment, and child sex abuse. Please take care of yourself first and foremost and please seek help if anything along these lines has happened to you.

 

Pretty much every day now there are new stories about sexual assault and sexual harassment in the media. In the headlines today:

  • Former Today Show host Matt Lauer broken and ashamed
  • Congressperson John Conyers resigns after sexual harassment claims
  • Multiple storylines about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore
  • Former Apprentice contestant sues Donald Trump for defamation for calling her a liar after she claimed he groped her
  • 18-year old in California admits to sexually abusing upwards of 50 children
  • Top gossip editor accused of sexual misconduct (Dylan Howard of the National Enquirer and other titles under the umbrella of American Media, Inc.)
  • Terry Crews suing agent who allegedly groped him
  • Hyperloop cofounder Pishevar takes leave after harassment allegations
  • Netflix fires Danny Masterson after rape allegations
  • John Oliver grills Dustin Hoffman over harassment claims

These headlines are from just a quick glance at two different sites that present stories from various news sources.

The amazing and wonderful thing about this is that victims and survivors are speaking up and being heard in ways that have never happened before. Women are claiming their power. People who have held pain and secrets for most of their lives are finally speaking their truths and releasing themselves from the chains of horror that have held them for years. It can be empowering to witness how quickly some perpetrators have fallen from grace and have had to face what they have done to countless women and, in some of the cases, men and children. In many cases it feels like some form of justice has been meted out, even when the statutes of limitations have long since expired and it seemed like there would never be any resolution.

One can hope that this is a seminal moment on the long path toward the goal of eliminating sexual assault and some of the barriers for reporting it. It has historically been difficult for victims to come forward for many reasons–shame, fear, the likelihood of not being believed, the inability to face what happened, victim blaming, and more. Watching dozens of people coming forward and stating their truths and getting results could very well lead to many more secrets being revealed, and that is a positive thing. Bringing these kinds of secrets into the light makes it more difficult for acts in darkened corners to remain hidden.

The flip side of it is that for survivors of sexual assault to see and hear each of these stories and all the sordid details can be incredibly triggering. Some cannot deal with these stories. Some will not read a single one of the articles because they bring up too many difficult emotions. For some, just the headlines are too hard.

As a survivor of nearly eight years of childhood sex abuse I feel connection with those who are talking now and I want to know their stories. I empathize with them. I don’t care about the famous people involved, but I know that through their fame they are drawing attention to a story that is not new to those of us who have survived and pushed our way through our own sometimes difficult, sometimes beautiful healing journeys. While the stories draw me in they also sadden me because I feel them so strongly. They remind me of my own painful past and the long road I have traveled to where I am today. The last several weeks have been both exhilarating and deeply depressing and there are entire days when I am pretty much numb from it all.

Part of the numbness is from the stories that remain unresolved. The Roy Moore story is the most difficult for me. Multiple women have accused him. One was only 14 years old. One has a yearbook with his signature. Yesterday it was revealed that one of the women has cards and other memorabilia from the judge, who claims he never knew any of the women who have come forward. And yet, there are people who choose to believe that all of these women are lying–that Roy Moore’s denials are more believable.

This is the kind of disbelief that survivors often intimately know. It is often easier for a mother to believe that their child is lying or misinterpreted something than to believe that a close family member or friend would violate trust in that way. It is easier for a person to think that a woman is making up a story because of her political beliefs than a friend of theirs would do the things she claims. I believe that most people know underneath it all what the truth is, but they can’t face it because it is too horrible or it doesn’t fit their conception of the world. Or they choose to ignore it because other things like winning an election are more important to them. This is what causes the most numbness, to understand that the lives of women and children who have been victimized are so worthless to some people that they can be tossed aside in the name of other gains.

If Roy Moore wins his election it will silence countless victims who will see that society doesn’t care about their stories despite the handful of powerful men who have recently lost jobs. If Kevin Spacey makes a triumphant return to the screen there will be boys who suffer in silence well into adulthood, knowing that their perpetrators can get away with it, too. These thoughts make me numb. I believe the women who have accused Roy Moore. I believe the men who have shared stories about Kevin Spacey. I believe the women who have accused Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and others. And even though I have always admired Al Franken, Garrison Keillor, and others I also believe their accusers.

What I want, and what I believe most of these victims want, is for those who have assaulted others and gotten away with it to face themselves, their victims, and society, and acknowledge the sins they’ve hidden all these years. That is the biggest thing, because with that as the beginning we can all begin to move toward a place of healing for ourselves and for the world in which we live. We can talk about these issues in honest ways and we can recreate our culture at this juncture in our timeline. We can create a world in which everyone is respected and honored and sexual assault and harassment no longer exist. That can only happen if we accept and understand how prevalent sexual abuse is, deal with it honestly, and work together to end it. Let us hope that these daily triggers can help lead us to that day.

 

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The Real Story of Assault

Hope

Hope. Photo by Callen Harty.

The way that America’s media and Americans’ attention span works it will likely be another couple or few weeks that everyone is fascinated by all the sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and child sex abuse stories popping up every day. Because the Harvey Weinstein story caught fire journalists started looking for more stories like it and there were women and some men who had been victims of assault who started to realize that maybe for the first time in their lives and in our country’s history they could share their stories and would be believed. So they spoke out and they were believed and people like Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and many, many others were suddenly being held accountable.

The thing is, the hunger for these stories is not because the general public suddenly cares about sexual assault. It is a result of our celebrity culture, a culture that elected a reality television star President, a culture that focuses all of its attention on the rich and famous, a culture that loves to build up stars and then rip them down. The attention is all on the famous perpetrators–Spacey, Al Franken, Louis CK, James Toback, Roy Moore, and about two dozen others–but not on those who suffered at their hands. The focus is on what the famous people did, not what their victims suffered. How many can even name more than one or two of the accusers? Likely a scant few.

The discussions raised because of these stories are about the effects of the accusations on the careers of these well-known and powerful men, not on the effects on the women and men abused by them. If the country’s attention can be held for a bit perhaps some laws will be passed that will make perpetrators think twice about their behavior. One can hope. Or perhaps, and maybe more likely, some other unexpected hot story will come along and journalists by then can only find B list celebrities accused of sexual assault, so the sexual assault story line fades into the background. It has happened before. Think of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby, Josh Duggar, and many others. Stories about them held our attention for a few brief moments and then faded away into nothingness and all was forgotten. And again, how many can name the people they hurt? Likely not many. Maybe this time some things will change. Maybe not.

Meanwhile, in cities and towns across the country there are countless boys and girls, women and also men, who are sexually assaulted on a daily basis, and they don’t get headline stories in the New York Times. Their perpetrators often keep them silenced through threats and intimidation. As many as one in three girls and one in five or six boys is sexually abused before the age of eighteen. There is approximately one rape every two minutes in this country. One rape every two minutes. It is not just the rich and powerful who commit these acts. It is an epidemic that reaches every layer of this society.

We cannot let this moment pass. We need to shift the discussion from the perpetrators to the victims and survivors. We need to shift the focus from the sensationalized headlines of the famous falling from grace to the needs of those who are rising out of shame and fear. We need to pass laws like the Child Victims Act and Erin’s Law in every state and at the national level. We need to take care of those who have been victimized and work hard to make sure there are no further victims. We owe it to each other. We have let this behavior go for far too long.

While these salacious stories of the powerful have brought attention to the issues of assault and harassment we need for the attention to help cause a fundamental shift in our thinking about behavior and the culture in which we live. If it doesn’t, thousands upon thousands more voices will be silenced than the dozens that have recently spoken.

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The Political Pendulum

Capitol

The nation’s Capitol at sunset. Photo by Callen Harty.

Back in 2003 Wisconsin’s former governor, Lee Sherman Dreyfus, won the first-ever Courage Award from OutReach, Madison’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) community center. It was a long overdue recognition for his signing of the nation’s first gay rights law in 1982. In his remarks at the awards banquet that night Dreyfus talked about the Republican party and how he didn’t recognize it anymore. He more or less said that his party had been hijacked and was no longer the party that he knew and loved.

Two decades before that night there was an article in Madison’s Isthmus about how the conservative Christian movement intended to take power in this country. They felt that things had swung too far to the left and they had a grand plan to change that. They would start small, by winning seemingly inconsequential local elections, many of them uncontested, such as school board seats, city council seats, and the like. Once they became entrenched there they would start running for seats with a little more power, such as county boards. After securing places at the table at that level, they would start running for state offices and follow that with national offices. They would be patient. It could take decades to get into the most powerful positions in the country, but it was a long-range goal and they could wait. They knew they didn’t have the numbers or the support to start big, so they would start small, gain positions which would allow them to appoint and anoint others and little by little insert themselves into the political scene at every level. Their patience paid off.

Already by the early 2000s Republicans like Dreyfus had become aware that their party had been infiltrated and taken over by people whose agenda no longer resembled anything they had spent their lives working for, but they recognized it too late. The Republican party had become the party of religious zealots who were determined to undo Roe vs. Wade, the gains in LGBT rights, unions and workers’ rights, and any other progressive milestones they could. The Christian right had entrenched themselves so thoroughly into the party that there could no longer be such a thing as a liberal Republican and even moderate Republicans became afraid of opposing anything the right-wingers supported. They gave in and followed like herds of mindless sheep. Those who didn’t were challenged in elections in which races were judged by the media according to who had the largest war chests, not who had ideas or who cared the most about their state or nation. Whomever could raise the most money became the way to determine who was the best candidate and most likely to win. When the Citizens United decision was handed down by the U. S. Supreme Court it made the money mandate even clearer.

As the years passed the right-wing became even more determined. The Republican party kept pushing farther and farther to the right and along with it the Democratic party also tilted further right. They felt they had to in order to survive. The Christian right had convinced the country that “liberal” was an evil word and those who had previously considered themselves liberal tried to deflect any association with liberalism in order to woo voters. They no longer wanted to claim what they truly believed. Even if they remained liberal they chose to hide that instead of proudly proclaiming it because the word had become anathema to the masses of voters. To win elections they pandered at best to the middle and at worst veered off-center to the right. For votes and power, they sold themselves out. With the exception of a handful of politicians like Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Paul Wellstone, and a few others, most politicians in both parties were shifting further and further toward more conservative and archaic views. Bill Clinton led the Democrats to the middle and then to the right of middle in order to ensure getting elected and staying in power. And as the Democrats abandoned their heritage the Republicans gained more and more power. It began to feel like a return to the Dark Ages.

Today, the age is even darker. Neither of the two major political parties resembles what they were even thirty or forty years ago. Imagine a George McGovern being nominated today. It’s out of the realm of possibility. Ronald Reagan would be too liberal for much of the country these days. Politicians who half a century ago seemed conservative would now be considered left-wingers. The Christians of several decades ago are also unrecognizable. While there are some ministers and churches that still preach love, compassion, generosity, and other teachings that used to be the cornerstones of Christian theology, Christianity today is dominated by megachurches and ordained men and women who preach the gospel of prosperity. Pastors who are supposed to be men of god denigrate the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse of society, the homeless, and the tempest-tossed. Their god is not a merciful, loving god. Their god is money and power. If Jesus were to return as they say he will he would upend the altars of the money-changers in the temples. This modern-day Christianity is unrecognizable. It claims the Bible but only uses the book to justify political positions. The passage of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, will likely disappear from newer translations of the Bible.

We are living in a time in which church and state are colluding to rob from the poor to give to the rich. Every gain that has been made for the betterment of society in the last one hundred years is being examined and overturned. Laws that protected common citizens, the environment, and more are being reversed so that the money-lenders and the wealthy have more and more while most of the citizens have less and less. Somehow the citizens elected a reality television star to the Presidency and he has thrown us into the most unreal of times, where racism is on the rise, common sense laws are being trashed, and we are sinking into a political, social, and moral abyss. It feels like we are witnessing the decline and fall of the American empire.

It’s amazing how the press is now calling the battle between Mitch McConnell and Roy Moore the battle for the soul of the Republican Party. As if it hadn’t already lost its soul. As if either man, whether it be the heartless party leader who sold his soul to corporate America ages ago or the man who sold his to the devil and molested teenage girls decades ago, could claim any kind of moral compass or standing. If these are the claimants to the soul of the party, then there is truly nothing left to salvage. We are sinking, and sinking fast. Maybe, like an alcoholic hitting rock bottom, we had to fall this far–and hopefully no more–before we could rise again a renewed and better nation.

One can hope that this is the furthest right reach of the political pendulum. Perhaps the grand plan has succeeded too well and Americans will wake up to the reality that the far right-wing politicians and ministers in this country are leading us into hell so that they can reside in a heaven of their own making. There are some signs that maybe there is a new morning in America. The recent elections in which several women and minorities were elected around the country, another Democratic state Senate win in Oklahoma, the few Republicans standing up to Trump and naming him for the charlatan he is are all hopeful signs that the end of this far right-wing reign of error is about to start its decline. Those who care about the tired, the poor, the huddling masses, those who care about the future of this nation need to do their best to see that it happens. It is time for the pendulum to swing back. It is time for Democrats to return to their roots or for a new progressive party to rise from the ash heap of our modern society. It is our only hope.

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