Where willful ignorance gets an A+

Our July school board meeting opens, as it always does, with a Christian prayer. The room is mostly full, about 50 people. On tonight’s agenda: Critical Race Theory.

First to speak is Katie Howard, a prominent local Republican. “I am not here to accuse Anderson County of teaching CRT as part of a formal curriculum,” she says in opening, “but I am here to warn the school board to be on the look out for this evil that is creeping further and further into our society.” For the next six minutes she talks about victimhood, oppression, and indoctrination.

As she speaks, I pull up Ms. Howard’s Facebook page. Her public profile photo is an American flag inside a green circle that reads: I don’t care if you’ve had your vaccine.

Ms. Howard is describing how children as young as kindergarten are being told to rank themselves according to power and privilege, that White kids are being forced to apologize to kids of color. “The cat is now out of the bag!” she declares, saying that when teachers choose to interpret history, they are crossing the line into indoctrination.

The last school board meeting I attended was pre-pandemic. We were there to debate a banner at the high school football game that read, “Make America Great Again, Trump Those Patriots.” Afterward, I received a message from my niece, a high school vice principal in a neighboring state, saying she was less concerned about the inappropriate political banner than the prayer. “The school board starts every meeting with a prayer?!?! A lawsuit is the last place you want funds going for something that can be so easily rectified. And obviously they don’t see how that alone could prevent citizens with different beliefs, opinions, faith, culture, etc. from speaking their concerns.”

Next up tonight is Matthew Singleton. “I work as a pastor,” he says. “Five years ago I was ministering to youth, and I was ministering to a young man, and he had gotten from his public school education the ideas that the big bang theory and evolution had him … not believing in God, and there was a lot of turmoil in the church because he was dealing with his grandparents and a lot of family issues.”

The next man introduces himself as Frank Simon. “I’m a medical doctor,” he says. “I want to talk about CRT, critical race theory, though of course it has a hundred other names because they want to cover up the original names and call it something else, but it’s still critical race theory. It’s a theory that was started by Black Lives Matter, it’s a communist theory, and it’s to cause division and confusion and I am against that.”

Listening to these people speak complete nonsense, I consider the nonsensical leadership of Sen. Rand Paul who tweets things like, “Critical race theory. . . is the definition of reverse racism,” forcing small counties like mine to waste precious school board hours demanding that something not being taught in our schools is not taught in our schools.

Behind me, a man named Marty Terry stands to speak. “Critical race theory is nothing more than Marxism,” he says. “I think it’s equity, inclusion, and diversity is what they’re calling it now, so people look up and they’re like ‘critical race theory’ is not in there. It’s remade, it’s repackaged, but it’s the same old crap.”

And as the CRT conspiracy theory portion of this meeting comes to a close, the board’s vice chair, Peggy Peach, adds her two cents. “I would just like to say that I would like to see patriotic education taught.”

The room explodes with applause.

Ms. Peach has four flags on display next to her name plate: an American flag, the Commonwealth of Kentucky flag, a yellow Don’t Tread On Me flag, and a mostly-white flag I do not recognize.

A friend whispers, “I think that’s a Christian Nationalist flag.”

Of course it is.

These people are not panicked about CRT. They are, like so many of those arguing at school boards across Kentucky and the country, panicked that their own brand of indoctrination — White, revisionist, Christian — isn’t on the curriculum.

And since our superintendent has decided to start the school year on August 11 with no masks — in a low-vaccinated county, against both the CDC’s and the Governor’s recommendations — our school board can add science right under history on its growing list of irrelevant subjects. Willful ignorance gets an A+.

In search of kindness

“Unkindness involves a failure of the imagination so acute that it threatens not just our happiness but our sanity.” ― Adam Phillips, “On Kindness”

The board meeting to approve or disapprove a motor sports venue is barely underway when my friend turns to the man behind us to whisper sternly, “Sir, excuse me. Sir, you are being unkind.”

We are in the basement of the Anderson County extension office for a meeting of the Board of Zoning Adjustments. The chairs are mostly full and the microphones aren’t working. You can feel the tension amongst neighbors, those for and against a proposed track which will feature tractor pulls, truck pulls, and more. Folks are speaking out of turn, in violation of the rules, including a gentleman who is not only talking but approaching the board chairman and refusing to sit. It is this gentleman the elderly man behind us is making fun of until my friend shushes him.

In the end, the board approves a conditional use permit and that’s it. It’s over. The woman who owns a wedding venue near the proposed track rushes out a side door, in tears. Another woman whose house stands a half mile from the track looks bereft, defeated. “Our house will shake,” she tells me. We disperse, mostly in silence. Neighbors with nothing more to say to one another.

Sadly, this was not an anomaly. Two days earlier I’d attended a packed-to-capacity library board meeting. The pastor of a small church had voiced his opposition to the library’s Pride Month display—two tiny tables in the back of the room—prompting an outcry. And like the gathering to witness the vote on the motorsports venue, there we all were, crammed into the library, nerves on edge, neighbors at odds.

Call me naive (really, go ahead) but this is not the way I envisioned re-entry into small town life after four years of political division and a year-plus of pandemic separation. It feels heavy. What happened to taking the temperature down? Surely we missed one another, didn’t we? We would come out of this more generous, more gracious, more kind, right?

I am reminded of a paragraph from the final pages of Wendell Berry’s “The Memory of Old Jack”: “He walks with the effort of a man burdened, a man carrying a great bale or a barrel, who has carried it too far but has not yet found a place convenient to set it down. Once he could carry twice this weight. Now half would be too much.”

Had these last years been too much? What were we all carrying in those meetings? What is still weighing us down?

On the road out of town, on my way home from the zoning fracas, I spot a friend on his porch. He is a new friend, one I don’t know well, but I whip my car into his driveway and walk right on up. He calls for his wife to come out, “Teri’s here!” and returns to the swing. His wife offers me a chair. Their two dogs wag their tails and beg for pets. And it is in that moment I realize, I am not solely in search of community. I am in search of kindness.

For the next hour, we visit on their front porch like our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents used to do. Every now and again a car or truck drives by. Rarely does anyone wave. The couple tells me how someone “just this week” slowed their truck and yelled “F*** Biden!” The wife takes in a big, visible breath. “We talk about moving,” she says, “but where would we go? I mean, we love South Carolina but then we think, they may not want us there either. And I love my house!” We all laugh, but it is more a laugh of uncertainty than joy. I know it well. Being a democrat in Anderson County, where your neighbors still fly giant Trump flags and randomly yell obscenities at you or your house, can weigh a person down.

As dusk settles along the tree tops, I stand. Time to let these nice people get back to their evening. On the ten mile drive home, I keep an eye out for deer and I think about the kindness of most speakers at the library and of my friend in the zoning meeting, the friend with the courage to shush the elderly bully behind us and the temerity to walk up there, to gently and with no drama get the out-of-order gentlemen to take his seat.

That’s a start, I think. That, and front porches.

Republicans are afraid of a Jan. 6 commission and their own violent supporters

** My column, in print this Sunday, May 30 **

January 6, 2021 – Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone is pulled outside the U.S. Capitol, thrown to the ground, and beaten unconscious by Trump supporters.

What does the Republican party stand for?

This is the question I would have asked Sen. Rand Paul if I’d had the chance. But I did not get the chance.

Sen. Paul came to Lawrenceburg a few weeks ago to meet with local leaders, and let me tell you it is a great big giant deal for a U.S. Senator to stop by a little town like mine. Unfortunately, I discovered this would be a closed, invitation-only meeting. A Republican friend told me they were holding the meeting off Hwy. 127 and the Bluegrass Parkway (to keep away protestors) and on private property (to keep away the general public, aka “constituents”), and then sent me the seemingly top secret link to apply for entry.

I wanted to ask my one question—What does the Republican party stand for?—so I filled out my name, address, phone and email. I was honest about being a writer and a columnist. And I never heard back.

We hear a constant drumbeat of the what the Republican party is against. They are against “cancel culture.” They are against “the elites.” They are against increasing the minimum wage. After more than a decade, they still have not shown us their mysterious, better-than-Obamacare healthcare plan. They are against immigration. They are against people kneeling and marching in peaceful protest. They are against common sense gun laws, even as we continue to have mass shooting after mass shooting and men with long guns march in and around our state capitols screaming about freedom.

They are against admitting how long and often they told the Big Lie, choosing instead to poison the minds of their voters and, in turn, democracy itself.

They recoil from stating emphatically that the election was free and fair and was not stolen from Donald Trump, even as Trump continues lying, telling Newmax as recently as May 26, “The election was a fraud. It was a rigged election.”

What does the Republican party stand for if not the investigation of thousands who stormed the U.S. Capitol at the behest of President Trump to stop the certification of an American election?

What does the Republican party stand for if not to acknowledge their own supporters (based on their clothing and their flags) violently beat police officers with sticks and batons and flag poles, sprayed them with noxious chemicals, and built a gallows on the Capitol grounds while chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”

And there’s the rub. The Republican party is terrified of both the former president and the voters who elected them.

The Republican party stands for fear.

After all their leader, the former president, refused to call off the insurrectionists who hunted them for more than two hours on January 6, and then released a video telling the rioters to go home, that he loved them, they were special.

As my once-Trump-voting relative said the next day, “If they’d hung Mike Pence on live TV, Trump would have fundraised off it.”

On May 23, conservative columnist George Will said the quiet part out loud. The singular reason the GOP, including our own Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Paul, will not support a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection on Jan. 6 is because “we have a political party defined by the terror it feels for its own voters. That’s the Republican Party right now,” and elected Republicans are “afraid that a vote for this would be seen as an insult to the 45th president.”

Is this what Republicans stand for, not investigating the brutal beating of law enforcement officers—officers who desperately fought to protect them and their colleagues from potentially the same beatings, or worse—by their own violent supporters, supporters who were chanting they wanted to hang the Vice President?

I would have liked to ask Sen. Paul that question.

The Great (Reading) Escape

Last week, while eating that vicious, calculating, world renowned tooth-cracker called overcooked bowtie pasta (oh yes!) I broke the cap off one of my front teeth. Or so I thought.

My dentist was out of town (of course she was) and her entire office was closed (of course it was) because they had not had a vacation since the beginning of the pandemic, so they shuffled me over to their sister office (is that like a sister wife?) for the repair. Which would be quick (hahaha) and minor (bwahahahaha).

Three hours, a pulled tooth, the drilling in of an implant, the attaching of a fragile temporary front tooth, a bazillion trillion dollars, three prescriptions, and a whole lotta nitrous (which was not nearly enough drugs!!!) later, here’s what I read and am reading to relax. Highly recommend ALL of the following:

If you think you don’t want to read a story about foster care, you are mistaken. Sarah writes beautifully and poetically about what it feels like to enter the foster care system by choice, as foster parents who intend to adopt. One of the best memoirs I’ve read this year.

My dear friend Damhnait (which I pronounce “Downith” with her approval) has written such a joyful adventure — yes, with its serious moments, too — set in 1985 about a young teacher who leaves the big city for a teeny, teeny, tiny fishing village in Newfoundland. I loved this book in both hard copy AND as an audiobook for the sounds of the local dialect.

And here’s another dear friend, Suzy Vitello, with the story of what happens to a family with “issues” after a major earthquake in the pacific northwest. Nobody does sharp insight into characters and their motivations, and in crisp, gorgeous prose like Suzy. I loved every beautifully flawed person in this story, and as I live in a family where me and my adult siblings can go years without speaking, I nodded a lot in the reading. You’ll love this one.

It’s an understatement to say Ouita Michel is one of the prides of Kentucky. Big heart, big smile, incredible chef, compassionate business woman, and great sharer of family recipes so accessible I can make them! I could not wait to read Ouita’s memoir/cookbook, but it was so worth the wait.

I heard Morgan on a podcast talking about her book and ordered it immediately. Such sharp, personal observations about ancestry, race, heritage, family, etc. A great young writer. Morgan’s work made me question many of my long-held notions, and I thank her for that.

My red state is still arguing over masks. But it’s not about Covid-19 anymore.

A mask discarded on the side of a road in San Rafael, Calif. In some parts of the country, people are still fighting over masks even as they have stopped worrying about the pandemic. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

What can we do about vaccine hesitancy in rural America? I have some ideas, and I wrote about them for The Washington Post.

You can read it here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/05/05/masks-red-state-coronavirus/

The Purple Box

This week marks the 22nd anniversary of Columbine, America’s first mass school shooting.

Two senior boys shot twelve students and one teacher to death, injuring 21 more by gunfire before turning their guns on themselves.

On April 16, Reuters reported that since Columbine, 2,000 Americans have been killed in mass shootings and that we had more deaths from firearms in 2019 than car accidents. The column is titled “A timeline of mass shootings in the U.S.” because we have so many mass shootings we need a timeline.

In one of his many recent interviews to promote his new book, former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) was reminded that 20 first graders were slaughtered by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut while he was Speaker. “Back when Newtown happened,” he said, “we couldn’t find common ground with the other side. Hopefully there is some common ground to be found…. because frankly this is heartbreaking. I think it’s embarrassing our country to the rest of the world.”

Revisionist history. Headlines from Speaker Boehner’s tenure commonly read “Boehner Opposes New Gun Control Bill” (Jan. 2011) and “Speaker Boehner Won’t Commit To House Vote on Gun Control Bill” (Apr. 2013).

In the last month alone, eight Americans were shot to death at a FedX facility in Indiana; a retired NFL player shot and killed a doctor, his wife, two grandchildren, and two air-conditioning technicians working at the doctor’s home in South Carolina; four were shot to death at a real estate office in California, including a nine year-old boy; a man killed ten people, including a police officer, in a Colorado grocery store.

Aaron Smith, who covers the firearms industry for Forbes, reported in December 2020 that since Newtown “federal gun control laws have barely changed. The gun industry continues to produce assault weapons and high-capacity magazines without additional federal restrictions. Gun sales are on the rise. Mass shootings have also risen this year, even with much of the country under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.”

There are so many places innocent Americans can go to get shot: grade school, middle school, high school, college, movie theatre, concert, nightclub, warehouse, office, high school football game, massage parlor, gas station, hair salon, Congressional baseball game, birthday party, airport baggage claim, amusement park, restaurant, shopping mall, grocery store, your own house.

To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five, so it goes, and so on.

To paraphrase John Boehner, Congressional Republicans’ political impotence is an international embarrassment.

I recently stood in the parking lot at Kroger in Lawrenceburg talking to a friend’s husband, a gun owner, about the good guy vs. bad guy argument. “What a joke,” he said, pointing at the store. “If I walked in there hellbent on shooting a bunch of people, you know what I’d do? I’d pick out the good guy with a gun and shoot him first. Now I’ve got two guns and everybody’s running and calling 911. The chance of some yahoo, with all that adrenaline pumping through him, shooting me before I can kill at least a dozen people is cowboy fantasy.”

Yes, open carry is legal in Kentucky. This is the law. “It’s my God-given right!” the 2nd Amendment junkies scream. And according to Everytown for Gun Safety, gun suicides and suicide attempts cost Kentucky an estimated $2.8 billion each year. Kentucky ranks 15th in the nation for the highest rate of gun suicide. Sixty-six percent of Kentucky gun deaths are suicides.

Is gun suicide our God-given right, too? How very Christian of us.

Twenty-two years later, on this horrifying and all-American anniversary, when I Google the word “Columbine” the first three suggestions are Columbine shooting, Columbine flower, Columbine shooters.

My daughter graduated high school six weeks after Columbine. My daughter just turned 40.

A year ago this week, Newtown mother Nelba Marquez-Greene tweeted the photo below, writing, “There is a purple box, in a rarely opened closet in my house, of my daughter’s clothes. The clothes with the bullet holes she was wearing the last day she breathed. It’s tiny, b/c she was only 6.”

When women are hunted

I wrote a column for The Post today after seeing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram video recounting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

As always, thanks for reading.

“Do you know what it feels like to be hunted? She’s only 31, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) does. In an astonishing Instagram Live broadcast on Monday night, she described in detail the scene on Jan. 6 — the feeling of being hunted by the mob from the Trump rally that began at the Ellipse before descending by the thousands on the U.S. Capitol. She frantically opened cabinets and closets looking for places to hide. She regretted wearing high heels, because how could she run?”

Link to continue reading.

What’s next

Diana goddess of the hunt, by Friedrich Stur

While I don’t know anyone who traveled to Washington D.C. after the president tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” it has been sickening, disturbing, heartbreaking, infuriating, and frankly dystopian these last months watching the on-line, social media brainwashing of some of my oldest friends.

Here is the story of one of those friends. I’ll call her Diana.

Diana is in her 50s, big smile, a do-gooder, healthy eater, extremely fit, white, religious, conservative, a grandmother. And until 2020, seemingly apolitical. We have not spoken much this last decade, keeping up with each other’s lives, as many of us do these days, on Facebook.

Last summer, seemingly out of nowhere, Diana started showing up on my Facebook page to debate politics. She wanted to know why people in my comment section, people she did not know, believed the “liberal agenda.” She sometimes became argumentative to the point I would just delete my original post altogether in lieu of letting the arguing continue.

I then noticed she’d started posting political content on her own page, which was unusual, posts about how Covid-19 was nothing more than the flu and how being made to wear masks infringed on her freedom. No, she wrote, she would NOT be taking any vaccine.

Come September, she shared a tweet from the president that read: The Democrats never even mentioned the words LAW & ORDER at their National Convention. That’s where they are coming from. If I don’t’ win, America’s suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, “Friendly Protestors.”

Then came the stream of posts about child sex trafficking with photos of Ivanka Trump, thanking Ms. Trump for “saving the children!” and writing about how it was time she and the “silent majority” made themselves heard.

After the November 3 election, Diana deactivated her Facebook account—a place that, prior to Summer 2020, had consisted entirely of family portraits, vacation montages, pictures of her dogs and her grandchildren—as well as her Twitter and Instagram accounts, and made a big pronouncement about moving to Parler.

I, too, opened a Parler account to keep track not only of Diana, but of other friends and vocal Kentucky Republicans who’d made a big show of ditching Facebook for Parler where they could be “free” and be “heard” and where they could follow President Trump’s biggest megaphones like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Jenna Ellis, Sydney Powell, Linn Wood, etc…. without “MSM censorship” as they tried to “stop the steal.”

I checked Diana’s Parler page almost daily. She didn’t post much of her own content and certainly no photos, but she often echoed (Parler’s version of the Like button) posts about how the election was being stolen, freedom from the liberal agenda, how Joe Biden would retire for phony health reasons by Summer 2021 to make room for that radical socialist/communist Kamala Harris.

Around Christmas, she wrote something like, “Keep fighting! We love you President Trump!” followed by a red heart and an American flag emoji.

A couple of days into 2021, I’d had enough of Parler. I couldn’t watch anymore. In the span of about six months, I no longer recognized the friend I’ve known for half my life. I deleted my Parler account.

Why am I telling this story? Because after the unspeakable, horrifying events of January 6, after the terroristic fruits of radicalization, I’m wondering what’s next.

If you’re a fan of The West Wing, you’ll recognize “what’s next?” as President Bartlet’s signature line. Okay, the fictional president would say when it was time to move on, time to take on the next big problem at hand, what’s next?

In her book “Surviving Autocracy” Masha Gessen writes, “The country that elected Trump was a country … that had already begun to damage itself in the way that Trumpism exacerbated. He preyed on the fear, he weaponized the hatred, and he filled the void left by the lack of vision. To reverse Trump’s autocratic attempt, we will have to abandon the idea of returning to an imaginary pre-Trump normalcy when American institutions functioned as they should. Instead, we have to recall that what undergirds the Congress and the courts, the media and civil society, is the belief that this can be a country of all its people.”

Donald Trump may have lost the election, but 75 million Americans voted for him. Almost half the electorate watched this vile, hateful, ignorant man for 4 years and said yes, more please. Donald Trump is leaving the Oval Office, but his followers remain. Followers like those who stormed the capitol. Followers like my friend Diana.

So what’s next?

What’s next, with a Republican Congress who cowers in fear of him and his followers, afraid for their lives and the lives of their families?

What’s next, to get us through and past Covid-19 and the shambles left by this monster and his arrogantly incompetent administration?

What’s next, after our own president gleefully radicalized Americans to the point they traveled to Washington D.C. at his behest and violently stormed our nation’s capitol, intending to stop the certification of a free and fair election?

What’s next, in an America where a 50-something, normally apolitical, financially stable, privileged grandmother can be rendered unrecognizable, brainwashed on social media in less than a year?

What, in God’s name, is next?