Thinking through and writing about issues that rouse
What Guides Their Moral Compass?
Today, I wanted to write about immigration, to tell my immigration story and make a case for those of us with immigration heritage to take a stand against Trump’s anti-immigration policies. But, as I write this, I have seared into my brain the image of the mother of the 17-year-old who shot and killed two protestors in Kenosha with an automatic rifle. I don’t want to get too off-topic from my original plan to write about immigration but … It’s related. I’ll explain.
When I was a beginning teacher, I remember at the end of the school year making up class lists for the students we were passing to the next grade level. We knew there would be a brand new teacher . The practice was to give that new teacher all the “problem” kids. I was appalled that we would saddle a beginning teacher with the most challenging kids. My colleague said that it was done to her, so why not do it to someone else.
I have heard this as an argument from immigrants who have gone through an arduous process of jumping through hoops to come to the US and then to bring their families over. Rather than compassion, there was antagonism towards those who find a way into the country without legal status. “If I can wait in line, they can too. ”
Why is it that I am appalled at this line of thinking? Why is it that I respond to overcoming struggles by wanting to make it better for anyone who has to go through what I went through, yet others respond with antagonism?
Why does one man try to help undocumented people trying to cross into the US through the Arizona desert by leaving them jugs of water, and another man empties those jugs of water? Why does Trump’s family separation policy break one person’s heart and hardens another one’s, unmoved by the trauma imposed on these children, blaming their parents for putting their children in this situation?
And in Kenosha, why do some people make this hateful, gun-slinging, no regard for human life choice, and others, like the two beautiful white men who were shot and killed by this militant teenager, make another, quite opposite, choice? (See, I told you it was related.)
These are not just rhetorical questions. I really want to know.
I’m going with — it’s about having a philosophical self-awareness. Who are you and what do you stand for? What guides your moral compass? On one end, there are narcissists, who are so mentally ill and not self-aware that their only motivation is what benefits them. (We know who I’m referring to, don’t we?) On the other end is the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and the real Jesus, the one who called out racism, spoke against oppression, and died for challenging injustice. The one who said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Most of us are in the middle somewhere, hopefully striving towards the Dalai Lama-Mother Teresa-Jesus side. I try to be kind. As the Dalai Lama said, “Kindness is my religion.” But also, I value human rights, justice and equality. When Christians say they are guided by Jesus, but then are unkind, inhumane and racist, there is something not quite Jesus about that.
That’s me. What about you?
Law and Order
For Trump supporters, the tenet that guides their moral compass is “law and order.” Their priority is to protect their families, their way of life, what they hold dear. All a Trump supporter needs to hear to be loyal to him is to hear the justification that it’s to assert “law and order.” It’s like when a hypnotist says: “When I snap my fingers you will be under my control and bark like a dog.” This is their snap of the finger, their north star. “When I say Law and order, you will reject any thoughts of concern for other humans who are not on our side.” Their guns are a symbol of their devotion to “Law and Order,” like a rosary or a crucifix. The problem is that guns are more than a symbol, they are deadly.
Why is it that a person with immigrant heritage like me can feel sympathy for these new immigrants while others with my same heritage, are cold to their plight? The answer is simple: “It’s because they are not following the law.” Our ancestors may have come for the same reasons — for a better life, to escape poverty or oppression — but they did it legally. ”We are a country of laws,” was the final sentence in a conversation I had with a loved one right after Trump’s election in 2016. At the time, I let it hang. Silence, then a change of subject. You know how sometimes you get the perfect response hours or days later, but the opportunity to say it had passed? That happened.
I wish I had said that yes, there are laws, but our highest ideal is justice for all. In the beginning of the settlement of this country by our colonial forebears, it was not about following laws. They didn’t even follow a code of honor saying don’t steal other people’s land, and don’t kill them in your efforts. Settling the country we now call the United States of America was about pursuing freedom against tyranny, even as they imposed tyranny (land theft, genocide, slavery) on others. When they decided they didn’t want to follow the laws of their country, Great Britain, they revolted. Protested. Dumped tea in harbors, illegal stuff like that. We fought a war to become independent from Great Britain and wrote our own laws to guide us, very noble guiding principles, this Constitution of ours.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Of course, we know that their “We” meant only them, white men. But because of this belief in justice for all, challenges were launched against an unjust status quo which resulted in changes in laws. We now have established amendments and settled Supreme Court cases so that “We, the People” means all of us. Laws change over time to respond to the issues of the times. What doesn’t change is that we have foundational values — one of which is to establish Justice with the goal to “form a more perfect union.”
But I get it. Without laws, there would be anarchy, chaos, corruption. Laws are important to protect people from harm. So what is the calamity that is the subject of so much hostility ? What are these people doing to you so that you feel a need for more onerous laws to control them?
Do they steal your jobs?
Are they taking jobs away from Americans? No. The jobs that immigrants do are the ones that are available because Americans don’t want to do them. Farmworkers, fast food and restaurant workers, maids, elder care. This is the primary function of immigration, to fulfill labor needs. My forebears came from Japan and Okinawa to work on plantations. They did not take jobs that locals wanted. My grandfather was a coffee farmer, my father grew up picking coffee, but eventually learned a trade as a carpenter. Most of my generation only do it as a side hustle, if they do it at all. Immigrants are needed to keep the coffee industry going.
I have no idea if the Spanish-speaking members of my community have legal status and I don’t care.( I thank them for their work and love over-hearing them speak their language.) Many (perhaps the majority of) farmworkers in the United States do not have legal authorization. In Hawaii, in 2016, there were 45,000 undocumented workers on record. If there were local people who would do these labor-intensive jobs, they would be welcome to them.
Do they depress wages?
Yes, this is true. What workers can make here is more than what they can make in their home country, but less than what a typical American would see as a good wage. Businesses are responsible for this state of affairs. Letting them do what they want for their profit margin has allowed this to happen. Eliminating the undocumented labor force does not solve the problem of depressed wages. The depression of wages for low-skilled workers goes far beyond the willingness of the undocumented worker to work for low pay. How about considering the suppression of unions as the a factor? Economists disagree on the cause, so how can deportation be a clear solution?
Are they an economic burden?Do undocumented people use up services and resources that they don’t pay for? This is another one of Trump’s lies. Even though they are undocumented, many do file tax returns and pay taxes, hoping it will help them one day obtain legal status. They pay into Medicare and Social Security even though they will never benefit from these federal programs.
Yes, many do not report their income to the IRS. They send their kids to public schools and they may utilize public services. But they do pay taxes in the form of sales and local taxes. In most of the country, schools are largely funded by property taxes. It is doubtful that they own property, but they do pay rent, and their landlords can then pay the property taxes on these rentals. On balance, they pay into the system more than they receive.
Are they criminals?
In 2017, when Trump first implemented his deplorable deportation policies, a coffee farmer and businessman, the father of three, who had been in my town for over three decades, was deported. He was not a “bad hombre” as Trump labeled those targeted for deportation. Obama’s immigration policy was not without criticism. He had been called the “Deporter in Chief.” But deportations targeted new arrivals and those who had committed crimes. The arrest in my community is more illustrative of Trump’s deportation actions, deporting anyone without legal status, whether or not they posed a danger to the community.
This is the rhetoric that Trump and team employ to make their case — using that “law and order” incantation. When he was campaigning, he made his inflammatory statement about the Mexicans who come to the US bringing drugs and crime, and claiming that they are rapists.
These claims just are not true. Yes, there have been incidents of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, but to consider it a problem on the magnitude that Trump makes it out to be, you need to look at crime rates. The data shows that the rate of crime committed by undocumented immigrants is lower than native-born criminals.
What's Going On?
Beyond research, we need to look at how this all fits into the bigger picture. If the claims that Trump is making about immigration are untrue, why is he saying it? What’s the endgame? What is it really all about? It comes down to the R word. Racism. Or to be more direct — White supremacy. White people will become a racial minority in the not too distant future, by 2043, according to US Census projections. For some White people, that is ominous, and not a good thing, evocative of fear and anger. Is it a conspiracy theory to think that Trump’s immigration policies are related to their need to preserve a White majority forever into the future? And that his White supporters are so fired up because he has tapped into their fear and anger about this?
Look at the audiences at his rallies (precovid rallies, Tulsa rally, RNC convention, New Hampshire rally). At the Trump convention, the strategists included Black and other Non-White speakers to distract from the real lack of diversity in attendance. You see his White supremacist stance in his response to the Black Lives Matter movement. He makes no acknowledgement of race-related police brutality. He is not interested in an interpretation of the facts that would infer systemic racism is a factor. Today at a rally in New Hampshire, he said, “You know what I say? Protesters, your ass. I don’t talk about my ass,” he said. “They’re not protesters. Those aren’t protesters. Those are anarchists, they’re agitators, they’re rioters, they’re looters.”
Anti-immigration policies and hostile responses to the protests are tied together by a racist desire to preserve a White majority. Current immigration policies are in need of reform. Congress, with a Republican stranglehold, has been unable to resolve it, which is why Obama needed to proclaim DACA by way of an executive order. Immigration policy can and should be reformed, but in the Trump era, it is about perpetuating White supremacy. Do you remember when Trump first came into office and wondered why so many immigrants are coming from “shithole” countries? And to top that off he said he’d prefer if they came from countries like Norway.
This is not the language of a leader who cares about all the American people, this is the language of a White supremacist.
White Nationalism ala Stephen Miller
You also see it in the agenda of his advisors, in particular, Stephen Miller. Journalist Jean Guerrero just released her book — Hate Monger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda. This is the bigger picture — white nationalism and the need to maintain a white majority. This is what they mean when they say, Make America Great Again. They want to Make America White Again. Asked on Democracy Now, what she thinks Miller and Trump hope to accomplish if elected for a second term, Guerrero says, they would try to end birthright citizenship — that you are a citizen if you are born on American soil. This has been reported in 2018 and 2019 as well.
Whether or not he can do this by executive order is “disputed,” which means that legal scholars have opposing opinions. Trump’s 2016 campaign messaging may have been about controlling illegal immigration, but his actions in office restricted even legal immigration, including the asylum process. In the future, it could be the end to birthright citizenship. This makes sense in the context of efforts to maintain a White majority.
Appeal to Ancestral Sympathy
My great-grandparents on my dad’s side came from Japan in the late 1800s. There were a series of crop failures in southern Japan that caused a depression. The sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii needed labor and promised good wages. My grandparents on my mom’s side came from Okinawa in the 1920s. The reasons for Okinawans coming to Hawaii had to do with the colonial oppression and economic depression they were experiencing as a result of their annexation by Japan. This is my heritage. There is a desperation for a better life that drives people away from their ancestral homeland. My dad was also pursuing opportunity when he moved us to Guam, where I was raised. The people you may see as “illegal” and I see as “undocumented” may have skirted the process to be here. But they share with our forebears a desperation and hope for a better life, especially for their children.
Why is it that I am able to identify with that desperation and others disconnect with it and instead identify with White supremacy. What is guiding their moral compass? It’s not law and order, it’s not the economy, it’s not a drain on resources. None of those reasons hold true. What is it?
Is White Supremacy the Status Quo You Want to Protect? or Protest?
I can see why White supremacists fear becoming a minority. If you are used to supremacy rather than equality, I can comprehend the difficulty in giving up that position. But ….
‘There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the colored citizen is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.’ (Martin Luther King, Jr. I have a dream speech)
He was speaking of his people, the descendants of slaves, but it is meant to be applied to the ideal of justice for all — “colored people” meaning people of all colors.
America can be a country where people are not persecuted or killed for their race, religion, skin color, or for any other kind of dehumanization. I don’t think that is a big ask. If they truly believe all lives matter, they will honor all lives and refuse to live in a supremacist system where some lives matter less than others.
At the Trump rally in New Hampshire, a journalist was approached by a white attendee, saying: “Our lives matter too, even though we’re white” and ends his rant with a threat — “someone’s going to bomb you, maybe even tonight.” White supremacists and those who would vote them in, are anti-American. They are anti-American if they threaten members of the press, if they do not value the First Amendment, if they threaten a civil war if their leader is not elected. The true Americans are us — the many colors, creeds, and cultures who believe in equality, justice, and democracy.
Justice for All, Okay?
Nobody is saying “No white people allowed.” We are saying, come and join us in the promise of America which upholds justice for all people. As John Lewis said: “… lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” I see your hate, I see your anger. I see your fear. I also see your cognitive dissonance when you continue to support a man with qualities you detest who could care less about you except for your vote. This is not good for you and this is not good for our country. Being part of a move in the direction of fulfilling the promise of an America that lives and breathes Justice for all is much healthier.
I thought this was going to be a relatively light piece, about how funerals make you reflective and we are being denied that in these pandemic times. Even so, there is a sense of an overall funeral-like mood these days. Everything is stark — life and death, good and evil. That was my premise until I realized I was being insensitive. It is a “mood” for me — but it is real state of being for many others.
In fact, that is what the Black Lives Matter movement is all about. I don’t have to fear when I walk to the store with my arms swinging (Elijah McClain). I don’t have to fear when I get pulled over for a broken taillight (Julian Edward Roosevelt Lewis ). I don’t have to fear for my life because I am protecting a monarch butterfly habitat (Homero Gómez González, Raúl Hernández Romero), or for protecting my ancestral lands (Berta Cáceres). On and on ad infinitum.
I have a place to live. I have a pension. I am safe. I am fortunate. I am privileged. I recognize that on a scale measuring real threats to peaceful existence, with 1 being no sense of fear to 100 being targeted for harm, I am a 1. It has to do with where I live (rural Hawaii, with whom I live (family), my own choice to not let unsubstantiated fear rule my life, and because I don’t leave home unless I have to. Because I am insulated, I find it useful to adopt a funeral mindset to keep me from being too complacent.
A Funeral Mindset
When I was younger, I used to hate funerals. I found them creepy, especially when there’s an open casket. Eventually, especially when I had lost someone close to me, I found them to be necessary. They provide a way to be connected to the person one last tangible time. In the honoring of their lives, there’s this inevitable tendency to reflect on your own life. I don’t know if it’s a thing, or if it’s just me, but I almost always leave a funeral with a mix of sadness for the loss of the loved one, and ironically, vigor, committed to live more meaningfully and purposefully. Since the pandemic, I have lost two people who I was close to, and for whom we have not been able to have funeral services yet. Neither of them were victims of Covid but both were too young. Losing them has been heartbreaking. But losing them in this time is disconcerting. Like there’s something amiss, unsettling.
When you infuse your life with that same reflective mood that you left the funeral with, that is a funeral mindset. You are lucky to be alive. For some reason, you are alive and they, sadly, are not. It is a gift. It is not to be taken for granted. With a funeral mindset, you look at everything in extreme life and death ways and you want your life to count for something, to carry on the fight for those who can’t anymore. For those who lost their lives in this war for racial and environmental justice, I will live for them. For those who died senseless deaths because of our country’s lax gun laws, I will live for them. For those who died before they could contribute to the betterment of the world, I live for them.
Mourning John Lewis
I have also mourned one of my heroes, an extraordinary man, civil and human rights icon, the Representative John Lewis. I was hoping he would live forever. He would have had this extraordinary funeral even if not in the time of the pandemic, but because it’s happened now, at a time when we couldn’t mourn for our own loved ones in our real lives, we had a semblance of it in his funeral. No, it doesn’t replace the service we will eventually have, but it helps.
Something moved in my consciousness. Mostly because of the pandemic and quarantine, and the protests, everything seems heightened. I am super aware that we are living in life and death times, a war between good and evil. There is no room for moderation, for pussy-footing around. Every choice you make, every stance you take is either life-supporting or death-inducing, either for good or for evil. When I wrote my first editorial for the junior high school paper, my teacher said I was prone to hyperbole. So — hyperbole alert. The hyperbole is real.
Life and Death Matters Abound
Climate change is better understood as climate cancer according to Simon Sinek. The USPS situation is the death of democracy, the evidence of fascism. If we can outsmart our current fascist president, democracy will be brought back to life. People seeking asylum are doing so because they are in life and death situations. America is no longer the beacon of freedom and life that it used to be. Under this current administration, ICE and the border police are purveyors of death, and the US is not the beloved country known for taking in “your tired, your poor. Your restless masses yearning to be free.“ Black lives matter. The abortion issue is of course, a life and death matter. Trump supporters cling to the illusion that given another term, Trump will deliver on his promise to overturn Roe v. Wade. (That is a huge issue and I am not ignoring it, I’ll write about it another time.) Never mind that his lack of leadership has contributed to over 170,000 deaths (and climbing). Never mind that he doesn’t care. “It is what it is.” Never mind that a national testing plan was scrapped because it seemed that only blue states were affected. Never mind that mailed medications are being delayed because of the deliberate slowdown of the USPS. They did not and do not care about life.
Being able to drill down to the life/death aspect of a situation amplifies the divisiveness that characterizes the country right now. As strongly as I feel that I am choosing the side of life, my counter might feel just as strongly that they are. I have friends who believe in QAnon; the life/death situation for them is that they are fighting Satan, Hollywood pedophiles. This is why they are so passionate, so fervent, so adamant in their stance. They are standing against Satan, the harbinger of evil and death. There is nothing you can say or do to change their minds. There is nothing that Trump can say or do that will change their minds — not even a loved one dying from Covid or because their medication was delayed due to the deliberate slowdown of the USPS.
But it’s not about changing their minds, it’s about knowing ours.
It’s important to know what’s going on, to stay informed and not block out the world and all the drama out there. We have to accept that we will be angered if we are engaged. We will see people and actions that will make us wonder about the human race, and then want to look away. We can’t. At the very least, we are witnesses. We need to do what we can. We need to protect the vulnerable. Decry corruption. Seek justice. Speak out. Give money. Buy conscientiously. They think there’s this evil entity they name Satan, yet they always seem to excuse and dismiss evil in their midst, like a president teeming with corruption, incompetence, self-aggrandizement, dishonesty and immorality.
A Funeral Mindset Calls Us To Live Purposefully
In pandemic and non-pandemic times, we are given opportunities to choose life or death. We do this when we choose helpfulness over hurtfulness. Compassion over condemnation. Honesty over lies. Truth over deceit. Empathy over egotism. Kindness over hate. We can respond like a firm teacher to people who send us misleading pro-Trump messages; we can write essays like this which will probably never read by them; we can reply to their skewed memes on Facebook. But that is not the bulk of what we need to do.
We need to walk our walk. We need to be who we are and tell the world who we are. We need to represent the side that is choosing life over death. We need to tell the world that we stand for good. You can do it on social media, to a point, but real life standing up is walking the walk. The videos of those ugly selfish anti-mask tantrum throwers are hurting their brand. We need to take the higher ground for the side of justice, equality, kindness, love. That’s our side.
I bought a t-shirt on Etsy that had a portrait of George Floyd on it with words — Equality Now. I walk every morning, and once a week I get something at my neighborhood café — my contribution to the local economy though I definitely don’t need the pastries. I was wearing this t-shirt and the owner’s husband, a white man, complimented me on it. It was nice that someone saw it, and that I found solidarity with him. The proceeds went to support a BLM cause, which was my reason for buying it. Spreading messages like this is a way we can walk our walk. And if you are a kind person walking your walk, wearing a “message” t-shirt, the message of kindness will be associated with you and the cause of justice and good and love and life.I have more t-shirts coming in the mail. Oh no!
My first impulse in the beginning of pandemic life was that mask-wearing was silly, that if you are compelled to wear a mask, you think of yourself as sick, so you should stay home. I have a niece in Vietnam who wrote about her experience there and that mask-wearing was an important part of their pandemic control strategy. I told her of my resistance to mask-wearing. Not long after that, we learned that you could be a carrier and not have any signs of sickness. That was enough to make me wear a mask, and I texted my niece — You were right! It seemed so simple to me, but yet …
I have a friend, a gentle soul, an artist, who has taken on anti-maskism as his passion project. When he first started to post these ideas on Facebook, my impression of him was that he was reasonable, so I engaged by sharing my perspective. I soon found out he is committed to his position. It seems to be uniquely American, our value for individual freedom playing out for all the world to see. These fervent anti-maskers insist we are wrong, that the medical establishment is wrong, that we are not following the science.
Conflict — the stuff of drama. Because I am a playwright, I have a tendency to want to understand the innards of people who evoke conflict, to treat them like characters in a play. So, here is a character study of a particular anti-masker. Though this is inspired by real people, this character study “is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons or other real-life entities is purely coincidental.”
Resolving the ConflictOne way a play can unfold is through a thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern. So my thesis would be that this character starts out as an anti-mask crusader. The antithesis would be as he confronts and deals with different events: friends who unfriend him, a beloved family member who dies from COVID, a grandchild who challenges his thinking. There is dissonance and confusion when confronted. The synthesis would be the resolution of the confusion. I am only listing the following in the order I presented them above, but in a narrative, it will not be this linear.
I know. I know. This is an improbable happy ending. But this is art, right? It can take us from the dismal cynical reality into the realm of the possible. So in my imagined resolution, I will evolve my character! He was drawn to this “cause” because of a need to defy authority, to resist the establishment. This gives his life meaning. He changes, as light creeps in, little by little. At first, there is cognitive dissonance when he gets exposed to more and more bits that contradict his stance. This causes frustration, confusion and depression. He uses art to bring him out of this depression. In this process, he is able to sort out the contradictions. He realizes his need for affiliation, but does not identify with other anti-maskers. He chooses to affiliate as a protector of his family. He becomes a hero by sharing the ability to change one’s mind.
Diane Aoki is a writer who explores other modes of creativity as her intuition leads her.