Uncharted Territory

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Daring to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren. Nordstrom and Ivanka and Kellyanne. Flynn’s phone calls with Putin. Deportation raids.

SCOTUS nominee Gorsuch claiming his high-school-yearbook self-description as “founder of the Fascism Forever Club” was a joke.

Trump—taking hair-loss medication with side effects of sexual dysfunction, rage, depression, and anxiety—and proclaiming, “Any negative polls are fake news.”

Uncharted territory. That’s a phrase we hear and read more and more, as each day—sometimes two or three times a day—Trump and his gang brazenly overreach their powers to violate laws, statutes, precedent, ethics, governmental standards, common decency, minimal manners, and basic grammar. We suspected we had entered uncharted territory during the campaign, and we knew we were there the night we won the election by a record vote while losing the presidency. Now, with Trump in the White House, it feels as if we’ve taken up residence in uncharted territory.

Old maps depicting unexplored regions—actual uncharted territory–had sketches of mysterious sea beasts rearing up from the never-navigated waters, creating huge waves and making the earth tremble. Half submerged, their full enormity was incalculable, though they were massive: terrifyingly powerful creatures who, if awakened, were unspeakably dangerous.

It’s a myth, though, that the phrase Here Be Dragons would always be written beside them, at the edges of what was then the known world. Latin, not English, was the scholarly language, yet only one map, The Lennox Globe (ca. 1503-07), actually shows the words Hic sunt Dracones (Here are Dragons) in calligraphy along the eastern coast of Asia. More recently, the phrase Here There Be Dragons was used for the unknown north polar region (labeled Terra Incognita) of the asteroid Vesta.

By now, you may think I’ve gone a little balmy, although regular readers know that I sometimes prowl the historical past or amateur astrophysics to regain perspective—a survival necessity when trying to find one’s way through uncharted territory.

Perspective, after all, is what the Standing Rock Sioux people embody, as they draw strength from their own past traditions and the cosmos they and we float in—so that they can regroup, file new lawsuits, and prepare themselves yet again to risk flesh and bone and voice to protest the Trump-revived Dakota access pipeline.

A different struggle, to preserve perspective, is giving birth to a de facto Federal Employees Underground, to dozens of unofficial government “Resistance” Twitter accounts: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, the Peace Corps, the Customs Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the Departments of Justice, Treasury, Defense, State (where 1000 senior-level officials have quit), Labor, Homeland Security, Veterans’ Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, IRS, and others, government employees are planning procedures to save endangered data and to whistle-blow when necessary. They’re meeting in old-fashioned face-to-face ways to avoid workplace communications that can be monitored by the Trump administration.

Katherine Wallman, Chief Statistician of the United States from 1992 until last month, told The Guardian, “We should all be starting from the same numbers. Picking and choosing your numbers to suit your politics is not the way to be doing it.” She and other statisticians have expressed grave concern that the administration might suppress or manipulate public statistics that don’t fit the Trump narrative, and they also worry the administration may stop collecting and publishing data at all on such subjects as abortion, racial inequality, and poverty. Kenneth Pruitt, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, noted, “If you can leave people out of the census selectively you can affect the drawing of legislative boundaries at local, state, and federal levels. What people do not understand is that if you control the denominator, you control everything.” Some of these civil servants have worked their entire lives to gain expertise in their fields. Some are humble bureaucrats. Brave, beautiful bureaucrats vowing to protect knowledge, to preserve perspective.

Perspective is what Marissa Alexander had been seeking when, as she remembers, “I didn’t carry an umbrella when I first got home, because I wanted to feel the raindrops on my skin.” That was after she could take off the ankle monitor, free to play outside with her kids in Jacksonville, Florida—at age 36, after years locked in prison or confined to her house. In 2012, she had been convicted of aggravated assault for having fired a warning shot—a warning shot—at her husband, a chronic abuser who was threatening her life nine days after she bore their daughter. Florida has a well-known “stand your ground” law, which permits the use of deadly force in self-defense. That law worked quite nicely for white George Zimmerman, tried and cleared in 2012 after he’d fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old boy. But that law didn’t work for a woman, certainly not an abused woman, particularly not an abused black woman who tried to plead “stand your ground” in her defense. She ended up with a 20-year prison sentence. In 2013 her conviction was overturned on appeal, and as she waited for a new trial she negotiated a plea agreement allowing her to serve three years more in prison and two years under house confinement. Now finally free, she has established the nonprofit Marissa Alexander Justice Project, which will provide advocacy in cases of domestic violence and promote policy reform. Marissa wants to help other women get free and walk in the rain.

I wonder if children might have an inborn sense of perspective. They organically seem to understand fairness—and the denial of it. Sydney Phillips of Kenilworth, New Jersey, had planned to spend this winter playing on the seventh-grade girls’ basketball team at St. Theresa’s Catholic School, as she had done the year before; she’d even been named an all-star. But last fall, not enough of her female classmates showed interest, and St. Theresa’s canceled their season. So Sidney asked to play with the boys. (She’s been playing basketball since preschool, plays on an intramural team, and has participated in coed basketball camps.) The school said no. Her parents filed a lawsuit against the school and the Newark Archdiocese on their daughter’s behalf, arguing that she shouldn’t be held back just because she’s a girl. Sydney’s father noted that his daughter would not be taking away any boy’s spot on the team because it has a no-cut policy and that “It was time to start being more equal.” But Superior Court Judge Donald Kessler ruled that the 12-year-old had no legal right to play. The parents appealed. Then, just this past week, the family received notice that both Sidney and her younger sister, a fifth-grade student, had been expelled from St. Theresa’s by the Archdiocese. When the family showed up at school with both girls anyway, they were barred by the church pastor, associate pastor, school principal, and three police officers—and threatened with criminal trespassing charges.

The family went back to court, where Appellate Court Judge Amy O’Connor issued a temporary order requiring the school to reinstate the girls pending a hearing. In the midst of all this, Sydney says plaintively, “I just asked to play basketball and now I’m being expelled. It makes no sense at all.” But it makes a lot of sense that the New York Liberty WNBA team stepped up and invited her and her little sister to practice with them at Madison Square Garden. Olympic medalist Teresa Weatherspoon said the players wanted to show that Sydney deserved the same opportunities as the boys. As for Sydney herself, she’s “bummed out I couldn’t play at school.” But regarding the boys, she mutters, “I’m better than them.” That’s perspective.

Then there’s Gregory Locke, 27, a New York City subway rider who boarded a Number 1 train to be met by a revolting sight. Swastikas were scrawled in black marker on the doors and all the windows and posters were covered in anti-Semitic graffiti: Jews belong in the oven. Heil Hitler. Only Trump can stop the Jews. Hail Trump. Locke, a lawyer, exchanged horrified reactions with other passengers, including 36-year-old Jared Nied, a sous chef. Nied and other riders began to wipe away the graffiti, their actions recorded in photos spontaneously taken by Locke because he thought it was such a classic New York moment—ordinary people trying to establish a moment of shared humanity, trying to restore perspective. Then Nied, who knew that alcohol would erase markers, asked if anyone in the car had hand sanitizer. “I’ve never seen so many people simultaneously reach into bags and pockets looking for tissues and Purell,” he says. Within two minutes, the Nazi symbols and slogans were gone and everyone in the car was smiling. Locke posted the pictures on Facebook; by the next day more than 500,000 people had reacted to the post, which had been shared over 354,000 times. A lot more New York subway riders are now carrying Purell and tissues.

Small stories, modest acts, hardly earth-shaking. Like me, writing these words and you, reading them. Like the nonalternative fact that some of you will call your senators and ask them to co-sponsor S291, modifying membership requirements for the National Security Council so unqualified partisan operatives like Steve Bannon can have no voice in our national security. Others of you will call your congressional representative and ask her or him to co-sponsor HR804, to prevent political appointees from serving on the NSC. Some of you might do both.

All of us should note that the week of February 20-24 is the first district work period of the new Congress—meaning your members of Congress will be home holding public events and meeting with constituents. Those GOP reps who fled Washington early have in the past few days experienced a rude awakening back home. Thousands of constituents are showing up at town halls and local congressional offices where hard questions are being asked about travel bans, destroying Obamacare, immigration raids, and attacks on Planned Parenthood. Accountability is being demanded, along with calls for ethics investigations and chants of “Do your job!” If your representative has no town hall or other public event scheduled, you can call and make clear that you expect them to do so. The purpose of these breaks is for members of Congress to hear directly from the people they represent, so if they’re not willing to meet constituents, they’re failing their job description. You can remind them of that.

Then, surprise! You can reward yourself by checking out the hilarious, moving documentary film Speed Sisters, which made its US theatrical premier February 10, on the heels of a festival tour and global release on Netflix. It’s about a chosen sisterhood of young Palestinian women who are—wait for it—amateur racing-car drivers in the Gaza Strip. They have to fight off the occupying authority, Israeli soldiers, bombings, Islamist fundamentalists, family disapproval, and male racing-car drivers, while simply trying to compete at a sport they love. In the process, they forge a competitive but strong, defiant bond among themselves.

My point in all this is that the young Speed Sisters, and those ordinary folks in Utah and Tennessee who never were “political” but now are defending their rights and the rights of others, and the Standing Rock Sioux and Marissa Alexander and Sydney Phillips and Gregory Locke and Jared Nied and the beautiful brave bureaucrats and you and me—we all are riding the great tide of rushing energy that is democracy.

Because we all are in uncharted territory—where there be dragons indeed.

When I was young and green, I thought we were the explorers.

Now I understand.

Now I know we are the dragons.

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