When the beacon of justice goes out, what will we use to light our way? 

shepard-equal-humanity-greaterthanfearForeword:

I originally wrote the story below in the innocent days of August 2016. Its hard to believe how much hope I had then, and what a contrast I feel now.

For those friends who caution restraint, even in linguistics, who believe that an erosion of civil rights has not yet begun, I ask that you attempt empathy for me, even if you can’t for those currently in the same limbo at airports around the country.

Each one of the detained has a life, a social network, goals, and loved ones waiting for them at home. The vast majority are students and doctors, parents and neighbors, co-workers and friends. We already have a rigorous vetting process for all applications to this country that is proven to be as effective as possible. This type of thing has never happened before, despite claims to the contrary. This policy does not increase security, but threatens our partnerships in conflict regions and is a death sentence to families that risked their lives to support our interests.

I am a deeply privileged white woman with resources of many kinds to help me through my own experience. Please recognize that without all the help I had, my refused entry would have been emotionally crushing and life-altering. Delay of even one more day in my case would have meant an entire year lost because I would have been too far behind to catch up.

I do believe that in times of peace and stability it is helpful to adapt your attitude to hand out happy, but this is not that time. This time our integrity is under threat. This is not a bureaucratic error. Foundational elements of our political system are under threat and ‘not minding’ is not an option.

If you feel this story in any way might help someone understand the human cost of a refused entry, please share. We are all human, we all feel joy and pain and loss. We have come too far to return to tribalism and hatred and outright violence.

The most white supremacist thought to which I have ever been immediately attuned was in the stress of the situation described below. I was in the deportation lounge thinking ‘Can’t they see I’m not a terrorist?’ My second though was ‘wow, that was pretty racist. What does a terrorist look like? Why can’t she look like you?’ I didn’t know until I had that thought how shocking it is to realize you were racist all along. The shame of that self-reflection is not easy to bear and is terrifying to share publicly. Both feelings inform how important it is to share this story. It is critical that we are all a little more reflective, a little more honest, with ourselves and with our fellow citizens.

Any shame I feel is outweighed by the hope that in sharing I might help one person to see a little more clearly. Hopefully some of this speaks to you.

 

The secret to a charmed life is making all the green lights… and not minding the red ones

This popped into my head on a sunny September afternoon while waiting in traffic at an intersection I used to breeze through in SE Portland.

I was considering my helplessness, stuck in Portland while the rest of my graduate classmates were moving in, finding books, meeting each other and beginning class. That was all continuing on the other side of the world while I was waiting for a light, and waiting for my whole life at the same time.

I was supposed to be in London, and I was here, waiting for the British civil service to decide if I was going to be allowed back, if I could live and study in the UK, a place I was pretty sure was integral to my whole future. Looking back, I suppose there was an issue I was a security risk. I thought I was a normal 20 something, just wanting to go back to school. I didn’t think that my constant international travel looked suspicious, although I should have known better after all that time traveling to weird destinations. Student tickets aren’t usually the means of constant global circumnavigation

It started like all my other trips. I packed, printed documents, double checked lists and said my goodbyes. From the moment I stepped on the plane I was on my way to a new chapter of life, expectant, nervous, a little jittery with my soundtrack plugged firmly in my ears.

I hit the immigration hall out of the gate. I was excited to be there and I knew this drill. A lifetime of international travel and I thought I knew it all. Little did I know I had only ever seen one side of that system.

I strode confidently up to the podium, my passport and a print-out of my invitation letter proudly displayed. I tried to keep the conversation short and polite, my goal was to get out of the airport and on the train asap. I guessed I could be in my room in 2 hours, max. My head was already at Paddington station, looking for a taxi.

I was drawn back to the podium by a question “Where is your visa?”

I was confused. They were supposed to stamp that. That is how most visas worked for American passport holders (outside China, at least.) My two previous student visas had been granted that way.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Isn’t that what we’re doing? Did I forget to give you my letter?”

(Always be polite when traveling, it costs nothing and is much more effective)

“I’m sorry, I’ll be right back”

I was left standing alone at the podium while others streamed by me. I had never had this perspective before, I was always the streaming, moving quickly through barriers with a smile and a quick polite word. It was disorienting, to suddenly know something is different and off, but not understand what exactly is happening. I was told to take a seat and wait. My original timeline was now very off and I was very much present in only this moment.

Flights land at Heathrow from all over the world, passengers enter the UK from 3 international terminals. That year 68 million passengers passed through their doors.

After I had been sitting for 20 minutes, a flight landed from Lagos. About half of the African passengers were detained for health screenings. I considered how lucky I was. Mine was probably a simple misunderstanding, his was being born in the wrong place. I was scared but grateful for the reminder to take deep breaths and choose happy.

I was not allowed in that day. I was refused entry, detained and treated suspiciously by a group I had previously barely noticed. I was fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. I was in a windowless room with a payphone useless to me. It was early Sunday morning GMT, who would be available? Could anyone help? I sat with the other Americans who had made my same mistake. For some it had been a gamble, for some a genuine misunderstanding. There was a quorum of about 5-6 students, constantly shifting, but always about the same size. There was a woman who had been at a conference and couldn’t give up her passport long enough to get the visa. She was kind in telling me to give up hope immediately, but I was still naïve enough to be unable to comply.

There was a VERY highly strung gentleman from New York who kept us informed of the events he was currently missing at his college on an hourly basis, in between lamenting how miserable this situation was. Now was the coach to meet him, now was the welcome drinks, now was the meeting with his advisor. Maybe he could just buy a cheap ticket to Denmark or Amsterdam, and stay a few days. It is the only time in my life I have ever genuinely thought ‘you are killing my zen, man’

I was trying not to panic and so had not begun to focus on how this knot would be unraveled. I kept thinking that when they understood how the mistake happened, and that I was unaware of a rule change, there would be some accommodation.  There was a singular unwillingness to do anything other than process us and send us home to deal with their colleagues in another branch of UKBA.

We went down to the arrivals hall to collect my bags, including the extra I had brought and paid for. I was quickly learning what it was to be accompanied everywhere, treated as a suspect.

My luggage was searched thoroughly in the otherwise empty entry hall as other passengers sailed through ‘nothing to declare’ and searchd again in front of the entire flight I was put on to get me home as quickly as possible. I had a short chance to call my parents to tell them to expect me. I was escorted with 3 guards, all at least a head taller than I was, the most unlikely international menace you had ever seen. They walked either side and behind me, to the van with the cage in the back and from the cage to the secure departure area where they checked my bags again. My rational mind knew it was a shaming mechanism: how could I have any contraband when the bags had been in their possession since they last searched them? The rest of me was mostly numb. The female guard, taking pity, gave me the chance to pull 2 things from my checked bags- a clean shirt and a stuffed dog who was my most constant companion.

And there I was. In seat 47G, on my way to another 30 hour journey back home to figure out what came next. I flew to Dallas, was met and given a hotel room, woke in darkness to the ringing of the wake-up call and stumbled onto a plane to O’Hare, more grief from TSA, probably because I was a mess and easy. Finally, I arrived back where I started, 72 hours later. My parents had hugs and plans and we had a mad rush for the first 3 days while I got a new passport (a whole other story) and sent all the paperwork to the consulate. Apparently, they aren’t kidding when they say ‘check all immigration requirements’ because those suckers change! As an undergrad I needed a letter, as a postgrad (and post 9/11 and 7/7) one needed a bank account, and a letter, and a whole form, and additional photos. We sent everything they asked and called everyone we knew who might be able to help. And then we waited.

The thing that people misunderstand about government, is that there are lots of parts and they function very differently. The civil service is a job for life. It’s a slow but steady rise, as long as you do your job, don’t make trouble, and are good at the tasks assigned you, its possible to have a wonderful life, and contribute to society. People in the civil service are the balance to politics. They keep the trains running, and the security at borders well, but they are also impervious to changing or breaking the rules. They are annoyed by people trying to circumvent a system and they are careful and thorough. All of which meant I was totally helpless, waiting at that light. Hoping a stranger would read my application, including the statement of why I made the mistake I did and got sent back. There was nothing I could do, no levers to pull.

The only option was to wait at that light, and wait for that civil servant and trust that I would be on time where I was going, and that things would work out ok. The only thing I could do was try to not mind the waiting. To decide that there was a reason that things happen and I’m not always in control.

Sometimes we hit all the green lights, and some days there are more red ones. The way to ensure we have a charmed life either way is to make sure to hit all the greens, or just to choose… not to mind the red ones.

 

Afterward:

I was able to have hope because I trusted the system, and I have faith in something higher. I still believe there is an order to the universe, but our system is in trouble. It is imperative that we fight on, using whatever tools we can, until we see green lights for everyone again.

 

 

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Are we there yet?

101_0049So yes, back in Qatar, teaching more kids to debate. Teaching here is brilliant. The kids are usually really excited to learn and because of that it’s easy to have fun with them. This week we were working out how much the students understand about how debate works and although there is quite a variety of levels, they all have a basic grounding. More than that though, I can see them really pushing themselves to speak better, or know more, or challenge their received wisdom. I was also struck when teaching how rarely we all seem to do that about certain ideas.

I was trying to explain how each ideology, be it religious or political or patriotic, within its own community, has a set of beliefs that go largely unquestioned or unchallenged. When speaking to an audience it is helpful to know what those beliefs are because it will help you to know what they might or might not find convincing. It is also helpful to know that what is ‘unquestioned/ ‘right’ varies within and between audiences.
To be honest, its part of my difficulty with academia. The paradox that to try to say anything one has to recognize that anywhere you start from is both arbitrary and challengeable. To defend whatever my belief might be I have to start from a premise, which, often, can itself be challenged. I know I’m a debater, and that makes almost everyone groan, the idea that everything is debatable. But the thing is, I keep coming back to this wall. I decided to call it faith, and I’m not sure if I mean in a religious way, or if its even possible to sort in that manner. What I mean when I say ‘faith’ is that starting point, the one where you don’t question beyond it. You are comfortable saying ‘I’m going to start here’ and maybe you can justify why that spot and not this, and maybe you can’t, but it seems most logical to you, or you just feel that is the spot. For some people it might be the right to property, for some it might be the right to free speech, to some it might a right to social equality, for some it might be divine right. My point is that if we really examine ourselves, we all have core fundamental beliefs and they all come from somewhere. In academia you have to choose and then justify why that spot (which makes sense I just find very difficult because there is never an end).

In debate you kind of have to agree either to a premise upon which to debate, or a debate about which premise to take (its pretty hard to do both at once). Debate communities kind of develop their own accepted premises (a process I think is so subtle it’s really interesting). The thing I am most impressed with about these kids, and a lot of the other debaters I’ve seen is their ability to balance their personal beliefs, and faith and the premises required by the activity we do. I’m terrible at it, and seem to regularly forget what exactly it is that I believe and only know what I’m currently arguing. These kids however are able to speak my language, and yet be true to their own. Its really challenging trying to honor that and teach then what I know, but its also inspiring because I wish I was half as smart at their age.

Second big epiphany of teaching: Today I was talking to a student about the ice cream cart. Some of you will know that this is my favorite analogy ever in regard to voter preferences and voter preference shaping. (I can point you to the book if you are interested) The basic idea is that if you think of a political spectrum as a long beach then it makes sense that the most people would be congregated at the middle (all parking being equal of course). An ice cream vendor, in order to be nearest the most numbers of customers will place their cart closer to the middle. The idea is that those at the far end of the beach, without other carts nearby will make the trek closer to the middle of the beach as there is no other option for a tasty cold treat. Parties and candidates therefore make a determination about how close to the middle of the beach, relative to their political beliefs they can afford to be before apathy sets in and the people at the end of the beach choose to just eat the half melted smoothie they have in the cooler (i.e. not vote at all). Those who are politically engaged, having no other option will move towards the centre rather than be shut out of the political process completely. If, however, a party can drag a whole spectrum closer to their ideology the middle of beach moves closer to their own outliers. (See Thatcher in 1983/1984)

The 2008 election was interesting in the Democratic Primary because to a certain extent it was exactly this dilemma. Obama placed his ice cream stand closer to the Left end of the beach than the current DNC membership, betting (rightly) that the numbers of disaffected voters he could get to come back and buy ice cream would be more than Clinton could get from the middle. In doing so, he opened up the beach again and effectively made the potential selling area longer. The difficulty is that there was a group of Republicans who no way, no how, were going to get closer to the middle and refused the spectrum as a whole moving. The Republican party we see now is the ice cream stand torn between those in the middle who have a better chance of getting extra votes lost in the Democrat’s move left, and the very vocal group who keep promising that if they move their ice cream stand farther Right there will be more people lining up to buy. The real issue is that what’s happening is the two parties are getting pulled farther apart to appeal to their bases which then makes any hope for governance moot. Its actually a fairly clear representation of the current political sociology of the US.

Democratic compromise comes from coming to the middle, but in order to get enough votes it is necessary to move farther and farther to the edge. FPP (first past the post) makes it almost impossible for a third, middle party to emerge (as with the Lib Dems) and even if they do our governance structure is such that they end up pretty much having to choose which way they will throw their lot so even the middle voters get pulled to one end or the other.

As long as we treat politics as a football match, with whoever gets the most points wins and decides on dinner, and as long as our social complexities continue to increase we will have these problems and the juxtaposition between the two guarantees things will get worse. The other alternative is to change the system somehow completely, either socially or politically, but how is that even possible from within this dynamic, especially given how dysfunctional it is? (see last post, and I’m coming back to it again)

Perhaps this is all obvious to everyone already, and I’m just repeating what we all already know, but I did do a handy-dandy little chart below (a little proud) that might make what I’m trying to say more clear and you could show your friends at dinner parties.

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Natural Caffe (Several Coffees, a tour of the EU and a few gluten free biscuits later…)

IMG_0129-2A friend asked me the other day about my opinion as to what is the new ‘capital’ of Europe. Did I believe that London would take the prize? It was in response to a series of New York Times op eds (see here)  The prompt (for those of you who can’t be bothered to click the link is: In every era, one city is designated as a magnet of creativity and energy. Which city is the dynamic center in Europe now?

I had a quick response that on further reading I still believe, but after spending a few days in Brussels I think I’ve changed my opinion somewhat.

This is my original response:

I think London isn’t really the capital of Europe, but I don’t really think that Europe has a capital yet. The split between Brussels and Strasbourg as an administrative capital, and the push to make sure things are equal in language etc makes it hard for just one place to become dominant/ the ‘centre’. There is a lot of work being done right now about ‘global cities’, what they are, how they manifest, what their result will be. Many of the big capitals of Europe are considered ‘global cities’, but I do actually think London will end up being the major hub of this region. Hub, not centre, because I don’t think that culturally it has the same resonance that Paris or Amsterdam once had and I don’t know if thats even possible anymore. I think its part of a network of global cities that include Singapore, Mexico City, Toronto, Rio, Tokyo, New York, Mumbai and a few others. These cities have elements that distinguish them through historical cultural influence, but neo-liberal values have also set a stamp that makes them identifiable. People like myself and my peers move through each city and find ourselves almost as comfortable in one as in another. The difficulty is that the comfort is much more about personal culture and ideology and much less as a communal centre. They are are largely economic hubs, both as centres of regional growth and as financial exchange points, but they also involve travel which means tourism, and the import of globalized goods. There is also usually elements of academia or cultural production, but even here the members are not particularly tied to place as much as subject/ object. This means that inhabitants, while comfortable, are also transient and this makes it difficult to create a more settled cultural and political community that would root one of these cities as a new ‘capital’ in the way meant in the op-eds. I think London is important because of the ties to Europe, the Common Wealth and the US. This is what adds to the mix of cultures and the importance placed on it by so many people. But, I’ve also seen the tensions between long-term residents of the city (like generations of them) and the more recent emigrees. The Labour minister last week got himself in major trouble saying that british employers should hire british workers, even if they might not be as well qualified or hard working and it was a major problem for him. He encapsulates a big tension between brits who believe they are owed something because they come from here and people are taking over what is theirs and immigrants who say that what britain offers is opportunity but if brits aren’t going to work hard enough to take it they will. All of this of course is also predicated on material resources and if the BRIC countries really start to make inroads, especially depending the debt negotiations in the US it could all change drastically.

London also has this unique vibe, there is amazing culture- free museums, concerts in the park, art in the streets, good food and this amazing mix of people (take a bus across Elephant and Castle on a Sunday and you see the most amazing african women on their way to church with these incredible dresses and hats), and I don’t know any city that is as crowded but that has as much green space.

I still believe all these things, but what I’ve come to realize is that London isn’t really in Europe and it’s a mistake to assume it is. Its been a while since I spent any real time here, but very soon after arrival (if you are paying any attention at all) you can’t help but notice the very European-ness of it. I know, for someone who is supposed to be good with words that is a really bad descriptive, but I think its hard to encompass. For one example- in London if you travel by car (or have a very long attention span walking) you can notice that streets and blocks have quite obviously been developed at different time periods, one block will have little bay windows on the ground floor, one street is almost all one particular kind of brick work, but each block has some integrity. Also, they tend to be build in one or two stories until you properly start to get into the city. Here however most blocks are taller. I don’t know if there are more floors, or it seems that maybe the ceilings are taller? On most of the houses I’ve seen there are also these little grillwork balconies on the first (second) floor. The funny thing is that the buildings seem to be sort of filled in. There will be some that resemble each other, but they seem interspersed with buildings of a totally different design culture. Not to say they don’t work, the mish-mash is absolutely lovely, but it definitely isn’t the enlightenment inspired uniform blocks I’ve come to expect. That’s only one part of it though, there are differences in everything else as well. Brussels is definitely French inspired, but the overwhelming impression, and the reason for my change of heart is how little it seems to be impacted by the neo-liberal furore that is ever present in North America, the developing world, cities of Asia and Britain. Although there are some global symbols, there are many more that are local and the feel I get is that Europe is both doing just fine, and much less concerned with the rest of the world. And honestly, if you really think about it, isn’t that pretty justified? Despite the recent economic events and the threats to the Euro, it is still one of the more powerful currencies in the world, and the EU both continues to grow and to absorb economic instability with remarkable aplomb.

I asked some friends about it, and although there was discussion, almost none of it was in reference to the world beyond Europe. And, to be fair, the way the question was posed that makes sense, but I was struck by their ability to take the question that way, that Europe’s capital has only to do with Europe and not with its impact on the wider world.

I realized that I think that probably always been somewhat the case. Britain’s empire was able to expand because of their naval power, and the ability to hem in the rest of Europe, not to mention that the Europeans were a little occupied fighting themselves, but at the same time, despite their actions impacting the rest of the world in the way they have Europe was and continues to be less aware of the world, because the world is aware of Europe. Not sure why that is, but it seems to be historically the trend and likely to continue.