Triangulation and Resistance

I saw a post linked on Twitter the other day about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Education Secretary. Like everyone chosen for Trump’s cabinet, there’s a long list of reasons to loathe her, although I’d say she’s basically a normal conservative pick, as these things go, unlike Sessions, who’s far more horrifying than any likely AG pick we might have seen from Jeb or Rubio. (Probably. I mean, you never know.)

But, she also provides a good example of something I want to encourage people to think about.

Hopefully you’ve seen the Indivisible guide (if not, you can download it here), which talks about harnessing some of the tactics used by conservatives against Obama to resist the GOP agenda. They talk about calling your Representative and your Senators, and beyond that, finding out about town hall meetings and other opportunities to show up and make things difficult.

If you have Democratic representation (like me: I’m represented by Betty McCollum in the House, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken in the Senate) you want to encourage them to stand firm. They’re less likely to cave if they know their constituents are on their side. Especially if you know the other side is mobilizing to pressure them, call and say thank you. Let them know you have their back. Show up at their town hall meetings and be the opposite of difficult. Etc.

If you have Republican representation, though, the goal is to get them to break with their party, at least some of the time. The thing is, this really will be more successful when you can frame the issue in a way that has the potential to make them look bad to their base, and not just the Democrats. I mean, they already look bad to Democrats and they don’t, generally, care. “I want you to support Planned Parenthood because women should have the right to choose” is not going to sway someone who campaigned on an anti-abortion platform. “Your plan to refuse to let Planned Parenthood provide non-abortion-related health services will cost the Federal government $130 million. Whose taxes will be raised to cover this extra cost?” is the sort of question that might make them sweat.

So that’s my first point: when possible, find ways to frame things that threatens to make your Republican representatives look bad to their supporters. (I’m not saying you should give up on pressuring them when you can’t do that. But when you CAN, embrace it.)

My second point, though, is that you need to follow one additional rule: do not beat up on an already-marginalized group. Especially a group that’s being attacked by the Trump administration already. Do not go after Republicans by demonizing trans people. Or Muslims. Or immigrants. Find another option.

Back to Betsy DeVos. She’s a proponent of vouchers — giving public money to religious schools. Most voucher proponents imagine children attending Christian schools of one sort or another on the public dime, with maybe the occasional Jewish school for variety. They are not picturing Muslim schools receiving public money, but in fact, there are some Muslim schools around doing just that through voucher programs.

Loudly pointing that out, however, breaks that second rule. The last thing Muslim-Americans need right now is Democrats shouting at Senate hearings about the lurking danger of Madrassas. (Fun fact: “madrassa” is just the Arabic word for “school.” I heard a radio piece some years back by an American woman who’d taught somewhere like Jordan and had been really taken aback when she heard people referring to madrassas in tones of horror and hatred. Imagine hearing people saying school the way you hear people say madrassa and you’ll probably get the picture.)

Also, there is a terrific alternate bogeyman out there. They don’t have any schools right now but if Trump starts trying to push voucher programs nationwide I bet they would be overjoyed to set one up. After all, they crowdfunded an awesome statue and started a lovely afterschool program a year or so back… I am referring, of course, to the Satanic Temple.

As far as I can tell, the Satanic Temple was started more or less for the purpose of demonstrating to pushy Christians why “separation of Church and State” is in their interests, as well. So demonizing them (heh) is not only fair game but something I expect they would embrace wholeheartedly. Especially if you promise to donate to the project if they do start crowdfunding a school. (I bet it would be an awesome school.)

“Senator Johnson, why did you vote to confirm Betsy DeVos, who supports giving taxpayer dollars to schools run by Satanists?” (Pause to allow him briefly to yammer about parent choice, but don’t give up mic.) “But you didn’t answer my question about Satanists, Senator. Why do you support giving taxpayer dollars to Satanic schools?

There are plenty of other topics which I think may turn out to be less partisan than Paul Ryan assumes – Medicare, the ACA (my sympathy for the people who are dependent on the ACA but voted for Trump is limited, but I’m all for mobilizing them whenever we can), banking regulations.

But there’s another benefit to this sort of triangulation that’s worth thinking about. The Republican coalition has held together as long as it has because it’s been a long time since they’ve tried to accomplish anything. In addition to blocking the Trump agenda at every opportunity, I think our broader goal should be to burn down the Big Tent. Turn Republicans against Republicans at every opportunity. The Republican party has shown itself willing to lie, cheat, and obstruct. They’re willing to give aid and comfort and alliance to literal Nazis. They’re willing to side with a Russian dictator against American democracy. These are not the actions of good and decent people who care about America. That’s a political party that cares about nothing but power. That’s a party that needs to go.

The ultimate purpose of triangulation is to turn your opponents against each other. Turn Republicans against Republicans and get out of the way. If the Big Tent is burning, evacuate the vulnerable but do not get a fire extinguisher. (I mean that metaphorically, to be clear. Obviously if you’ve, say, decided to visit a Republican gathering to encourage productive discourse, and a literal fire gets started while you’re there, grab an extinguisher and put it out. Literal fires are super dangerous!)

 

Fight with facts, not with rumors

So, I deeply sympathize with the impulse to signal-boost when you hear about something horrible. In some cases it’s a really good idea. But it’s only helpful when you’re signal boosting stuff that’s real and current. 
This is particularly important when there’s a ton of stuff flying around.
Add to the signal, not to the noise.

If you’re reading a personal story a stranger has shared, I would suggest the following steps.

1. Find the original version. 
If you’re looking at a screencap of a Facebook post, go see if you can find the original Facebook post. If you’re looking at a screencap of a Tweet, go see if you can find the original Tweet. See if there’s more to the story in a Tweet thread or in the comments or subsequent posts. I’ll note that five minutes ago, I saw a post on Imgur that was a screen cap of a Tweet that was a real Tweet, but had been positioned to make it look like a response to something it wasn’t, completely changing the meaning. Context matters.
If you’re seeing a horrifying story from a person you don’t know at all, see if there’s anything else you can easily find out about them. Do you have mutual friends on Facebook? If you look at their FB and it’s wall-to-wall conspiracy theories, that matters. If they registered their Twitter account 15 minutes before they posted the horror story, that matters.
Take a few seconds to see if they seem like someone you’d believe if they walked up to you on the street and told you something important. Sometimes you can tell just from their broader social media that this person is not reliable. If that’s the case, don’t re-share. This doesn’t mean you should challenge their credibility (that’s generally a dick move. Not surprisingly, it’s been embraced by Trump supporters who want to believe that the surge in hate crimes is somehow being faked) but don’t re-share if you don’t trust the source.

2. Beware of the best story in the room.

Remember the Rolling Stone rape story that they had to retract? The journalist actually interviewed a number of women who’d been raped, but focused on the woman with the best story, the one with a wealth of horrifying details. Unfortunately, she was lying about many of the details.
The inherent problem is that the person who’s fabricating can always have the best story.
There are some amazing stories that are also true. But if all the details are practically cinematic, that’s a red flag.
3. If there’s something that sends up a red flag for you, trust your gut.
Or at least re-read the piece and think it through a second time before you re-share. Again, I’m not saying you should call someone a liar liar pants on fire because something in their story struck you as off! Just don’t forward it if you feel that sense of distrust.
Again, there is so much out there right now that is happening. You don’t need to signal-boost the stuff you have any doubts about. There is enough.
4. If someone is telling you a story about a thing that happened in their city, but they weren’t there and they weren’t a personal friend of the victim, the odds are super high that some of what they’re telling you is wrong. 
I’m saying this based on my personal knowledge of an incident in my town, and watching the stories about it shift and change before my eyes. The people telling the story are not lying, they’re participating in a large-scale version of the game of Telephone, and the results are about what you’d expect.
You don’t have to call anyone out, just don’t add to this problem by re-telling a story that was already third-hand or fourth-hand when it got to you.

If you are reading a news article that strikes you as important:

1. Check the date. OH MY GOD, PEOPLE. CHECK THE GODDAMN DATE.
If you’re looking at a source that doesn’t include any way to see if you’re looking at new news, or something from 2007, that’s actually a bad sign anyway, but try googling some of the details in the article to see what else pops up.
2. Check the source. 
Here is a list of left-leaning incredibly unreliable sites:
DO NOT SHARE NEWS STORIES FROM THESE SITES. If it’s a legit news story, you’ll be able to find it somewhere else. If they’re the only ones talking about it, do not trust the story. Needless to say there’s a huge list of similarly unreliable right-leaning sites and you shouldn’t share from those, either.
And there’s also a ton of full-on fake news sites. Some are supposedly “satire,” others are just fakey fake fake. If you’re reading something alarming and you don’t immediately recognize the source, Google the name of the site and see what turns up, or see if you can find the story other places.
3. Remember all the things that are easy to fake.
Newspaper sites can be fake. Twitter accounts can be fake. The blue checkmark is supposed to help you spot the real deal, but if you’re looking at an image-capture, both the little blue checkmark and the whole damn Tweet can be faked.
Have you seen that clickbait article saying that the next Star Wars movie is going to be filmed in a suburb of the nearest big city to you? It always has a URL that looks like the URL for one of your local TV stations (at least at first glance). Fake!
Photos can be faked. Or, quite often, it’s a real photo but it doesn’t actually show what the caption claims it shows. The huge crowd you’re seeing turns out to be sports fans, or people at an environmentalist march in Paris in 2012, or religious pilgrims. If you see an article with a photo, it’s frequently a stock photo and not a picture of the person in the article.
Videos can be faked. They can be edited to show things that look bad but have been taken wildly out of context. Or they can be clips from a movie, or from shows like “What Would You Do” where it’s real reactions but a staged situation. Or they’re from years ago and, like the photos, don’t show what the caption claims.
When we’re already on edge, when we’re angry and scared and uncertain, it’s that much easier for bullshit to bypass our usual mental security systems. This is much like how we are more likely to catch colds when we’re sleep-deprived, stressed out, and not eating right — our defenses are weak. Be aware of this tendency. 
4. Read things before you share them. 
Ideally, read all the way to the bottom. (If you’re sharing it so you won’t lose track of it — well, first of all, Facebook actually has a “save” feature for links that will do this for you, but if you’d rather share to save, just note that when you share.)
5. Signal-boost legit stories from legit sources. 
Find reliable but clickable sources when possible — a lot of people ration their NYT clicks and WaPo clicks because they don’t want to deal with the paywall. One of my favorite sources to share is NPR: reliable, trustworthy, free. If you want to share a NYT or WaPo story, sum it up in your share so your friends can assess whether it’s worth the click.
If one of your friends writes something you want to boost, be sure to note that this person is someone you personally know and trust. If you heard it verbally or they put it in a friends-locked post, and want to write about it publicly, make sure you have the details correct, and make sure your friend is OK with you sharing their story. 

If you actually witness or experience a hate crime:

Your first priority should always be protecting the victim. (Including yourself, if you’re the victim.) Don’t mess around with your camera if what you need to do is call 911.
If it’s over, and you’re a witness, tell the targeted person or people that you saw what happened. Tell them that if they want to report it to the police, you’ll be their witness and back them up. If they say they don’t want to call the police, give them your contact info in case they change their mind. (If you’re the victim and you’re surrounded by witnesses, hopefully they’ll approach you. It shouldn’t be on you to say “hey! please stick around so you can vouch for me that this happened!” But you should also feel free to make that request / demand.)
If you have the presence of mind to take a video, then do it. I can tell you right now that the odds of me ever shooting a video of anything in an emergency are close to zero. If you’re in a public place like a parking lot, you can check nearby businesses to see if they have a surveillance camera running that might have caught it. If you can spot a license plate, write down the number.
Nothing signal-boosts like media coverage. I asked a friend of mine who’s a journalist how to get a reporter to cover something that’s happened to you. She said that a police report is key; it’s a big part of how journalists sift out the bullshit. Even if it’s not something the cops are going to do much about, the fact that you made a report gives you credibility, since making a false report is a crime.
(When I say “not something the cops are going to do much about” I’m not saying that I think the police will ignore hate crimes. But if your report is, “someone pulled up in a car, jumped out, punched a woman in the hijab while screaming epithets, and then they jumped back in their car and drove away, and all I remember about the car is that it was grey or maybe black and I didn’t get a license plate,” they’re not going to do much with this because there’s just not enough info there to work with, unless the perpetrator gets caught later a block away doing the same shit to someone else.)
If you want press coverage of an incident, news websites generally have a “contact us” area. If you know a specific reporter who covers crime in your city, call that specific reporter. You can call a newsroom and ask for an editor. You will absolutely need to provide your name and contact information. If you want to be anonymous in the story, the editor may be okay with that, but the reporter will always, always need to know who you are if what you’re offering is your personal story. If you have witnesses, video, or anything like that, that will help.

Election 2016: Presidential Candidates Who Aren’t Going to Win

Aside from Donald and Hillary, here’s who’s appearing on the ballot in Minnesota:

Darrell Castle and Scott Bradley (Constitution Party)
Dan R. Vacek and Mark Elworth, Jr. (Legal Marijuana Now)
Alyson Kennedy and Osborne Hart (Socialist Workers Party)
Jill Stein and Howie Hawkins (Green Party)
“Rocky” Roque De La Fuente and Michael Steinberg (American Delta Party)
Evan McMullin and Nathan Johnson (Independence)
Gary Johnson and William Weld (Libertarian Party)

I’m just going to go down this list in order and tell you who these people are and what they stand for, with particular attention to whether they’d be a plausible candidate for you if you’re a Republican who won’t vote for Trump and can’t bring yourself to vote for Clinton.

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Methodology

I had a couple of people ask me this year how I do my research. I just want to note again that I’m a hobbyist, not a journalist, so I can’t call people up and say “this is Naomi Kritzer from the local paper of record, calling to ask you questions about your campaign.” (I tend to assume that real journalists get quick responses to their questions, especially when they’re softball questions like “what makes you different from your opponent?” but I may actually be totally wrong about this. I’ll tell you this: “I’m a political blogger” does not open doors. People get this nervous, guarded look, like they think you’re probably a lunatic.)

My core research tool is Google, but there are some specific techniques I use and stuff I look for.

1. Get the slate of candidates.

In Minnesota, you can get the precise slate of candidates for your precinct by visiting the MN Secretary of State’s site and putting in your zip code and address: http://myballotmn.sos.state.mn.us/Default.aspx Once it gets to a month or so before the election you can even view a sample ballot.

The candidate list (though not the sample ballot) usually includes links to most of their websites. This is not perfect: some candidates, including one fairly high-profile one, wrote their URLs down wrong (or they got put in wrong at the elections office.) Nonetheless, the links can save time.

Getting the list is critical for the downballot races because they’re so rarely covered in voter guides.

2. Look at the websites of the candidates.

Interpreting a candidate’s website can be one of those areas where there’s no substitute for a base of local knowledge, because so often there’s subtle code. I mean, not always — sometimes, you have a nice straightforward choice between an obvious conservative and an obvious liberal and you can pick your political philosophy and be done with it. (And in fact, in a U.S. Senate or U.S. House race you should probably just decide whether you like Democrats or Republicans and stick with those candidates, because you’re not just voting for Jane Q. Minnesotan, you’re voting for her party to control that branch of government.) In local elections, though, this may be a whole lot less clear, and there are more likely to be highly contentious issues that don’t break down neatly along party lines.

“Fiscal responsibility” is something of a Republican buzzword and it can mean “I think teachers are overpaid and guidance counselors are a waste of money” but it can also mean “that sports stadium we are now spending a pile of money to build is STUPID and I wouldn’t have supported it.” “No handouts to billionaires” is a Democratic buzzword and it can mean “I think tax breaks for large employers are always a terrible idea, even when we’re offering incentives for hiring the long-term unemployed” but it can ALSO mean “that sports stadium we are now spending a pile of money to build is STUPID and I wouldn’t have supported it.”

One of the words you’ll see a lot in local elections is “transparency.” Sometimes this means, “I am totally convinced that if only we posted all our minutes on a website, people would take a sudden passionate interest in solid waste management.” Or, “We should hire someone to do VIDEO of all those solid waste management committee meetings and put THOSE on a website. Or local access cable! THE PEOPLE HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW. EVERY. DETAIL.” Other times it means, “I can’t actually claim that my opponent is corrupt but everyone knows he is, and I’m promising fewer no-bid contracts, back-room deals, and mutual back-scratching arrangements.” And occasionally it means, “I’m a corrupt jackass and I’m going to do that nifty political trick where I try to suggest my opponent has the exact problems that are my greatest weakness.” Again, some knowledge of the local people involved can help.

It’s always worth looking to see what they think the issues are, because that all by itself can be extremely revealing. When I’m evaluating politicians, especially at the local level, I’m a big fan of people who will commit to specifics. Everyone agrees that the achievement gap is a problem, so promising to erase the achievement gap is pretty meaningless if you’re not saying “…by doing x, y, and z.” (Of course, if people are promising totally ridiculous specifics, it’s totally fine to hold that against them.)

Endorsements pages are also often very interesting. First off, as a general rule, if someone has no endorsements, that’s a good indicator that they’re a flake. (I mean, get all your friends to endorse you. At least make it look like your trying!) Second, they may be endorsed by politicians you know you hate, even if they’re technically members of your party. (For the record, I loathed Norm Coleman back when he was a Democrat, too.) Or by people you know are nuts. You also get situations where the candidate is saying nothing particularly socially conservative anywhere on their website but has endorsements from socially conservative groups; that’s a pretty good indicator that they hold very socially conservative views, even if they’re keeping quiet about them this week.

If I’m having a really hard time sussing out what someone is like, I will sometimes go through the list of names on their endorsements page, Google the individuals, and try to figure out whether they run liberal or conservative. I mean, there’s limits, with private individuals, but often you’ll find out that they’re board members of some non-profit, or they work as lobbyists, or they’re high-level executives in some industry… this, however, can be a whole lot of work.

3. Google the candidates.

If a candidate has a very common name, or if they share a name with a celebrity, I’ll try adding the state, the city, the county, the job they’re running for, their political party if I know it, each political party in turn if I don’t, and various relevant issues.

Sometimes, I will look specifically for news stories. You can adjust the dates on Google News if you click “Search Tools” on your results page, and look for stuff that’s less recent. There are certain local sources I’ll always click on. One of my favorites is the City Pages, because their searchable archive goes way back and they’ve always liked covering scandals. Obviously I’ll click if I spot a Star Tribune link. I also like mnpost.com and tcdailyplanet.net. If I hit a really old article that looks promising but appears to only be in a paid archive (Highbeam, for instance), I make a note of where it appeared and visit my local library’s website; they have paid access to a bunch of news databases. Usually, the stuff I’m after doesn’t require archaeological skills, but every now and then I really have to dig. (It helps a lot if I have some idea of what I’m digging for.)

I look for candidates’ Twitter feeds and Facebook pages; sometimes I can get more information on them that way (sometimes they’re just very, very boring — serious campaigns for high-level offices always have Twitter feeds but they tend to be shockingly dull.)

If I’m really digging (especially in minor races where I haven’t been able to find much) I will look people up on LinkedIn. That can be a good way to see if this minor candidate has some qualification for the office they’re running for. Also, sometimes there’s stuff that will tip you off about their views and/or agenda.

Blogs are great. I’m always really excited when I find a blog, especially if it’s from a few years ago, before this person was thinking about running for public office, and they might actually say what they think instead of couching everything in politically palatable euphemisms.

Minneapolis has a long-standing mailing list called the Issues List which is archived online. Sometimes I can find a fantastic gossipy discussion full of invective that relates to a particular candidate. It’s fun when it’s people talking about them; it’s even MORE fun when they were a participant.

Interviews with candidates are basic but sometimes very solid. Interviews from a partisan source are more likely to be interesting. (Bonus points when the candidate forgets that Democrats AND Republicans will be able to read this interview.) Voter’s Guides, of course, if they filled them out. If they refused to fill out a Voter’s Guide that can also be revealing. (Sometimes what it reveals is, “this is not a serious candidate.”)

4. Watch video / listen to radio.

This is not my favorite research method but I will do it occasionally. It can be particularly interesting if you can dig it up from primary season. Something I realized this time is that you can make a YouTube video skip five seconds forward or backward by using your arrow keys. (You have to start it, pause it, and restart it in order to activate that feature. It’s possible it doesn’t work on all videos.) This is especially good to know if you’re trying to watch a primary-season debate during the main season because who cares what Kurt Zellers said?

Sometimes, candidates will put all their substantive ideas on videos so you have to sit through them yammering to find out what they think about anything. I hate that approach so profoundly that all by itself it’s going to be a huge strike against any candidate who does it. I have a lot of races to research and a lot of candidates to sift through, and I can read a lot faster than I can listen.

5. Ask questions.

Sometimes I want to know something about a candidate’s stance that’s not on their website, and I will e-mail them to ask for more information. I’ve had a wide range of responses to this, from prompt helpful e-mails back to “can you please call me so we can chat? here’s my number” to complete radio silence.

I get mixed results with this. Jeff Johnson (GOP candidate in the governor’s race) ignored me. Hannah Nicollet (Independence candidate in the governor’s race) asked me to call her, which I did, and we talked on the phone for a bit. Nelson Inz asked me to call him, which I ended up not doing. Jay Larson e-mailed back to ask me for a more specific question, but then did not follow up with a response to my more specific question. (I’d asked him how he differed from his opponent; he wanted to know a more specific concern so I asked him about the District 5 high school options. No reply.)

Asking me to call is fine. E-mailing back is fine. Having a campaign worker e-mail back is also fine. For someone in a local race to never respond at all is not fine and communicates a tremendous amount of arrogance, IMO. If I really want an answer I may try Twitter and the campaign Facebook page as well. (I tried that with Mark Andrews during last year’s mayoral race and he did not answer me ANYWHERE. I sort of wondered if he was avoiding me because he thought I was nobody, or if he was avoiding me because he knew who I was and did not expect a favorable writeup?)

When a candidate persistently ignores me I always wonder if they ignore reporters, too. I don’t usually lead with “I’m a blogger” — I just tell them I’m researching candidates for the upcoming election and I have a question about X, here’s my e-mail address, thank you. But, if they Google me, they’ll find my blog. And I know some of the local politicians know who I am! (I am “Minnesota sci-fi writer and astute local political commentator,” thank you, Gawker. I think I’m going to put that on my business cards.) But fundamentally, when I write to a candidate, I’m writing as a voter. And I think I deserve as much of a response as any other voter. I don’t expect a personal reply when I write to Obama or Franken or Dayton (or McFadden or Johnson, before yesterday). But I do expect a personal reply when I write to my State Legislator or my City Council Rep — not necessarily from them, but from their staff or a volunteer.

When I wrote to my City Council rep in St. Paul to grouse about the horrifying road work being done on Ford Parkway this fall and the fact that it was happening at the same time as Montreal Ave was closed, I got a fairly lengthy and apologetic e-mail back from their aide explaining why the scheduling happened the way it did. (It involved a fight for funding in one case, and a lawsuit regarding who they hired in the other, and then a desperate attempt to get everything done ASAP before winter. Annoying as hell, but it would be worse NOT to do the work, so…) When I wrote about the horrific mess that was Hamline Ave last spring, I got a similarly apologetic e-mail along with a promise that they were going to re-pave Hamline before winter. Which they did, hurray!

On a super fundamental level, that’s what accountability looks like to me: a willingness to answer my questions, to respond to me when I have a complaint. I don’t expect that to be instant; my elected officials have lives, kids, other jobs, other constituents. I don’t always expect to get what I want; all resources are limited, and (hopefully) my elected officials have a broader perspective than I do on what those short-term hassles will get us in the long run.

Anyway, if someone won’t answer my questions before they get the job, they’re certainly not likely to answer my questions after they get the job.

6. Share.

If you’re going to do this sort of work researching your local political races, your friends will appreciate it if you share, especially if they hold similar political views. I don’t know how big my readership is at this point, just that it’s way beyond my circle of personal friends because they found it useful enough to pass along.

Before I post stuff online, I try to organize my information: I want to have links to my sources. If someone dislikes my opinion, they can follow those links and form their own. My writeups tend to have a lot of snark, because that’s part of what makes this fun for me. I do, however, try to avoid committing libel. If something’s been alleged, I try to remember to say it’s an allegation. If I’m expressing an opinion, I try to make sure it’s expressed as an opinion.

I usually break do a separate post for each race, but if I have a lot to say about the candidates in some race I might break that one down by candidate because novella-length blog posts are annoying both to write and to read.

Shortly before the election I collect all my endorsements onto one page.

Local elections matter a lot. I was talking about this today with a friend on Facebook. It’s weird to me that people focus so heavily on the national elections, to the exclusion of the local races, given how much of your day-to-day quality of life is the result of stuff your state legislature and city council are doing (or not doing). You are not under any obligation to be exhaustively thorough: you can just sit down with your sample ballot and check out a few websites and ignore anyone who isn’t easy to find.

Same Song, Different Verse

There’s an Isaac Bashevis Singer collection for Hanukkah called The Power of Light, which my family owned when I was little.  It’s a collection of eight stories for Hanukkah. My favorite was probably the title story, about two Jewish teenagers trapped in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto after the uprising.  Probably the best-known story in there is “A Parakeet Named Dreidel,” in which a parakeet shows up on the windowsill of the narrator’s New York City apartment.

The Power of Light Cover Illustration

The final story in the volume, “Hanukkah in the Poorhouse,” tells the story of a Jewish man from Belarus who was kidnapped from his family as a child, forced to live with a Russian family, and, on reaching adulthood, drafted into military service.  (“I had no choice but to eat unkosher food,” the narrator says.  “In the first days I spat out the pig meat, but how long can a boy fast? For hundreds of miles around there was not a single Jew.”)

I looked this up, tonight, thinking about this, because I was curious about the historical context.  The boys were called cantonists, and this system (which included some schooling) was originally started out as something for the orphaned sons of soldiers. The kidnapping and forced conscription was something done to Roma and Polish boys as well as Jews.

The news coming out of Russia, about journalist Masha Gessen’s fears for her family, and the very real threats from the Russian government against LGBT families — the threat that they are going to take away the children of loving parents because the parents are gay –this has all reminded me intensely of this story.

And, in fact, pretty much everything happening to gay people in Russia these days probably sounds pretty familiar, if you’re Jewish and grew up with stories about pogroms, ghettos, and Russian persecution of Jews.  It’s certainly sounded familiar to me, right down to my recollection of the historical theory that the Czars encouraged pogroms because scapegoating Jews was such an excellent distraction for people with legit grievances against, say, the Czar. (In Jewish children’s lit, at last back in the 1980s, “Cossacks” basically meant “the bad guys.” It turns out that the Cossacks were ALSO an oppressed ethnic minority — or, in some respects, a co-opted one.)

Anyway. I don’t really have a particular point here, other than that people should read Isaac Bashevis Singer (you can also find that story in his Stories for Children collection, although The Power of Light has absolutely stunning, gorgeous illustrations in it), boycott Russian vodka, and support asylum for any GLBTQ Russians who ask for it.