We Can’t Let Trump Make Us Forget Our Common Humanity

What an old Latino farmworker's act of kindness can teach us about restoring basic human decency in the age of President Trump.
In this June 13, 2018 photo, Nicole Hernandez, of the Mexican state of Guerrero, holds on to her mother as they wait with other families to request political asylum in the United States, across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

In this June 13, 2018 photo, Nicole Hernandez, of the Mexican state of Guerrero, holds on to her mother as they wait with other families to request political asylum in the United States, across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Bakersfield, California July 1971.

I did a day’s work in the sugar beet fields, bent over, row by row thinning out plants. Tired, dusty, returning to town, I found a small Mexican diner for dinner. I ordered rice and refried beans, the cheapest food on the menu and ate painfully slowly, until the plate was clean. I asked for the bill.

It was not what it seemed.

Our Peace Corps group was dropped off at several Central Valley towns as part of a training exercise, with $2 in our pockets, and the location of migrant labor pick-up spots — places to go for work early the next morning. At that time I was thin, vegetarian, 21-years old, and as a yoga practice, ate very slowly.

Nepal-22, our Peace Corps group, was learning agriculture fundamentals and language in Davis, California. We lived in old migrant labor dormitories and spent our days in intense language training, or with the various ag specialists — the wheat man, the rat man, and so on.

Back to my meal.

Through the whole meal, an old Latino farmworker sitting on the stool beside me watched me eat – ever so slowly, what may have looked like the first meal I’d had in days, or the last meal I ever expected to have. The bill came. Before I had my money out, the old man took it, paid the counter person, and left.

I am still grateful to that old man for a meal of rice and beans. I think of him when I hear hateful rhetoric about migrants and immigrants, and I think of him when we see the inhumane racist practices and policies our government implements in our name. He demonstrated that we can do better.

“For I was hungry, and you fed me. …”

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What It Really Means To “Go High”

Our current political situation challenges us and our future in deeply unsettling ways. We may feel anger, fear, sorrow, sadness, indignation, glee, a host of other emotions. In the headlights of this reality, we may opt for fight, flight or freeze – perhaps all at once.

We find our values, our vision for ourselves and our country, our sense of decency under constant assault. The roll-back of climate change programs; the elimination of environment, worker and consumer protections; the increasing military expenditures at the expense of so much else; the shameless corruption; the threats to education, women’s rights, the rule of law; the indecent and inhumane treatment of migrants and asylum seekers… What is our path forward?

I believe we must meet this situation with decency. When “they” go low, we go high.

But “high” requires honesty, strength, clarity, and action. Going high without identifying and calling out “going low” and without offering a compelling alternative action or narrative is not going high. When voices are raised in anger, we can lower our voices, and embody civility – but will it serve if not also clear and bold?

Going low appeals to some people’s frustrations and fears because they are losing out in today’s economy, feel estranged in a rapidly changing world and culture, believe they are entitled to a better deal, or resent the rise of others, which may also be racism, latent or active. These people identify with the person who says what they feel. Trump territory. Giving voice to anger, fear, hatred, greed, disappointment, frustrated ambitions, privilege, perhaps racism is perceived as authentic or honest when it aligns with their feelings.

Those who seek to lead the fight for a decent polity will, hopefully, go high with honesty and courage. Can we represent vision and visions that will speak to the better angels of our nature – where our nature includes our fellow citizens who we see now on a destructive and threatening path?

Destruction (harm) is exponentially more “efficient” than creation: minimal energy input for destruction can undo the work of thousands of times more creative input. A cartridge – cost perhaps $0.50 cents – in a moment can end a life, the recipient of decades of family love and care, the work of teachers and healers, tens of thousands of dollars for food, shelter, clothes. It has ever been so. Whether rock or ax or atom bomb, destruction costs vastly less to achieve than creation. Yet we replant, rebuild, love anew… do what we can. As humans, overall, we do thousands (!) of times more creation than destruction. That’s clearly true – and worth contemplating – or destruction would have long ago overwhelmed creation. Nevertheless, our millions of years on a path in which creation and growth outpaces destruction is not guaranteed to continue. The accelerating climate catastrophe and ever more awful weapons could finally tip the equation against us, particularly if wisdom and compassion are trumped by greed and anger.

The “lifeboat” exercise used in various training programs asks the participants to imagine being in an overcrowded lifeboat. For example, two of the seven in the lifeboat will have to be sacrificed, thrown out of the lifeboat, for the others to survive, decided by a vote. Each must present succinctly why they should remain. One may describe how valuable their work is in their everyday world. Another may make an argument that comes down to an expression of privilege: of course, I should survive. Another may argue that they have exactly the skills necessary for the survival of the whole group on the lifeboat – even if they don’t. Which one would you vote for? Taken seriously, it is a challenging and heart-breaking exercise.

Consider, though, framing a different lifeboat scenario. We are on the lifeboat with people we don’t know, perhaps with people we do not or will not like. But we are all necessary for the boat’s survival and therefore our own survival. If anyone is lost we are all lost. What could we do to ensure that everyone is protected?

We may think it easier to imagine the first scenario. Of course, a lifeboat could be so overcrowded it would sink, but a lifeboat where everyone had to survive? Why, by what logic, we might think.

We are trained to that – survival of the fittest, which may be survival of the meanest, the longest clawed, the best armed, the most nuclearized. But is most nuclearized the likely survivor? Why is it so difficult to imagine a survivor scenario based on cooperation, respect, interchange? Greg Fish’s America’s Declining Empathy is Eroding Our Democracy looks at the accelerants on the social side of a deteriorating social contract and our potential in reversing the downward slide.

Our reliance on nuclear weapons (deterrence) is little more than species-wide Russian roulette. Isn’t it time to think of cooperation more rationally? Wouldn’t Mutual Assured Prosperity (MAP) make a lot more sense than Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD)? Daniel Ellsberg in The Doomsday Machine illustrates just how incredibly lucky we have been to have survived the death trap we have created.

Could we act as if every one of us was essential to our survival?

We would need to find the heart and soul, courage and vision, to make peace work among us. We would need to learn to speak and live what was true, compassionate and useful and refrain from speaking and doing what could cause anxiety, fear or anger. We would need to listen. We would need to work together for solutions to our challenges. Finding others with seemingly less experience in bridging divides, we would need to learn together how to do just that.

For me, the old farmworker demonstrated a saner and more decent path: MÁS, Mutual Assured Security, mutual assured safety, survival, Mutual Assured Prosperity.

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Opinion // America / Decency / Donald Trump / Immigration