“Weeping,” a South African anti-apartheid song, sung by Vusi Mahlasela

Donald Trump was was not elected despite universal disbelief that it was possible. He was elected because of universal disbelief that it was possible. The most crucial factor in his resistible rise was the profound faith that it couldn’t happen here. I shared this; I was as punch-drunk as anybody by midnight Tuesday. But the blitheness had been almost everywhere; and what kind of unreal vision of the United States, and of our strange moment in history, did it show?

There are thousands of examples but I’ll restrict myself to the field of punditry. Back in February, Jonathan Chait — who now, accurately, says “Collaborating With Donald Trump Is Doomed to Fail” — wrote that liberals should “earnestly and patriotically support a Trump Republican nomination”

The first [reason], of course, is that he would almost certainly lose. Trump’s ability to stay atop the polls for months, even as critics predicted his demise, has given him an aura of voodoo magic that frightens some Democrats. But whatever wizardry Trump has used to defy the laws of political gravity has worked only within his party. Among the electorate as a whole, he is massively — indeed, historically — unpopular …

At that point, Trump was running 3.4 points behind Clinton in the Real Clear Politics polling average, not a number suggesting the ironclad historical inevitability of defeat. Come May, George Packer in the New Yorker wrote that “Democrats probably won’t need the votes of the white working class to win this year. Demographic trends favor the party, as does the bloated and hateful persona of the Republican choice.” When that appeared, Trump was 3.1 points behind, and gaining. And the day before the election, the New York Times devoted a long, detectably gleeful article to describing “Trump’s Last Stand,” painting the desperate “neediness and vulnerability of a once-boastful candidate now uncertain of victory.” Thirty-six hours later, the vulnerable loser was President-elect of the United States.


Too soon: Cover for New York Magazine‘s election issue (published October 31, 2016), by Barbara Kruger

The willful blindness, the willingness to treat a tiny and tenuous lead in unreliable polls as a promissory note for a future landslide, infected almost everybody — from journalists to diehard Democrats to disaffected non-voters to, possibly, Donald Trump himself. There was, clearly, a faith in the historical process, a belief that a country that elected Barack Obama twice had put itself on a certain course irreversibly. In fact, Dr. King’s overquoted assurance about how the arc of history bends might be valid for the longue durée, but it wasn’t a guide to betting on the elections of 1980, or 1994, or 2010. Even many right-wingers, though, saw Trump as far too radical a break from the going neoliberal consensus to have a chance. Then there was a very standard ignorance that people you don’t know might have a different take on things — thus the Times‘ Nick Kristof, completely unable to locate an actual Trump voter in the 10018 zip code, had to interview an imaginary one. Finally, there was a touching faith in the United States itself, in the goodness of its people and its institutions (“If you step outside the pall of the angry campaign rhetoric, you see that America’s institutions are generally quite strong,” David Brooks wrote, with Trump just six points down and rising). This was particularly poignant among the Left, often accused of hating America but in truth especially insistent that it could never go that wrong.

Which America, though? To call Trump a breach with the United States’ traditions is to lop half those traditions from the field of view.

"Through a Looking Glass Darkly" by Mr. Fish (, 2013

“Through a Looking Glass Darkly” by Mr. Fish, 2013. (Please see comment below for some more information about the portrait’s source.)

Racism and rage are older than the Republic, and they’ve never been in hiding. They are only-sometimes-latent possibilities in American life, part of the permanent repertory of rhetorics that politicians and entertainers call upon, part of the cache of emotions for citizens to feel (and fear), constant forces waiting for circumstances to unleash them. The assumption that all this hatred shrank to inanition through some combination of Obama, Lena Dunham, and Will and Grace was self-defeating. Trump is not “unprecedented“; nor does he represent a past that, as Clinton kept saying, we “can’t go back” to. He’s part of us, then and now. In living memory, George Wallace struck nearly all the notes in the Trump octave, down to the strutting, preening, boorish machismo (his famous threat to give a recalcitrant judge “a barbed-wire enema” could have come out of Trump’s mouth). Wallace never made it near the Presidency. but he got 45 electoral votes. The man he helped make President, Richard Nixon, added to a subdued version of Wallace’s racism a deep paranoia, a passionate adoration of foreign dictators, and a profound reliance on the indigenous surveillance state. It’s hard to remember this now, but a lot of sensible Americans believed that the United States was careening toward fascist politics and authoritarian rule under the Divine Milhous in 1972 — and that only the Watergate scandal forestalled it. A good many on the Left have been comparing Trump to a “Third World dictator.” It’s an insult to a Third World that give rise to Thomas Sankara, to Nelson Mandela, to Salvador Allende, to Jawaharlal Nehru. (It also echoes Trump himself, who repeatedly said the United States was becoming a “Third World country.”) But it has a scrap of truth if you mean the kind of kleptomaniacal, deadly autocrats the democratic, idealistic US has inflicted on its hapless allies in the global South for decades. Trump’s corruption, his shadowy relations with an overweening foreign power, and his alliance with domestic security cadres like the FBI suggest a regime worthy of Cold-War Guatemala. And that’s not “un-American”; it’s of the Americas, of us. It’s our history, too.

I don’t underestimate Trump’s threat. Wallace was defeated by the limitations of his regional appeal, by a still-resilient Democratic Party, and by the need of a suburban bourgeoisie to take its racism in slightly more civil form. Nixon’s undoing was an opposition Congress. Trump faces none of these things. His lust for power is enormous. There’s very little to stop him — so much for those “American institutions.” The menace of fascist authoritarianism is very real. Trump is a perfect storm, where all the foulest impulses in the national life come together with no visible check or balance. There is a lot of talk now about the dangers of “normalizing” Trump, treating his Presidency as if it were business as usual. The real “normalization,” though, happened during the campaign: treating the daily life of the United States as though placidity, “conflict resolution,” and consensus were the way things always had been and should be. This is an insane thing to think about the country at any time, but particularly in a year when police violence was on full display, when Guantánamo was still a going concern, when just over the rainbow the state was killing people in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. We only start to understand Trump when we see these horrors as the unwritten constitution of the “normal.”

The US left is now in crisis yet again, this time arguing whether Trump’s victory should be ascribed to racism tout simple or to rage at the impoverishment of the white working class. It’s an important argument so far as it informs the question What do we do next? But it’s useless when conducted on Facebook where everything turns into either-or. Racism is not an abstract entity separable from historical circumstances. It is extremely concrete; the pressure it exerts on individual bodies, individual lives, is drawn from specific and immediate conditions that rouse it, shape it, use it, and give it strength. There is a long history in the United States of politicians channeling economic powerlessness into racist fantasies of power; local caudillos such as Tom Watson, or Theodore Bilbo, or Frank Rizzo knew exactly how to work this in their neighborhoods, on their streets. It’s better, though not entirely exact, to think of racism through the metaphor of latency again: as a set of possibilities immanent in the United States, waiting for the particular junctures where they can become not just potential but actual, can feed on blood. These are possibilities immanent in people, also, in the repertory of dreams and delusions available to every white person (and probably to many people of color). If Donald Trump sets up his Muslim registry, I can indulge the fantasy of marching to City Hall and putting my name on it, preferably while flashbulbs explode like excited Valkyries. Or I can fantasize about informing on the undocumented Pakistani store clerk who shortchanged me. Both fantasies are dangerous, in very different ways. Neither has much to do with reality — Trump’s registry is likely to be a subtler thing, specific to immigrants in ways that will obviate white-savior illusions, and less reliant on pliant informers than on invisible electronic surveillance. My point is, though, that the reality of unrestrained state power in which more and more of us will live, will oblige us to examine ourselves unsparingly, with a cold eye toward our motives and our dreams. An inner moral rigor resists power even as it runs the risk of reproducing it; it is the only recourse when everything else calls out for compromise. Trumpism will work by universalizing mistrust. Part of the necessary response is to mistrust oneself.

"Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here," by Mr. Fish (, 2016

“Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

But it’s not just personal. Economics counts, and a left that can’t address this isn’t a left. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 was probably the largest transfer of wealth from poor to rich in human history, a massive expropriation of the already-expropriated. We are still living with the consequences. (Despite all the pity accorded poor white people in the last week, the most acute suffering the collapse caused fell upon people of color. This doesn’t delegitimate the anger of the white working class, many of whose hopes and present realties were also destroyed. It does remind us again that racism divides capitalism’s victims not just from one another, but from reality.) What if, as Paul Rosenberg asks, Obama had taken even small steps toward tangible justice in his first year in office: prosecuting the culpable crooks in the financial industry, bailing out homeowners the way the Treasury did Wall Street, securing union rights instead of colluding in their destruction? Would the African-American as well as the white working class have felt a confidence that transcended the vicissitudes of identity politics, and turned out in sufficient numbers to defeat Trump? It’s not enough to say “We’ll never know.” People on the left know what is right. They shouldn’t allow the persistent sense that Obama is a decent man to derogate the certainty of what should have been done then, or to deflect from what has to happen now. Justice is not “normal” in the United States, but it needs to be.

"Dead End," by Mr. Fish, 2016

“Dead End,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

We also need to scrap the palliative fiction that Trump’s populism, which turns economic fears into racist terror, is some sort of blow to neoliberalism or the “elites.” Divide and conquer is the classic strategy of capitalism in power, and that’s true whether the power rests with Ruhr industrialists or New York investment bankers. Trumpism is perfectly consistent with this. Fredric Jameson points out that “today, all politics is about real estate“:

Postmodern politics is essentially a matter of land grabs, on a local as well as a global scale. Whether you think of the question of Palestine, the settlements and the camps, or of the politics of raw materials and extraction; whether you think of ecology (and the rain forests) or the problems of federalism, citizenship, and immigration; or whether it is a question of gentrification in the great cities as well in the bidonvilles, the favelas and the townships and of course the movement of the landless — today everything is about land.

You can add Standing Rock, or Julius Malema; it’s absolutely true. The world is full. Capitalism has seized and commodified nearly all the land on earth, with the exception of Amazonia, some scattered areas of tribal or indigenous commons (now being stolen by police and the World Bank), and a few national parks. The space for expansion is gone; what’s left is to battle over what’s already branded, owned. No coincidence, then, that the most powerful engine of the world economy will now be ruled by a real-estate magnate, whose only skill is stamping his personal brand on things, a grotesque version of private property as pure performance. No one is better qualified than this idiot to wage capitalism’s war over control of space, to defend its hard-thieved acres and squirrelled-away square feet, to keep the rents too damn high.

Democracy in the United States was predicated, for its first two centuries or so, on land (once taken from its original users) being plentiful and cheap, and labor (at least in its free forms) scarce and expensive. These conditions slowly built a stable, somewhat contented working class who could bargain collectively, join the bourgeoisie, afford to own things. Since the 1960s, in the neoliberal ascendancy, there’s been an immense reversal. Land — or, more properly, space, whether farmland or a downtown loft — is in short supply and increasingly expensive. Meanwhile, there’s more than enough labor for the skewed new economy, and real wages have kept falling. This is how Trump made his indeterminate millions. It means an economy of massive inequality, misery, and hyperexploitation. It means the end of the apparent stability of the United States. The politics of such a lifeworld are inherently unstable. As Mike Davis has repeatedly shown, the burgeoning dispossessed will be a constant threat to the possessions of their dispossessors. The state will use more and more violence to protect the property of those who sustain it. Repression will become more and more continuous and constant; resistance will find fewer and fewer spaces to survive. Donald Trump is the ideal leader for this new world of walls and cowards. He is the ideal weapon.

We are in a violent new era, and we are not sure how to live. We will have to educate ourselves in many things we thought we knew. We will have to learn a different kind of speech: one that shocks but not mindlessly, one that has a purpose, one for those who are not our friends or our fellow believers. We will have to reach outside our arrogance and our need for comfort. We will have to relearn old lessons of patience, cunning, and endurance. We will have to humble ourselves before those who have fought this kind of fight before; suddenly, the lessons of Andijan or Mohamed Mahmoud Street may mean more to people in Seattle or Atlanta than they ever thought possible. For myself, I sit round thinking of Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
              (“Spain,” 1937)

Or Brecht:

It takes a lot of things to change the world:
Anger and tenacity. Science and indignation,
The quick initiative, the long reflection,
The cold patience and the infinite perseverance,
The understanding of the particular case and the
understanding of the ensemble:
Only the lessons of reality can teach us to transform reality.
                (“Einverständnis,” 1929)


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Cultural Cold Wars: Where “traditional values” came from

"Communism destroys the family": Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

“Communism destroys the family”: Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

There’s thunder out there, and not just on the Right, telling us the Cold War is back. Tensions between the US and Russia have ascended, over Edward Snowden and Syria. A new poll shows that a bare majority of Americans thinks of Russia as “non-friendly/enemy,” the first time it’s fallen so low in this century. And of course there are the gays. Will “divisions over sexual orientation” be “the new Berlin Wall”? Indeed, by sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” at the UN Human Rights Council, Putin seems to be bidding for leadership of an unwieldy coalition of conservative countries — the Islamic bloc, sub-Saharan African states, right-wing Catholic regimes in Latin America – that has opposed women’s rights and sexual rights for more than fifteen years, usually without great-power support.

A lot of people, particularly pundits, need a Cold War.  It lends focus to their energies and cohesion to their loathings, without calling on their minuscule reserves of courage like a hot one would. The years since 1989 have been a nostalgic and leaderless lurch from enemy to enemy, searching for one with size and staying power enough to infuse meaning into the vacant days: first, Saddam Hussein, then radical Islam, then Saddam Hussein again briefly, then back to radical Islam, with occasional forays into demonizing Serbia (too small to be powerful and frightening) and China (too non-white for same). Only in the last few years has Russia re-emerged as Old Reliable, perhaps dating from John McCain’s history-making 2008 cry: “Today we are all Georgians.” True, nobody remembers the Georgians now, but the principle’s the same. Today we are all Russian gays. Crowded, this back room.

I don’t think there will be a new Cold War – Russia is big, but it’s not what it used to be – and I don’t think homosexuality will be a Checkpoint Charlie, though the analogies are tempting. (Will the gays organize a Berlin airlift to ferry sex to their starved brethren under repressive rule? What about the Bay of Bears invasion?)  But with Moscow emerging as a patron, the side that’s been fighting a culture war against women and against sexuality has a bit more weight in international arenas than before; maybe that will translate into more boldness at home as well.  (Russia, however, is not prone to backing up its verbal support for homophobic governments by ladling on bilaterial aid. China, which is comparatively indifferent to sex, is the big funder.) Similarly, there’s no question that the Obama administration’s loud support of LGBT rights abroad – with an eye to domestic voters — has given a don’t-tread-on-me, militaristic tone to the way US gays approach international issues. The big dog is barking for progressivism and freedom, and we can puff our chests out and piss on lampposts to assert our pride. So as one blogger puts it,

25 years ago a lot of countries got away with a lot of antigay crap because we weren’t powerful enough to stop the bigotry and the hatred that led so many of us to attempt suicide. That doesn’t give Russia the right to keep abusing us today – as if they somehow missed out their chance to dehumanize us somehow, and now want a shot at it. We finally have the power to stand up to bullies and we will.

Barry Goldwater couldn’t have said it better.

All the same, if this Cold War is being waged over cultural values, we need to remember that the old Cold War was too. It was, in fact, the first real culture war, not just between two countries but between two ideologies – capitalism and Communism – each measuring success not merely in military terms but in changing lifeways and attracting populations by their blandishments. (Fascism employed propaganda to cement loyalty in peoples under its direct rule, but  it was never a universalist ideology, too absorbed in national and racial myths to refashion itself for transnational audiences.)

What’s interesting is that the cultural alignments in the 40-year US vs. Russia showdown were very different from those today: in fact, about 180 degrees so.

"This Godless Communism": Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

“This Godless Communism”: Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

These days, Russia claims to speak for countries that see themselves on the cultural defensive, fighting a rear-guard effort to preserve “traditional values” like family, religion, and cohesive community. Back then, it was the capitalist countries, and the US in its capacity as Head Capitalist, who sold themselves that way. The values rhetoric, the defense of patriarchy, the invocations of moral absolutes that are used against so many human rights movements today – all these are pretty much what the US was saying at home and abroad half a century ago.

When I was a small-town boy at the height of the old Cold War, every pulpit, politician, and TV screen seemed to warn that Communism was after us, the way we lived here and now. It would dissolve the family, destroy religion, crush morality, and abolish traditional community: all the things that small-town boys in Gambia or Belarus nowadays hear are the goals of homosexuality and feminism and Hillary Clinton. The visions were terrifying; the thought that some commissar out there had Radford, Virginia (pop. 10,000, an All-American City) in his sights was extraordinarily vivid. Moreover, even comic books spread the dire message – and for a six-year-old in 1968, comic books were way more reliable than members of Congress. The iconic images of threats to a way of life say more than all the speeches I could quote.

Treasure Chest, a Catholic-oriented comic, was widely distributed for years in secular schools as well. It featured a running series series on the Red threat, “This Godless Communism.” (Catholic leaders were heirs to a long history of anti-Communist agitation in the name of social values – and they were also, most likely, familiar with Fascist propaganda, like the poster up at top.) This one, from 1961, featured an introduction and cameo by J. Edgar Hoover. After the Communists take over the US, the first thing we learn is that they’re feminists.

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Getting Mommy in the workforce isn’t the half of it, though.  Next come state-run nurseries, and “So ends the story of the American family.”

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We need “to be on our guard, to re-affirm the truths we once learned and now teach, to keep our children free from Communism.”  But Communism targets the transmission of tradition. Even in places without tradition, like Canada.

Canadair advertisement, 1955

Canadair advertisement, 1955

The result of this treason, of course, is a school like this (the pedagogue looked, even if she didn’t exactly sound, like my first-grade teacher):

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Here, in a 1948 comic about Soviet America, a son tells the secret police about Mom’s hidden “religious junk.” When they raid the home in consequence, disappointed Dad is alarmingly happy to hand Biff over to them as well: “You’ve got his soul — now take his body too.” I could see my father saying the same thing.

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And, of course, all this flows from a cosmopolitan conspiracy against American morals and values. Even in 1948, the Catholic comics were decrying a “culture of death” — in this one, Communists boasted about their success in spreading it:

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It’s easy, maybe cheap, to laugh. I always find that, to us in the US, our Cold War propaganda is funny in a way that other endeavors in the field (even the trumped-up, hysterical atrocity stories of the First World War) aren’t. Mainly the reason is that it’s less about them than about us. Precisely because it’s a culture war, and because we believed we were losing, the focus is incessantly on the “way of life” we’re supposed to be defending. More than almost any other propaganda, it serves up images of our imagined everyday happiness as the object of the enemy’s resentful demolition urges. But that way of life, airbrushed to absurdity then, seems utterly unreal now. It isn’t even menacing in its repressive gender roles, its airtight whiteness. You can’t take it seriously – it’s all camp, and you can recuperate it for a nostalgic chuckle as easily as Leave it to Beaver.

This distance we feel is partly due to what happened, throughout the capitalist West, since 1960. The vast economic growth of the postwar years, the Trentes Glorieuses, created fullblown consumer societies in western Europe and in parts of the US that had never seen them before. People could spend their way into niches where they could express dissident identities publicly and safely. Affluence relaxed social norms and helped women push for liberation from traditional roles. Economic power brought burgeoning demands for political rights. Leave it to Beaver was left behind, a relic. It grew harder and harder for the West to represent itself to itself as securely on the side of conservative social practices.

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

But the Cold War’s cultural as well as political battlefield shifted in the 60s and 70s, away from the capitalist heartland to the Third World. Increasingly, the conflict fought itself out in counterinsurgency campaigns and ideological struggles in all corners of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “Traditional values” became an export commodity, essential to Western propaganda and Western politics there.

US government experts explained the temptations of Communism in the developing world by “the personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transitions from tradition to modernity.” The best way to ensure satisfactory citizens, and stable and dependable governments, was to entrust development to a trustworthy force – preferably, the military would preside over modernization in countries prepping for “take-off.” A stern dictatorship of generals would also make sure that free trade, marketization, and a capitalist economy left as much as possible of patriarchal, hierarchical morals and social relations intact. US propaganda tools and talents would be ready to assist. The US treated family and religion as universal values of conservatism, regardless of what particular God you worshipped or within what family form you beat your wife. The more they eroded in the homeland, the more vital they appeared in foreign policy. As President Eisenhower famously said, free government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Poster for António Salazar's dictatorship in Portugal: "Salazar's Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education"

Poster for António Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal: “Salazar’s Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education”

The US’s pet dictatorships, from Lisbon to Saigon, all fostered bifurcated visions of the world: a rosy and pious traditional family at the center, requiring the exertion of appalling violence to protect it from corrosive horrors beyond. Jordán Bruno Genta, chief ideologue of military fascism in Argentina, urged the country to

Create a military state and a war policy to combat internal subversion; indoctrinate the military with a clear idea of its mission and with enthusiasm for this mission; mobilize the entire population for the counterrevolutionary war; free the nation from the power of international money; base everything in Christ, which means restore the natural hierarchies.

After the generals took power in Buenos Aires, school textbooks told kids that

for psychological and physical reasons, the male should be acknowledged as the authority … By her nature the woman represents kindness and love. Unless things are so, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact … To deny the father’s authority is to tear the family to pieces. The woman’s obedience to authority has a great educational influence on the family.

Abortion, free love, pornography, and divorce all exempified “the most recent Marxist strategy to conquer the West.” Propaganda, of course, had the police behind it; everything from feminism to Freudianism took on the look of leftist subversion. The regime murdered thousands who denied “the father’s authority,” or its own.

Similar propaganda sustained the Pinochet dictatorship in neighboring Chile.

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This is a 1984 booklet on Marxism emitted by the junta. “Communism believes that the family has no reason to exist, so must be weakened to extinction.” The sad female on the right, dreaming of distraught infants, dreams in vain: “Woman is separated from family life, into work shifts in factories and militant political activity. It denies her duty as a mother and wife, and puts her children under the tutelage of the state.”

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“Chile: Yesterday” –street violence — “Today” — family; 1975 propaganda

This was crude compared to other Pinochet productions. The Chilean dictatorship hewed to a comprehensive “cultural policy,” to promote “the defense, development and growth of the tradition and culture which is our own.” It also had excellent PR. It drew on the services not only of the CIA but of numerous American intellectuals and corporations who had the tyrant’s back. Its marketing emphasized continuity, stability, and belonging, with simple text and visuals and attractive typography. This 1979 promo is as warm and reassuring as an American ad for oatmeal.

“Chile’s glorious past is reborn with vigor in September” — the month of both Independence Day and the so-called Second Independence, when the thugs overthrew Allende. Family and continuity unite as cultural values, in a history represented by a list of safely right-wing national heroes. Then: “Chile Forever. All One.”

Those faux-kindly notes were struck in many places, even if fear was never far from the margins. Consider this collection of election posters for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the country for 50 years, and was a well-funded favorite of the CIA

Top L: "Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!" Top R: "Vote Christian" -- while snakes labelled "Divorce" and "Free Love" hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: "Mamma and Papa are voting for me."

Top L: “Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!” Top R: “Vote Christian” — while snakes labelled “Divorce” and “Free Love” hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: “Mamma and Papa — Vote for me.”

More overt are the oppositions in these posters from Thailand, which contrast misery and alienation in Communist China to traditional culture and the family.

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“The Communist Party forcibly tears apart family members among the common people. The Kingdom of Thailand’s people live and work in peace and happiness.”

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“The Communist Party fattens the public and deprives the private, not allowing the Chinese people enough property. The people of the Kingdom of Thailand live comfortably in abundance.” It’s like Norman Rockwell.

CIA propaganda invoked family and religion in counterinsurgency campaigns. A two-sided CIA leaflet from the Dominican Republic, invaded by the US in 1965, puts it succinctly:

The exact identity of the round object raining golden showers on the Virgin’s head remains, however, uncertain.

The CIA also drew heavily on imagery and rhetoric of family in South Vietnam. One of its key propaganda contributions to the war was the Chieu Hoi or “Open Arms” program, a multimillion-dollar fiasco designed to persuade Viet Cong guerrillas to surrender in exchange for amnesty. Nostalgia for the families they’d left behind was the main selling point, but it played into larger themes of traditionalism and security.

We cry for the dead
We are bitter because the Communists
Have destroyed our families.
When will mothers and children be reunited?

The leaflet’s obverse is less sentimental, though, promising deserters

200 (piasters) per month for errands. 15 piasters for each member of the family who stays at the government center. …

Two pairs of shirts and pants or 1000 piasters.

During the Chimurenga against white rule in Rhodesia, the racist government predictably allocated gender roles in the most traditional ways when appealing to the white community:

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Its attempts to propagandize among blacks, however, showed “native” families the way whites wanted to see them, as unappealingly impotent. Men were absent, women defenseless, a vision perhaps unlikely to entrance the intended audience. Meanwhile, Communist bearers of deviant sex ravaged traditional ways of life, as not only rapists but carriers of venereal disease:

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Leaflets distributed in government-controlled villages by white Rhodesian forces, 1970s

You have to wonder if this talk of infectious “mad dogs” had any influence on the later language of Robert Mugabe.

Perhaps the oddest artifact is this comic book, Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery. A CIA front (“Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” or VOICE) distributed it on the island after the US invaded in 1983. In true Treasure Chest style, it shows Bill and Anna, a nuclear couple with the requisite two kids, who fear what the Communists will do to the Grenadan family: “Oh, Bill, I’m so afraid — afraid for ourselves and for our children. With more Cubans coming in more of our children will be forced into brainwashing!” The problem is, unlike the Treasure Chest clan, they’re black. Black families in the US had been suffering “benign neglect” for generations, so why do these guys expect you to drop everything? Bill and Anna seem virtuous, monogamous, and not part of the drug trade, though, so the helicopters come: “Yes, Anna, thank God!  And thank God for President Reagan and our freedom-loving neighbors!”

USE grenada-01-1 copy

What we see now is a remarkable reversal of all this old-time religion. It’s now consumerism that plays the role once taken by godless Communism, threatening all traditional ways of life. America is the great Satan; Obama stands in for Khrushchev in the imaginary comic book of our time; and the effectively neutered and de-radicalized Third World (now along with Russia) stands up for the good old values. In fact Putin sounds like, and with his taste for boorish nationalism and unapologetic intervention often acts like, Eisenhower or Reagan. How the whirligig of time brings round his revenges!

There was always a contradiction in the ideologies of capitalism, though, between the social values it dresses itself in  — so often traditional, meant to hold society in place and ready for productive labor during rapid change — and the social processes it furthers, so often transformative. Everything solid melts into air; but we’re not supposed to notice, are meant to carry on with our assigned roles as always, the work, the weddings, the funerals.  Marx knew how this happens, but most of the moderns don’t.

America and Europe in the last few decades have thrown away the sheep’s clothing. They’re not interested in tradition anymore, because it isn’t useful to them. They’re on the side of social transformation, as long as it’s in their favor: as long as it’s compatible with economic advantage, with keeping capital mobile and the workforce in the rest of the world low-wage. Meanwhile, the previously pliable regimes it helped establish around the planet, from Ben Bella’s jailers to Yeltsin’s heirs, are seizing the banner of tradition, as a symbolic way of defending themselves against — among other things — capital flows and forces that see their borders as irrelevant and their economies as fields for exploitation.

What hasn’t changed in sixty years (though the players’ slogans and some of their identities have) is that it’s about power. Caught in the middle, much as before, are ragtag, straggling bands of communities and social movements who reject the fake ideologies of tradition and belonging. They want more freedom; but they don’t want to buy another prefab ideology of being “freed,” or fight on somebody else’s side to get it — whether the somebody is Brezhnev or Obama. Third World feminists in the ’70s and Third World LGBT folk today are in approximately the same place, ground between visions of liberation or salvation that are unreal and oversimplified and exclude them. It’s not a comic book world, and the answers will not come easy.

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communist Crusade

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communism Crusade

Egypt and the aid backlash: Lessons for the rest of the world

"Really, our aggression is just aid we offer poor countries that are always complaining about overpopulation!" 1970s cartoon by Ahmed Hegazi

Here at Harvard Law School, eleven out of ten students will wind up in corporate practice, meaning they may never even see the inside of a courthouse. They’ll drift from office to conference room for the rest of their working lives, sucking down money like baleen whales. A few young things will end up dabbling in criminal law — mostly to defend the corporate lawyers’ clients who skimmed a bit too much krill from the till. They’ll stand before the blind, full-breasted figure of Justice in rituals as precise, time-honored, and orderly as a French bedroom farce. I envy their innocence. But you can’t comprehend Justice in its full majesty and power from the statues; you need to see it dancing half-naked on a table like a Nevada stripper bitten by a tarantula. I’d love to take those kids by the hand and lead them into an Egyptian courtroom.

lady, come to Cairo and get down and jive

The first time I stepped into one, more than ten years ago, the contrast with my procedural expectations was considerable. The court of my imaginings was a sort of competitive petting zoo. This was a fight ring full of honey badgers with rabies. Everyone was screaming. Women ululated the zaghrata till the blood froze. The defendants stood in a cage to one side; the judge’s demeanor seemed modelled on Commodus at the Coliseum.   Was that sweat darkening the dust underfoot, or someone’s blood? I was not at all surprised when a friend of mine hurled himself at a reporter and tackled him to the floor. An hour more, and I’d have done the same myself.

It seems to have been pretty much like that Sunday, when the Case of the NGO Workers went to trial in Cairo.  43 defendants, employees of five foreign nonprofits — 16 Americans, 16 Egyptians, along with Germans, Palestinians, and others — faced charges of undermining Egypt’s sovereignty: operating organizations without a license, bringing in money from abroad, and sending information to foreign countries.  Oh, yes, and a plot to dismember the country, since police found a map in one office that daringly showed Egypt divided into four zones. (It came off Wikipedia.)  Spectators and reporters mobbed the court. Fifteen lawyers showed up — out of that chaotic nowhere that usually means some prosecutor’s pocket — to claim they represented Egyptian citizens harmed by whatever the nonprofits had done. Half the audience chanted against the military regime. The other half, Salafists, demanded the foreigners be held as hostages till the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman is freed from his American dungeon. The judge postponed the whole show and shebang for two months, till April 26. Nobody left happy.

all Egypt will be divided into four parts: the traitors' map, courtesy of

This case has been captivating everybody since the police raided 10 NGOs at the end of December, carting off computers, financial records, phones, and cash.   It captivates the US media because Americans were on trial. Unthinkable: Americans. While nine of the 16 accused US citizens got out of the country, seven –including an Obama Cabinet secretary’s son — huddled for refuge inside the American Embassy.  The resultant rage in Washington threatened the US’s massive aid package for Egypt, and the two countries’ longstanding alliance. Today, Egypt backed down, releasing the seven to a chartered flight at the airport, while pocketing as much as $300,000 each in bail. (The judges trying the case recused themselves in response, claiming improper political pressure.) This pretty much placates the United States, and the aid spigot is likely to turn on again; never mind the Egyptians still facing prison terms, or the Egyptian organizations raided and intimidated.

Some years back, when a Red Sea vessel sank and 1200 people drowned, the Colonel Blimpish right-wing writer John Derbyshire thought at first it might be a cruise ship packed with tourists. Then, “I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.” While it’s natural to take an interest in your own, few things are more contemptible than how Americans (and cranky Brits) notice history only when it’s happening to them.  Since a lot of history goes on elsewhere, this means that tourists and other travelers are its main protagonists, in the American view.  The Big Events are like dinner-theater performances where you come to watch and then get to join the show.

What happened to Lara Logan –raped near Tahrir more than a year ago — was terrible, but the fate of an assaulted American didn’t reveal some inner truth of Egypt’s revolution. And the US press reported the assault not to illuminate the sexual violence Egyptian women face, but to erase it. I feel sorry for the Cabinet secretary’s son, but Egyptian NGO workers have stared down state harassment for two decades. The 14 defendants who actually showed up for the trial are all Egyptian; but the US coverage is all about the absentees. (Meanwhile, by the way, John Derbyshire’s Stateside reputation easily bobbed back up despite his ballast of callousness. Last year, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ most boring and conservative columnist, cited him as an authority … on Egypt.)

Abul Naga: Personally, I only want this much aid, no more

But Egyptianstoo, find the Americans’ plight captivating. It feeds the favorite cafe pastime: conspiracy theories. What the hell was the government thinking? The case was cooked up by Fayza Abul Naga, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, one of the few holdovers the military junta kept in place directly from Mubarak’s last government.  A neatly coiffed figure vaguely resembling Meryl Streep’s latest Oscar-winning role, Abul Naga harassed NGOs under the previous regime, and is delighted to carry on under the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).  The current campaign has lent her a frenzied popularity as  a militant for Egypt’s sovereignty. She and the prosecutors have jabbed at all the xenophobic buttons, accusing the NGOs of “pandering to the U.S. Congress, Jewish lobbyists and American public opinion.” The malleable Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant party in the newly elected Parliament and an occasional SCAF antagonist, endorsed what it calls her “nationalist position” (despite the fact that it’s never opened the books on its own election funding, allegedly ponied up by Qatar).

Few Egyptians, though, see the logic to SCAF’s apparent support of the anti-US campaign. It endangered the aid trough at which the military has been feeding for more than thirty years.

Adapted from Jeremy M. Sharp, "Egypt in Transition," Congressional Research Service, 2011, at

The graph shows the disproportion between US economic aid, which has been shrinking for more than a decade (with a short spike in 2003, to reward Mubarak for his effective support of the Iraq War), and military aid, which has stayed constant. The military assistance, since the late 1970s, has been a massive bribe to Egypt not to use its military — particularly against the obvious object, Israel.  Since only so much money can be spent on unusable weapons, much of the aid greased the internal security apparatus — or lined the generals’ pockets, not just through direct embezzlement but by investment in a vast network of businesses under uniformed control.

Researchers estimate that the Egyptian military controls 25 to 40 percent of Egypt’s economy. Military firms dominate key sectors, including food (olive oil, water, pasta), cement and gasoline, vehicle production (joint ventures with Jeep to produce Cherokees and Wranglers), and construction.

The money oiling this empire would disappear if US aid dried up. Some speculate that Abul Naga has gone rogue, Sarah Palin-style, persecuting without SCAF’s permission. “This is a country of separate islands now,” one lawmaker said.  “The Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Parliament, the generals of the military council — everyone is his own island.” Yet the Cabinet serves at the military’s pleasure; it’s hard to suppose a minister could attack their wallets without retaliation. Others, therefore, see a darker, Byzantine design on SCAF’s part.

The venerable Richard Falk sheds some light. Employees of five organizations were charged in Egypt: the US-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Freedom House, and International Center for Journalists; and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. All the Americans work for the first three.  Falk points out that the NDI and NRI get all their money from the US government; Freedom House takes 80% of its funding there.

Sometimes these entities are even referred to by the media as “civil society institutions”, which reflects, at best, a woeful state of unknowing, or worse, deliberate deception. Whatever one thinks of the activities of these actors, it is simply false to conceive of them as “nongovernmental”, or as emanations of civil society. It would be more responsive to their nature if such entities were described as “informal governmental organisations”. (IGOs)

Perhaps this is in fact the key to what’s happening. From one perspective, the fact that it’s effectively US government cash that SCAF is criminalizing– a little frosting on the big $1.5 billion birthday cake they get handed every year — makes their actions seem even stranger. But SCAF probably has a different fear: that the IGOs’ activities mean more and more US assistance will go to civil society, and less and less directly to Egypt’s rulers. Fayza started her campaign last March, when the US announced $65 million in aid to pro-democracy groups in Egypt. You can easily see SCAF wondering, not just: will that largesse be used against us? — but: is that coming out of our budget? (The minister reportedly told US officials that support for the civil society sector shouldn’t exceed $20 million.) The trial is a way of warning the US: We want things the old way. The money comes to us.

No, it's not. Stay home. We'll monitor YOU.

Falk calls attention to the Cold War roots of all three organizations, and warns of “disguised intrusions by a foreign government in the internal politics of a foreign country with fragile domestic institutions of government.” A concurs: “How would we react if a foreign country came here to teach us how to conduct elections?” Living in eastern Europe from 1990 to 1996, I saw IRI’s and NDI’s work at first hand. Together with the big German party foundations (Adenauer for the Christian Democrats, Friedrich Ebert for the Social Democrats, and Friedrich Naumann for the liberals — the Greens’ foundation was not yet hyperactive), they normalized politics in the countries where they operated. I don’t mean this in a good sense. Funding and training forces ideologically in line with their own preferences, they helped impose a Western-style left-right divide on societies that, in the wake of revolution, had been open to less stereotyped possibilities: anarchist parties, youth politics, environmental and feminist movements. (They didn’t succeed in stifling far-right extremists, given how far “normal” conservatism in the region had traditionally tended in a fascist direction.)  Undoubtedly they’ve tried to do the same in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s election triumph, though, has the paradoxical effect of ensuring Egyptian politics won’t be a simple left-right affair for some while. Free-market and socialist tendencies flourish on both sides of the secular-religious divide. This tends to muddy the economic arguments most urgent to a poor country; but it also makes the alleged foreign interference seem not sinister, merely ineffective.

Falk also recognizes the ominious implications to the Cairo case: that

the Egyptian government, although admittedly long concerned about these spurious NGOs operating within its territory even during the period of Mubarak rule, is itself seemingly disingenuous, using the licensing and funding technicalities as a pretext for a wholesale crackdown on dissent and human rights, so as to discipline and intimidate a resurgent civil society and a radical opposition movement that remains committed to realising the democratic promise of the Arab Spring.

This is the explanation favored by the bien-pensant liberal in Egypt. Khaled Fahmy, professor at the American University of Cairo, writes:

The real target of Abouelnaga’s crusade is not foreign NGOs receiving foreign funding. Her real targets are human rights organizations that have been campaigning to defend basic freedoms before and after the 25 January revolution. The reason is simple: it is human rights organizations, more than official political parties or even the press, which have uncovered cases of police brutality under Mubarak’s dictatorial rule, which have defended helpless victims in numerous cases of outright injustice, and which have raised public awareness of basic and constitutional rights. … it is they who have sued the SCAF for allegedly conducting the notorious virginity tests on protesters; it is they who have been pressing the SCAF to restructure the security sector; and it is they who have highlighted and documented the SCAF’s bloody practices in Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cabinet Street, and Port Said.

This is true as far as it goes, yet flawed on two grounds.

First: I speak as a human rights activist: human rights groups’ work shouldn’t be exaggerated.  They document; they don’t mobilize.  The  abuses that brought Mubarak down, such as the killing of Khaled Said, were atrocities that exceeded the ambit of human rights documentation altogether, and became the iconic objects of popular campaigns.  Those campaigns did the hardest work. And without masses struggling and dying in Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Suez, there would have been nothing for the groups to document. Masses made the revolution. Documentation was a tool toward revolutionary ends, but not more than a tool — just as the middle-class methods of Facebook and Twitter didn’t cause the revolution, any more than Angry Birds.

There’s been a tendency (particularly fostered by foreign non-participants in the Arab Spring, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty) to expropriate last year’s revolts as “human rights revolutions,” suggesting neither “impure” political motivations nor insistent economic demands played their part. This is absurd.  If “civil society” as Fahmy describes it here had been tasked alone with overthrowing the former regime, Mubarak would be preparing for immortality in an official pyramid, and his son would be readying his coronation as the old man’s steward on Earth. Civil society — a concept argued and idealized from Hegel to Havel — is a vital force. But it’s not revolutionary, it’s regulative.  It guards the transparency and flexibility of an open political system; it criticizes the occlusions of a closed one. It lacks the strength, though, to turn a system upside down. Only social movements can do that. It’s understandable for academics, who spend most of their time in offices, to delude themselves that other people who possess offices are the unmoved movers of the world.  (Human Rights Watch, my old employer, subscribed to similar illusions; its leaders would no more have understood a social movement that they would have invited the cleaning ladies to dinner.)  But power is in the streets; a revolution is a moment when the disenfranchised and the wretched of the earth can seize authority, however ephemeral, from those cosseted by educations and air conditioners.

Second, pointing to the undoubted virtues of rights organizations doesn’t help explain why — as Abul Naga’s sudden popularity reveals — so many people hate them in Egypt.  Rights activists themselves seem startled by the fact. After all, they defend the poor and vulnerable; why, when the cash is down and the police are knocking at their doors, does much of the population treat them as alien interlopers? But what is left out of Fahmy’s analysis is the dirty little secret of Egyptian liberalism: class. Unspeakable yet irresistible as a nasty French postcard, it’s everywhere present but nowhere discussed.

One has to weed out myth from reality. Human rights activists in Egypt, as in most places, are overworked and underpaid. Some organizations, such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (offering legal support to victims of violations) and the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (offering help to torture survivors) transcend both their express mandates and the old victim/savior dichotomy, are explicit in their political commitments, and see part of their labor as mobilizing people to act and struggle. Aida Seif el-Dawla of the latter said to me once, more or less, “Sometimes the best rehabilitation from torture is to fight back.”

1% on one side, 99% keep to the other

Still, most Egyptians regard “civil society” as a place of privilege and inanition, far from the burdens and terrors of daily life. And from the poor’s perspective, they’re right. How many workers sit in a comfortable chair in an office paid for by the US? Moreover, civil society itself — overwhelmingly staffed by the middle and upper-middle classes — reinforces the image. Many of its leaders have no idea how to speak to the lower orders, except to order them to clean something. The condescension of authority and the inflection of command come naturally. And each large desk or air conditioner produces its own pasha, sure of his superiority to those who sweat.

The two failures are connected, and are not just a matter of attitude or tone. Salaried civil society activists in Egypt don’t know how to relate to other classes; and this reinforces their difficulty in dealing with social movements, with people mobilizing for change. For most of them (there are, of course, treasured exceptions) the language of mobilization is a tongue Rosetta Stone doesn’t teach. This tongue-tiedness extends to many of the young, middle-class activists who populated Midan Tahrir. It was telling that this past summer, when it became clear that SCAF threatened all the Revolution’s achievements, their main answer was to return to the square and try to reinvigorate, on their own, the dream of classless commonality there. The effort was beautiful — I was there, in July and August, and the idealism of it was both exasperating and deeply moving– but it was remote from the rest of the country’s reality. At the same time, Muslim Brothers and Salafists were busy organizing among workers and peasants, doling out food and identifying voters. The voting showed the inevitable result.

What lessons can derive from all this?

One is: human rights are not enough. They can set the procedural norms for a changed society; but neither rights claims nor the activists who press them will, in themselves, achieve the changes that most need to happen — changes in the deep structure of societies and states, changes in how wealth is allotted and who allots it, who holds power and how. The spirit –no, not the spirit; the muscle and the nerve — of social movements is needed to accomplish that, and to amplify what rights activists do. Human rights groups have to learn to speak the languages of movements: not later, but now.

A second lesson is about aid and the dynamics of power it represents. It’s striking (and not a little self-defeating) how popular an anti-aid rhetoric is among Egyptians. Far from treating assistance as a just claim against a history of economic and political exploitation, they’re almost eager to forego it for a vaguer acquisition: dignity.

Al Azhar, the leading Sunni Islamic institute in Egypt, and a fundamentalist Salafist sheik, Mohammad Hassan, formed a group with the goal of raising up to $2 billion to replace any lost American aid. [No indication of how much would go to economic relief, and how much into the generals’ pockets.] Three days ago, the military-appointed Egyptian cabinet voted to support the effort, the Fund for Dignity and Pride, and many prominent Egyptians have pledged support. The fund has so far raised $10 million.

Some of this is the military’s vain gesturing, but some obviously strums a populist nerve. And the nerve twinges elsewhere too. The obvious analogue is the rhetoric roaring out of Africa, after the fiasco of David Cameron’s threat to tie aid to LGBT people’s human rights. The fiasco was disastrous. Loud promises to give up aid echoed from Tanzania to Zimbabwe. Legislators brought forward new and old bills against homosexuality in Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia. Cameron’s words backfired in a massive backlash — and worsened the hatred screaming against queers across the continent. The Egypt quandary further suggests that the link between aid and rights protection is complicated, requiring  tact and strategy. Aid can discredit rights movements as much as it can assist them.

We just wants the Precious for a little while. Just to make the nasty peoples stop!

As for “aid conditionality”: well, the nagging hypocrisy beneath human rights activists’ claim that they’re above practical politics is that, in fact, they love power.  They want it and dream of it in secret. Like Boromir lusting for the Ring, they know it can cause them the occasional inconvenience, but they’re convinced they’ll put it to good use. The fact they can’t acknowledge this love in public only makes the longing fester more. The fantasy of using aid leverage cleanly and simply, despite all the colonial implications and the economic impact, to make rights violations stop is one version of the festering. Instead of building and mobilizing a domestic constituency against the abuses, instead of struggling to create an international movement, the fantasy tells them that a few key governments on their side will put the squeeze on the abusers, and — like a pimple bursting — the evil will end. The extreme form of this is to invoke not money, but military might. Human Rights Watch campaigned hard for intervention in Libya last year, not so much because it seemed incontrovertible that otherwise a genocide would happen, but as a test case. If, for once, governments would bomb another state purely on the strength of  rights arguments, wouldn’t that show — for the first time and for all — that human rights had teeth? Wouldn’t it confirm that they and their exponents were a power to be reckoned with? A moral power, of course. Power almost always starts off announcing itself as moral. Then things change.

Human Rights Watch never much cared for achieving things by movement building. Its vision was always to get the right governments lined up on the right side, and go from there. That may work in certain places and for certain causes.  But in most of our lives and world, things happen through politics, and politics mean mobilization, and mobilization means cobbling together movements that voice and meet people’s needs in the concrete, not just the abstract. It’s a lesson a great many human rights groups still need to learn.

One side of a sad story

“Inger and Philippa”: in this moving short, an American reads a letter to the President about her life as part of a binational same-sex couple, separated from her partner by US law. Part of the power is that only one half of the relationship can be heard.

“I have always loved my country, but sadly it does not love us. I wish you and your family, health, happiness, and the knowledge that you should never ever, for even one moment, waste the time you have with each other. Not everyone is lucky enough to have that. Hold them close and never let them go, but think for a moment on those of us who aren’t allowed to hold the ones we love.”