Three-legged dogs

There’s a dog we sometimes see when I drive my kids to school in the morning. It’s a tenacious, adorable mutt, and somehow it deftly maneuvers on just three legs. My kids marvel at how the dog isn’t slowed down by its disability, and they venture guesses as to what might have happened to the pooch that left it in this condition.

I recently mentioned to them that when I led backpacking trips with kids on the Long Trail, I once summited Mount Abraham and felt both proud and exhausted. Then I noticed a three-legged dog summiting right behind me. That little scamp put my own success and self-satisfaction into stark perspective.

I am not a dog owner, due to allergies. (Although my kids are lobbying hard for a hypoallergenic dog, so a labradoodle might just be in my future.) But I think about the human/dog relationship a lot. Dogs, unlike felines, seem relatively comfortable with a “give and take” relationship. They’re not resentful nor do they cop attitude when they realize that they actually need help from their owners. It’s just part of life. Sometimes they are strong, competent three-legged dogs, and sometimes they understand that it’s time to accept assistance.

A friend recently recounted for me an experience she had that highlighted how difficult it is for her to ask for help. As part of a leadership training course, she was blindfolded and led to a course in the woods that was marked out by ropes. The group of blindfolded men and women were asked to solve the rope puzzle. They were not allowed to speak and needed to keep their blindfolds on the entire time. But they were allowed to ask for help by raising their hands.

Once a trainer came over to help, a participant could choose to take off her blindfold to observe the group. Or she could elect to stay blindfolded and try something new. My friend was determined not to need help; she thought requiring assistance would be an admission of failure or a sign of weakness. She repeatedly declined the offered help, and as a result she was one of the last remaining blindfolded folks. When she finally removed her blindfold, practically everyone else stood near the rope puzzle, watching. It wasn’t really a puzzle at all; the solution was to ask for help. Leaders often must ask for help.

As difficult as it can be to seek assistance, it can also be very challenging to face failure. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset: The Psychology of Success”, started something of an education revolution a few years back when her researched showed that students’ mindsets played a key role in their achievement. Students who believed that their intelligence could be developed consistently outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed.

Dweck recently published a series of articles to clarify her research, as many well-meaning educators missed some key components. She cautioned teachers not to equate the “growth” mindset with effort. Although Dweck agrees that effort is key for students’ achievement, she stresses it is not the not the only thing nor is it the most important thing. She writes, “Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.”

We make mistakes. We fail sometimes. But bouncing back (while getting input from others) contributes to both resiliency and leadership. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, nor is competency a sign of invincibility. Keep that in mind next time you spy a three-legged dog.

Hidden histories, hidden traumas

When I first saw the article on the Washington Post website, I thought it was a piece from the satirical rag “The Onion”: “Psychologists and massage therapists are reporting ‘Trump anxiety’ among clients”. But the article penned by Paul Schwartzman was legit, despite its being reminiscent of a Woody Allen film. Therapists have noticed that there’s rising worry among their clients related to Trump’s ascendency in the polls. This is not surprising given that a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that nearly 70% of Americans said the idea of “President Trump” made them anxious.

A relative of mine whose father was killed in the Holocaust is clearly shaken to her core by Trump’s popularity. She has had several tear-filled conversations with family members about both her worry about the future and her trauma from the past. All those years since WW II offered a kind of layered protection against the fascism still lurking in dark corners of Europe. America had been a kind of psychological bulwark for her against the terrifying past. But now, our country no longer feels like the same safe haven.

American politics, always laced with scandal and theatrics, are nonetheless fairly predictable because we generally agree on the bounds of decency and civility. Not so this year. Personal propriety and dignity of the office are in scant supply, and that “anything could happen” quality is truly unsettling to many. And for good reason.

Trump laid the groundwork years ago for his flirtation with racist elements within the GOP and the American population as a whole. For years he has been the de-facto head of the “birther” movement. Though groundless and disproven many times over, Trump’s continued insistence that President Obama is not legitimate is a nod not just to other “birthers” but also to “The Birth of a Nation”, the 1915 D.W. Griffith silent film which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroic. Its narrative delineates who is a true American and who is not. It’s ultimately an origin story about belonging and alienation.

When I moved to Vermont almost 20 years ago, I felt as if I’d finally come home. The landscape was inspiring, and the people-sized scale of the state and its government made so many things seem possible. I was so proud and pleased to call the Green Mountains home.

You can imagine my sadness when a work colleague pointed out to me that someone had “keyed” my car and scratched in large letters the word “dyke” on the driver’s side door. My feelings of having arrived “home” evaporated. And instead of the anger and shock I should have felt, I initially felt shame. In an instant, this act of vandalism, intolerance and intimidation, emboldened a question within me: Will this ever feel like home again?

I hadn’t thought about this incident in probably a decade. But watching clips from volatile Trump rallies (in which some reporters and protestors are roughed up, threatened and spit at) has brought this long-secreted memory back into my consciousness. Encouraged by the ringleader, the unchecked anger of the crowds has me worrying who’ll be scapegoated next.

With the rise of Trump and his many acolytes, long held notions about ourselves as a nation are called into question. Many of us never imagined that a candidate who panders to our baser instincts could be the GOP frontrunner. But here we are.
Carl Jung named an embarrassing truth when he said, “Knowing our own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.”

Badlands: Wrestling with scarcity

As I read the Super Tuesday election analysis on the Washington Post, Politico, and The Hill, a lyric from the old Bruce Springsteen song “Badlands” slipped out of a long shut hatch in my mind: “Lights out tonight/Trouble in the heartland/Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man/I’m caught in a crossfire I don’t understand.” I imagine Springsteen, the original Jersey boy, is just as bewildered as I am at New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump.

Christie denounced Trump on the campaign trail. Now he’s eager to trade whatever credibility he once had for a bald-faced, opportunistic endorsement that could lead to future political ascendency in a Trump administration. The New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper took the unusual, and perhaps unprecedented step, of retracting its endorsement of Christie. And several New Jersey newspapers have called for Christie’s resignation. But still the Trump train rumbles on.

A longtime acquaintance, and someone I thought I understood, voted for Donald Trump in the primary. She said what many have said repeatedly: “He tells it like it is. He seems like a good businessman. He doesn’t care what people think.” What leads otherwise outwardly reasonable people to fall back on superficial, simplistic reasons for their votes?

A huge swath of the electorate voted for George W. Bush the first time because they “liked” him and would feel comfortable having a beer with him. Conversely, Al Gore just didn’t seem to have the right mojo or charisma to seal the deal with “regular” guys. But in this instance, Trump’s obnoxiousness is not seen as off-putting but as refreshing. His staccato bursts of insults and name-calling on social media bolster his poll numbers, and it doesn’t seem to matter that he constantly lies, fibs, tells half-truths and has flip-flopped on nearly every major issue in this election. What’s going on here?

I think it has everything to do with fear.

I reference the work of Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. She is a three time New York Times bestsellling author, and Brown’s TEDx talk on vulnerability is one of the top 5 most watched TED talks in the world.

In Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly”, she writes, “Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress. It happens when you’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats.” Brown asserts that our “scarcity culture”, in which “never enough” dominates, has created fear as our fall-back position; it has become second nature.

Trump, a master of the media, simultaneous attempts to soothe these fears while whipping them up further. Even his slogan, “Make America Great Again”, goes to the heart of of our fears that we have had something taken from us. Like others before him, Trump deftly taps into a powerful sense of nostalgia: Things used to be so much better.

Brown’s work is shaped by the ideas of Lynne Twist, author of “The Soul of Money”. Twist asserts, “We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying that we don’t have enough…This internal condition of scarcity…lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life…”

However, like Brene Brown, I think we’re tired of being afraid; I believe we’d rather be brave. But we need to change the conversation from “What should we fear?” to “How can we dare greatly?”

Unlooked-for blessing

One of the most enjoyable aspects of serving in the legislature is meeting new people. I am an avowed extrovert who gets re-charged by new acquaintances. Walking through the halls of the statehouse provides a steady injection of energy.

Yesterday the Pro Tem of the Senate grabbed me in the hall as I was on my way out the door; he asked it I’d attend a dinner put on by the Council of State Governments (CSG). CSG has been around since 1933 and offers policy expertise, training opportunities, and research resources to legislatures across the country. Although I wanted to be done for the day, I was intrigued. Plus, the dinner was at the New England Culinary Institute. I decided to rally.

I had expressed an interest in the new CSG Task Force on Military and Veterans’ Affairs. Like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, I’ve always felt that we must treat our vets and their families better. My dad, who came to this country as an immigrant, attended college through ROTC and then was stationed overseas as a captain in the army. I was born on the army base in Heidelberg in what was then West Germany. Although he didn’t make the military his career, he is proud of his service in a way that only an immigrant can be.

The woman who heads up the Military Affairs Task Force for CSG was seated across from me, and I was delighted that she was my company for the evening. Born in Jamaica, Debbie-Ann Paige moved to Staten Island as a little girl. As a young woman of color, it was a tough transition to the nearly all-white enclave of Staten Island.

Although she’s worked for CSG for years, she has a master’s in history and teaches at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. Paige has become a stealth historian, recording the hidden stories of the black community of Staten Island. She told me about her work on the Louis Napoleon House, a site to commemorate a courageous man whose earlier home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is believed that Napoleon assisted upwards of 3,000 self-emancipators who sought freedom in the North.

Fascinated by the discussion, and trained as a historian myself, we were off and running. I told her I’d recently written a letter of support for a grant application for funding for the African American Heritage Trail in Vermont. I shared the compelling story of Daisy Turner of Grafton, VT and how I loved a particularly powerful photo of this remarkable woman. She stands with a shotgun and the carcass of a deer she’s killed. I’d written in my letter, “It is the quintessential Vermont picture, and it is made all the more poignant because Daisy adopts the narrative of the self-reliant Vermonter, but also transforms it. We literally see that the “face” of Vermonters includes non-white Vermonters.”

We discussed the black communities in Vermont and in other overwhelmingly white states and communities. I shared my research of a post-Reconstruction African American women’s club in Albany, NY during the period known as “racial uplift”. We both agreed it is vitally important to uncover these hidden histories. These stories not only give us a more accurate and complete picture of our nation, but also reveal important aspects of ourselves.

It was an unlooked-for blessing, this conversation. Being open to one event, one experience, allowed me to unexpectedly forge a new friendship across race, across culture, across geography. We were brought together at that place, on that night, to have that discussion. Beautiful.

Agency and Access

A man stopped me in the hall of Vermont’s Statehouse the other day and asked, “How do I get in to hear one of the committees?” I told him, “You just open the door and walk in. It’s ‘The People’s House’, and we mean it.”

Vermont’s Statehouse is one of the most accessible in the nation. Regular citizens and their advocates, along with tourists and state workers, stream through the Capitol Building each day. It is bustling and bursting at the seams with activity most days. An acquaintance grabbed me in the lobby after a dizzying day of political action last week and said, “My head is spinning! There is so much frenetic energy in this building; I don’t know how you do it every day.”

It is extremely challenging to find a quiet place under the Dome in which to think or talk. I have a friend in the Senate who often attempts to have his private conversations in the middle of the empty House of Representatives. He explained to me that although you will certainly be seen, and your presence noted, the giant hall provides a modicum of privacy.

Another friend swears by the so-called Marble Palace (the historic subterranean men’s urinal) when she needs a space to talk outside of the fray. She led me down there last week so that we could talk privately; I’d received a troubling phone call about a very sick friend. After assessing that it was devoid of visitors, we talked and cried and were not interrupted. And yet folks still stopped me throughout the day to ask if I was okay. There are no secrets under the Golden Dome.

Despite the remarkable accessibility and the openness of our Capitol building, I know many advocates, activists, and citizens still sometimes feel shut out of the political process. Some of this is due to the nature of representative government. We are not a direct democracy akin to the ancient Greeks. (And of course, the Greeks left out huge swaths of their population when it came to voting.) As well, we pride ourselves on being a citizen legislature, but we often fail to acknowledge its inherent shortcomings. Because we all have other jobs and no staff to assist us or direct traffic, some calls and emails will go answered. It is not humanly possible to respond to them all, but that feels rotten–both for citizens and for legislators.

What has helped me wrestle with this dilemma of finding “agency and access” is to remember something a professor told me when I earned my MA in history. She, a scholar of African history, was one of my advisors and oversaw my study of Mozambique under colonial rule. As one of the only African American professors in the department, she had personally dealt with these issues throughout her academic career. She asked me one day, as she surveyed my work, “Where is their power and where do they exert it?”

She explained that although the people of Mozambique lived under Portuguese rule that was certainly exploitative and cruel, she urged me to read the histories with an eye to finding examples of agency and resistance. Despite the political and social barriers, the citizens of Mozambique persistently, tenaciously found ways to rebel and demonstrate their agency.

As a woman, as a gay person, as a newcomer to politics, it is not always easy to find clear avenues for agency and influence. But they do exist, and I am determined to find them. The folks back home depend on it.

The true face of heroism

As I write this to get it in before my deadline, we in the Senate are still wrangling over the details of Earned Leave legislation known as the Paid Sick Leave bill.

Although we passed it out of the Senate by a wide margin, 21-8, our rules allow a Senator on the winning side of the vote to re-open the vote for reconsideration. Senator Bill Doyle (R-Washington) made this request on the floor last week. He was keen to switch his vote on a last-minute amendment and possibly change his vote on the bill itself.

To many he is a hero. And to the advocates who have been pushing for this legislation for years, those who voted to guarantee this benefit to our working families are the heroes. But I think that word is bandied about in politics too liberally and should only be reserved for the truly remarkable.

As I drove home from the legislature last Friday, NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley reported on an awe-inspiring story I’d heard kicking around since the horrific massacre at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November. Rumors surfaced in the days and weeks following the terrorist attack that a security guard at the Bataclan, who is Muslim, repeatedly risked his life to save those trapped inside. I am so grateful to Beardsley for chasing this story down. It is true. And it is amazing.

The man goes by the name Didi. He did not supply his full name because he fears retaliation by the terrorists surely still in sleeper cells in France. He is of North African descent and grew up in a hardscrabble immigrant neighborhood with a similar profile to those of the attackers. But where they mined darkness, he nurtured the light.

When the killers attacked, Didi ran around opening more emergency exits for escape routes and then brought concertgoers to safety in an apartment building across the street from the concert hall. Once his charges were safe, he’d scurry back across the street to the concert hall to gather more terrified patrons and then lead them to safety. He risked his life over and over again. It is estimated that Didi saved between 400-500 people that night.

One of the many patrons he saved was a 40-year-old woman named Myriam. She told NPR, “[H]is job was to get drunks out of the club and things like that. But he was so brave. He knew the exits. He could’ve run. But he didn’t. He took care of us.”

On the night of the attack, Myriam’s baby was only a few months old. Like all parents do, after such a close brush with the death, Myriam frets that her child came so close to losing her mother. She says of Didi, “My life will never be long enough to thank him for what he did.”

Another man who spoke with Beardsley recounted how Didi found him crawling around on the floor of the concert hall desperately searching for his glasses; he could not see well enough without them to flee. Didi found him and led him to safety through a door behind the stage. He’s certain he would be dead if it hadn’t been for Didi, and he credits this courageous man with salvaging his faith in humanity.

Some of those he saved that horrid night have started a petition to nominate Didi for the National Order of the Legion of Honour–France’s highest award. Started in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the order wisely does not bestow this award on members of Parliament.

Saving the George Stannard House

There’s a saying that bounces around the Vermont Senate chamber: “There are no bad committees.” Although Finance and Appropriations are considered the sexy “money” committees”, you will undoubtedly learn something in each and every committee.

I spend my afternoons in Senate Institutions. We huddle in a well-appointed room and discuss matters primarily concerning the Capital Bill and monies that are appropriated for the upkeep of state lands and properties.We also take testimony on a vast array of programs, including: IT projects, corrections and town fairs. Often the witness updates are fairly straightforward, but sometimes there are surprises.

Last week Vermont historian Howard Coffin testified about funds the committee had appropriated several years ago for an historical marker at the Cedar Creek Battlefield Civil War Battlefield and a proposed replica of a statue at the Winchester Battlefield. In the course of his update, we learned there is a house in Milton that was the home of Vermont’s greatest Civil War leader, General George J. Stannard.

Before he distinguished himself on the battlefield, Stannard was a farmer, a teacher, and operated a foundry in St. Albans.It is said that General Stannard was the first Vermonter to volunteer for duty in the Civil War. He’d served as a noncommissioned officer during the Vermont militia’s involvement during the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1838 and was a colonel of the 4th Vermont Militia Regiment just prior to the start of the Civil War.

Stannard fought with the 2nd Vermont Volunteer Infantry at the First Battle of Bull Run, and his performance was impressive enough that he was offered command of the newly forming 3rd Vermont Infantry. But Stannard turned the promotion down, as he did not feel he’d served long enough to prove his mettle. But during the Battle of Williamsburg the following year, Stannard was instrumental in securing a critical bridge, and a week after the campaign he was appointed colonel of the 9th Vermont.

But it is Stannard’s performance at Gettysburg that is the stuff of heroes. Prior to the carnage on that Pennsylvania battlefield, Stannard had been given command of the 2nd Vermont Brigade, which consisted of the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th Vermont Infantry regiments. Primary documents indicate that his troops greatly respected him and his “quiet but effective” command style; morale improved greatly under his leadership.They were ready to follow his leadership at Gettysburg.

Civil War buffs all know that Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg was a pivotal moment in that battle and, consequently, the war. What all Vermonters need to know is that General Stannard’s acumen was a critical piece in the North’s victory on that hot, humid day in July of 1863.

General Robert E. Lee ordered the infantry assault–later referred to as Pickett’s Charge–against Maj. General George Meade’s Union forces. Stannard’s brigade was one of the primary defenders against the Confederates’ onslaught. Stannard swung two of his regiments out at a 90 degree angle and pumped deadly fire into the flanks of Confederate Brig. Gen. James Kemper’s men. Minutes later, Stannard ordered his men to mount a similar assault against the flanks of two more Confederate brigades. Stannard and his men were critical in breaking the Confederates at Gettysburg.

Stannard’s own official report from Gettysburg included this quip: “[The confederates] did not thus escape the warm reception prepared for them by the Vermonters.”

There is a major house restoration project now underway to preserve the home of this remarkable leader. You can donate online at or send a check to the General Stannard House Fund ℅ Milton Historical Society, 13 School Street, Milton, VT 05468.

The Emergency Room on Wheels

When you work on a rescue squad, you see some unsavory aspects of the human condition. I was reminded of this when I–along with several of my legislative colleagues–visited the under-appreciated and underpaid EMTs and paramedics at Rescue, Inc and Deerfield Valley Rescue earlier this month.

As we sat and talked over lunch, I learned something that gave me chills: the danger associated with administering Naloxone to a person who has overdosed on heroin. The heroin user–pulled from the brink of death–often starts swinging at the rescuer because his or her “high” has been ruined. Not a great thank you for saving a life.

This is a frequent occurrence. When Naloxone (sold under the brandname Narcan) is administered to reverse the effects of opioids, the patient often experiences restlessness, anger, agitation, nausea, and vomiting. But at least the patient is alive. The effects of the Naloxone last about 30 minutes to one hour, and sometimes multiple doses are required because today’s heroin is so strong. Our rescue squads, tragically, now routinely battle to reverse heroin overdoes. But the work of these vital crews has changed dramatically in other ways, too.

My mom was an EMT and served on our local ambulance when I was a kid. I don’t think she would recognize the equipment and the vehicles that our local EMTs and paramedics use today. The ambulances have evolved into emergency rooms on wheels–each valued at $160,000 and carrying critical lifesaving equipment that, not surprisingly, is very costly to purchase and maintain. On our visit we saw a cardiac monitor priced at $42,000, a ventilator that runs $12,000 and an IV pump that sets them back a cool $10,000.

Our rescue teams obviously use these portable emergency rooms for life-threatening 911 calls, but they also serve several other vital roles in our healthcare system. Ambulance transport of patients is a key aspect of providing care in more remote areas. Vermont is a rural state, and many areas are served by small, critical access community hospitals that provide only limited services. In order to access specialty care, patients routinely need transportation to larger regional medical centers. EMS crews give treatment, transport, and care between these centers. Many of these patients require complex care due to their complicated constellation of medicines and conditions.

From emergency situations, to battling our heroin problem, to providing vital transport services to our ailing, aging population, our EMS teams are a critical part of our healthcare system. And yet, they have not been part of our statewide conversation about healthcare reform. These men and women have frequent, direct contact with patients in the field and would bring invaluable knowledge and experience to the table.

Our Windham County legislative team recently sent a letter to Al Gobeille, chair of the Green Mountain Care Board to ask that EMS crews be brought directly into the healthcare conversation.There are many certainly moving parts, but some basic questions must be answered: Why are Medicaid reimbursement rates for ambulance services negotiated separately from other parts of the system? Why aren’t ambulance services reimbursed when they respond and stabilize a patient, thus saving a much more expensive trip to the hospital? Why is there no reimbursement provided for all the drugs administered in the field?

Medicaid patients made up about 18% of local EMS calls in 2012; today that number is 32%. But Medicaid reimbursement rates have not increased since 2008. Our critical EMS teams are not on healthy financial footing. They cannot continue to deliver their vital services unless we find a way to offer them the kind of care they provide to us.

New York Values

As the nation begins to accept that the rules of engagement for the 2016 Presidential Race have changed, Ted Cruz demonstrates–yet again–that not only is he wooden, but he may not in fact have a genuine bone in his body. Cruz has been hammering Donald Trump on his “New York values” for weeks on the campaign trail and assumed that this well-worn brickbat would position him well for a debate match-up with Trump. Instead, Cruz’s stale critique of Trump’s hometown handed the mogul an opportunity to speak first-hand about a seminal moment in recent American history.

As I watched Trump wax poetic about the Big Apple’s response to 9-11, I was reminded of Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch”: “Well, in Whoville they say–that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.” (At least for a few tender moments.)

Cruz’s winking and nodding–as he trots out his tired “New York values” schtick–attempts to tap into conventional wisdom about what we know about New Yorkers and those who live in “The East” and on that other “godless” coast. But it just doesn’t hold water.

What Cruz misses is that the New York response to 9-11 is now a quintessential American story: It is who we all aspire to be. Regardless of skin color or your station in life–or all the baggage that weighs us down–when the artifice is stripped away, we want to be like all those hardened New Yorkers who opened their hearts week after week, month after month, as they rebuilt lower Manhattan. It is a story of gumption, tenacity and hope in the midst of crushing grief.

I knew folks who died in that monstrous inferno on that clear September day. And I have friends who worked in buildings in close proximity to the Twin Towers who ran for their lives. And I have a friend who taught in Brooklyn who watched in horror with her class as the buildings came down and she feared her partner had been hit by the collateral damage. There was incredible caring and tenderness that emerged in that city on that ghastly, surreal day.

When I lived in the West, I repeatedly heard a narrative that many Westerners hold dear: “We Westerners are just friendlier than you folks ‘back East’.” And yet we lived in our house for six months before a single neighbor came over to introduce themselves.

One of the kindest, most generous people I know is from Los Angeles–that supposedly notoriously fake “Tinseltown”. Far from phony, she embodies big-heartedness. And although I often miss the mark as I aspire to her munificence, she is truly a guidepost for me and so many in our circle of friends. She reminds me constantly, through her deeds and spirit, that our worn out regional narratives are now obsolete, if they ever really were useful shorthands at all.

As Cruz trotted out his tired slams of “New York values” in early January, a young African American man gave his life to save a fellow New Yorker. Stephen Hewett-Brown was crushed to death after saving a woman from a malfunctioning elevator. His last words to her as he shoved her to safety? “Happy New Year.” He was only 25.

Generosity of spirit, kindness, and selflessness are not the byproducts of specific cultivation in particular regions–like some kind of personality “terroir”. We are all susceptible to the allure of simple cliches.But we are a better people, a kinder nation, when we reject them.

Troubles within: Maine’s governor plays the race card

Maine Governor Paul LePage–who is reminiscent of former Minnesota Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura in his tendency to “let it all hang out”–dropped a lulu in a recent press conference last week. Commenting on Maine’s heroin problem, LePage said about drug traffickers: “These are guys by the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty…They come up here, they sell their heroin” and then “impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”

Although LePage’s handlers insisted to the Portland Press Herald that the “governor is not making comments about race” and that “race is irrelevant”, that dubious rebuttal is beyond disingenuous. As David H. Graham points out in The Atlantic, LePage taps into a long ugly history of white politicians’ fear-mongering tied to miscegenation.

It is also impossible to read LePage’s comments without contextualizing them against the backdrop of the lynching of Emmett Till, an African American boy murdered in 1955 in Money, Mississippi for allegedly “flirting” with a white woman. The subtext to LePage’s remarks is the belief that white women need protection from black men and that Maine’s troubles are caused by non-white reprobates.

In Graham’s piece, he references a Washington Post article written by Philip Bump that recounts the ways in which LePage’s speech was not only offensive but also inaccurate. Bump notes that on the very night that LePage made his remarks, the Maine DEA arrested three people for trafficking heroin: All three were white Mainers with ho-hum names like Donna and James.

When I talk to Vermonters whose lives and families have been devastated by the heroin trade, their families are invariably Caucasian and often they are middle class. This mirrors what Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy recently pointed out to LePage: “The consumers of drugs are located in every city, in every state, in every town in our country. And they’re black and they’re white and they’re Hispanic and they’re Asian and they’re males and they’re females.”

Regardless of race, heroin traffickers count on pockets of despair and an individual’s dearth of hope and possibility. This vulnerability is income-blind, and dealers have made significant inroads to more affluent users. Raymond V. Tamas is the chief executive of an addiction treatment provider on Cape Cod. He told the Boston Globe last year, “A much greater number of folks who are addicted are now coming from middle, upper-middle socioeconomic brackets. We’ve seen this for some time now.” Which is perhaps why there seems to be a much greater emphasis now on treatment and not incarceration.

It is not lost on advocates and activists within the African American community that when heroin and crack were devastating non-white Americans, the political will for treatment versus incarceration was notably absent. According to a criminal justice fact sheet published by the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of white Americans. According to “Unlocking America”, a 2007 report from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, if African Americans and Latinos were incarcerated at the same rate as white Americans, the prison and jail populations would be cut in half.

LePage plays to racial fears among his overwhelmingly white electorate. His veiled references to protecting white women from black men are indeed both ignorant and hackneyed. But they are highly, viscerally effective in some quarters because they are so simplistic: Our troubles come from outside and not from within.

Our failed policies and their horrible consequences should be the real source of both our fear and outrage. But that would require us all to look at ourselves. Are we willing to do that?