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A Plea for Understanding 

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I grew up in a neighborhood in Queens, New York, which was probably about a quarter Jewish, a quarter Catholic, a quarter Protestant and a quarter other. I didn't realize what a tiny minority Jews were until I left New York. And I never had people react with surprise when I told them I was Jewish until I moved to Humboldt County, 30 years ago.

We are in a polarized and polarizing election season. Like most people I know, I find myself having a hard time accepting the number of seemingly-otherwise-decent people who are not horrified by the prospect of Trump being reelected. I teeter between a desire to simply shout them down and write them out of my life, and a desire to understand how they can be what they are. And I assume that, for at least some Trump supporters, they are similarly confused by the revulsion he inspires.

In our society, there is a dividing line that is not often talked about. It is not the obvious dividing line of race or gender. It is a dividing line between those who have always been "standard" and those who are in some way or other "nonstandard."

Those are not meant as judgments — neither standard nor nonstandard should imply better or worse than the other. They are merely meant as descriptors.

I'm nonstandard in two substantial ways, one more evident than the other — I'm Jewish and I'm gay. If you are straight, white, male, descended from European immigrants, nominally Christian and not homeless, you are more-or-less standard. That is, if a 1950s dictionary put up a picture labeled "an American," it would probably be someone who looked like you and had a similar background.

America is a diverse country but it still has this standard/nonstandard divide in experiences. If you are a Native American, you know what was done to your people; if you are Black, you know what was done to yours. If you are a woman, you know, at minimum, that until recently it was harder for you to gain entry into various professions than it would have been if you'd been a man. If you are a person of color, or an immigrant, or a woman, or queer, or of a non-Christian faith or no faith, or have suffered extreme poverty or homelessness, you are "nonstandard." 

The world looks different if you are standard than it does if you are nonstandard. White gay men who grew up in the '70s, like I did, had a very unusual vantage point from which to see both sides of the divide, because we spent time "in the closet" and could see the way many people talked about "homos" when they didn't know one was around, versus when they knew. For many Jews, the experience was similar, since Jewishness isn't as obvious as skin color. It wasn't pretty.

Here's what I can say: I do not think straight, Christian, white men are evil. I do think, in general, they have a different perspective on the world than the perspective I have. They think things are, more or less, fair because they are not forced to see the unfairness. Sometimes, some of them think the complaints from the nonstandards are just whining, or demands for special, exceptional treatment. Sometimes, for some of them, calls for reparations sound invented and crazy. They don't sound crazy to me. Sometimes, for some of them, they think all you need to do to get ahead is to work hard and play by the rules. I know that to be untrue, as does every nonstandard person. There are a lot of lazy, cheating fuckers who, being standard, make it; try being a lazy, cheating fucker and nonstandard, and you'll sooner or later get caught. And there are a ton of nonstandards who work hard, play by the rules and get nowhere. Standards, too, but I think that's more likely for us nonstandards.

Do I think straight white Christian men in Humboldt have had an easy go of life? Absolutely not. If I'd been a logger, and saw my work shrink to the point of disappearing, I'd be angry. Most likely, I'd pick the target that those in power invited me to pick — the environmentalists. If I'd had no opportunity to go to college and saw affirmative action "reserving" slots, it might make me angry as well. There's no question in my mind that large numbers of straight white Christian men are as shafted by our system as the nonstandards. But it's still a different experience, because you're still standard. In some ways, it might feel even worse: You're in the category everyone thinks is a breeze, and you know from personal experience or that of your parents that it's not a breeze at all. But you still don't necessarily understand what it's like to be nonstandard. My mother summed it up for me a few decades ago, when I was complaining to her that someone was angry at me for my having called out some comparatively innocuous racism they displayed: "Of course they don't get it — you're Jewish, they're not." She could as easily have said, "You're gay, they're not," or "You're Black, they're not" or "You're a woman, they're not."

So. Along comes Trump. Does anyone honestly think Trump would be president if he'd been born Black or female or with an inheritance of $20? Personally, I think he'd almost certainly be in prison.

Trump, in my opinion, is to standard as standard is to nonstandard. He was born a millionaire but clearly doesn't emotionally understand that he was born already on third base. He is the ultimate purveyor of the standard attitude that if you're not getting what you want, it's your own damned fault. His message has resonance among the standard, and none among us nonstandards. When I see Trump gassing peaceful protesters for a photo op with a Bible, I'm reminded that the world's "most civilized" nation, in which many Jews thought they'd become assimilated into the larger society, killed 6 million of us, after one insane, narcissistic prick grabbed onto power, and many Germans just went about their business — they were the standards, and life went on. It's absolutely not just hypothetical to me. 

So here's my plea, first to the nonstandards, including myself: Yes, by all means fight against the turn to fascism our country is now taking but when people you know don't even see it, try to understand that it's because of their own experiences. I don't know how you bring them along, but what you see as obvious refusal to see the obvious is a result of their environment and experiences. Most nonstandard people can experience being standard in some way. For many standard people, the experience of being nonstandard is, I believe, completely alien. Try to have sympathy for their resulting lack of understanding.

And to the standard: It is hard to admit that your successes are not solely a result of what you've done but are also, in some part, a result of your category and the support you've had by virtue of being standard. Your country will not become a communist dictatorship when it recognizes that health care is a human right. It will not destroy you to compete on a level playing field with those who have not had your advantages, even the advantages you never noticed you had, like your white skin or your maleness or the religion your parents handed you or your majority sexuality. And, if you have been screwed by the system, the enemy is not the environmentalists who have tried to keep all of America from being clearcut for profit, or the "leftists" who have advocated for unions and women's rights and Social Security and Obamacare. The enemy is not some person who is saying "Black Lives Matter" — those who say that are not trying to imply that your life does not matter, they are responding to the fact that for far too long, some police have acted as if Black lives don't matter. The enemy is not someone whose religion is different than yours, but who seeks the same compassion and kindness that Jesus preached, only without seeing a god in the way you may. The enemy is not some gay person who would like to celebrate the love they've been fortunate enough to find, and get some legal support for that love.

The enemy is the greediest, wealthiest few and those they hire to fight on their behalf, who know that they prosper when the rest of us are divided. The enemy is narrow-mindedness, which thinks that different means bad. The enemy, summed up, is Trump. And he knows better than anyone how to divide people and win. Please don't let him.

Mitch Trachtenberg is a computer programmer and freelance writer who lives in Trinidad.

Have something you want to get off your chest? Think you can help guide and inform public discourse? Then the North Coast Journal wants to hear from you. Contact us at editor@northcoastjournal.com to pitch your column ideas.

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