I can’t remember the last time I saw someone fall through the ice. Spending my high school and college years in upstate New York, there’s little doubt that I have seen such a thing, but somehow watching this happen again yesterday – several times – transfixed me.
It was Year #2 for the Women’s March, and I should’ve been paying more attention to the many “big name” speakers there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the heart of Washington DC. Thousands of people (yes, mostly women) gathered around the Reflecting Pool, which was covered with ice from our long bout of extreme cold weather. Yesterday, however, the sun baked down and the temperatures soared. A few of those gathered wandered out onto the ice… and in time, a few of them fell through.
Their mishaps were little more than uncomfortably cold embarrassments; the water was barely deeper than their knees. Still, it was an apt metaphor to where my thoughts had wandered. My sense of the mood of the crowd (far smaller than last year’s mammoth event) was … complicated. We were exhorted by speaker after speaker to redouble our resistance, to mobilize in strength for the upcoming midterm elections, to “do politics – or else politics will do you”. Yet it was preaching to the choir – we were there because we are the committed. But even our staunch commitment has limits; the speeches were too many, too long, and most of us wandered off after such speeches droned on well over one hour past the march start time. Still, the afternoon was well spent, and reinforcing, and at this stage I will take what solidarity I can find. Living in Trump’s Washington is dispiriting in the extreme, and the harshly cold winter has only exacerbated the misery – and the alarm.
After all, we’re walking on thin ice. Democracy itself is in peril, as most in Congress prove – yet again – to be ineffectual or inept, unprincipled or simply opportunistic. It’s hard to find a positive narrative as I watch the U.S. Government shut down again, irrefutable evidence that our legislators cannot perform the most fundamental task that they were sent there to do – pass a budget. Living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I know that so many of my neighbors who are hard-working, vastly under-appreciated federal civil servants or foreign service officers will feel again that they are pawns in a cruel and unnecessary game.
We’re walking on thin ice, in so many ways. I view the sheet of ice from the perspective of a career in the context of America’s international role. Through that lens, there’s so little to celebrate. The State Department and USAID are suffering not only slashed budgets and a brain-drain at the higher levels, but also and concurrently the loss of the remarkable international networks of friends and acquaintances that took these former staff decades to assemble. Even the tiny Peace Corps, our least expensive but arguably most beloved international agency whose remarkably positive impact on global peace puts “bang for the buck” and public service into perspective, is facing 20% cuts in its workforce.
Such venerable federal institutions represent the best of American values in the world, but now they are hemorrhaging people of unmatched international experience and wisdom – people who could not find any way to reconcile their own professionalism and deep commitment both to universal human rights and to the U.S. Constitution with having to serve an administration that personifies the opposite. The venal, narcissistic, boorish, serially dishonest, ill-informed, racist, anti-democratic, and deeply biased Donald Trump and his enablers are leading us as a nation away from widely recognized urgent global priorities (climate change, increasing economic inequalities, rising levels of gender-based violence and intolerance around the world, the decline in democracy in nation after nation, to name but a few). And while Trump and his “America First” agenda callously turns America inward, he pushes on with enforcing the Global Gag Rule which imposes draconian restrictions to nearly $9 billion in U.S. health assistance to women around the world.
We’re walking on thin ice. This administration is failing to honor our international commitments to protect the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, stigmatizing (against all prevailing empirical evidence to the contrary) these desperate and vulnerable people as a criminal and terrorism threat, while slashing our contributions to international agencies providing essential humanitarian support to these very people who number well in excess of 3 million (of whom 80% are women and children). Refugees and asylum seekers who are already in the United States, trying earnestly to rebuild their lives, are now facing new reasons to fear for their futures as they see their religions, diverse national heritages, and personal integrity trashed. Our country’s callous treatment of refugees and asylum seekers now here – many of whom face existential threats to their lives and safety in the countries they fled from – is a betrayal of who we are as a nation of immigrants.
Human dignity and human rights seem sadly absent from the Trump agenda. The inward-focus of this government is pushing us to a place on the ice where our longstanding reputation as a global democratic leader and champion of human dignity is no longer supportable. As I watched the ice walkers on the Reflecting Pool, I almost believed I could hear the ice cracking far away as Vice President Pence meets this weekend with Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This strongman is one of the Trump administration’s inner circle of favored authoritarian dictators, each with egregious records of human rights abuses. And the fault lines in the ice of global cohesion and peace expanded exponentially with Trump’s recent vulgar and appalling characterization of African, Caribbean, and Central American nations and their citizens.
The antics of the ice walkers yesterday were captivating. One could disparage their rationality and risk-taking for venturing out onto the ice, but I am not in a position to pass judgement. They had their reasons. I watched as the ice warned them again and again, with its sagging under their weight, and the small cracks joining into ever-larger cracks that raced toward the ice walkers as they tried to make their escape to the concrete surroundings. They were not fast enough, the ice gave way, and down they sunk into the very cold waters below. Certain paths take us to places where the dire outcomes are inevitable – and predictable.
The most compelling aspect of their ice drama however was not their splash through the shimmering white surface; it was their struggle to regain their footing. Each time they tried to climb out, the ice at the edge of the hole collapsed, and they sunk in again. It took multiple tries, and usually the helping hands of others, to regain their safety on a solid, dry surface.
How long will it take this great country to realize that the ice is cracking under us? The evidence of a fall from international respect is abundant; many would say we are well past a place where we can avoid that calamity. Some will say we are already wet, well above the ankles, and getting higher. Yet the turbulent waters under the thin ice of global cohesion and collaboration are far more dangerous, and much deeper. War with North Korea, irreversible climate change, the inevitable push back to come from the #MeToo movement, the growing and violent assault against sexual and gender minorities…the cracks are too many to count.
Every crack in the ice testifies to the global decline in respect for universal human dignity and the architecture of human rights that has been built upon it. We’re urgently in need of solid-footed leadership based on defensible and universal secular moral values, on principled examples, and a vision for global cooperation and peace.
Let’s pull America from the yawning hole in the ice, starting now and at the ballot boxes in November.