Nov 23, 2008

Music: Flobots

Looking for more progressive/radical music to fill your music player? Check out the Flobots album Fight with Tools. I only got to hear a few tracks from the live at that Scholars show on election night, but imagine a slightly looser, younger (!) Rage Against the Machine. Really good politics, and they were awesome on stage right after the election, stating that Obama's selection was a great symbolic victory, but it was time to make it mean something by pushing the issues we care about: healthcare for all, a fair and humanitarian immigration policy, the end of Guantanamo, and a host of other issues.

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Nov 22, 2008

I am So Sick of Reminding "Pan-Asian" Groups to Remember Desis

This is a rant. I have been working in Asian American spaces for more than 15 years. I have had issues with being tokenized, marginalized, the "only one of my kind" (i.e. desi) in some places, and being stuck in the constant educating role when I'm in a positive mood about the place and conflicted history of South Asians in Asian American movements. Usually I just take that as the lumps that come with being in this weird space. But sometimes things get to me.

In the beginning, there just weren't a lot of desi folks working in Asian American spaces. I've written about how many of the people I came up with or learned from cut their teeth in "pan-Asian" organizations on the East Coast, but I don't know if that's the same on the West Coast (but it's interesting that there aren't very many strong South Asian community groups on the West Coast). Then we created our own spaces, and there have always been weird conflicts around turf, resources, and inclusion. South Asians often feel like our own spaces are important because it's hard to reach our communities - and pan-ethnic/national/lingual/cultural coalitions even between different South Asian communities are a new concept to begin with.

But that doesn't mean that in the interest of certain coalitions, and particularly in the places where community issues and interests intersect, that we shouldn't work more collaboratively and learn from one another. There's no need (and the opportunity for this has kind of passed at this point) for "pan-Asian" groups to try to co-opt or subsume South Asian groups, but there are a lot of places where we could be working together. Trust me, I fault a lot of South Asians for not thinking about possible ways to reduce inefficiency and work strategically with allies in the "pan-Asian" context.

But I'm so sick of groups, particularly those on the West Coast, though we have our share on the East Coast and in DC, who take up the space as "pan-Asian" but never do anything significant with South Asian communities. They get the funding, they shape the pan-community's stories in the media and to the funders, and they shape the little space that all APAs get on any legislative or policy agendas. 

Most groups still don't have any South Asian staff in senior level positions, and few even in entry positions. They don't understand the complexities of the communities at all and are not culturally sensitive or understanding in any way (i.e. getting veggie food at many APA events is still a huge hardship, and no one understands various desi holidays). But because these groups are larger, they get first crack at the crumbs thrown down from funders, and they don't have to change their ways to better incorporate the desi communities issues. That leaves even less for South Asian groups, many of whom still feel betrayed by "pan-Asian" groups after September 11th, when they all looked the other way as our communities were targeted and became public enemy #1.

Motherfuckers, we are a full 25% of the community population and growth numbers that you use to get your funding. Stand up or get out of the way. Your relevance was always somewhat questionable, particularly on a national policy level, but now you're just pissing me off. And you know, the academy, the so-called API Progressive/Left Movement, and the Asian American media all perpetuate this. I read the AA Movement Zine online, and there are so few articles on the South Asian American left movement that it's not even worth mentioning it and I may just read SAMAR instead.

This whole thing was precipitated when I read this article in New America Media about possible APA cabinet/presidential appointments. The dude doesn't even mention one South Asian, and the only mention of the community at all is through a quote from Dale Minami. What the fuck? Can't this writer even ask a follow-up question like "who are you talking about?"

Arghhhhhhh. End of rant.

For now.

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Nov 14, 2008

New Modes of Organizing the Left

I went to a panel recently in DC in which different folks were asking critical questions about what the election results mean for the Left in the United States. I thought it was an interesting dialogue with new and respected voices from the Left - all of them people of color - responding to the question of what this could mean. There were some very different takes on what direction we should go in, or even what support of Barack Obama in the recent election means.

One of the folks spoke about how he supported the Green ticket, and it was now up to the people who supported Obama to make sure to hold him to the promises he made and change people believed he would bring. Another, longtime labor organizer Bill Fletcher, said that it was not practical to support a third party candidate in American democracy, where the system is one of the least democratic of any so-called democracy. He argued, instead, that there needed to be a massive Left project that brought together hundreds of thousands of people into a viable block that could and should move the Democrats leftward. He stated that "without a hard Left, the middle always collapses."

Fletcher's other point was that we had to drop some of our purist attitudes about the "Left." That to bring about some of the change that we actually want, we may have to work with people who we don't fully agree with. The Right did that well for Bush, with fiscal conservatives and social conservatives, who aren't very similar actually, but who came together to get their endgame to work. That's since kind of fallen apart because Bush ended up spending and expanding government more than the fiscal conservatives could stomach (witness the Ron Paul revolution).

Finally, Fletcher said that traditional organizations may not be the way to go. But he also said that a new political party may not be where to start either. He suggested 501(c)(4) organizations, which could get "politically engaged" were the way that people were starting to get organized, and used an example from Northern Virginia: Virginia New Majority, which was created by a (c)(3) organization to get out there and take a more aggressive electoral/political role.  It was very effective at registering working people of color and immigrants and getting them out to vote.

I would argue that (c)(4) organizations are still too limited. They get the federal tax exemption, but at the cost of having to report to the Feds a lot more than other organizations, and still being limited in their ability to really support candidates or ballot initiatives. I think the aggressive ground game for the Left is in political organizations - which include Federal, State, and other kinds of Political Action Committees (PACs), as well as the well-known but misunderstood 527 groups (which is actually a misnomer because the 527 group that people talk about: the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth kind of groups, are only one kind of 527 organization - all PACs are another). PACs are usually organized solely to channel money to candidates and campaigns. But there's a way to create a PAC in some jurisdictions that can be involved in electoral politics, particularly locally, in ways other than dumping money at someone. PACs can call whoever they want and support whatever or whoever they want: they don't have the detailed rules governing them that the IRS imposes on tax exempt organizations. You can go to town.

I would argue that for the immigrant Left, engagement of this kind can create longer-term empowerment for individuals involved than just bundling money, getting photo opportunities, and not really seeing the influence on politicians or their policies. PACs that don't focus solely on money but rather on messaging and influence by people power and issues that are important to working people and immigrants can be a game changer. And because the level of reporting and hoops to jump is not as crazy as 501(c) organizations, maybe more regular people of color and immigrants can take this on than the very white "non-profit Left" that's still talking about how we should put socialism on the table this January.

Yes, as a long aside, that was a comment at this event from an audience member, which made me laugh out loud - these folks need to retire, move to Sedona, stop gumming up the new movement with old retreads - I believe in socialist ideals, but I think we need new ways of talking about them, particularly with immigrants who fled brutal, deadly regimes run under the guise of "socialism" that have forever embittered them to anything remotely similar in name, if not function. Yet another example of white and American privilege in our bizarre, out of touch Left.

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Nov 12, 2008

The Abuse of APA Agencies by Mainstream Service Groups

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Mainstream service organization that's been around for a long time always gets a big chunk of money to work with a large subset of the population - such as children in the City or seniors in the County. Said organization does not have bilingual staff, usually at all, though there are now more Spanish-speaking white folks around, particularly in legal service organizations.

But regardless, they just don't have bilingual staff, and they use LanguageLine or that old AT&T service to call in people with the language ability (but who may not be local, or have any knowledge about the subject matter at all - a critical need in health and legal service provision, let alone mental health). But of course, their actual mandate is to serve all people, often regardless of immigration status, who fit into their slice of the population (women, seniors, children, whatever).

So what happens? Often, they only do one or two outreach events a year in the APA community, in particular. They use community organizations instead of other spaces like libraries because they have absolutely no way of reaching out themselves (and many traditional legal service organizations don't outreach much at all anyway). And here's the kicker: they don't have the bilingual staff and don't hire interpreters to effectively communicate with the community members. For some reason, that's not important enough for these people, and they just don't get it.

These organizations end up asking (i.e. telling) the community-based groups to do last-minute translations and interpretations. You know the groups - those that are hanging on with bare bones budgets, in spaces that are too small, staff that is underpaid, directors who are often first generation and sometimes not the best managers, but groups that the communities trust and that have been there for their community day in and day out.

This is totally unacceptable. Asian American community organizations should be supported to work directly in their own communities - it makes sense in larger cities to have larger, mainstream service organizations that can take care of common problems, and I feel strongly that they should work with all communities, but they have to step up and integrate language and cultural competence across the board - from their staffing to their processes and expectations of clients. Until that happens, it ever will, there is a critical need that organizations serving immigrants fulfill.

Some Asian American community organizations can work with individuals in a number of different languages, which is still better than the mainstream organizations, but the established groups actually have other resources for the smaller language communities (like Ilocano or Thai) that the mainstream groups cannot even begin to understand. But our groups are not interpreter agencies. And our value should not be limited to just filling in the gaps that the big groups don't want to accept are their responsibility too.

This is why most of our organizations should move from just direct service provision to both advocacy within service circles for full and equal community access, and organizing within our communities so that they can create their own solutions and raise their voices against business as usual in the nonprofit-industrial complex.

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Nov 11, 2008

A Note on Veterans' Day

It's not enough to just get the day off to rest and do whatever we want. These holidays, rare as they are (particularly when you compare with the Indian calendar loaded with many holidays for its many peoples), should be a time when we think about what it is that we're celebrating. I don't know the history of Veterans' Day, but I know that in a time when constant, unending war seems commonplace for the American, we're still largely untouched by what our government is waging. Our perpetual state of war is different from that of the nations on the receiving end, or places like Palestine or Sri Lanka.

But where that toll is visible is in the faces, the stories, and the lost innocence and lives of soldiers who have given up everything in the belief that they were fulfilling a patriotic duty. Not all soldiers are perfect, but most of them are quite young, and regardless of their rationale or that of the nation to send them in harm's way and off to fight, it's hard not to get choked up when you think about what they and their families have given up. I am a pacifist: I don't believe there is any "good" war. I suppose there are times when one can argue that war is necessary, but it seems to me that it's always been a small group of people in control that either cause the harm that must be dealt with, or who send off the troops to do the dealing.

If we dealt with those people directly, millions of innocent people - the soldiers included - would not have to die or lose faith in human motives and judgment. It's a large price to pay. Even in movement work, many times we use the lexicon, the metaphor, the iconography of war: I am guilty of the same thing, and many of the radical groups I listen to or read use "soldier" and "battle", perhaps to reclaim the terms.

But I don't believe in war - real, imagined, or otherwise. I want to build, and I want to use words that come from places of strength, love, and peace. So as we remember veterans today and in the years to come, perhaps we can also take some time to challenge this culture of war - from the words and images we use to describe our work, to the way in which we imagine movement work as a whole.

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Film: No Direction Home (2005)

Finally got around to watching Scorsese's long doc on Dylan that revolved around his emergence as a folk artist and then the incredible Newport Folk Festival moment in 1965 when he pulled out an electric blues band, played only 15 minutes as the headliner to massive booing, and never looked back.

I don't really know Dylan's music that well beyond the big singles, but I've heard a lot about how brilliant and encyclopedic his knowledge of old American musical styles and traditions. I think I read that in the assessment of one of his latest series of albums (which folks have said are a remarkable run on their own). Watching this film is an introduction in some ways, but Scorsese does not focus on the chronological assessment of Dylan's ever-changing, ever-expanding musical persona, nor of his recorded output. I think it wisely looks at him from different angles and perspectives, including those of Joan Baez, whose heart he obviously broke, Allen Ginsburg in interviews that were late in his remaining life but quite riveting and dynamic, band members and producers, and other fellow artists like Pete Seeger and Peter Yarrow.

All I can say about the collective impact of the more than 3.5 hours of this documentary (took up two picks on my netflix rotation) is that it really made me think about bucking expectations, staying true to what you have inside, and trusting your voice. Baez has a really telling segment where she described what it was like to be active and political (and linked to him) once he'd moved on from topical songs and traditional folk, when she performed at protests and sit-ins and people asked for Bob: she had to say "he's not coming. He's probably never shown up, you poor fools."

It was so interesting to hear her talk about it - particularly because she's still doing that circuit more than 40 years later. It made me wonder about political art, actually, which I value so much in the Asian American context. Dylan's path gives us the rare opportunity to look at both forks in the road for artists (particularly with Baez or Seeger as a foil)... and activists, actually. He wrote some of the finest songs of his generation that captured the mood, inspired other great work (Sam Cooke wrote "A Change Gonna Come" after hearing "Blowin' in the Wind" and wondering why it was a white man who wrote it), and are still sung today. He then just had to move on.

Should we take note of this - not just in a creative context, but in movement work too? Sometimes I come across folks who haven't reinvented themselves and are still using the same rally chants and tactics (like street protests and petitions) as they've been using for decades. It seems like sometimes folks get so locked in, even when they're not that good at something, that they don't evolve or they stay the same to meet the expectations put onto them by followers or admirers. I wonder if that's true in a lot of contexts, actually, including civil rights leaders who still seem locked into a vision of America from the 50s and 60s, one that is not as diverse nor as complex as that which we work in now. These outdated models, and the people who continue to push them, may stall the evolution of movements for progress. And those are people who were actually once effective.

As a related aside (jumping back to the artist/activists thread) maybe the Two Tongues crew closed shop at the right time. They remain powerful (one of their tracks just came up on my Shuffle last night and the passion rocked my consciousness all over again), and they continued to evolve as individuals. It's a good lesson to keep in mind, and the film definitely hits that point for me. Strongly recommended for music fans and fans who consider the balance of consciousness and the creative process.

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Nov 9, 2008

Hip Hop is Gentrified

I went out dancing for the first time in a long time, and we ended up at a spot that was pretty popular and overwhelmingly white. In a city that's got a good amount of color in it, it's easy to end up the only color in the room, which is a little odd. More odd is that other people of color in the room are often other Asians. That model minority thing isn't always wrong, particularly in the young middle class / gentrifying force in America's cities.

But I was in a good mood, with mine and some friends, and I wasn't looking to start any trouble or have a mood. The DJ was playing all the big hip hop singles of round about the late eighties, but it was really odd to see these white kids sing along with every word. First, most of them were in diapers when these songs dropped, second were these all really that big as singles to cross over that long ago, and third: I was embarrassed that while I can name the songs and sing individual lines, these folks were singing the whole damn joints. I did think it was funny that when the D threw out "Bring the Noise" by Public Enemy (I would have loved any number of other songs), I was the only one shouting out lines. Maybe I got caught up in the hope of the week to think they'd spin Dead Prez next.

So what does this any of this mean? I have conversations with conscious friends about authenticity all the time. The question of who "owns" hip hop is out there, and there's the comment on who buys hip hop, of course. But then there's this other question - if the kids know the songs so well not because they were trying to appropriate the culture but because they just heard and knew the songs from years of growing up and going to parties, is that something to hate on them about? I don't really know. It was just awkward for me - I had a great time, but I guess just like so many other situations, I was far more self-conscious about how I sang the songs and what the dynamics of being brown and singing songs about black experience (mindless party songs are different of course) than most of the white folks around me.

Was I over-thinking it all? I decided not to give a shit and just lay back and enjoy the night, which I did. But it seemed kind of ironic that I ordered Son of Nun's new CD earlier that day, and was considering putting out a little more for a shirt with the slogan that I borrowed for the title of this post. The universe tells us in funny ways, enit? We just have to keep listening.

Tune out the radio
throw out the tv

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The Dawn of a New Age of Disappointments

Went to a benefit dinner tonight for a group in the area, and their keynote speaker was, as I think much of the free and not-so-free world are still, running a high Obama fever. I don't begrudge him or the rest of them that. I mean, like I said, I was in the streets (or at least the bars) celebrating the victory too.

But I guess Tuesday already feels like a long time ago. And even though I'm not watching the news or following the twitter-like monitoring of P.E. Obama's (not Public Enemy, but Prez-Elect(ed) of course) every move, I feel like I've been disappointed a lot already.

I know - people will say "well, you people on the left are never satisfied. First Bush was terrible, now you get your liberal man, and you're just going to tear him apart for not being a freegan or something." Well, yeah, we can get a little critical and have issues with just celebrating once in a while. But I think I know how to celebrate real victories, and I'm not getting anything out of writing these things - not money, and no, not kicks. I want so much to believe in the hope hype.

But really, all I've been getting since Tuesday night is O-Bummers. I mean, we get built up to think change is coming, but first the Rahm Emanuel pick, which is bad news for Palestine, and bad news for a lot of other reasons as well. Now I feel like we're facing the prospect that while the vetting process for the transition team and appointees will likely knock out anyone who has even a touch of pro-Palestine leanings, possible ties to Hindu fundamentalists who say and do all kinds of things to Christians, Muslims, Dalits, and other "undesirables" in India are perfectly fine.

I hope this string of O-Bummers ends soon.  It hasn't even been a week, and I was on such a high with the rest of the country, but I feel like it could be a long and painful hangover.

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Nov 6, 2008

The First Signals of Business as Usual for Palestine/Israel

I wrote earlier this year about Obama's statement at AIPAC, staking out territory far right of most moderate Israelis and certainly most Palestinians in his staunch lovefest with the racist, hostile government of Israel. Well, his choice of Rahm Emanuel for Chief of Staff seals the deal: the new Administration will not step away from the failed policies of the Bush and Clinton regimes in Palestine/Israel. It will continue them.

I can continue to rail on this choice and what it seems has been a systematic staking out of the far right, far zionist positions, but I'll just link to today's Democracy Now report on some of this so you can read it directly. It will be critical for people to raise up their protest and resistance immediately, and not allow the idealogues who exist on either side of the corporate duopoly's "aisle" to dig in and spell the real end of any hope for peace in the region, or for the Palestinian people.

ALI ABUNIMAH: But I think the important thing here is not just the appointment of Emanuel, but the greater context here, which is that from the days we knew Barack Obama as a small-time politician in Illinois, I won’t tell you, and I’ve never said that he was incredibly progressive on Israel-Palestine, but he was certainly more open-minded than he is now. And what he’s done systematically throughout the campaign is to distance himself or to throw under the bus, as the term goes, any adviser or friend who was suspected of having pro-Palestinian sympathies. In other words, he has succumbed to the McCarthyite and racist campaigns that says if you associate with even very moderate Columbia University professors, for example, or take their advice, that that’s the biggest crime.

So the signal he’s sending here is that that is not going to change, that people who could give him more balanced, more objective, more realistic advice that could change the course from the disastrous Palestine-Israel policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations, that that’s not going to happen. And that should be very, very worrying, because a lot of progressive people, a lot of people in the Middle East, a lot of leaders, have pinned hopes on Obama being quite different on this issue, and I just don’t see any evidence so far that that’s going to be the case. And it worries me that people will stay silent, rather than putting on the table now and loudly the demands for a more balanced, more objective, more fair policy that could bring peace for Palestinians and Israelis.

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Organizing in the New Era

Yesterday, I wrote about the positivity, if even for just a day, that people exuded after the end of this long long campaign. I've been thinking about what organizing and resistance work may look like after the glow fades. I had written, in a bit that I cut out while editing, that perhaps that positivity is the most important first step that we can hope for, particularly in organizing work that starts with "yes we can" and moves to "let's get started" in the next breath. Does this victory and the jubilation afterward mean that finally, people think we can build again instead of just playing defense?

This victory came after a long campaign, but it still feels quick to me, in terms of making sure that the different elements of the "Obama Coalition" actually have some similar grasp of what his election means to people, if not systemic change. That coalition includes people from much further left than I'd expected would get involved in a major campaign like this one, all the way to young kids and old Democratic political hands who know and have tended over business as usual.

The real test will be whether the left has built up a strong enough skin to not back down from fights with the Dems because they aren't just going to change things without real pressure. And whether people will stand their ground and fight, not just bend over backwards to let the new powers that be, who are not altogether different from the old powers that be in their quest to keep and accumulate power, just do whatever it is that they want to do.

It's time to think about organizing for more than just defense, but also for breaking the weird commitment to political parties and moving to personal and community commitment to issues. I think the younger generation, who have shown little loyalty to brands, media outlets, modes of communication, and pretty much all of the old benchmarks are not really feeling the party identification. That confuses the older pollsters, old guard of leaders, and pretty much everyone else. I think that may provide an opening for people to talk more about issues and engage folks from different communities and age groups about solutions rather than just broad statements of who is "good" and who is "bad."

Of course, what this country needs are more than 2 political parties, but even with them, we need to build from the ground up. The government has to work for the people again (or finally, I suppose). And the people have to get organized beyond GOTV efforts. Everyone's saying the same thing: the proof will be in what happens next.

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Nov 5, 2008

A New Day

So he won it after all. I was in DC the night everything was declared, at a Blue Scholar show in fact, and first off, it was amazing to be with the Scholars when the declaration was made. But after that, it was so inspirational to see how the majority of Ethiopian and other African folks in the city were just jubilant about his election. People were dancing in the streets, ya'll. I never thought I'd see the day in the U.S.

This is the first day, so while I voted my conscience and have much to share about what that means, I'll keep other thoughts until later. For now, I think we should just take a collective deep, and tired, first breath. It is indeed as if the pallor of the last 8 years (or 16 or 40 depending on what marker you use to designate "when things were hopeful or better" if that's objectively possible when talking about American politics) has finally lifted.

People had a bit of spring in their step, really. Morning in America, and it was a new day. Maybe for one day, maybe for a brief stretch beyond that, this victory gives a little seldom-found relief to black men throughout this country. Plagued by negative images, stereotypes, and most every deck stacked against them, I will not make the audacious claim that this election is a game-changer in any way. But self-worth does not arise solely from what we have inside ourselves, and it's got to be hard to carry all that heaviness if you're conscious of it. While nothing has changed physically yet, I definitely felt optimism in people's hearts today, and just taking it at face value, more people of color, and in particular men of color, were smiling.

Not to mention the lines in front of the little corner stores that sell 2,000+ magazines and papers from around the world. Everyone wanted the papers that had cover stories. Everyone wants to keep that souvenir, that I was there, that memento that says "it's not just a dream anymore!" It's morning in America, and with this dawn came the promise, at least, of a new brighter day, if not in what actually happens, then at least in people's perception of what is possible.

But just to keep this real, here's a little perspective. There's much work still to do.

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Nov 3, 2008

Election Eve

We stand at a crossroads, America. A crossroads that has been hyped up a lot more than it may actually represent. I think the crossroads is not between a splintered America and a post-race America, or even one that has a more sophisticated take on its own complex racialized heritage and history.

I think more than anything, a peaceful change of power with a large part of the eligible electorate actually participating that just results in more snide comments and bitterness rather than bloodshed, would mark the movement of America from the democracy that is more concerned about defending its "freedom" by bombing others to one that celebrates the exercise of that basic tenet of true liberty: the ability of a nation to say "enough is enough"... even if the subtitle would be "and now for something not entirely different."

So here we are, America. It could be that today is the last day of an old era. Not just that of Bushs and Clintons in the White House, but also of the undercurrent of national discourse that recognizes that there has always been and still remains great inequality in this nation. I don't know whether the whole post-race and post-affirmative action angle will come in quickly or later as the conservatives in both parties regroup and rethink their attack on the poor, the dark, and the newcomers, but it will come.

The backlash towards whatever is left will definitely come. The brunt of anger and distrust will not fall upon the new leader, surrounded as he can be by the best that our money can train. The battleground, bloody or cold and calculated, will be in many states and towns across this nation. The targets will be simple, unchanged folks who hadn't suddenly felt like they won a lottery just because someone who looks like them but has had all kinds of access through education and opportunity was just elected president.

That's the funny thing: privilege seems to be okay if you don't realize you have it no matter how much you benefit from it. But if people in power even suspect that someone else will get some shade under that parasol of privilege, it's over: they will do what they can to stomp that out early. That ground game will be demoralizing if it happens, but mainly to those of us in the know, I think, because we won't write it off as just a coincidence or random events.

We'll connect those dots.

So this is a crossroads America. And it isn't. We'll travel together down the next road that you choose, but if it's another dead end or dive off a deep end, you're on your own this time.

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