The following interview I undertook with Barbara Bickel, my life-partner, as an after-effect of witnessing nearly two years of political campaigning in the US 2016 presidential election. We both feel we’ve watched an enormous “shake-up” in the consciousness of American society and culture, and it ain’t pretty. There’s a lot of fear and terror, and a lot of elation (depends who you talk to on either side of the political divide, the Culture Wars) with more than a little hate being propagated in virulent fashion. With Trump’s victory this unrest we both had, albeit, in our different ways, led to Barbara waking up early the morning after the election, and without knowing the results exactly, asking me to write down notes. That very morning she drafted her “Reality and Recovery” speech/letter, as I call it  and it sets the stage for the dialogue below which I had with her nearly a week after. In her speech, a letter to her faculty colleagues and students, she wrote
I begin to ask myself questions:
How can I step out of this rampant political binary and step into what can be clearly seen as fearism  now that all political correct hiding strategies have been blown up? How can I model something else more unifying with diversity for those who are part of my professional and personal life?
M: Barbara, there has been a lot of talk about the 2016 US election with Trump’s victory especially, I also know that you are talking with a lot of people in your professional life especially as a Director of Women, Gender and Sexualities Studies at your university. There is also more than talk going on in response to what is for sure a turn away, a blow-back, from the progressive democratic agenda of the USA since Obama’s presidency, of which you are a citizen, as well as a Canadian citizen. There are actions being taken by you and your colleagues and others in America that are in resistance and pro-action in order to protect some of those gained progressive moves. Besides this activism you are involved in there is the equally important interior dimension of it all. You have been feeling a lot of deep emotions, like so many others. So, in this context, could you speak to some of these impacts current American politics is having, and respond to President Trump’s first big message to the nation since winning: “Don’t be afraid. Stop the hate crimes.” So, to start, how are you doing?
B: I’m okay. Adjusting. Well, the responsibility I am fully taking in my newly acquired American citizenship, it is just not the same as when I lived in Canada as a Canadian. The choice to become an American, because my dad was, at first was merely convenience for reasons to work here and have two passports. However, since then, it is actually a huge responsibility that little did I know was going to change my life when I moved here in 2008 to work at university. You don’t have this same political and historical activating consciousness in Canada. I sure didn’t. In America, I choose very selectively when to attend to news. I don’t want to be overwhelmed by it. But, living here I can’t avoid it like I could in Canada. More citizens in America are politically conscious than in Canada, I think. And the media loves to blow up any piece of news that comes out. It also is a responsibility due to my work in a state institute, whereby I began to realize and feel the impacts of being an employee of the US government, at the state level but also highly impacted by the federal level. I’ve been feeling the bruising impact for basically 8 years. I feel the direness of it all. First, the state had the Rod Blagojevich fiasco in IL as he was finally impeached as governor and serves a long prison sentence for state corruption all part of a leadership in the state going back for years that has bankrupt the state. Then Obama was elected when we first arrived and colleagues were telling me, to my surprise, they were so glad to no longer be embarrassed because of being Americans under the Bush regime for so long and having caused so much destruction. Gosh, now I am American and feel some of that feeling but I am not embarrassed as such, more disheartened. I’m not angry, like many of my friends and colleagues, I’m just like overwhelmed by how much the whole system is fucked… and the lack of responsibility of so many leaders in this country in regards to Education… I really see how education is at the core of the stupidity of people being bamboosled by the media and these political games going on.
M: I know you are not in your angry phase right now, Barbara. Though, I will remind you just how angry you have been for quite awhile at the politics of this nation and especially since Trump was going to be the Republican nominee. I guess, you’re getting used to the reality and other than anger, sorrow is more the emotion arising. So, I get that it becomes hard to trust anything anymore with leaders. The social contract of care and responsibility from state to citizens and university leadership to students and faculty and the community—all these become more in question with time.
B: It’s a pathetic leadership, with no vision. They’re holding on hard to the same old… old boys club… which includes women supporting that same club. It’s making me realize how incompetent adults are in this country, in general, very incompetent, and sadly the truth is it rises to the top, as I witness in the university system, the political and economic system and so on.
M: It looks and feels like a circus or theatrical drama to me. Yeah, we came in 2008 with amazing corruption and incompetency, lack of sincerity and breach of public and mutual trust. I’ve never quite felt this in my life before either. What we are witnessing is the serious deterioration of the moral and social fabric of trust and security that any healthy state or nation requires for sustainability and sanity. I know I hear many critics calling out “neo-facism” as the shift that is going on. It’s a strong critique but I definitely can see elements of it. No wonder people are scared, that is, if they really admit what they feel below the surface of carrying on daily routines of life here. The reason security vs insecurity is so important is because it breeds fear and terror at all levels all across the board; no body escapes. It is not by chance that I have been studying the American “culture of fear” phenomenon since before 9/11. I say no one escapes this toxic fearism-t running, though, like all throughout history, some people, the elites with extraordinary power and those with lots of money can buy their security to buffer themselves from the declining sociality of mutual regard. This new ‘class’ of elites have become quite a concern for political analysts of the left, because they are basically a class that is choosing to live without a place in the public sphere. They live in gated communities and abandon the public sphere, public education, public health care. They live in a bubble. It’s very dangerous to see this in any society. The public sphere is being threatened by the bottom end, of excess poverty, ghettoization and crime taking over public spaces, there is more privatization of public spaces, and the upper class trend of abandonment to their bubbles. So, Barbara, tell me what kinds of fear have you been witnessing in your circles here and in Canada in post-election ‘wake-up.’
B: I get most upset by how it is impacting young people, the students mostly and especially the WGSS students. I was meeting with terrified students before the election. Trump and his rhetoric re: the LGBTQL and Hispanic/Latino, (not so much) African American is scaring a lot of people. The biggest impact and fear is from women and LGBTQ communities. They don’t feel safe, generally. And with sexual assault issues bad enough in the community and on campus, since the election they going to get worse, I predict. With the severe budget cuts and failure of the state of IL to protect higher education and diversity awareness there is already lack of real support for women. It has deteriorated badly. I’m continually working on that with a few others on campus but is going nowhere fast because of so many other issues that are grabbing attention of university administration, like whether the university is going to make payroll in the next 6 months. The immigrant DACA issue is arising rapidly as a crisis in that students born in the USA from undocumented immigrants could be deported immediately without a trial. California has implemented some good sanctuary statements, and I heard in Arizona university faculty are also trying to. They’ve at least sent petitions to get faculty to sign. I’ve taken initiatives to encourage the same here at my university. Though, I am not hopeful this administration and leadership will take this on, they tend to want to be nice and not disturb the status quo.
M: They seem so fear-based to me, ever since we got here in 2008. I’ve not been impressed. So, how do you keep going without getting discouraged? I really get that you care for the students you serve. It’s a big responsibility, I know. I too was a school teacher many years ago. It’s an all-consuming responsibility.
B: I’m just doing things because it’s right. I have no idea if it will go anywhere. Otherwise, I don’t know how I’d go into work everyday, and feel in integrity, if I didn’t act as an advocate on behalf of students rights, and for the sake of a healthy faculty and university organization that is supposed to be guiding young people.
M: So taking action on this sense of righteousness indignation is a type of healthy anger, a healing anger, and seems to be a way of dealing with fear and terror?
B: Yes, and then there’s my grief. I don’t feel like I’m in terror, I feel more grief. I was talking to a Latino professor the other day and he’s having panic attacks and can’t work as well as he’d like, he is not able to focus. I have had a few recent melt downs and get very emotional and want to just cry and cry and cry. I can’t at work too much because I have an open door policy. I’m available all the time to be there for others. It’s not the space for all my emotional reactions. I’m there to do work and take action not to cry.
M: Why not do both?
B: I do at times. I can’t succumb to it, I have to be there for others. As you know, I phone you to get unconditional attention in between the worst challenging times so that my feelings don’t overwhelm my effective functioning in the workplace. Young students and faculty don’t need to see all my despair and negativity.
M: And what about having them see your politics? I mean do you actively show your political stances to them? Could you be accused of using your state-employee-tax-payer-paid position, privilege and power to try to influence youth to side with your point of view? Perhaps, you could be accused by some conservatives at least, of doing this. How do you not affect your students that way? I know some professors you work with, are likely vigorous in recruiting students for political agendas, that the professors are dedicated to. What’s your ethical view on this touchy topic and its relationship to the battle of faculty to secure intellectual freedom?
B: I approach the political situations by asking them questions, how are they being impacted in their lives and listening more than I tell them about mine. When they ask me questions then I answer them honestly with what my stance is. A few times a week I have to pass a very load broadcasting fundamentalist Christian preacher who sets up his platform outside the library. I hear his loud preaching when I am working in my WGSS office. He stands there projecting his well-trained preacher voice telling the students not to commit adultery and only god can forgive you or numerous other high ground preaching statements meant to guilt these young people into submission. Most students pass him by without seemingly noticing him as do I. Although sometimes he has Christian students join him and they work more to engage the passing students in conversation. I find this deeply disturbing on many levels. It shocks me how this invasion of ideology blasting is allowed week after week in a public educational setting. I know he has found his legal location to preach but I find is so invasive and condemning of these young people. Who are not the source of the moral crisis in this country or world.
M: So, do you think Trump’s first big message to the nation “Don’t be afraid. Stop the hate” is going do anything useful?
B: No. Because he just says things reactively. He always has, in the election campaigning, he just says what he needs to in order to get votes from a lot of pissed-off people; and now, he says things like that to just placate the nation. He’ll say what ever. He’s just a player in a big game, there’s no substance. He’s just now being politically correct. Paradoxically, and ironically, by not being pc in his campaigning, he actually won the election. But it may still turn around that many who voted for Hillary are protesting all over the country as she won the popular vote. Anyways, this is the first time I have been learning just how fucked up the US election process is. It’s all connected historically as this system emerged after the Civil War. It didn’t work well back then. It has not worked since. The same sex, racial and class conflicts. Nothing has really changed. The angry poor whites end up fighting with the angry poor African Americans and so on. They won’t unite. Hate spreads. We’re still in the mess.
M: So here you are a state-employee. And you could have this interview picked-up by some surveillance security folks, and you and I could get in trouble. You know we are risking to speak out regardless of this? I say, we have to be following a fearlessness ethical criteria for free-speech, regardless of what positions we hold. I know you are not here speaking for your university or the state or anyone officially. You are speaking as an American citizen, and you just happen to be a state-employee at the same time. You ought to have the right to speak out in this country or anywhere. Are you afraid of surveillance of this dialogue and how it may affect your travel at the US border going in or out of this country. I know you are going to Egypt soon?
B: Not really, I have come to a place of not caring any more. Ethics and care comes first.
M: So what transformation is going on, for you personally and collectively?
B: Really getting how I am privileged in a leadership role and stepping into that fully; and, unfortunately, realizing few others are within my university. Obama didn’t get to the core of this countries issues to help the reform and transformation of education, nor did he reform Wall Street and big money-power that limits healthy government in this nation. There were some good things with Obama but more symbolic only, in regard to benefitting women and African Americans. Nothing fundamentally has changed.
M: It’s like the repressed shadow-side of the progressives, since the great victory of Obama, kind of got hidden for eight years and now. It is really coming out with shocking vehemence to the Left, but a lot of people in general. There’s a lot of disillusionment in progress overall. I see this especially for young people, many who are protesting on the streets across this nation right now, who are not so used to the long history and inevitability of swings of political and cultural wars, especially in the USA’s history. We never seem to just progress in a straight line, there’s always regressions, don’t you think?
B: Symbols of progress and surface gestures of change are not enough. You can’t be a progressive country when you are in continual war; it’s like an oxymoron because you are still as a nation putting nearly all your money into the military. Is that progressive? Because you still have the country with the most child poverty of developed nations and your school systems are atrocious, is that progressive, and the horrible health care system? Look, the lack of love for Americans worldwide has not decreased under Obama. A year and a half ago, when traveling overseas, I still wasn’t telling anyone on my trip I was an American. The stalemate has flipped, that’s all; from one corrupt government party to the other—all of them still war-mongers. I don’t know, I don’t know… I don’t understand it. Trump proves how Americans operate in a game of delusions and images. It’s too much power in the hands of people who just won’t grow up. I guess all empire nations are like that.
M: Yes, I agree. The level of maturity, due to woundedness and fear, is astoundingly low overall here. Violence is the food they eat and, well, you can expect what will come out of the other end. It’s not like I blame any individual. It’s a collective pathology, with a long history. I don’t feel that same pathology in Canada but Canadians do collude, often blindly, with American society, culture, economics and politics way more than I like. Immaturity is everywhere in the adult populations in North America. Barbara, I know in the past you have not necessarily seen yourself as an educator, activist or academic per se, especially so politically engaged as now, can you comment on that, what you think about activism in terms of your professional identity?
B: No, I prefer to be an artist. That identity can incorporate all those pieces and yet keep them integrated in some sane fashion. Part of it is, I don’t really like overload of information as activists seem to thrive on information. I’ve been forced to pay more attention to information in my work here. It’s not where I like to live and dwell, details aren’t that important at some level. I’m more interested in what quality of relationships are happening; like how are we treating each other, everywhere? I don’t care all that much about statistics and all the information and I know so much of it is heavily skewed with political agendas. So those labels don’t feel like me. I feel the tragedy of future of generations. I grieve over the mess adults have created. I want to do something about it.
M: And, indeed you are doing something. It’s impressive. I know it is painful too. So, you’ve been part of the Fearlessness Movement, more or less, since you met me in the late 1980s, and I’m curious what you think fearlessness, my leadership, has to offer in these current times and the near future?
B: I think people need to come to a place of respecting wisdom not just information or knowledge about this and that. And knowledge about what oppresses us all, as in your emancipatory research and your teaching is more interested in drawing out wisdom than drawing out and blasting people with information and statistics. At another level, you’re not a good activist. You talk about it and claim you are an activist; but you really don’t do a lot of action out there for the amount of time you have available. Instead, you’re gathering threads of knowledge and trying to formulate it within theories, models and patterns, for critical praxis.
M: Since coming to the US, it is not like I haven’t tried to join up and collaborate with all the Left groups, and I’ve attended many meetings and workshops of various sorts to help out. It seems that I come from way too strong of a radical position. These people here won’t take me serious, or they are too threatened by what I teach and represent. I have had some really candid discussions with great people, and they are even anti-American themselves here, and yet, when it came right down to them and I working more closely, no way! I find them all quite coward-like and they just can’t get over their Americanism. They’ve been conditioned to not reach out to other nations for advice. I was willing to give it all. They couldn’t take me openly and learn from my Canadian perspective, let alone learn from my unique research on fear and fearlessness to help them climb out of the chronic culture of fear which they were born and raised in, and which they seem still to deny its full impact on them. What more can I do? They’re addicted to oil and gas, their fierce individualism and independence, their need to be exceptional and superior—and, their deep chronic fear, individually and collectively. That’s not easy to overcome and it affects all colors of people, sex, gender, class and religions. One needs a lot of resources to help an addict, never mind a nation of them.
B: On one level, Michael, you are out of the world and can observe it; at another level you are in the world and pissed off at it. That conflict gives you an edge when you approach people out in the world.
M: I suppose. Doesn’t that go with being someone who’s a prophetic-type of character, an artist, radical, liberational leader? They are not generally, all that loved. But, I hear ya.
B. It’s a disadvantage, let’s put it that way. Likely, you’d go farther to have other people put your work into action. That may not come in your life time, I don’t know. It might have to be someone else finding it and recognizing it and not having you personally attached to it with the edge. I don’t know.
M: Me either. I have been noticing in the last couple years more up-take of my work and the Fearlessness Movement is resonating with more people than In Search of Fearlessness. It’s a long-haul, no matter which way you look at it. I have to not blame myself for it not taking off 25 years ago as I had wished and had so much enthusiasm back then. Now, I am still strong on the mission, just haven’t the same enthusiasm. Hey, maybe that’s a good thing. Who knows. Thanks for this interview. I know your post-election speech/letter has had a lot of great responses. What have people been saying since reading it? What has been the best part of hearing those responses for you?
B: A reminder that I/we are not alone in our pain and grief and we can turn to each other and not get stuck in isolation and our own despair. Acknowledging that, we are in a huge crisis but that we can still take steps with each other to get out of it. Another was the reminder that it is okay to take care of ourselves and not to lose sight of the beauty of each day in the midst of the grief. Most were grateful responses. I did have 2 people ask to be taken off the list-serv after this post. Surprisingly one was a law professor and the other a pre-law student. Not sure what this says about those who uphold the law and want to uphold the law in America.
M: In America, or any place of contested views, this is to be expected. I'm glad to see so many were inspired by your speech/letter.
1. Dear WGSS Students and Faculty, (Nov. 9/16),
I will be sharing the regular newsletter later today but felt the need to share these early morning thoughts in the aftermath of the election. I am a Canadian who chose to become an American 7 years ago after coming to teach at SIU. I have found it hard to understand American thinking and ways of being on so many levels. As a new American I have experienced the significance and responsibility of voting that I never felt as a Canadian. There are many gifts to be found in America. May the peoples of American now become leaders in the recovery and healing of deep systemic institutionalized oppressions that perpetuate hatred and fear. May Canada and all the world allies come forward to join in. The presence of WGSS in institutions of education is an essential part of that recovery. The work is undeniable and we have the knowledge and tools. We teach them in our classes, share them our research. I echo many of my WGSS colleague words on FB. It is time to get to work.
Reality and Recovery
Accepting reality is the first step in recovery. Last night I chose to go to bed before the final election results were known. Awakening this morning at 5am my thought was “Trump has attained the Presidency of the United States of American. This is a reality.” Immediately I moved into thoughts of what I would share in my weekly newsletter to the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies community in which I am the Director of at SIU. I realized what I do know is that a number of disenfranchised groups in America have risen and won over other disenfranchised groups in this current political system. The familiar win-lose binary that keeps racism, sexism, homophobia and every other oppression in place is alive and well. The backlash for the losers is excruciating, full of pain and horror. I feel overwhelmed and ill-prepared for what is to come. I wake my partner up in bed as I weep and shake and ask him for attention. Attention is what we can give each other as we do the conscious work needed to release the collective trauma that has surfaced so blatantly in this 2016 election. It is a trauma that invokes with its worst side the use of intimidation to silence us and keep us isolated and in fear. On its better side is asks us to keep moving from crying to singing. I know from my experience that it is crucial to not silence the voice even when words feel impossible and/or inadequate. As I sing, thoughts of how oppressed groups utilize singing in times of political, cultural and religious oppressions arise in my memory, both in mind and body.
I begin to ask myself questions:
How can I step out of this rampant political binary and step into what can be clearly seen as fearism now that all political correct hiding strategies have been blown up? How can I model something else more unifying with diversity for those who are part of my professional and personal life? The WGSS conference that I am in the midst of planning with students and faculty is entitled “Allies Across Differences.” We have been preparing to address the binary of win vs. lose, us vs. them. We have an opportunity to offer a hospitable space on campus for the collective trauma that this political election has brought to the world’s attention. The fall out from the election results calls for attention and healing. We have the opportunity to keep teaching truth to power in hospitable ways, and yet, not be cooperative with oppression.
I am grateful for my wise colleague Cade Bursell’s FB post in the hours prior to the final election results. Reminding us/me to continue the work; to not return hate that we feel directed at us as women, people of color and diverse sexual and diverse gender identities. Instead let us stay connected, give attention to each other’s fear but do not succumb to projecting it back out as attacks. Stand up for each other. Gather allies, strategize and continue to use your voice and gifts to build allyships across differences. I grieve for and with the young especially as they have been born into this legacy of fear.
I begin this day with a simple commitment to remind people to sing. To keep walking the path with allies and those not yet allies with love and compassion. From chaos and destruction eventually comes new order. Keep teaching and speaking truth to power in your classes. And remember that the formal political realm is one of at least three realms that make up our world. The others being equally important, the natural and the spiritual realms. Take time for recovery. Spend some time outside today and remember the unconditional life giving forces that sustain us as humans on this planet.
Please contact me if you would like to set up spaces for dialogue. WGSS will do what it can to support initiatives and gatherings for recovering and generating creative and critical ideas and initiatives for the future.
2. She is borrowing one of my own terms and how I have used fearism as far back as 1997 to refer to the form of ideological oppression beneath all terrorism (and other ‘ism’ dis-eases); and now, since 2014 and meeting Desh Subba’s work on fearism, Barbara is referring implicitly to the more technically precise term fearism-t (toxic form). For Subba and myself we are promoting in our collaborations a philosophy of fearism, where the term is used like existentialism, or rationalism, which by itself is not toxic per se but such terms can be twisted and become toxic and dominating violent ideologies.