REFLECTIONS/Jonathan Gramling

Jonathan Gramling

Going Beyond Negativity

I must say that our social environment can be downright negative these days. This anger and negativity has been brewing quite a while, beginning in the 1990s when many Americans were feeling left behind by the United States push to promote and lead the global economy. They were feeling powerless and used and angry. And among Euro-Americans, the feelings of anger and powerlessness were exacerbated when they felt African Americans and others were making progress at their expense and threatened their sense of white privilege and superiority.

Nowhere did this anger — misdirected anger — become more evident than when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008. It led to the formation of the Tea Party and other right-wing groups that seem to use anger, criticism and negativity as a way to rule over others.And as their numbers decreased, the more they began to rely upon anti-democratic policy measures to suppress the vote so that they could rule in spite of their newfound “minority” status. But none of us is immune to the anger and negativity.

In high school, I had this hip, progressive French teacher named Dick Radtke. He was totally into everything French and went above and beyond the call of duty. One of those things was introducing us to avant-gard French theater. He took us to see Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros. The basic plot of the play was that one by one, members of a small French town turned into a rhinoceros until only the main character was left.

The play was written in 1959 and was a commentary on the rise of fascism and Nazism in pre-World War II Europe. One by one, people succumbed to fascism because of their perceived worsening conditions and sought to blame someone for their predicament. It was a powerful play that left a lasting impression on me.

Fast forward to today, one can once again see a rise in fascist sentiment as the radical right seeks power, democracy be damned. It uses immigrants, Muslims and people of color as scapegoats as it tries to explain the loss of economic and social position through subtle and not so subtle appeals to white superiority. The people to be blamed now are immigrants, Muslims, Asian Americans and other people of color.

In the guise of preserving this sense of white superiority, the radical right has pushed measures to stifle the right to vote and access to the voting booth to preserve a radical white minority rule. This radical right uses fear to reinforce and increase its power among this segment of Republicans and like Rhinoceros, one by one, the Republicans are becoming Trump rhinoceros. Among Republicans, 78 percent now believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. If my memory serves me right, that number has grown by about 20 percent.

And it is this generation of hatred that grows the radical right’s power.

As humanity, we are all connected whether we like it or not. What impacts you ultimately impacts me. When the right to vote of people of color is denied through draconian measures, the right to vote by many white voters is also taken away because access to the voting booth is limited for them too.

And that sense of hanger and hatred can spread to all of us if we are not careful. I find myself angry and negative from time to time and I have to stop and ask myself, ‘Where did that come from? I am relatively healthy — I’m not going to run a marathon anytime soon — I have savings to rely upon, if necessary and I have loving family members and friends. What could I possibly be angry about?’ But yet those feelings are there.

And as the hatred and anger grow in the United States, it tends to engulf everyone regardless of religion, political affiliation, race, gender and any other quality. And so it must be resisted through action lest we become rhinoceros as well.

The other day, I was trying to figure out who to honor as The Hues Urban Treasure. And then it dawned on me to feature Lesli Ann Vazquez. Lesli has been a longtime community activist in Madison, making contributions every day to making the lives of children and families better. Lesli promotes a lot of goodwill in this world.

And when Lesli’s precious daughter Lesli was killed in an auto accident a little over a year ago in Puerto Rico, she turned her tremendous grief into a positive legacy for her daughter’s memory. She spurred the creation of Lesli Ann Kindness Fund that recognizes people in the community who are doing good works and making the community a better place to live. I had written a story about it a few issues back.

Well I finally was able to get Lesli to pose for a photo at Huegel Elementary School, I noticed a couple of people I knew hanging outside. I thought, ‘Well isn’t this a delightful coincidence,’ and we stood around talking. After about five minutes had passed that it dawned on me when Nancy Saiz started making some remarks — I can be slow on the uptake — that these were also members of the Lesli Ann Kindness Fund and they were making a small presentation to me for my coverage of the fund.

I was totally blown away by their kindness. And to be honest, it shook some of that anger and negativity away. It was such an act of kindness that touched my heart. And I left Huegel thinking that more people need to fight the wave of anger and negativity in our country by doing acts of kindness and recognizing the kindness of others.

We need to push back against this wave of negativity. Simple acts of kindness are a great start.