Sympathy and the Other

Disclaimer:  This post is (intentionally) written from the perspective of a white (CIS/Christian) middle-class American.

Akata Witch is an interesting book.  It’s been touted as “Harry Potter set in Nigeria” but it has connected itself directly to an American audience in the way that many older fantasy novels do– by putting a member or two of its audience in the “other” land.  We Americans connect to Akata through the eyes of Sunny, an (albino…) American/Nigerian who has moved back to Nigeria.  If Sunny isn’t enough, there’s also Sasha, a black boy from Chicago who, other than the being-able-to-do-magic part, is almost a stereotype.  These two connections to the United States bring us to the foreign land.  Sunny is the reader.  She’s American.  She reacts in ways that the reader understands.  We have sympathy for her because we can imagine being in her shoes and that connection brings us along to her situation in the magical (Leopard) communities of Nigeria.

Similarly, we are put into the doctor’s shoes on the recent United Flight– we’ve paid for our seats on overbooked flights and had somewhere we needed to be the next day.  The doctor in this case was Asian, but even Fox News chose not to “other” him.  “His nightmare could be yours,” say the headlines.  And it can.  Even if you’re an upper middle-class professional who travels in coach.

Sean Spicer’s recent comments about the Holocaust were a direct effort at trying to “other” Jewish people.  When he said that Hitler did not use chemical weapons on his own people, it is far more likely that those comments were deliberate than made from ignorance.  Either he’s signaling to Holocaust deniers that Trump’s one of them, or, and more likely, he’s opening up the question:  Were German Jews German?  As good Americans born after WWII, many of whom fought or had parents or grandparents who fought (or tended to soldiers) for the rights of Jews and others that Hitler oppressed, we’ve been brought up to believe that Jewish people are part of us– they’re Judeo-Christian.  They’re white.  That could have been us.  First they came… for us.  (Sadly, we have not been taught as well to enlarge that grouping to hold other faiths, ethnicities, skin colors.)

But Spicer separates out that melding.  He suggests that no, German Jews aren’t German.  They’re Jews.  Hitler didn’t gas his own people.  He gassed Jews (and homosexuals and Roma and other minority groups).  Implicitly what Spicer is telling us is that it is ok for the government to gas a minority group.  He’s othering Jews, and saying that because they are the other it is ok for government to mistreat them.  Much like what we will be doing to our immigrants who the government is already ripping from their families, herding together, and taking to detention centers.  Will he argue that whatever abuse they endure in those centers is ok because they’re not us?  They’re also the “other”.  I think he will.  Charles Clymer has more on the dangers of Spicer’s comments in this 66 part tweet that he really should have storified.  It is well worth reading even if you have to click for more a bunch.

I admit, it is hard for me to care as much when an attack happens in a Middle Eastern war zone or in France to people chosen at random as it is when it happens in a college in the United States.  Or someplace I’ve lived.  Or to children nearly the same age as my own.  We feel more worry and more pain the more similar the victims are to people we know personally and personally care about.  With “the other” we can feel sadness and empathy, but perhaps not sympathy.  It’s less scary when we think it can’t happen to us.  It’s easier to go about our day after reading the news headlines when their violence doesn’t remind us of our own lives.

In Akata Witch, the Americans provide connections to us.  They’re not the other to us because in a world that is strange to us, they provide us with grounding that we understand.  They are us and we are them.  The doctor on the United flight stands in for our experiences traveling– we, too, could be treated poorly without recourse.  Even with a fancy degree or important job.

Let’s not allow the government or society to “other” more people.  Let’s stand with our fellow humans.  American Jews are Americans.  We are a nation of Immigrants.  We should not allow cruel and unusual punishment to people who are not “us”, but we should also not allow anybody to break “us” into pieces of “them.”  #resist.

Of interest:  a history of the sanctuary movement

Actions from 5-calls that you can take to protect people:
Sanctuary cities
Syrian Refugees
Afghan allies

Secure broadcasting: An exploration without a solution

My DH diligently considered the problem of broadcasting time-critical messages from a known source to a group of people that wish to remain anonymous.  This problem is difficult to solve, and he has been unable to devise an ideal solution. He has tried to avoid excessive detail and only cover the main points.  The following is from my DH, starting with a disclaimer:

I take no responsibility for the correctness or incorrectness of the following.  I have made a good-faith effort to understand the problem and potential solutions [to secure broadcasting], and to describe my understanding clearly in the following text, but I do not guarantee any of the information I am providing here.  I am not a security expert, and there is the distinct possibility that I am lacking critical knowledge which could result in negative consequences if anyone acts on any of this information.  I have performed what I consider a thorough online search over a few weeks, and have hit the point where I am not discovering new pertinent information.


The best option I have found is that the agency tweets alerts using Twitter.  The “followers” (people that want to remain anonymous) use a dummy/anonymous Twitter account to follow the agency’s account and sign up for push notifications on tweets.  A dummy account can be created on Twitter by providing a full name (any name) and an email address.  That email address can be acquired from various free email services without providing any information, e.g., (though Twitter does some checking of the name & email address to try and reject automated signups.)  No phone number is required.

Pros: relatively simple to setup; the followers will get instantly notified of alerts on iOS/Android/PC; since Twitter is used by so many people its use will not be a red flag even though it will be obvious to any snoopers that the followers are using Twitter; dummy/anonymous accounts allow followers to avoid sharing any of their actual information (e.g., phone number, email address, personal connections); follower-to-follower (or fake-follower to real-follower) communication could easily be ignored and would not be mistaken for messages from the agency.

Cons: anyone can find out the followers’ accounts; Twitter will know the followers’ IP addresses (which can then be used to find the physical location); followers that use a non-anonymous account will be connecting their personal info/connections to these tweets (a very public trove of information) so followers that normally use Twitter will have to remember to switch accounts back and forth; the tweets themselves (i.e., the messages from the agency) would be completely public (that doesn’t seem like a big downside based on my understanding of the problem).

So to be completely clear, a powerful government could get the necessary info from the Twitter company to track down the phone equipment/service and physical location of everyone getting notified of the agency alerts.  It may be possible for someone to get sufficient info even without Twitter’s support.


The second-best option I found is to use one (or more) of a handful of Instant Messaging programs.  A big downside to using an Instant Messaging (aka chat) program is that the problem I am trying to solve is how to *broadcast* messages, and setting up two-way communication between all the members of the group can actually be a negative. For example, what if someone(s) start sending false messages on purpose or by accident?  What if they use the chat program to start one-on-one discussions with the other “followers”?  For this reason, chat programs are really the wrong tool for the job, but when you don’t have a perfect tool sometimes you have to make do with the wrong one.

Almost any program could work, but they each have pros and cons. For example, Signal is very secure and is the chat program of choice for Indivisible and some other security-conscious groups. The messages are end-to-end encrypted, so one can snoop on your messages (unless they hack the sending or receiving phone). Unfortunately, Signal displays all the users’ phone numbers to the other users in the group which would make it easy for a snooper that breached the group to find the physical locations of all the users.  One of the tenets of secure communications is to “assume breach”, which means one should always assume that there’s a snoop/spy/mole that already has access to your systems/groups/messages.  For example, someone joins the group, then their phone gets stolen and hacked and now there’s a spy in your supposedly-secure group that can see all your phone numbers….that’s one of the reasons a chat program might not be the right tool because then everyone treats that spy as a trusted member.

Most instant messaging programs are not encrypted end-to-end, which means that the message is decrypted by the server and the server can save the plain-text (i.e., unencrypted) message.  So Skype, google chat, etc etc, are bad choices because the company could (be forced to) share the messages to a snooper, while servers/providers for end-to-end encrypted programs don’t have those messages to share in the first place.  Unfortunately, of the most popular chat systems, to my knowledge only Facebook Messaging can be encrypted, but encryption is optional and followers couldn’t “add” themselves to a group, so it doesn’t seem like a good option either.  Many of the popular chat programs also require more effort to create a dummy account than Twitter…e.g., they want to know phone numbers and track search histories etc.  On the other hand, the popular programs are otherwise almost always the easiest to setup/use.

Of the Instant Messaging programs, only a handful are end-to-end encrypted, and those programs are not commonly used.  Three examples of the tens that I investigated are ChatSecure, Wickr, and Riot.  There is a big problem with using an uncommon internet-based program, which is that snoopers can theoretically just watch all the connections to the servers for whichever program is chosen (in this general geographic area).  Then everyone connecting to those servers becomes a target (connections to the server pass either through ISPs or cell phone towers, those connections describe which server the connection is for, and the ISP or cell phone company can at least roughly locate the phone/computer making the connection).  The scenario is like watching a building: one knows who goes in the front door and that might be all the info they need even if the inside of the building can’t be observed.  Other issues with this small selection of chat programs are: 1) some of them require actual phone numbers for verification (like Signal), 2) few of them work on both Android and iOS (and even fewer also work on PC), 3) they tend to be complicated to setup/use, and 4) they don’t all allow group messages.

Somewhat (but not completely) academically, it is possible to “hide” the connection messages (i.e., come into the building from the alley entrance) via TOR.  TOR is a collection of servers that obfuscate where the connections are actually going.  Someone using TOR is sending connections to TOR, then something happens inside TOR, and a connection comes out of TOR and goes to the end-point (e.g., a chat program’s server).  There’s no direct connection between the connection that went into TOR and the connection that eventually makes it to the end-point.  So in the building-watching scenario, the watcher can see people walking into the alley, and knows that those people are going from the alley into specific buildings, but doesn’t know which people go where.  This setup is somewhat academic for two reasons: first, the watcher/snooper still knows that the connection is going to TOR which might be enough info to label someone a target, and second, using TOR is complex…too complex to recommend for the general public in my opinion.


The (distant) third option I came up with is for the agency to post messages to an RSS feed.  Followers would subscribe to the feed and thus be notified of the messages.  RSS feeds are commonly used when someone wants to be updated when a website changes (e.g., a new blog entry is posted).  Pros: no user accounts necessary, no logging into anything, no data stored on any server except for the message from the agency that gets posted like a webpage or a blog post.

The one con is a big one; RSS feed readers (the programs that grab the message and provide the notification) would need to continuously poll the RSS feed from the agency.  Since RSS feeds are “pull” instead of “push”, the program would have to regularly check to see if there’s a new message.  First, that means any snooper can just watch for people polling that specific RSS feed.  With SSL (i.e., https) connections that level of snooping is not trivial but is still possible, so the polling is a big weakness.  For instance, if the agency used a Wordpress blog, then WordPress would know the IP address of everyone polling the RSS feed.  Second, if a follower is using a phone without wifi access, then the RSS feed reader would be continuously using (small amounts of) cell data to check for changes/messages.  Third, RSS feeds generally cannot be checked faster than every five minutes (and every ten minutes would be safer to avoid server/ISP issues).  That would cause a delay of up to several minutes before someone gets the message, and the faster they check the more data they use (which will affect their phone bill and the server’s data usage).


Finally, if we’re envisioning a better future, then I would want either a security-conscious Twitter-substitute (allowing private/anonymous following with push notifications), or an easy-to-use TOR-enabled end-to-end-encrypted cross-platform group chat program.  Neither of those would immediately solve this problem, but they would make it more likely to be solved in the future.

I wish I could have found something I would consider a *good* solution, but it is very difficult to be truly anonymous online.  All of the above options just make it a bit harder for any snooper to find out information about the followers.

Even more places to be Activist: Activism update

Several of us who started our activism in November or December or January are feeling a bit burnt out.  That is perfectly normal.  We’re going to keep pushing through, however.  We’ve been able to stem some, but not all, of the worst things the new administration has tried to do.  Things are moving ever onward.  There’s still a lot to do.

What provides me the most hope, however, is the huge amount of change within the activism community as time goes on.  Here’s my view of the greater national movements in the context of the university town where I live:

When we started, the activism movement in town was the local democrats (disorganized, unfocused, etc.), the pro-Bernie democratic socialists (less disorganized, but extremely small and a bit paranoid), the campus democrats (I got kicked out of their first meeting for asking if they had an agenda and have not been back), and a local faith-based group that helps with immigrant concerns (very organized, but not ready for Trump).

Now the local democrats have outgrown their meeting room and have had to move to a bigger space.  Their meetings are more likely to follow an agenda.  They’ve fixed their broken mailing list.  They’ve had a local meet-and-greet in which they invited all of the local progressive groups in the area to discuss what they do and what their needs are.  They send out a monthly mailer with information on upcoming events, and there are now upcoming events.  They’re still mainly focused on voter registration and working with the local faith-based immigrant protection group, but those are especially important concerns.  Most of the active people in this organization are baby boomers.

The democratic socialists have also grown.  They’ve started having monthly meetings again.  We don’t interface with them much, but they do send out helpful newsletters.

I suspect the campus dems are still very anti-anybody-who-wants-to-do-anything-besides-complain because nobody has heard from them.  Which is a shame, because 8 years ago they were a really strong organization.  Maybe when their current leadership graduates there will be some change.

The interfaith group has been gearing up for ICE raids and similar things.  They’ve been working with a related group in a major city to set up procedures and training for raids.  (My DH has been helping them a lot with the technical aspects– at some point in the future he will provide a post here about how to best provide mass alerts in a way that the government can’t use to capture people.  It is not an easy problem.)

We have some new groups.  One of my colleagues started a town Indivisible group and it has grown rapidly.  Their meetings are focused and organized.  They have a great weekly newsletter that has federal, state,  and local action items on it, as well as an active twitter feed that keeps getting blocked and unblocked by our state rep.  Indivisible works well with our state group (technically the Indivisible group run by the most liberal city in our state) and the federal group.  It is a fantastic organization, at least in our state.  This group seems to have drawn mostly professionals and a few really amazing college students.  They generally meet in the evening or on weekends.  They’ve been central in pressing our representatives for town-halls, making sure people are at local protests, and so on.  They’re looking for principled moderate Republican candidates to primary our tea-party jerks.

Action Group Network, Barack Obama’s group, hasn’t made inroads into our town yet.  Their emails aren’t the best either and I can’t really figure out how to tell you how to subscribe to their mailing list, despite the fact that I’m on it.

A recent addition has been meetup’s activism group #resist.  In our town, this one seems to be run by SAHP– they tend to meet during the day.  They email a lot but they’re not very organized, they’re pretty unfocused, and their meetings get derailed with long philosophical discussions about things like the Overton window (at least, according to the emails they send, we haven’t been to a meeting).

My sister has been seeing similar changes in her big city.  When she started everything was in disarray.  The Dems were a joke.  Nobody knew what anybody else was doing.  They’re still not as organized as the liberal city in our state, but there’s a new head to her local dems and the local activism groups have had a leaders meeting (put together by my sister) and know who each other are.

In addition to the local groups, there are now some really amazing new online places to get info.  My favorite of these is 5calls.  It is doing such a great job that many of the weekly newsletters we subscribe to will just link to them.  Swing Left provides information about flippable districts and will email you about candidates who could use your donations– like for replacement elections that happen out of cycle.  Here’s information on legislation happening in your state.

Another change has been that instead of just asking for more donations if you donate, places like the ACLU or Brennan Center for Justice etc. will email with updates on what is going on and requests for action.

I am hopeful because I have seen how the resistance is growing and changing.  It’s organizing.  More people are getting involved.  We have momentum going.  The snowball is getting bigger.

And I know if you’ve been doing this since January or before, it may be hard to keep up that pace.  I know I’m no longer calling 4 days a week every week and I don’t always call on Monday like I used to.  My life is busy with work and home.  But I do make my calls.  And I’m getting much more involved in state politics too– both of our state representatives have been consistently voting against university interests because nobody has been paying attention.  That is going to change.  And it’s going to change because I know I’m not the only one paying attention now.

So again, what can you do?

Check out the local groups in your area– chances are there’s a lot more to choose from than there was back when you last checked.  Even if you don’t attend meetings, you can get on mailing lists.  You can donate. You can be aware of what is going on.  You can join this movement and add your voice.  Because we’re a lot louder in chorus than we are individually.  And it’s easier than ever to join a choir.

And if you don’t have a local group in your area, you can start one.  I can tell you that setting up an indivisible group is pretty easy.  The parent organization will set up your webpage, twitter, secure communication, etc. and provide training for how to run meetings and so on.  It is work, but it’s directed and efficient.  Setting up a #resist group is easy as well, though without the structure from the parent organization it may be harder to sustain, but maybe not!

Or, if you want to help a current organization, you can make a big difference there as well.  Once she finally got in touch with DH (months after he’d emailed), the head of our local dems figured out that yes, their email list was broken and hadn’t processed anybody who had emailed to join since November, and yes meeting the other activist organizations in town was a great idea for a meeting, and so on.  Small fixes can make big changes.  That’s what organizing is all about.

What does the activism organizational landscape in your town look like?  What groups have I missed that people should look up in your state?   Where do you get your information? What else have I missed? 

Activism: What is helping me cope

  1. Changing the goal posts.  My focus isn’t on making the world incrementally better or keeping it the same, but limiting the damage that is being done.  Everything I do makes progress towards that goal.  I cannot lose.  And, unlike normal times, there isn’t a chance that I’m making things worse.  It’s all uphill from this perspective.
  2. Not reading the news at all.  I’m paying for news, but I am not looking at headlines.  Instead, I am reading @wandsci and @scalzi and, when I’m feeling up to it, various indivisible twitter accounts or @decaro_nick.  They provide a filter for what’s important and what’s actually going on vs. what’s rumor.
  3. Linking troubling information to actions.  I feel better when I’m doing something about the thing that’s bothering me.  Even if it doesn’t get anywhere, I tried.  I call, I give money, I fax, I send letters.
  4. Talking with other people who are also being active and doing things.  Especially people who are doing even more.  They inspire me.
    1. Keeping abreast of the amazing amount of organization that’s happening.  Groups are meeting with other groups.  They’re coordinating.  People are joining them.  People are starting them.  At midterms it won’t matter that the official democratic party is a disorganized mess because we WILL elect moderate republicans in the primaries and flip districts to democrats where possible.  Indivisible will do that.  Groups with the name Alliance or Warriors etc. will do that.  They’re organized.  They’re strong.  They’re growing.  They’ve got money.  If we’re not fascist yet, things are going to happen.  The newly complacent tea party won’t know what hit them, nor will they particularly care now that there’s no longer a black president.
  5. Asking people who tell me that activism in my red state doesn’t make any difference to shut up.  Because even if I know my senator is never going to vote against a racist bigot because he himself is a racist bigot, my calls and the protests I attend send a message that he can’t go as far as he wants in that direction.  He needs to think twice about doing worse things.  Having second thoughts about doing horrific things at the very least slows them down.  AND I’m not the only person who has suddenly become politically active.  A year ago my voice wouldn’t have mattered, but today I am part of a chorus, and that chorus is growing stronger.  Every week I’ve been calling, my representative’s opinions have changed, and they’ve changed because of people like me calling for the first time because it matters and we know we’re stronger together.
  6. Getting my actions each week from one of the weekly lists we mention in our activism tab.  I’ve been going broad instead of deep.   This way I don’t have to be exposed to the entire world of media out there and can just focus on something someone I trust has already curated (I like Actions for Americans because they have a paragraph and links explaining each issue) and get my voice out there efficiently.
  7. Practice and habit.  Calls are WAY less anxiety-producing now.  I have a habit.   I go through Actions for Americans each week.  Later in the week when I get hit with news, I check out what @decaro_nick or my local indivisible groups say to do (if it’s local) and I do that.  I know which of my senators’ local office numbers have a non-zero chance of working and which ones try to make it more difficult to leave a message.  It’s much more matter of fact now than it was when I first called with my voice shaking.  It’s just part of my weekly routine.  Protest whatever atrocities are on the plate for this week.  So that 4 years from now I won’t have to anymore (hopefully then I’ll start calling to support positive change).

What is helping you cope?

Activism: Should you go broad or deep?

A lot of the taking care of yourself while fighting for America recommendations out there say to go deep on one or two issues.  Not because the other issues aren’t important, they are.  But because you’ll get burned out if you try to focus on too much stuff.  Better to pick an issue, join a specific-interest group, and do things for that issue.

We at grumpy rumblings have been recommending a different approach.  We’ve been telling people that if you have 15 min a week, to sign up for one of the weekly mailing lists going around (see our activism tab) and just do what it says on that list for that week (if you agree with the items, etc.)  We argue that doing this is a way to compartmentalize all the craziness and use your limited time and attention to make your voice heard.  Someone else has done all the research, made decisions about what to focus on most immediately, and needs you to provide the power of your voice and beliefs.  If you’ve got more time, you can subscribe to more lists or follow one of the twitter accounts that provides daily actions.

We don’t think that going deep is wrong either.  We think both are needed.  We need the people willing to go to meetings and do the initial research.  We need people willing to aggregate across those different groups and figure out what is most timely.  We need people to do the finger work to make calls across a wide variety of issues.  And we need those people to not burn out.

So do whichever works best for you and whichever fits with your life and personality best.

I can’t focus on just one issue– there are too many.  But I also get overwhelmed just looking at CNN.  So… I’m letting @Wandsci, @ActionsUSA, and others do that reading and aggregating and figuring out who to call for me.  And then I mostly do what I’m told.  (I’ve also been doing weekly proofreading for one of the groups in my state and I’ve been keeping and adding to a list of progressive groups in our county which I then give to groups so they can connect with each other, and I’ve been helping people figure how to do the activism they want to do.  So I guess you could say I’ve been going deep on networking.  Even though I’m a total introvert.).

DH is currently drilling down on a project to protect immigrants because that’s what the local democratic party has decided to focus on and DH was willing to figure out who to talk to to get the the information they need to set up their own program in conjunction with an immigrant group.  He’s also making weekly phone calls.

So no, I don’t think you have to go deep to avoid burnout unless that’s what you want to do.  You probably can’t dive deep into every issue, but you can dive deep into one or two, or you can be an intermittent voice for a broad array of issues.  Not burning out is important, but you don’t have to focus on only one thing to avoid it, you just can’t focus on everything.

How do you avoid burnout?  Do you prefer broad or deep (or a little of both)?  Do you think one is inherently better than the other, or does it depend on the person?