Why I Marched in DC, Again

Back in January I drove from Brooklyn to Washington, DC, with my daughter for the Women’s March. As I described previously, there were a host of reasons why I made the 6-hour drive down, but the importance of science for the future of humanity was certainly among them. Sadly, the Trump Administration has proved itself as much the enemy of science as a foe of women’s equality. The President’s funding and staffing priorities are strong evidence that Mr. Trump believes curtailing scientific research is to his benefit.

So, two weeks ago, my daughter and I drove down to DC again to meet up with friends and add our voices to the hundreds of thousands marching in protest of the Administration’s policies.  It rained that Saturday, and we spent a cold, soggy morning waiting in line to get into the rally, then taking shelter in the Kids Place tent where our children made bracelets that changed color when exposed to ultraviolet light (sunlight works best!) and tested different substances for the presence of iodine. The gee-whiz factor worked its magic, but the rain was relentless, and we left the rally to seek refuge in another place of science, the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

IMG_5079Admission to the Smithsonian museums is free to all–a true wonder to this New Yorker who maintains a membership in the Museum of Natural History merely so we can bypass the line and get discounts on special exhibit admission, and who is used to paying the “suggested” admission price of $20 when I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (To be fair, the Met admission is a donation, and you can pay as little as you want so long as you can bear the ticket sellers’ derision.) As we entered Air and Space, I wondered how long admission would stay free in the present climate in which military spending is ratcheted up while funding for education and research dwindle. True, a lot of the Air and Space exhibits are devoted to war machines, and even the Apollo spacecrafts were birthed from Cold War conflict, but I still couldn’t help think what a poor business man Mr. Trump actually is, that he would prioritize the short-term profits of the military-industrial complex over the long-term gains of investing in the future of this nation by supporting public education and scientific research. If only the wealthy have access to a quality education, and economic policies concentrate wealth in a shrinking portion of the populace so that fewer and fewer people can gain the education needed to conduct science, then we won’t have the human resources we need to navigate our way through the crises looming on the horizon.

GilaBasic research often doesn’t have an immediately apparent value, but scientific knowledge is incremental, and minute discoveries in one field often have a butterfly effect and can lead to major innovations decades later. (The 1980s PBS series Connections, as well as both the Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson editions of Cosmos beautifully describe these linkages.) An example from my direct experience is exendin-4, a protein found in Gila monster venom that was developed into the first glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor agonist, a type of diabetes medication that helps reduce weight and blood pressure as well as blood sugar. I don’t know the exact progression from southwestern lizard biologist to Walgreen’s pharmacist, but it’s a good bet the biologist didn’t set out to find a diabetes medication when he or she started analyzing the composition of lizard venom.

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Thirteen reasons why climate change is important: Dancewave Young Movers Ensemble, April 29, 2017

Because my daughter had a dance performance, we didn’t join the climate change march on April 29, but climate change is the biggest threat humans face, whether we choose to believe it or not. For those who said “no” to the New York Times poll about whether climate change will affect them personally, I’d point to the Middle East refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS, to the increase in tornadoes in the Midwest, longer and more severe hurricane seasons in the Gulf and Eastern Seaboard, and the droughts in the Southwest and California, not to mention the flipside flooding and mudslides experienced by Californians this year. Bee colonies are collapsing, corals are dying, and Zika- and West Nile–carrying mosquitoes are infiltrating farther north each season. Plus sea levels are rising, so coastal property owners would do well to consider the long-term value of a home that might be good only for housing boats in ten or twenty years. (I joke about how the Prospect Expressway, which is a sunken highway running past my front windows, will one day be like the Grand Canal in Venice. It’s not really that funny, because it may well become true.)

IMG_5092What’s the value of all these protest marches? Well, the budget deal wrought in Congress over the weekend preserved funding for the NIH and some other important science-based programs. Environmental regulations are still in severe jeopardy, but incremental progress is still progress. We’ll have to do this one rain-soaked step at a time.

Diverse Fantasies

One month into the Trump Administration, at the close of Black History Month and as our social media feeds become ever-more contentious, I’ve been thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Half a century ago, in December 1964, King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He spoke of the ongoing struggles of the Civil Rights movement, when people who only wished to exercise their right to vote were confronted with firehoses, police dogs, and murder. Then he said:

I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

“The eternal oughtness” is really key here. When we talk about race and racism in America, we all too often point at the other side and say, “they ought to….” We all too rarely look at ourselves and thinking about what we ought to do. King gave us the answer in the same speech:

Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

Unfortunately, right now, we’re in a period where revenge, aggression, and retaliation are presented as virtues, and love and empathy are disregarded and despised. I’m an optimist and believe that the current U.S. Administration’s policies are the step backward that precedes the two steps forward of human progress. That doesn’t make living through this regressive period any easier, when King’s children are openly judged by the color of their skin. As a white woman, I have never felt their humiliation, but as a human being, I have empathized with it. And I have suffered the shame of racism, when I’ve listened to relatives speak in hateful ways and, more directly, when racist assumptions about strangers and friends have crossed my thoughts. All my life, I’ve fought an internal war between a rational belief that people of color are not different from white people, and an irrational suspicion, rooted in my upbringing, that nonwhites are less (less smart, less trustworthy, less…you name it). I have always tried to speak and act according to my rational beliefs rather than my irrational suspicions. I haven’t always succeeded.

knownearthI suppose this internal struggle is why I’ve approached race the way I have in my fiction. The inhabitants of Knownearth descended from the racially diverse crew of a marooned spacecraft, and over the three thousand years that passed between settlement and A Wizard’s Forge, people have forgotten their earthbound ancestry and cultures and formed societies where skin color is no more remarkable than hair color. Moreover, the majority of Knownearth’s people (and most of the principal characters in A Wizard’s Forge) have dark complexions and wiry hair (so, in contemporary terms, they’re black). I wanted to posit a world where, as King hoped in another speech, people really are judged “not by the color of their skin.” This is motivated less by liberal bleeding heartism than by wishful thinking—I’d like to live in that world where black people aren’t unjustly arrested or killed simply because they’re black.

Does that mean I posit a culture where people are always nice to each other? No. In fact, the plot of A Wizard’s Forge is all about “revenge, aggression, and retaliation.” Cultures still clash, and Knownearth’s people haven’t found a way to “live in peace,” as King hoped for humanity. This is partly because a good story requires conflict, but also because I also think that human beings will always struggle between violence and nonviolence. But I do believe we, as a species, will in time overcome the “is” and achieve some measure of the “ought.”

Why I’m Marching in DC

I’m not a joiner and certainly not an activist, yet today I’ll drive myself and my daughter to Washington, D.C., to march in the Women’s March on Saturday. I don’t have a pink pussy hat or a T-shirt, but my presence will be my sign of protest against the new administration. Dozens of my friends are also going to DC or marching in their own cities. One of my friends, Debra Gordon, and healthcare writer and activist, was quoted in Salon about why women are marching this weekend. She gave her answer; here’s mine.

My daughter and I are going to add our small voices and two bodies and four hands and four feet to the tens or hundreds of thousands, to the millions of small voices and bodies and hands and feet that will be chanting, clapping, and marching in protest of a government that seems poised to lead our nation toward disaster. It’s not that the incoming Administration is a Republican one. Although I’m a proud liberal, I was raised in a Republican household and still believe that individuals are responsible for their own success in life. As I’ve grown older (and wiser), however, I’ve come to recognize that institutionalized bias against minorities and women exists, so while individuals are responsible for their own success, they aren’t necessarily responsible for their own failures. I learned this first-hand when a boss–a generally good boss–refused to raise my salary to the same level as an older male colleague. My male counterpart and I held the same title, and my boss acknowledged that his work was inferior to mine, but he would not give me a raise because the man “had a family.” I wasn’t asking for special treatment, I was asking for equal pay based on merit–you can’t get more Republican than that. Yet institutional bias not only kept me from getting my raise, it had me meekly accepting my boss’s refusal as “reasonable.”

I refuse to accept this paradigm now, which is why I’m marching tomorrow. We face a government that will likely undermine our universal education system, which is the foundation our country’s greatness. Education is already widely undervalued, contributing to widespread misunderstanding and under-appreciation for science. Hence, the mistrust of scientists which contributes to the rejection of climate change legislation. Reversing what little we’ve done to stall climate change, and doing nothing more to address it, will surely endanger my daughter’s generation and their descendants. There’s nothing reasonable about that.

I’m not a joiner and not an activist. I’ve never called a politician’s office, or stuffed an envelope during an election. To be honest, I’ve skipped voting in many, many off-year elections. But for me, Saturday’s March will be the first steps in a new paradigm of resistance to the current Administration as a means of restoring the principle, and hopefully the practice, of equal footing for all.