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Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion, and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational.



Art, Politics, Spirit: Braided Activism for Culture Shift

Oct23

by: on October 23rd, 2017 | No Comments »

This is the text of a talk I gave on 21 October at Bioneers. It was followed by presentations by Cynthia Tom, a Bay Area-based visual artist, cultural curator, founder of A Place of Her Own, and Board President of the Asian American Women Artists Association and Lulani Arquette, President/CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (and Catalyst for Native Creative Potential on the National Cabinet of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture). As people entered the workshop, they heard a song called Familia, written by Cris and Israel Matos and performed by their band, Manicato, which Cynthia Tom manages. The message of the chorus sums it up: “Hey family, united we march without flags without borders but one voice.”


Let us begin.

Every community owes its existence and vitality to generations from around the world who contributed their hopes, dreams, and energy to making the history that led to this moment. Some were brought here against their will, some were drawn to leave their distant homes in hope of a better life, and some have lived on this land for more generations than can be counted. Truth and acknowledgment are critical to building mutual respect and connection across all barriers of heritage and difference. We begin this effort to acknowledge what has been buried by honoring the truth. We are standing on the ancestral lands of the Coastal Miwok people. We pay respects to their elders past and present. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that bring us together here today. And please join us in uncovering such truths at any and all public events.

The statement I just offered is just one way to acknowledge the people who lived on the land we are occupying today, and who were displaced by colonial and corporate powers. It is just one way to remember the legacy it is our responsibility to heal with just and loving words and actions. You can find Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgment and more at the website of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.


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The Waters of Remembering and Gratitude

Sep29

by: on September 29th, 2017 | No Comments »

Our well line broke this week. We live far from city water—or gas, or waste collection. We compost scraps, haul our own recycling, burn paper instead of flushing it to some unknown but surely polluted location. The issue coincided with days of heavy rain, welcome in New Mexico but also saturating the ground and thus postponing repairs. We haven’t had running water since Tuesday, especially inconvenient as we planned to host beloved friends coming here to lead Yom Kippur services.

Every hour has brought a reminder of how dependent I am on the conveniences of modern life (even our boondocks version). My body turns on the tap over and over before my mind remembers that no water will be forthcoming. I think of the people in Puerto Rico suffering from the pernicious neglect of a government that purports to watch over them. Those with homes still standing, how often do their bodies flip a light switch before their minds turn to wondering how they will survive in cities and towns without electricity?


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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again: Part Four, The Renewal of Spirit

Sep20

by: on September 20th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

I started this blog series exactly a month ago, saying I “borrowed the title of this series from a shrink who offered it as a way to call in the awareness and acknowledgement that start to diffuse reactivity. You know what I mean by reactivity? I’m talking about that rush of terror or fury or both that overwhelms brain and body when something pokes its finger into an old wound, flooding the inner world with elicited memory, elicited pain.”

Recently several friends have asked for my assessment of the general state of people as I observe them. I travel a good deal for speaking and consulting gigs and spend a lot of time connecting across distance in other ways, so responding to that query entails a quick mental survey of all I’ve seen in recent weeks.

So far, my replies have begun with my own state of mind. “I’m easily irritated and frustrated,” I say. “I hear something and I put the worst spin on it, making up the worst story to explain it. Then I have to dial back to remind myself there are other equally possible stories. It takes effort to relax into not-knowing.”

Then I say this: “But I’m definitely not the only one: polarizing rhetoric, hardcore posturing, the resistance to empathizing with another’s challenges because that might take attention away from your own—it seems like everyone is a full glass of water, poised to spill over at the next drop. I can think of lots of reasons, mostly things not in our immediate control. If I don’t want to feel this way, the territory I’ve got to explore is the landscape of my own emotions: where are they anchored in false narratives and ungrounded assumptions? What is in my control that can help to shift them?”


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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again: Part Three, Monumental Mosh Pit and Cheshbon HaNefesh

Sep14

by: on September 14th, 2017 | Comments Off

I had a friend who in her youth acquired an elaborate multicolored tattoo spanning her stomach, a symmetrical image in which her navel served as a focal point. An eye? I no longer recall. She gave birth by Caesarean operation, and when the doctors stitched her back together, the two halves of the tattoo didn’t match up. As the years passed, the skew and pucker escalated. Her skin was an ever-present reminder of the gap between intention and execution, of innocence and error.

I think of her every time I see a body bearing a significant acreage of ink, especially the tattoos with quotations or aphorisms likely to grow less legible as flesh wrinkles and sags—but perhaps not before the sentiments they convey become stale or tiresome or embarrassing. A time-lapse effect goes off in my brain, fast-forwarding each decorated body fifty or sixty years into the future. Everything changes, I know. What were they thinking? Don’t they know the perils of anchoring tomorrow too firmly in today? The law of unintended consequences is the only one that is never broken.

Just so with the monuments to conquerors, Confederates, and criminals. These bronze-and-stone memorials are tattoos on the body politic. What were they thinking? Surely that whatever seemed worthy or urgent on the day they decided public space needed a tattoo would—should—remain so always.


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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again, Part Two: Free Speech Slamdance

Aug28

by: on August 28th, 2017 | Comments Off

In my last essay, I wrote about the hair-trigger in my mind activated by recent events in Charlottesville and beyond. Something happens, sparks fly, and centuries of inherited trauma catch fire, fueled by the pain my young self suffered as a first-generation Jewish-American growing up in a community that made us unambiguously other.

Obviously, I’m not the only one being overtaken by reactivity these days.

We’re in a time of heightened susceptibility. This moment is throwing into high relief essential questions of value and meaning, of harm and healing. People fling them at each other like weapons: if you don’t agree with me on X, you are aiding the enemies of justice. If you aren’t with me on Y, that’s because you can never understand my pain: we may be talking about Z, but you are the real problem.

Today’s case-in-point: freedom of expression. I invite you to think along with me. Perhaps we will be able to reconcile freedom and justice without triggering the flesh-and-blood equivalent of one of those scenes in the original “Star Trek” where Captain Kirk talks a computer into a meltdown.

I have been a First Amendment fundamentalist my entire life. Now I am thinking again.

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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again, Part One

Aug20

by: on August 20th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Holding steady when the ground is moving is normally part of my stock-in-trade.People often ask me for something to help put their own fears into perspective. Usually I am willing and able to oblige. Mostly I try my best to see the bigger picture, and mostly that effort pays off.

But not now. I was staying more or less centered until a few days ago when something caught me off-guard. In the middle of a conference call, I got a text message carrying information that turned out not to be true, that the Barcelona terrorist who mowed down 13 lives like grass had been heading for a kosher restaurant on Las Ramblas, hard by the assassin’s abandoned car. It was an intense activation, hard to control despite my wish to hold to decorum, despite the fact that everyone on the call had been talking about their fears for their own communities’ and others, their responses to the nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville and the havoc they wreaked. When I rang off, a bit of research led me to conclude that the location of the car was likely a coincidence, that even though ISIS hates Jews, the attack did not target us directly.

Ashamed, I apologized to my colleagues for spreading false information, then gave myself a talking-to. Oh, crap! I’m triggered again, and not only that, but right now I am super-susceptible to recurrence.

I borrowed the title of this series from a shrink who offered it as a way to call in the awareness and acknowledgement that start to diffuse reactivity. You know what I mean by reactivity? I’m talking about that rush of terror or fury or both that overwhelms brain and body when something pokes its finger into an old wound, flooding the inner world with elicited memory, elicited pain.

Do you want to know why I was so easily and massively triggered by a stray rumor?Let me suggest four readings. First: Eric Ward’s important essay “Skin In The Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.” This piece was written by a non-Jewish African American who has studied and worked against white supremacist movements for many years. He exposes in detail how “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism,” how it is the cornerstone of their racist ideology, and how this is often neither understood nor believed despite ample evidence.

I read Ward’s piece when it was first posted to Political Research Associates’ site at the end of June, six weeks before white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, VA, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” inspiring one of their number to use his automobile as a weapon, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring others,.

When you’re done with “Skin in The Game,” read “Jewish Fear, Love, & Solidarity in the Wake of Charlottesville” by Jonah S. Boyarin, published on the Jewschool site a few days after the events in Charlottesville. Among many other closely observed depictions of fear, love, and solidarity, Boyarin writes:

Jewish fear is the recurring silence from non-Jews about the explicitly, particularly antisemitic language and behavior of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. It is seeing, with rare exceptions, only Jewish friends of mine posting on social media when Jewish cemeteries are vandalized or when the Boston Holocaust memorial was destroyed this week for the second time this summer.

Jewish fear is if we bring up our struggle to non-Jewish comrades, we will be gaslighted and shamed into silence, because structural antisemitism functions by portraying us as conspiratorially, greedily powerful despite our repeated vulnerability to structural, white Christian male violence.

Third, read Michael Chabon’s and Ayelet Waldman’s “Open Letter to our Fellow Jews,” enacting our tradition and imperative to rebuke injustice within our community:

Among all the bleak and violent truths that found confirmation or came slouching into view amid the torchlight of Charlottesville is this: Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism; any Jew who does not condemn the President, directly and by name, for his racism, white supremacism, intolerance and Jew hatred, condones all of those things.

Finally, if you have the bandwidth for one more, read Danica Bornstein’s account of struggling to reconcile two identities, the provisional social category of whiteness and her lived experience as a Jew:

What I’m trying to say here is that the privilege that accrues during the good times is very much real, and I am not denying or hiding that. It is also true that the privilege is provisional, and can be revoked, and becomes the very thing that is used against us when the shoe finally drops.

It overwhelms me trying to explain this history and how both of these things live inside my body: the very real privilege but also the very real and repeated experiences of expulsion, scapegoating, genocide, and terror. I talk about the part that is easier, but then I end up feeling very alone.

None of these writers is identical to each other in approach, style, content, or the way they position themselves in the story, but they are all telling parts of a meta-story that has shaped my experience.

In the context of this big story of Jews in the USA, when I tell myself, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” I am reminding myself that despite the intense feelings I’m experiencing, I’m not truly in it alone. I’m reminding myself that I’m not alone despite the fact that so many of my colleagues on the U.S. left are quite happy to hang a label reading “white” around my neck and never hear another word about why that might not sum up the experience of disbelonging for a first-generation American whose earliest memories were explanations in halting English of why I had so few living ancestors and so little knowledge of those who had survived, and of being chased home by Catholic kids when they got to the part in catechism about Jews killing Jesus, and whose recent memories are crowded with experiences of being an acceptable target, a handy “buffer group” for multiple racial categories.

I’m reminding myself that even if I am once again attacked from both right and left for having the audacity to take the space to tell this story and the willingness to risk this self-exposure, I am not alone.

And why must I remind myself so insistently of this truth? The trajectory of all traumatic activation is the same. The person who is triggered is propelled toward extreme isolation, often into an intolerable loneliness that obscures or precludes the actual antidote to white nationalism: connection, reciprocity, collaboration, respect, generosity across lines of difference.

From what I see, my story rhymes with much of the current state of things. The white nationalists gathering in Charlottesville, Boston, and many other places overwhelmingly share certain characteristics: pale skin, male gender, Christian heritage. None of these is intrinsically the generator of evil, but the giant chickens of power and domination their possessors have birthed have been marching home to roost for a long time, lusting to punish the rest of us for daring to live our freedom. In the face of this long march, so many people I know are displaying the signs of extreme reactivity grounded in trauma: believing the inner voice that says no one else can know my suffering, no one is truly on my side, I can’t trust anyone who fits different categories of race, religion, gender, orientation, even generation. So many are locked in just this combat with would-be allies: whose perspective matters? Who has earned the right to have a say? Who understands the urgency and seriousness of the threats? Who has the capacity or right to glimpse what it is to live inside my skin?

What do you do when elicited trauma pushes you into a dark corner? For me, many things can help in the moment. Music, a walk, or a distraction—anything that disrupts reactivity long enough to allow the fear chemicals to dissipate.

But you know what helps me the most? When compassion opens a door between my heart and another person’s; when neither of us needs to slot the other’s story into a hierarchy of oppressions, judging if it deserves equal dignity or goes on the dismissible pile. When we hear each others’ stories without turning away, when we open our arms to each other. When we join together to rebuke injustice and call in the beloved community.

I’ve been thinking about trauma a great deal over the past year because it is one of the subjects of my current book-in-progress. Even if it weren’t, I’d still be thinking about trauma today because laying fresh damage on the site of old wounds seems to be our national pastime. Every day, I have to remind myself to stay aware enough to say, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” because without that awareness, the past prevails.

When I am triggered, my capacity for rational thought is greatly diminished. This is bad news not only because of the immediate suffering it catalyzes, but because the thing that helps me most to release trauma-induced reactivity is staying aware that I am activated. Keeping part of my thinking mind free to be an observer allows me to begin distinguishing past from present. I begin to remember that the loud voice in my head—the one telling me I’m all alone in an uncaring world and they want to kill me—is not the voice of reality, the objective truth, but the over-amped voice of old pain.

My grip on my composure remains tenuous. In Shabbat services yesterday morning, we talked about the Torah portion for this week, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). A short way into the text, we read this exhortation about how to treat the conquered who worshipped false gods: “Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.”

Aha, I thought, the Confederate statues! You get to a fresh start by wiping out the symbols of an abhorrent belief system. My mind reeled into the slam dance that’s been playing over and over on my inner soundtrack. But wait, that’s what ISIS leaders thought they were doing when they demolished the Bamyan Buddhas! (See this compendium of pictures and links for images of that and many more examples of monuments toppled). On the one hand crashes headlong into on the other hand. Both tumble into the mosh pit of my brain. I try to blink back the tears and steady my breathing, knowing that unless I can resolve this state of hyper-susceptibility, I will be cycling through that dance every day, perhaps every hour.

Coming next in the “Oh Crap! I’m Triggered” series: Free Speech Slamdance.

Odetta and Dr. John, “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”

Machiavelli Nailed It!

Jan27

by: on January 27th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Some are furiously galvanized and organizing like mad. Some feel trapped in a surrealist movie, overwhelmed by confusion. Some have subsided into defeat and demoralization. The clash of paradigms is titanic, a tidal wave of protest crashing against the colossal ego of a uniquely unhinged and malevolent executive.

We have not been here before.

Tons of insightful analysis and practical advice are issuing from progressive groups. Every hour brings new petitions, talking points, and strategic propositions to counter the noxious river of cruelty, self-regard, and cynical bloviation gushing out of the White House. I have no doubt that people will be more active and better-organized this year than ever before: desperate to stanch the flow, they are pouring heart, soul, and muscle into the work of defending democracy. No one can know the outcome, but scenarios are flying, from early impeachment to a trumped-up coup d’etat to a terrorist attack from within (or as someone put it, a Reichstag moment).

We have been in some very tough places, but we have not been precisely here before.

Throughout the week since the inauguration, the ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian Renaissance politician and writer, have been streaming through my mind. 

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Indifference to Evil: Please Act Now!

Dec14

by: on December 14th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

If a few years down the road a young person who knows and respects you were to rise from the shambles of democracy and heaped-up havoc wreaked by the Monkey King in the White House and ask what you did to stop him, would you be ashamed to answer?

I’ll let Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel say it:

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.

“Where is the outrage?” is the question of the year. President-Elect Donald Trump benefited from a carefully orchestrated campaign by Russia to skew the election in his favor. He has rushed to appoint a entire crew of villains to his cabinet, foxes guarding henhouses, arsonists in charge of the firehouse. (As Trump met with Kanye West yesterday, someone tweeted that Kanye would be the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts; I think it’s a joke, but as Lily Tomlin once said, “No matter how cynical you are, you can’t keep up.)


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Oh Canada! Our Friends Need Help

Dec12

by: on December 12th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

With mind-boggling Cabinet appoints clogging the headlines, there’s barely been time to consider what impact a Trump administration might have on arts and culture in the U.S. But something is brewing to the north that suggests that regardless of who heads the government, the well-being of artists who work for positive social change is at risk. Our friends in Canada need help. Please read on and respond.

Last spring, Canadian arts groups were optimistic if cautious about newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to invest nearly $1.9 CAD in arts and culture funding, doubling the budget of the Canada Council for the Arts (the equivalent of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, but much larger). The Council’s current budget is about $139 million USD, and by 2021, it will double. Though Canada’s population is one-ninth of the U.S.’s, with an NEA budget currently at $148 million USDC, the Canada Council’s per capita funding today is eight times the NEA’s.

Good news for Canadians, right?

Well, it depends how they spend the money. And the way they are planning to spend it is alarming to Canadians involved in community-engaged arts practice – the rich, collaborative work of artists committed to social and environmental justice who place their gifts at the service of community.


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Acting for Others, Acting for Ourselves

Nov25

by: on November 25th, 2016 | Comments Off

The air around me is swirling with opinions on “identity politics” and the failure of the Clinton campaign to capture the loyalty of what are variously called “poor whites,” “white working-class voters,” and so on—formulations that join class and race.

Readers have sent me Mark Lilla’s piece in the New York Times (“The End of Identity Liberalism”), bemoaning the “fixation on diversity” and calling for a “post-identity liberalism,” symbolized by his experience of singing the national anthem with a public hall full of multiracial union members.

There have been many rejoinders: I recommend Kathryn Franke’s piece “Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again.” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, accurately pinpointing Lilla’s impact as “underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S.”

Franke says that Lilla’s “is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of ‘common interest’ can and should be built,” while dismissing the calls for equity from others as a form of selfish whining.

As someone who’s been an activist for my entire adult life, I can second this critique without reservation. Women, for example, have been told to sit down and shut up by every progressive movement, on the grounds that our grievances draw attention away from the “real” issues—until women finally forced open the doors of leadership and began shaping those movements. Can you imagine Black Lives Matter without the leadership of women?


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