I get it.
There’s a reason why I pasted Erick Erickson’s letter in this blog. It resonated. You live with something for years until it becomes part of you. Every day, it stares back at you from the depths of the mirror, but you’re so used to it that you can’t see it. You don’t know when it became a part of you. You don’t know when you learned to live with it. But you know it’s there. Kind of like being fat. One day, you put your pants on and your belt is tighter and you have to go up a notch. You don’t know when it happened, but you know why it happened.
It feels as if the last six years of my life have been rife with betrayal. In 2015, I was a Republican. I held a certain set of conservative beliefs that informed my world view. My daily enmeshment in a hostile work environment where my beliefs were constantly challenged, assaulted and ridiculed only strengthened them. Those who identified as liberals and progressives in my life acted predictably. The derisive barbs, the clumsy baiting in the break room, the pointedly unsubtle conversations within earshot, the mocking laughter were all true to form for leftists. At some point, I stopped arguing, recognizing the futility of any attempt at constructive dialogue. Mike Rosen and conservative allies on social media were my quiet workplace refuge.
It was one thing to be assailed by liberals. It was quite another when the party I believed in slowly surrendered to a hostile external force that sought not to change it for the better, but to erode it for the sole purpose of self-glorification.
In April of 2016, I attended the Colorado state Republican convention in Colorado Springs. I heard a lot of dialogue during that day. Most of it was healthy and respectful. Some of it was unhealthy and toxic. All of it was robust. I had no inkling that five years later, the GOP would be transformed into a monoculture of personality held hostage to the ego of one man.
I didn’t leave the GOP after Trump was elected. I recognized that most of the people who voted for him did so for reasons of pragmatism. He wasn’t their first choice in the primaries and they were stuck with him. Trump was not the final straw for me. That honor belonged to Roy D. Moore, a senatorial candidate in Alabama who had quite apparently sexually harassed a number of women. The GOP didn’t care and happily endorsed him. Apparent electoral victories had blinded them to reality. That was when I walked away.
That was over four years ago. Nothing the Republicans have done in the interval have made me regret my decision to leave. On the contrary, their subsequent words and deeds, particularly after Election Day, 2020 have only shown me that I made the right choice in walking away. The putrid resolution passed a week ago censuring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, while simultaneously labeling January 6th as, “Legitimate political discourse,” proves to me that the GOP party I once knew is now an alien wasteland.
But worse than the betrayal of a national party populated by figures I don’t know is the sudden and radical metamorphosis of people I do know. Relatives and friends who once championed the same conservative values as I do (the value of honesty in politics, respectful discourse, the value in the rule of law), now make sad excuses when leaders like Trump take every rule we’ve ever lived by, wipes his ass with it and flushes it down the crapper. It makes me wonder if these people, some of whom were moral mentors, ever really believed what they preached to me, or if they were always lying. Sadly, they can’t see the changes within themselves. They think everyone else has changed while they have remained static. But this isn’t true. Their refusal to see what they have become while deflecting their role in it is tantamount to betrayal.
One person who was fundamental in the shaping of my conservative values literally got in my face when he learned that I wouldn’t vote for Trump in 2016. “Ryan, your problem is that you’re unseasoned!” he said.
Unseasoned? I participated in two separate Republican primaries as a delegate in Colorado. I’ve visited Washington D.C. three times and been to Capitol Hill as a member of the National Federation of the Blind. I was even involved in student government at UNL for two years when I went to college there. I think it’s safe to say that I am the member of my family who is the most seasoned when it comes to politics. Another mentor, a man who is a devout Christian, characterized the attack on the capitol as, “Civil disobedience.” Sadly, this style of argument has only become more commonplace during the reign of Trump and after.
I’ve never been accosted while peeing in a public bathroom, but I have been bullied, hectored and guilt tripped by people who took my descent from the common Republican ethos very personally. They acted as if I was the traitor. I’ve even had idiots on Facebook call me a traitor, as if my refusal to bend the knee to one man embodied the betrayal of my basic patriotism and love of America. Yet, this is their warped view. This is where we stand today.
As bad as things are in the mainstream political realm, it’s worse as a blind guy. In 2015, I was a solid member of the National Federation of the Blind. My journey with the Federation had been a rocky one. As I stated in my resignation letter, my level of involvement with the organization has fluctuated over the years. When I first became involved, I was deep in the movement. By the time I moved to Colorado, I was on the periphery. By 2015, I had worked at the CCB as a summer youth counselor and was an elected officer in the Denver chapter. It felt good to be home again. When I moved to Omaha, I was quickly elected as Second Vice-President. I agreed to serve despite a growing reservation about the changing direction of the organization. This was solidified in December of 2020 when the #MarchingTogether Movement took root.
I won’t go back over my journey in detail. One can read my past blog entries on the subject if one wishes to chart my progress. I will simply write of two separate incidents that happened that proved to me that it was time to head for the exit.
The first occurred on July 31, 2021 during a contentious state board meeting of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. The subject of the suspension of Fred Schroeder came up. Naturally, much volatile discussion ensued. One member who was a participant at the meeting, though not elected to the board, began to defend Schroeder, claiming that he should not be judged solely on his transgressions. He worried that Schroeder’s accomplishments would be overshadowed by these accusations that some leaders felt were a result of a, “Kangaroo court.” I argued vociferously that the punishment of Schroeder did not go far enough. His retort to me was, “Ryan, you don’t know what you’re talking about!”
This was a man who identifies as a Republican and a conservative. This was a man who sat with me in a Village Inn in 1998 over green chili and peanut butter pie and argued passionately that Bill Clinton should be impeached for his conduct in the Oval Office. This was a man who argued vehemently that character matters in our leaders. Yet, I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about!?
While this verbal tumult was occurring, the people who should have had the most to say sat silent. That includes the state president, who also serves as a member of the national board. She largely stayed out of the conflict. She might have weighed in and given us a clue as to the happenings behind the scenes that went into the decision-making process, but this isn’t how Federation soldiers are trained. They don’t go off script, they don’t contradict the national leadership and they always refer questions (particularly those born of descent) up the chain of command to the message factory in Baltimore. In other words, she was doing her duty as a Federationist, all while neglecting the needs of the membership on a local level.
Eight days after the board meeting from hell, I sat alone in my recliner with a cold beer in my hand and listened to a podcast featuring Wayne Pearcy’s story of abuse suffered at the hands of a camp counselor during his time as a summer student at the Colorado Center for the Blind in 2004. Wayne never named his abuser, but it was clear that he was talking about Brent Batron.
Brent Batron, a one-time mentor and friend to me and to dozens of other students and counselors. Brent Batron, who had espoused the paramount virtues of positive role modeling at seminars, chapter meetings and in private conversations. Brent Batron, who had resigned abruptly from the CCB eight months before the podcast dropped. The Nebraska board meeting was bad, but this was infinitely worse.
I worked for Brent for three months in the summer of 2014. I loved the guy. I respected the guy. Hell, I even hoped that when the time came for Julie Deden to finally step down, Brent would take the reins as the Executive Director of the CCB. Brent was smart, but not intellectually imperious as are so many leaders in the NFB upper crust. He was relatable in a blue collar, down-to-earth way. He was a family man who appeared to be faithful to his wife and kids. He was a born teacher who made you want to be better at your job. He was funny, good natured, friendly and approachable. He was also a predator. When Wayne dropped his revelations, I instantly knew they were true. I didn’t have any direct knowledge. I’d heard a lot of names whispered throughout my time in the NFB. Brent’s was not one of them. I don’t know how I knew. I just fucking did.
It is impossible to explain the pain this harsh truth wrought without explaining the role my time at the CCB played upon my psyche. Looking back, I view my job at the CCB in the Dickensian sense. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I was a guy doing God’s work, showing blind youth how to live as independent, self-reliant blind people. I was also a guy in over my head, teaching teenagers skills that I was never fully sure of within myself. I always felt as if I were running in quicksand, never certain if I was serving as a positive or negative example as a competent blind adult. The constant weight of responsibilities for the welfare of someone else’s kids after years of bachelorhood took a toll. I found myself sleeping in fits and starts, jerking awake suddenly in the night wondering if one of my boys had snuck out to smoke pot. I would stand in the shower in the early morning wondering how to face another day guiding a kid with obvious cognitive impairments, hoping he could just get himself dressed. I would go through another day dead sure that I was facing harsh judgments from my fellow counselors. There were even a few times when I thought of just quitting and going back to my quiet life, but I stayed for the kids and for Brent. If I could just stay on Brent’s good side, I knew I was doing something right.
By the end of the summer, I was burned out, exhausted and in a black hole of despair. I felt like an utter failure. I had planned to get certified in O&M instruction, but honestly, it was a relief when the job at AIN became available and I could change course. Being responsible for other people was too soul-crushing to be endured for an intractable period of time. Now, years later, I discover that I spent the best parts of myself worrying about what affect I was having on the young and impressionable, all in service to a sexual predator and his enablers! Days and weeks of partial insomnia and self-torment while others who were guilty of actual sins slept soundly? Nights of sweating bullets wondering how I would get through the next day without making another mistake while our leader drew his designs on one of our boys!? Fuck! That!
Sidebar: Karma can be a royal bitch or it can be kind. If not for my time at AIN, I never would have ended up at Radio Talking Book, which proved to be the best job I’ve ever had. God bless Jane and Bekah. They both shepherded me through a lot of heart healing.
Last August was when I stood in front of the mirror and saw betrayal staring me in the face. That was when I knew with absolute clarity that it was time to leave. Now, I am a man who is politically homeless and philosophically destitute. I still have my conservative principles, but the betrayal from the NFB cuts far deeper. The Republican Party was merely an apparatus that I would play a minuscule role in in hopes of furthering political change, but the NFB was my community. They were my kindred spirits in the world of blindness. They wrought a kind of betrayal that inflicts the most grievous wounds of all… The betrayal of family.
There is no betrayal more deeply personal. And I don’t mean to get all emo on you guys here, but it hurts. It hurts like a mutherfucker. That’s all I’m saying. The pain is fuckin’ real. And this kind of pain…all I’m saying is…I don’t know when the fuck it’s gonna go away.