Failing Spectacularly on Both Sides

This isn’t about politics. This is about politics.

Sarah Buttenwieser
Human Parts
7 min readJun 14, 2024


This isn’t about politics. This is about politics. Hold that. I’m trying to hold that, too. Imagine the unspeakable happened. In this case, it’s a horrific, terrorist act. In this case, it’s a horrific terrorist act in a country that was established to be refuge. Imagine a response that was also horrific. Imagine people near and far watching, hurting, angry, sad — so sad that word doesn’t touch the depths — shocked, grieving, helpless. Obviously, it’s October. Where I live, skies are impossibly blue; trees are golden and orange and crimson.

As with everything that happens in the fishbowl of 24/7 news and social media and smart phones, the news isn’t news, it’s a barrage. A violent one. It’s information and misinformation and disinformation. There are heated disagreements about what’s real and what’s false. It’s happening faster than I can process. But there’s urgency. To act. To speak out. To… what? All this violence we’re focused upon is happening beyond our reach. I feel the way you do in a nightmare when your kid is suddenly, you realize, on the tracks in front of a train and you’re on the platform trying to make your legs leap off the platform onto the tracks to scoop the person you love most from harm’s way and put yourself in the shadow of the inevitable train barreling but it’s a dream and your legs tingle in sharp pins and needles like they are frozen and you just… cannot… move. Upon waking, only your heart is racing, and the train didn’t reach bodies, but you know. You know. Because we can’t always reach the people we love in time. And that is the worst thing of all.

What was happening in real time was that some of my friends felt very differently about the war than I did. What was happening in real time was that some of my family felt differently about how to respond to the war than I did. What was happening in real time was my response wasn’t matching that of my friends or my family; my response wasn’t matching the pace and the politics in the 24/7 on steroids situation that is social media. Even journalism seemed unsure of its biases. I was unable to comprehend the scale of the losses against the less tangible scale of losses that are embedded in people (my people, other people, all people) who have endured intergenerational trauma. There were as many histories, as many when-you-peel-the-onion narratives and timelines as people. I was processing what I knew and felt and could take in. I was working hard. I wasn’t thinking about much else.

Time travel. 9/11 and the days afterwards when it became almost instantly clear our country would go to war over the Towers’ fall, the plane on the field in Pennsylvania, the hole in the Pentagon. Recall, the impossibly gorgeous day — a robin’s egg blue sky across the entire Northeast, the cognitive dissonance of that beauty and the smoke and fire and charred remnants of life before it. I watched with horror, the rubble, the city I knew suffer, the people stunned and terrified and angry, proud to band together. I watched hatred like a sudden growth — brown people everywhere unsafe, untrusted, unwelcome. This was wrong. Hatred was going to break us, I was sure. Fast forward to the beginning of that war, one even almost all the Democrats said was necessary. I was on vacation with family. I said, “This war is wrong.” My capital D Democrat dad disagreed. He declared, “We must go to war.” There were basketball playoffs and war coverage on the television.

The beach was the beach, holding the ocean and sky just beyond it like a reminder that beauty and peace exist. I looked out and tried to be still, to see this is a moment in time and other moments have happened and would happen and what is sand anyway if not shells over time? I was so sad, so disillusioned. On the way to the airport, we passed protesters to the war in front of the kiss sculpture in Sarasota, Florida, and I thought that people everywhere, not many of us, but some, knew war never solved a thing. I could blame Quaker school and Quaker camp for my beliefs; I could blame having glimpsed images of Vietnam as a child and seeing violence as a terrifying wrong.

During those first days after October 7th, my kid asked, “Is this how you felt when the Iraq war started?”

“Pretty much, yes,” I said. I remembered writing to Barbara Lee, the one congressperson to vote against giving George W. Bush a blank check to fund the war. I remembered, even two decades later, what I wrote on a postcard: You are my representative today. Thank you.

As many think pieces have described, not to dumb down what happened since October, even amongst Jews, there’s more support for Israel and its military response from people over some age, at least to a point, while more younger people — often their own kids — protested Israel’s actions. Many young people stood up for Palestinian rights. Not that this is only about age or religion. There’s a lot of judgment in both directions. Concern about how those opposing the war will vote in November. Concern that antisemitism is on the rise, concern racism toward black and brown people and those who are from the Arab world is too. I think we keep asking the least constructive question: whose pain is greatest? Meantime, intensity’s increased at the end of the academic year: protests — more since Columbia clamped down upon the students protesting on its campus unleashing the NYPD — across campuses across the country, popping up like a game of campus whack a mole.

It’s in that thorny milieu I began to lose. Before I get to my interpersonal losses, and questions about how to show up, I do need to clarify that the suffering of those directly harmed matters most. People losing life or having their lives irrevocably altered. I started to list the ways, but we know what they are.

I offended a friend, friends, really, by decrying the loss of life in Gaza, because, on some level, it seemed to do this was not to decry the horrors done by Hamas. I offended others by not decrying the losses in Gaza loud enough. My Judaism and internalized antisemitism were called out. I was unfriended by a close friend; I was unfriended by a close family member. I quipped that I was losing the war because wars are an unwinnable proposition.

Showing up is always a vulnerable proposition, though. How many times have I said the wrong thing when someone is suffering? The answer is so many times I can’t count and probably do not know. How often does my privilege — as a cis, heterosexual, white, wealthy woman — mean I respond in insensitive ways because I haven’t learned to check myself well enough not to do harm that way? Again, countless, some that I know and many that I don’t.

What I could honestly say out loud in the knockdown, drag out of social media was that I believe the response far outweighed the harm and was wrong, that all I know, especially working to support an organization that addresses domestic violence is that violence begets more violence, so war isn’t a solution. My awareness of the hard work DV survivors must do to live with violence they’ve experienced and the personal cost to the next generation, regardless of whether the kids were or weren’t physically harmed has been heightened. War is exponential; all the families touched by it, not just directly, will be impacted. And that perspective is, to people gripped by political urgency, lacking on all sides. It is, I was told, tone deaf. And it could be.

What has felt personally difficult is how the nature of disagreeing online with people I like, and love has made it impossible to have the kinds of conversations that might help us understand one another’s perspectives in real time. By saying less online, I’ve had many conversations with people who feel all different ways and carry all different perspectives in real time, real life. This includes an American/Israeli woman with a great deal of family there and friends whose kids or spouses disagree with them. My relative quiet online allowed me to venture into those conversations. Friends I have talked to said they could hear me better than they could their spouses or kids and I could hear them. We didn’t go straight to politics; we started with and often kept to feelings.

I do hold a point of view. I have been and am an organizer, and an activist. As a writer, I believe in the power of our voices. So, I keep contacting my reps and the White House with my pleas: ceasefire, do not give military aid to Israel, keep pushing for humanitarian aid to reach Gaza safely. If there was an occupation on the campus of my alma mater, I’d expect the administration to hold respectful space for peaceful protest — as, fortunately, it always does. I hope for conversations, real ones, ones that respect we all have different perspectives and are trying to hold those as carefully as we can because we hold one another with tenderness and compassion and care. This passage by Garrett Bucks, author of The Right Kind of White from an interview with Courtney Martin sums up what I hope to do, work I won’t finish or fully “get” and will just have to keep trying to learn: “For me, it’s this challenge: Do I care more about my individual self-righteousness, or do I care about other human beings? In the moments that I’ve leaned into the religion of being right, I made so many aspects of my life — my politics, my faith, my relationships — about what they can prove about me. In the moments that I leaned more into the religion of being in love, I’ve cared about how I show up for others, about giving and receiving care.” This requires a bravery I haven’t developed. I retreat when I maybe could show up and ask whether there’s a way to hold our connections as more sacred than our ideas. I want us — me and my people, ones I know and ones I don’t — to grow and learn together. I believe we can love each other even when we disagree. I’m on what is, I finally understand, a lifelong quest to show up right into the messiness of us.



Sarah Buttenwieser
Human Parts

Writer, brainstormer, networker — follow me on Twitter @standshadows