Actually, the Debate was Perfect

Because I hate myself, and I want myself to suffer, I watched Joe Biden and Donald Trump do whatever it was you call what happened on that stage last night, every single excruciating minute of it. Why would I do such a thing? Same reason as about fifty-nine percent of my fellow Americans: I wanted to see Joe Biden, happy warrior, take our cowardly bully of a President out back behind the woodshed, at least metaphorically.

It will not surprise you to hear I was disappointed. 

Donald Trump is a loudmouth asshole, the kind of guy who thinks you win arguments by talking over the other person and just wearing them down til they give up in disgust, who’ll say anything at all, even contradict what he just said five minutes ago, just to keep his flatulent filibuster going. We’ve all dealt with that guy, the one who knows how to walk just up to the line where you either cross over to their side or throw your hands up in disgust. The one for whom the rules of debate, the norms of politeness, are meaningless save as things to throw back at you once you’ve been provoked and react. It’s a power play, plain and simple.

The thing is, for people like that, who recognize only raw and immediate power, the only way to deal with them is on that same level of raw, immediate power. Think I’m wrong? Ask Chris Wallace, who was even more of a chump and a punching bag, no matter how much he tried to appease his ideological fellow traveler. Joe Biden sold himself as the guy who could stand up to a bully. Who could throw a fucking punch when he needed to. And what did we get? Snarky asides to Wallace about the abuser they were both failing to manage and a passive ‘Will you just shut up, man?’ in the half second Trump needed to draw a breath between lies.

I know, I know. They’re trying to be the adults in the room. And had they been dealing with an actual toddler, that would indeed have been the appropriate response. But they were not. They were dealing with what should, by now, be a grown-ass adult, one who is not smart but is certainly clever enough to know exactly what he was doing, even if what he is doing is transparently stupid and demeaning to everyone involved.

It may sound like I’m saying you can only fight toxic masculinity with toxic masculinity (cues the Dicks, Pussies, and Assholes speech from Team America). And while I certainly would have understood — and, let’s be honest, applauded — if Joe Biden or even Chris Wallace had stopped, donned a mask, and then walked up and slugged Donald Trump right in his bloviating dog’s asshole of a mouth, either man could have done more than just haplessly sit by and let this demeaning fucking nonsense keep happening. 

Sometimes you gotta cut a motherfucker’s mic. Whether you get the sound guy to do it or just bust out the pair of wire cutters you brought just in case. You gotta deal with the guy on a level he’ll understand. If you don’t, you get what we got last night, in which a whole fuckton of people conspired to bring an abuser into the living rooms of the country so he can traumatize its citizens and wear down their faith in their own agency to vote the abuser out of office and into the legal and financial morass being President lets him keep his head (barely) above water in.

If there was one good thing about last night’s debate, it was that it was such a perfect metaphor for American history since Reagan (since the Boomers, giant age cohort they are, came into their own electorally), in which the country — in particular the Democratic party and the media — are in an abusive relationship with the Republican party and the conservative movement that drives it. It’s been obvious for decades that the American right considers power to be its God-granted prerogative — they probably get that from the evangelicals, who’ve made Donald Trump their Golden Calf —  and does not recognize the legitimacy of anyone to their left, no matter how resoundingly they were elected. They can’t win democratically anymore, haven’t really believed in democracy in the sense of rule by (all) the people for a long time, if ever. For a while they were able to game the system — thanks, especially, to liberals largely staying home in 2010, which event is proof that liberals are not smarter than conservatives, no matter how many of us like thinking so — but now those maps are being overturned and the demographic wave against their whitest-of-the-white base is about to swamp them. They’ve seeded the courts as a stopgap but they’re primed to take it further. Donald Trump as much as ordered the Proud Boys to do voter intimidation where they could, and Satan knows how many people in American law enforcement are sympathetic. Keeping certain people down is like the whole job of some police departments, and always has been.

Conventional wisdom said Joe Biden won last night because he’s winning the race and Donald Trump didn’t do anything to change that. That’s not good enough. Because there are no conventions in the last days of the America that was, the America Joe Biden thinks he still lives in. One way or another, we’re gonna be a different country going forward.

For its whole existence, America has split the difference between two irreconcilable ideals. Call them the Founding Factions. On the one hand you have ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. On the other you have the Three-Fifths crowd, a burgeoning aristocracy founded on the bedrock of chattel slavery, in which some people have no rights at all. One side is in a fight for its life, and knows it. And because one is, both are. Because we’re stuck in the house together. There’s no getting out. Certainly not for the people who’ll suffer worst if the Three-Fifths crowd wins the day.

How do we stop them? Step one is fucking swamp them at the polls. Vote as early as you can, and make sure your vote’s counted. And for fuck’s sake, vote Democrat all the way down the ticket, from President to Assistant Dog Catcher. I know, I know. The Democrats have broken my heart for, like, decades. But right now they’re what we’ve got, and if we come out in big enough numbers then maybe they’ll grow a little spine. They’d better — and we’d better make them — because we not only have to unwind the mess the last four years and/or decades have gotten us into, we’ve got some serious historic injustice to right while also dealing with the increasingly existential threat of climate change. That starts with the White House and flipping the Senate — nothing gets done without a Senate majority, nothing — and strengthening the majority in the House. But it’s governors and state legislatures that will be drawing congressional districts — 2020 being a Census year, and I can’t stress enough how important that is — and running elections, and mayors and district attorneys and sheriffs that will decide how or if the law is enforced where you live.

I’m not gonna lie. That may not be enough. In fact it won’t, it can’t be. Because what’s needed to save democracy and America and the Earth is gonna take a lot of us rowing in the same direction for a long, long time. But it’s a better place to start than the alternative.

And Joe? Next time you get the chance two hundred million of us would kill for, to look Donald Trump in the eye and speak truth to the world’s biggest asshole? Remember who and what you’re dealing with, and take that motherfucker out back behind the woodshed.

At least metaphorically.

Empathy for the Devil

“What few people realized or perhaps dared admit was that the thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison. The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wound as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability. It meant being a certain kind of Protestant, holding a particular occupation, having a respectable level of wealth or the appearance of it, and drawing the patronizingly appropriate lines between oneself and those of lower rank of either race in that world.”

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the Jim Crow south and to the rest of the country in the 20th century, is an excellent book. It’s taught me a good deal about a span of American history my own education glossed over, and given me tools and concepts that have really helped me to understand the nation I was born to and live in. One of the usefullest is Wilkerson’s conception of life in the South as ruled by a strict caste system, one that not only assigns people to their place within a strict hierarchy, but also sets the protocols for how they can and should treat one another, and the incentives and disincentives that enforce those protocols. More importantly, Wilkerson shows us — often in heartbreaking detail — how the simple fact of the caste system’s existence so incentivizes the commission of cruel and unjust acts, systematically and at the individual level, that it’s probably more accurate to say it demands them.

Status, after all, must be demonstrated. Power unexercised isn’t power.

It’s got me thinking, of all things, about Karens. Karens, in case you’ve been living under a rock (and if you have, is there a spare room I can use? Shit’s crazy out here), are white women of a certain age who weaponize their privilege, particularly with regard to people of color. The lady who calls the police because black people. The woman who wants to speak with your manager because when you said ‘Have a nice day!’ you didn’t mean it sincerely enough. The ferocious protector of the status quo for whom the notion of keeping her opinion to herself is anathema if not outright unconstitutional.

Now, I spent thirty years or so in the hospitality industry, so I’ve known Karen since before she was Karen. She was the one who took the game seriously, the customer service addict who mistook the staff pretending that she was important and that what she wanted mattered for the real thing. Who thought service was not so much a quirk of the transaction but her God-given due, and who reveled in treating you like shit because either you swallowed it, thus reifying her status over you, or you kicked, and then she could call your manager and try and get you fired. Now of course that’s way better than when she calls the police and they come kill you, which is what Karen likes doing to black folks. Gotta acknowledge that. But it’s still shitty and, believe you me, it predates the slang term ‘Karen’ and, well, the internet itself.

So, aside from Karen’s leveraging structural racism, what does Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration have to do with the modern-day white lady who knows exactly how the system is rigged in her favor and joyfully exploits it for her own advantage and/or satisfaction?

As you may have guessed, it comes down to the caste system, and the tensions and limits involved in trying to live inside one. Because Karen is also oppressed and unhappy. Why else do you think she acts out? It’s not an excuse — there’s a difference between empathy and sympathy — but I do think it’s helpful to understand the motivations that drive her.

When the post-mortems came out for the 2016 election, one of the heartbreaking-est takeaways was that something over half of white women declined to vote for their fellow white woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and instead chose white supremacist and patriarchal poster-child Donald Trump. There was a lot of head-scratching in the media, but it wasn’t that hard to figure out. If there are two aspects of your identity, one of which is privileged and one of which is not, which one do you think most people will identify with?

Karen exists in a curious intersection the American caste system. Her whiteness, and her embrace of the advantage and privilege it confers, put her just one tier shy of the very top. It empowers her over almost everyone, which incentivizes a full-throated acceptance and embrace of the hierarchy the caste system posits as real. But with that embrace comes the acceptance that she can never be more than number two: she herself is always subject to, and subjugated by, the men in her life. Whatever her inclinations or aptitudes, her dreams or desires for herself and her own future, she is trapped just as surely as those she sees as below her, her options constrained by the strictures she otherwise celebrates. It’s a tension that can’t be resolved without rejecting the hierarchy that so values and validates her.

So Karen acts out. She externalizes her misery at the gilded cage her life must be lived in. Misery, after all, loves company, and so begets cruelty even when status doesn’t demand it. Shit always rolls downhill.

***

Learning to deal with the Karens of the world was one of the hardest things about making a career in hospitality. Thanks to my own immersion in the America in which Karen’s caste system holds sway — we don’t all buy it, of course, but we all know it’s there — swallowing shit didn’t come easy. But you learn ways around it, or you find a new line of work. For my own part, the trick turned out to be the simple realization — and constant repetition til it stuck — that while this person would make my life miserable for the next five minutes, they had to live in that misery all the time.

Not to say that I sympathized. Because Karens do real harm, and often as not they do it intentionally. That’s not a thing lightly forgiven, even if you understand where it comes from. But understanding where it comes from can help, at least a little.

If nothing else, you can take solace in the fact that, as miserable as she wants to make you, Karen is miserable, too. And she’ll never break free of that misery, because it stems from the caste system she takes her identity and validation from. And while that may not provoke much in the way of sympathy, schadenfreude’s a pretty good substitute when Karen’s just tried to offload some of that misery on you.

Bringing A Strongly-Worded Letter to a Knife Fight

Compromise and civility. They’re the hallmarks of a functioning democracy. Where we may not always, if ever, fully agree — we are human, after all — but we accept that those with whom we compete politically argue and act in good faith. And when the votes are counted and power changes hands, we accept that outcome and carry on with the business of self-government as best we can.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? I mean, I’d really like to live in that kind of world, wouldn’t you?

But we don’t. And it’s time to stop pretending we do. It’s time to stop bringing a strongly-worded letter to a knife fight. Time to stop pretending everything is normal, whatever normal is supposed to be. I mean, I think it’s something along the lines of reasoned disagreement in a marketplace of ideas, where policies and goals compete and the one that’s best for everyone emerges to make everyone’s life better. Like if The West Wing was an accurate reflection of reality instead of an aspirational fantasy.

Not that I don’t love The West Wing. I do. But I love it precisely because it’s a fantasy. Because it shows a picture of how I’d like the United States and the world at large to work.

I mean, how do you compromise with someone whose political philosophy boils down to ni shagu nazad? With a Republican party that met on the day of Obama’s inauguration and decided their number one priority — in the middle, by the way, of a giant recession their laissez faire economic policies brought about — was to make him a one-term President, and has never looked back? The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives elected in 2018 has passed over 400 bills this year. Fewer than 70 have been enacted into law by Mitch McConnell and his Republican Majority grave diggers in the Senate. And don’t even get me started on Merrick Garland. Or Brett Kavanaugh, who I hope gets to have some very uncomfortable talks with his daughters someday.

And that all’s just the tip of the iceberg, which metaphor frankly fails since it’s all out in the open if you care and know how to look. Which is probably one reason it’s worked so well, since as Americans we seem to believe anything done in the open must be on the up and up (at least if it’s done by a rich white dude who claims to be Christian).

As for civility, and the calls for it, well, first off I think that’s pretty rich coming from a party and movement that calls their opposition the Democrat party instead of the Democratic party because it sounds more like ‘rat’, and that decries ‘political correctness’ to the moon and back because sometimes they get blowback for speaking disrespectfully to marginalized people who’re sick of their bullshit. The whole thing reminds me of an ex-girlfriend of mine who every time we were arguing and I made a point or observation she didn’t like suddenly changed the subject from what I said to how I said it. I hadn’t heard of gaslighting back then, but in the rearview it’s as clear as the diamond in Melania’s engagement ring.

So yeah, fuck civility. With a criminal conspiracy running the White House, a major political party that stokes -isms to provide cover for transferring wealth from your pockets to a bunch of gazillionaires who couldn’t spend all they’ve got if they did literally nothing else for every waking minute left in their lives, and a looming environmental crisis that will destabilize and destroy human civilization as we know it creeping closer to the point of no return with every passing day, playing nice with the people helping speed things along for their own short-term gain and the coal-rolling, styrofoam-burning, won’t-recycle-cuz-it’s-not-manly crowd who back them up is about as high a priority as organizing your 8-track collection.

Look, I’d love to live in a West Wing-type world, where ideas and policies compete on a level playing field, where all involved believe in the rule of law and the legitimacy of free and fair elections, and, at the end of the day, everyone wants what’s best for all of us, even if we disagree how to get there. But we don’t live in that world, and I don’t know that we ever have. The world we do live in is one where oligarchs, autocrats, and authoritarians are working and fighting to make a world where they have everything, most people have nothing, and, when Armageddon comes, they’ll be safe and comfortable in their high-tech bunkers while the rest of us die from starvation, unrest, extreme weather events, desertification, and roving bands of armed paramilitaries who’d rather rob, pillage, and rape than cooperate, build, and thrive.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be goddamned if I’m gonna talk nice and play fair with people working, whether they know it or not, to bring about the end of all that’s best, brightest, and hopefullest in human civilization.

Fuck that shit. There’s too much at stake.

 

Make America What Again?

What with the shit-show we’ve got going on right now as a nation — concentration camps on the border, a wag-the-dog escalation to a war of choice with Iran, a serious bump in hate crimes and people identifying as Nazis and white supremacists, a climate crisis that will destroy life as we know it starting to kick in for real, a nationwide election coming up that will undoubtedly be fucked with by hostile foreign actors while the beneficiaries insist nothing’s wrong, and a legislature unable, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to do anything but confirm hardcore conservative federal judges to lifetime sinecures, just to skim the surface — it’s easy to understand the widespread longing to go back to the way things were under the Obama Administration. To get things back to normal so we can all go back to living our lives without having to worry that the demented narcissist with the nuclear football will bring about Armageddon in a fit of pique or even just to avoid jail time.

I get it. I really do. I also would like not to live my life in a fog of existential dread, in which every action is pointless because, Rapture or not, the end is probably nigh for the American experiment and possibly human civilization and what can possibly matter anymore?

But even were it possible to return to whatever passed for normal before — and it isn’t — such a return is not even desirable, both on its own merits and especially in light of the challenges we face as Americans and human beings who live on the rapidly-warming, ecologically-imbalanced, and soon-to-be-downwardly-spiraling Earth.

I’ll explain.

Continue reading “Make America What Again?”

No Safe Space for Them

Thinking about Ijeoma Oluo’s Medium piece and something my friend said last night on Facebook, about things we on the left can do outside of (the still absolutely vital and necessary work of) GOTV in November and beyond. I’m thinking also about GOP Senators and White House officials being confronted in elevators and hounded out of restaurants, and how much news it makes and how much it seems to rattle them when the effects of their actions are brought home.

And, you know, it makes sense. These are people who are used to the world being their safe space. That’s why they always piss and moan about civility when backlash from their day job spills over into their personal time. That’s how they can do what they do – it doesn’t touch them, most of the time. And when it does, oh how mightily they whine.

So I think we should keep doing stuff like that, because it’s clearly working. I am not, to be clear, advocating violence, even if I can sympathize with the temptation.

But turnabout is fair play, and seeing how their policies and political goals create a general atmosphere of threat and uncertainty for everyone not like them, I think it’s only fair they should get a taste of that in their own lives.

Will it change their minds, or policies? Who knows? Probably not. But it’s time those policies start costing them the way they cost so many other people.