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.

This Is the World Conservatives Want

When he was first running for President in 2008, the closest Barack Obama came to a gaffe — defined in political reporting as a politician inadvertantly speaking the truth — was when he said that when things got bad, it made people turn bitter and ‘cling to their guns and their faith.’ Conservatives excoriated him and the mainstream press went along, having been trained over years and decades to a kind of pro-conservative bias out of fear of being perceived as liberal. And in a sense conservatives were right to. Not because it’s insulting to their voters, but because it’s basically their game plan and philosophy of governance. Because people really do become more conservative — by which I mean driven by fear and concerned only with their own, be it family, race, or, in the worst cases, themselves alone — when things get tight. Which is why when they’re elected conservatives do their best to undo not only our social safety net, but the very idea that we can solve the problems facing us by coming together and cooperating. They do their best to shrink the government til you can drown it in a bathtub, and tell everyone that not only are they on their own, that it’s both righteous and good that they should be.

They’ve been on a real tear since 2016. Hell, since 2009, when Mitch McConnell and the rest decided their response to overwhelming electoral defeat would amount to ni shagu nazad. Since it’s always easier to say no than say yes, to tear down than to build, to demand good faith from the other side while acting from grievance yourself, they’ve been more successful than I think even they imagined they would be.

So let’s see where we are now, shall we? Near two hundred thousand dead in a pandemic, the numbers surely worse than we know thanks to a willful neglect and sabotage of testing and data-gathering. Police officers still executing citizens of color on camera despite huge, ongoing, and in some cases effective protest movements, to the point where one suspects a kind of willfulness to their assertion of their right to kill whenver they ‘feel threatened.’ They meet those protests like an occupying army, one that may or may not be coordinating with armed paramilitaries. Like the seventeen year old asshole who crossed state lines from Illinois to Wisconsin with an Armalite long gun to protect Kenosha’s businesses by murdering its citizens in the streets and failing to be arrested by police despite trying very hard to surrender himself. A person can’t help be reminded of the re-open protests — Liberate Michigan! — early on during the pandemic, when those same cosplay paramilitaries got up and spat in officer’s unhelmeted faces, and note the stark disparity.

This is the world conservatives want. This is the world they have built. This is the natural result of their practice of governance and whatever tatters of philosophy remain to justify it when they look themselves in the mirror before they go to bed at night.

Why do they want it? Who the fuck knows? Most of them are still the people Obama got dinged for too accurately describing: victims of the same pandemic, the same economic collapse, the same erosion of the social safety net. They may have voted for all of it, but they surely didn’t think it would work out this way, I’ve got to think. But I’ve also got to think the millennarian strain in evangelical Christianity — you know, the reason they support Israel so devoutly: not because they’re pro-Jewish, but because the Book of Revelation needs the Jews back in Israel to get on with the whole Rapture and Armageddon thing — has something to do with it. As do the oligarchs who fund the whole thing. You’ll notice the stock market’s doing fine even though the world’s going to hell and people are dying in droves and unemployment is as high as it was during the Great Depression. After all, if you’re rich enough, a recession is just an opportunity to buy assets at fire sale prices. The boom and bust of the ‘business cycle’? It’s a feature, not a bug, and screw you, jack, I got mine.

But, at the end of the day, this is the world conservatives want because it’s the only one in which they can continue to govern and hold onto their power. They need the post office hobbled so they can buy stock in FedEx and UPS and so mail-in ballots won’t be reliable. Then people will have to risk catching Covid to vote in person. It dampens turnout, which works out in their favor. They want Russia and whoever putting a thumb on the scale and will bury the story so long as it works in their favor. They want vigilante ’militias’ in the streets armed with military-style weapons, and cops in body armor and no visible identification to match. They want millions of gig workers with no benefits and no minimum wage and no safety net, who will work for scraps and crumbs and live paycheck to paycheck and be grateful for what trickles down.

All along, conservatives have described the world they wanted, this world they have brought about. We didn’t listen, I guess. Didn’t take them seriously. I’m not even sure they all took themselves seriously. I think plenty who profited bringing this about are surprised how far we’ve fallen how fast. That’s the thing about playing with fire. It gets away from you quick.

I’ll you one thing, though. It’s gonna take a hell of a lot of work to rebuild what’s been burned down. I hope enough of us can come together to build something better in its place. If it gets any worse, we won’t be able to.

Drunk at the Barcon

Since it seems like SF/F is having another #himtoo moment, and certain chickens are coming home to roost w/r/t the bad behavior of certain men, I’d like, if I may, to address one small fragment of the overall situation. One that I — a man but, more particularly, a retired bartender with two decades in the weeds — feel specifically qualified and, to be honest, called on to address.

That is the excuse “I was drunk.”

As excuses go, “I was drunk” is, frankly, bullshit. Let me explain.

See, ethanol is, first and foremost, a disinhibitor. That’s why we drink socially, to help us slough off the cares of the day and enjoy the moment. Yes, those first few light up the reward center in your brain, which is another reason we drink for social fun. But the thing poisoning yourself mildly does best is shut down those pesky higher order brain functions so we can get our relax on and let our freak flags fly. And sometimes, man, sometimes it’s just fucking great. Everybody has a good time. Funny shit happens. Friendships and memories are made, even if they might be a little blurry.

But sometimes somebody’s just fucking great is somebody else’s this fucking sucks. We don’t always remember to pay attention to the cues of people around us, or that we’re supposed to respect them. Sometimes we only pay attention to what we want.

Here’s the thing, though. Alcohol doesn’t make us do things. Alcohol frees us to do things. Things were already there.  You might not have known about them, but you probably did. You might’ve even tried to balance them out in your regularly scheduled life, by being loudly feminist or whatever.

In vino veritas is latin for ‘in wine there is truth’. The oldest known expression comes from Cato the Elder, who was surely quoting what was, even then, ancient wisdom. So this is not exactly a new observation. As a retired bartender, I can tell you that if you pour enough liquor into somebody, good, bad, or indifferent, you’re gonna see who that person really is, what they want, and how entitled they feel to having it.

So yeah, I get it. You’re at a con, so you’re already basically on vacation, even if you’re a pro and it’s a working vacation. And everybody knows the barcon is where the real action’s at. Shit, when I go to cons — not often — I pretty much post up at the bar the whole time, unless a friend is reading or it’s time to catch a meal with old friends or whatever. Get yourself a couple-few drinks in, and just throwing vibe out there to see if anyone bites seems like a perfectly reasonable, even desirable thing to do. If like me you’re old enough to have been raised in the ’70s and ’80s, you might even believe it’s your manly right or duty or, hell, even burden to get that smolder on and let the ladies know you’re a fellow who likes ladies.

Whatever it is, what you do is on you. That was inside you all along, just waiting to come out. The ethanol? That’s the excuse. That’s what sets you free to be the man you are. You are, and remain, responsible for your choices and actions. I don’t fucking care how drunk you were, and no one else does, either.

Time was, I would have said something about how you ought to ‘man up’ and face the consequences of your actions. As a more or less traditionally-raised cisgender male I’m still inclined to put it in those terms. But the man I’ve learned to become would tell you, instead, to human up. What do I mean by that? It’s pretty simple. It’s the basic but fundamental recognition that all humans are human first and foremost — before gender or phenotype or sexuality or anything — and, as human, accorded the dignity, validity, and value we would accord to any other. When your actions harm another — whether you were drunk or not, whether you meant to or not, it doesn’t matter — you are responsible for the hurt you caused, and liable for the consequences. The measure of your humanity is in your recognition and acceptance of that.

Apologizing helps. But only if that apology is accompanied by a change in behavior. If the behavior doesn’t change, the apology is invalid, as are further apologies. Maybe once upon a time that shit flew. But it doesn’t anymore, and it never should have to begin with.

Nor should you, to my eternal shame, think I’m up on some high hill lecturing. I’ve done my share of sins and then some. That’s how I know your truth so intimately. I have been that guy, and come to see the error of my ways. It’s nice over here. I sleep better and I have more authentic relationships with people. If you want to know how to do it, it’s easy.

Admit wrongdoing and accept fault. Listen to the women who find you valuable enough to try and salvage. Do what they tell you. Repeat until it sticks. When you fuck up, and you will, start this paragraph over.

Back to that barcon. It really is fun, right? Everybody having a good time and talking shop with that small segment of the greater population who find all this shit so fascinating. If you’re going to be there, be part of the fun. For everyone.

If you can’t be? Well, maybe you should go sit in your corner a while and think about what you did til you come to that whole ‘everyone deserves dignity and respect’ epiphany.

What We’re Talking About When We Say ‘Defund the Police’

Much hay has been made, and much squid ink spritzed, about the overnight sensation overtaking the nation. That’s right. I’m talking about Defunding the Police!

[Cue scary music. ‘Who will protect us?’ a voice asks. ‘Who’ll keep the murderers and gang members away?’ The lights begin flickering. The music crescendoes. The killer’s right behind you! Aiiiggghhh!]

Okay, having got that out of the way… Defunding the police is not, as some mongers of fear might try and convince you, the same as disbanding the police. What it is, is a recognition that the vast majority of problems we have gotten in the habit, as a society, of  sending police to solve are actually best handled by someone other than armed agents of the government, authorized and — all too often — primed to solve problems with deadly violence.

Take a moment, if you will, and think about how rarely police need their weapons. How little of the work they do involves a firearm or even a taser. Even when a crime has been committed, most of the time the officer is just there to fill out paperwork. That doesn’t need a gun. Neither does handing out speeding tickets, or de-escalating a domestic violence complaint, or doing a wellness check on a mentally ill person, or responding to Karen, who saw a black person birding or barbecuing or having a birthday party.

In the last few decades, we’ve cut social services to the bone. Between recessions and the perennial popularity of tax cuts, we’ve let more and more people slip through the cracks. Crime doesn’t arise from some weird innate criminality — most people don’t just want to watch the world burn. But people who aren’t getting what they need from the richest society in human history are going to act out. They’re going to take drugs and fuck shit up and hurt themselves and others, because of course they are.

Meanwhile, for all the services cut, the police just get more and more and more money. Some places, the police department is half the city budget. Never mind civil asset forfeiture, where they can literally take your stuff and your money whether they charge you or not, and you have to sue them to get it back. Or the Pentagon program that funnels surplus military equipment — designed and built for urban warfare and population suppression thanks to our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq — to local police departments on the cheap. Between the equipment and the steady stream of service members joining up after their tour’s up, the culture has transformed to that of an occupying force, one made sinister by the systematic infiltration of racists and white supremacists in addition to the sort of person attracted to the kind of job where you get to kill people sometimes. And it’s safe and easy for them to do so. Thanks to a couple of Supreme Court decisions in the ’80s, all an officer must do is speak the magic words ‘I feared for my life’ and accountability more or less disappears. Add to that ‘qualified immunity’, and you can’t even sue them for killing your son or husband or father or brother or sister or mother or child.

For decades now, politicians have uttered their own magic words. Law and order. Say them enough, you can justify cutting all the social programs you want in order to funnel more money to police. Police who we then send to solve every problem those social programs could address so much better than armed intervention once things have gotten bad enough to come to a head. Even the best-intentioned cops aren’t trained for it, and don’t have the skills and tools to resolve the situation other than one of two or three ways. If the only tool you’ve got is a gun, every problem starts to look like a target. For some that’s a feature, not a bug.

So, back to those scary words. Defund the police. What do they mean? Well, the short, simple answer is they mean we take a good hard look at the problems we need armed intervention by trained agents to solve, and we only task police with solving those. Since there are so very few instances when manifesting the potential for violence is useful or wanted, the purview — and budget — of the police department shrinks. The money is then reallocated to social and community programs that help meet the needs of citizens and community members before they reach a crisis point. Things like mental health care and housing and food support. In some places, it might make sense to invent new agencies with new missions to take the place of police no longer performing them.

In the end, defunding the police makes communities safer. First by removing the violence committed by police themselves. Second by allocating those resources to helping citizens and community members who need it before they reach crisis. I know it sounds scary — change often is, especially if you’re comfortable with the status quo — but the way we’ve allowed things to evolve isn’t serving any of us well.

Think about it this way, if it helps. How much crime will there be if everyone has what they need, and we all commit to taking care of each other? How many people with security and prospects will join gangs? How many people will reach the tipping point where they can’t help but act out and fuck shit up for everyone around them?

The answer to these questions won’t be zero. Humans gonna human, after all. But the numbers will be lower than what we have now, and we’ll have the additional satisfaction of seeing to it that all of us get what we need so we can live a happy, balanced, productive, and meaningful life. What’s not to love?

Hear Me Out

What if we just… took care of everybody? No, wait. Hear me out. What if we decided that nobody should go hungry, or be without a safe place to go? What if we decided everybody should have reliable lifelong health care, safe housing, opportunities for meaningful work, the chance to be part of a community, and all the education they wanted? What if we made that the birthright of every American, every human being ever born from here on out?

What would things be like if we decided to do that? If we decided to invest in a world worth living in and everyone living in it?

Would it be paradise? Utopia? Probably not. Humans gonna human. But it’d be a damnsight better than what we’ve got now. Think about it this way. What if all the economic stress in your life right now was gone? No worries how you’re going to pay the rent/mortgage. No stress where your next meal’s coming from, how you’re going to afford your meds, or your tuition, or clothes to wear. How you’re going to help out your parents or feed and clothe your kids or go see a doctor about that thing that’s been making you worry. Feels like a vacation, doesn’t it? Now imagine everyone else is on that same vacation. Oh, sure, there’s work to do. But there’s time to spend quality time with friends and family, time for the important things, the ones that make a life. The things you’ll look back on from your deathbed and be glad that you did them.

Crime would go way down, because without poverty and the misery and stress that go with it there will be less reason for it. Productivity would go up, because people who are rested and who choose to do the work they do get more done than desperate drones living paycheck to paycheck who know how disposable they are. The arts and sciences would thrive. Communities would thrive, too, yours and mine and everyone’s. We could finally turn our attention to climate change, and our crumbling national infrastructure.

The usual answer is that we can’t afford to do that. There’s not enough to go around as it is. But that’s a lie, and everyone knows it. A few hundred people have as much wealth as hundreds of millions. If that wealth were circulating in the economy instead of sitting offshore, everyone would be middle class.

The point is: we can afford it if we decide to. And that brings us to the real question, the one that doesn’t get asked enough.

The real question is: why don’t we decide to do that? 

Why don’t we decide to just take care of everybody, invest in every person and every community, put a floor under everyone, a foundation solid enough to build one hell of a high ceiling on? If we can — and we can — why shouldn’t we?

That’s a question everyone has to answer for themselves. To me, it seems obvious that we should. I’d think any person of conscience would say that. Wouldn’t you?

How will we do it? How will we pay for it? What is the plan? These are all good questions, with long, complex answers, the minutiae of which could occupy us for years, and will. But for now, for this moment in history, where we stand at a moment of grand possibility for both destruction and renewal, what’s important is to decide where you want to go. What kind of society you think we should build. Figure out what, and put how in the service of that. 

We can work out the details as we go. We’ll surely make mistakes. But the clock’s ticking down, and it’s time to get moving.