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.

The Customer Is Always Right

Give me liberty or give me death. That’s what the sign says. She stands in front of the Baskin Robbins, not a manager in sight, her roots growing out, her mouth open mid-rant when the shutter clicks. She has her weight canted forward, on the balls of her feet, and a small American flag in one hand.

A vintage troop transport pulls up to a corner downtown, filled with cosplay paramilitaries in masks and sunglasses and ball caps and body armor. Each carries his customized Armalite one handed, to keep the other free for high-fiving. This is even better than the titty bar.

A quad-cab faces off with a nurse in mask and scrubs, tired of this shit. Not pictured: the hospital, maxed out and running out of PPE. A woman hangs out the passenger side window, hollering. Her hair is bleached. Her shirt says USA. The truck gleams, freshly-washed, in the sun.

***

For most of my adult life, I worked in bars and restaurants. And while food and drink were what we charged the money for, that wasn’t all we were selling. Core to the transaction, if unspoken, was customer service: treating people like they’re important and like what they want matters. In due measure, it can be rewarding both ways. But one of our exceptionally American cultural pathologies is that we take it waaaaaaay too far. Here the customer is king, and always right, and we’ll be happy to comp the meal you didn’t like and bag up the leftovers so you can take it home with you for later. Have a nice day and like us on Yelp!

You see that same sense of entitlement on display at these astroturf ‘protests’ that keep popping up like cold sores on state capitol steps. Like cold sores, they look like a lot more than they are, especially with the camera zoomed in so the people fill the frame, and all the empty space around them disappears from the context. They carry signs that say things like ‘I need a haircut’ and ‘Give me liberty or give me Covid-19.’ Maybe one in ten has a sign that says ‘I need to work.’ The one in ten has a valid point, but what the other nine want is only going to make things worse. More people will get sick. More people will die. The economy will, in the long run, take a bigger hit.

Doesn’t much matter when you’re broke and hungry and the rent is due now.

Do you know what else has that kind of urgency? When an addict needs a fix. Because let me tell you something: for every alcoholic, functional or not, that I served a drink to, I served three people addicted to being served.

The nine in ten? Didn’t know they were customer service addicts. Didn’t realize how much they depended on that presumed (purchased) deference. They thought that was just how the world worked, how it ought to work. How God wanted it to work, with his hierarchied omnibenevolence and preference for white Christian Americans. Take that away — take away any addict’s fix — and all they have left is the hole they’re trying to fill, the damage they never healed, the emptiness, uncertainty, and dread. For half a month or a month, they’ve been drying out in quarantine, no one to treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters.

And they are freaking the fuck out right now. Their roots are showing in more ways than one.

But it makes for good TV. And the operation was successful. The record shows: people protested. Those governors looking for a reason to kick poor people off unemployment rolls and deny small businesses support have their cover story. Someone else will come along and open new gyms and nail salons and restaurants after all this is over. The economy will go on.

(Someone else’s) death is a fair price to pay for liberty. Anything else would be tyranny in the land of the free.

And the addicts? They get their fix. Everybody wins.

Except the people who die.

***

I tried to quit smoking the first time when I was nineteen. Don’t think I made it a day. It wasn’t til I was in my thirties that I managed to quit for more than a couple weeks here and there. Every time I tried it was like every negative emotion, every hurt and disappointment and anxiety and guilt I’d ever felt and repressed welled up in me all at once all the time no matter what was happening around me. It was like that because that’s what was happening. My addiction tamped all that shit down, so I could get through my day without screaming or hurting myself or, as too often happened anyway, someone else. Because what is anger but weaponized pain, and what does a weapon want but to be wielded?

It took a lot of years and a lot of tries before before this last time I quit. It took also a lot of hard looks in mirrors and calling spades spades and a lot of coming to terms with things and a lot of humility and work. I also lucked out in having a first date with my partner the day after I last quit. That probably has more to do with my success in staying quit for this long than anything else.

***

It’s hard to feel sympathy for the entitlement of the customer service addict, especially as someone who made a career of abetting them for three decades. Negotiating with someone who’s just waiting for a reason to ask for your manager — or being the manager who has to step in and grease the squeaky wheel — will erode your faith in humanity and leave a dirty taste in your mouth. Doing it for not enough money to live on sucks even worse.

Early in my career, I found a way to console myself when I encountered such a person. True, they might make my life hell for five minutes or an hour. But it was always like that inside their head. You’d be surprised how much that realization helped.

Anger is weaponized pain, and now, without service industry people to point their anger at, these pampered beasts are finding their pain again. How can they know they’re always right if they aren’t anyone’s customer? Who will treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters?

***

Once upon a time, some scientists addicted some rats to cocaine. They put it in the water, put regular water next to it, and watched the rats choose the cocaine water again and again. Who wouldn’t, living in a scientist’s cage?

Someone had the idea to put the rats in different circumstance. They put the rats in rat paradise: room to run, things to do, other rats to be friends with. They offered them cocaine again. They wanted it less.

***

The guns the boys are playing with are real. So is the virus that shut down the service industry. The one they’re protesting from their self-defaced cars so they don’t catch it. So are the people they’re willing — implicitly or ex- — to sacrifice the lives of so they can have their fix again. So they can feel like the always-right kings they’ve always known themselves to be.

No addict quits without wanting to. Because when you quit you have to deal with all the things the addiction tamped down for you. It hurts, and it takes a long time. To be honest, it’s more ongoing process than final result, journey and not destination. But like anything, you get out of it what you put into it.

But what the one-in-ten need (the ones whose signs say ‘I need to work’) is more like what the people the customer service addicts want to go back to work need. It is, funny enough, the same thing our economy in its present form needs: free money to keep the charade going until we can build our own robust paradise, free health care in case we get sick, a rent and mortgage and debt payment freeze, and a reason to believe we might come out of this in a better place.

This doesn’t serve the customer service addict, nor the governor who has interests and oligarchs to placate.

But I can’t help but wonder: if we build the paradise that the rest of us want, where everyone gets what they need and no one has to worry about problems we have the means to solve, maybe the rats in their self-imposed cages will stop wanting the cocaine water so much.

Probably not. But I think we should do it anyway.