Shit Mountain Blues: Anti-masking, Open Carry, and the Right to Do Harm

How many times have I heard the lament? If you won’t wear a mask to protect yourself, won’t you at least think of the innocent people you might infect? Because that’s the thing, right? Masking works best when everyone does it, because it provides some protection for the wearer from aerosolized droplets, yes. But the bulk of the protection comes from limiting the spread of those droplets in the first place, when the infectious person’s mask catches them right out of the gate. That’s just science.

The lament is rhetorical, an appeal to conscience. And if you have one, and aren’t hyper-invested in white christian supremacist patriarchy and your place at or near the top of its hierarchy, such an appeal might work. But it doesn’t, because it is exactly that perceived positioning atop that particular hierarchy that drives the anti-mask movement, along with Second Amendment fundamentalism and, let’s be honest, the conservative movement generally.

It’s a dominance thing.

Let me see if I can break it down. Say you believe that there’s a hierarchy to the world. Call it Shit Mountain, because the slopes are steep and we all know which way shit rolls. Say your mythology tells you you’re king of shit mountain, or at least a member of his court, and everyone below you doesn’t matter. You don’t have to give a shit about them or about what they think or what they want or how they feel, because they’re below you, and we all know which way shit rolls. 

Sounds pretty good, right? But it’s not, though. It’s enervating as fuck. Because you know the people you shit on are eyeing you, watching for weakness. Worse, you’ve got your own to jockey against, because the closer you are to the top the less you can afford to get shit on, because if people see shit on you, they might think you’re lower down than you are. If it happens enough, they turn right.

It’s enough to keep a man up at night. To eat at him constantly. The more invested he (or she) is in Shit Mountain, the more anxious, the more paranoid about status he (or she) gets. Seriously, just try and tell a Shit Mountain man something. Anything. He’ll fight you on it just because you said it first. Prove it’s true, and he’ll double down. Because to Shit Mountain Man everything is always about power. Shit Mountain Man believes he can bend reality to his will. So long as he can make you submit, he thinks he has.

The more anxious Shit Mountain Man is, the more likely he is to act out. To insist not only on his right to do so, but on the rightness of his doing so. To insist, furthermore, on acknowledgement of his right to do so. Because what, after all, is a greater demonstration of power than to harm others without consequence to oneself?

When white men don’t wear masks, when they march in the street open carrying long guns, when they show up to ‘protect businesses’ or counterdemonstate against police accountability protesters, when they ask to see the manager and try and get you fired from your job, it’s an assertion of power. It’s an assertion of a positive right to harm others, and a willingness — in too many cases, an eagerness — to do so. It’s an assertion about Shit Mountain, and where they are on it, and where everyone else is. And that assertion, and submission to it, is more important than anything else. 

***

I wrote not too long ago about what I call the Founding Factions, the contradiction at the heart of the American Experiment: 

“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 th 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.”

me

Shit Mountain Man is the cultural, intellectual, and — in plenty of cases — genealogical heir to the Three-Fifths crowd. They’ve fought against those self-evident truths since the ink on the Constitution dried. They tried to secede from the Union, and when they lost they engaged in armed insurrection, terrorism, and guerilla warfare til the Union said fuck it. They lost slavery, so they built the caste system of Jim Crow, and have done their level best ever since to keep America from fulfilling the promise that was supposed to legitimize the whole goddam thing in the first place.

The world’s oldest democracy has never lived up to its ideals. How could it, when the clearest enunciation of those ideals come from a slave-owner and serial rapist? Try and bury that kind of contradiction, shit’s gonna keep coming back around, like it is now. 

The Shit Mountain crowd is scared. They lost the argument — because, duh — and, worse for them, they’re losing the demographic battle. That’s why they’re so desperate, why they have no conscience left. After all the dirt they’ve done, what’s a few more dead, theirs or ours? Until we submit, and pretend they can bend reality to their will, they’ll keep insisting on their right to do harm. And they’ll keep doing harm, in or out of uniform.

Who am I kidding? They’ll keep doing it whether we submit or not. We all know what power does, just like we know which way shit rolls.

The Reason They Won’t Say When He Last Got Tested

One of many obfuscations President Trump’s doctor has engaged in is refusing to disclose, so far, when Donald Trump’s last negative COVID test was. Now, of course, he won’t say why, but I have a hunch that fits the facts and fits the pattern of the Trump White House’s behavior like a Savile Row suit:

Trump hasn’t been getting tested.

Not regularly, despite the White House line that they test more than anybody. And maybe they do, if you aren’t the President (never mind the fast turnaround tests they use aren’t super-reliable, from what I understand). But Trump himself? I agree with Josh Marshall that they were probably relying on testing everyone around him as a proxy for testing him.

But why not test the President? Why not test Donald Trump?

My guess? It’s the same reason he’s downplayed testing in general. If you don’t test, you don’t know. You can do the Trump thing where you decide what reality is based on what you want and pretend it’s actually so. It’s the same willful ignorance/knee-jerk malevolence that drives everything he does. Only this time it’s come back to bite him in the ass, him and a whole super-spread-alicious chain of Republican movers and shakers.

And hey, you know what? It couldn’t’ve happened to a more deserving bunch of folks. Not only as karmic retribution for what they’ve done to our country, but as just desserts for their own hubris thinking COVID couldn’t touch them. Guess that’s what happens when you get high on your own supply.

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.

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 Do We Do When the Cosplay Paramilitaries Come?

Picture this. It’s November 3rd, Anytown USA. Or, if we’re not lucky, Everytown. The high school gym is full of voting machines, touchscreen for the most part. The masked and gloved volunteers have coffee and donuts, donated by moms whose kids now rehearse pandemic protocols along with their active shooter drills. The donuts have red, white, and blue sprinkles. There’s a special room where you can eat them, but everyone just lifts their mask up, changes gloves after. Almost everyone.

At 8am, polls will open. On the sidewalk outside, chalk marks stretch down the block, six feet apart. The air is crisp with autumn chill. There are still Halloween decorations on some of the houses, and the jack-o-lanterns are starting to sag. Candy wrappers turned inside out can be seen among the red and gold and brown of leaves just begun to rot in the gutters. So far the sky is clear, but the weatherman says storm’s a-coming.

By 7:30 early voters have begun to line up. Some of them like voting in person. Others just don’t trust the post office since the layoffs and budget cuts last month. They take their marks, chatting with neighbors or playing with their phones. Since the second spike, everyone wears a mask.

At 7:58 a cargo van pulls up and parks. Six men get out, who are also wearing masks, along with Kevlar vests, sunglasses, and AR-15s. Four have sidearms in holsters clipped to their belts. All six are white. They have armbands with American flags rendered in black and white and the words Election Security printed below. They line up across from the front of the line to get into the polling station, where they have a clear line of sight.

“Attention citizens!” says the leader, a bearded man of late middle age. He wears a ballcap from the Navy ship his father served on. “We are here to observe this polling station and make sure no voter fraud takes place! This is a peaceful action, and no lawful citizen exercising his rights is in danger!”

Phones are by ears now, as voters call 911 en masse. Harried operators and units available to respond are overwhelmed. This isn’t the only polling station where this is happening. This is a widespread, if uncoordinated effort, one telegraphed for weeks in the press and on the internet, but that has yet caught law enforcement and the media flat-footed come the day, because America is not the kind of place where things like this happen.

But it is now, and maybe it always was. 

***

Let’s get something straight before we go any further. The moment Donald Trump is no longer President, he will be indicted, arrested, and taken to jail. However far down the memory hole it’s fallen, the Mueller report by itself lays out a case in painstaking detail — the only reason it did not take the step of recommending prosecution is because of the Justice Department policy of not prosecuting a sitting President. Even if a Biden Justice Department were to reprise Obama’s mistake in not investigating and prosecuting his predecessor (Remember W’s war crimes? Good times), the state of New York is ready to go with racketeering and fraud and corrupt organization charges. Trump knows it, too. It drives every decision he makes.He’ll die in office or he’ll die in prison. And since he doesn’t care about anyone else in the world besides himself, he’ll do whatever it takes, up to and including inciting civic violence and unrest, to stay in office. No hesitation, no compunction. Hell, no forethought, even. His party has already started accepting and training volunteer poll watchers. If/when they decide to arm themselves, the party will throw up its hands and claim plausible deniability, and by the time the dust settles the election will be over and called.

And let’s face it. There’s a small but hardcore segment of the population that’s just dying to get out there and intimidate their fellow Americans with their long guns and body armor. Some of them got a taste for it in Iraq or Afghanistan, some in law enforcement. Some of them are just concerned about the oppression white men and Christians face in these disturbingly diverse, increasingly dis-United States. At least a few just really want to shoot somebody. 

What they all want is to bring America back to its roots, its foundation. Its fundamental state, if you will. In which only white men can vote, and everyone else remembers their place and stays in it. They might even, through the private prison industry, reprise something like slavery. How else are we supposed to compete with cheap labor from China?

First, though, they have to cement their lock on power. They have to suppress enough votes to carry one more election. If they can do that, they can lock down the courts and gerrymander districts for another decade after the Census, and secure the White Christian Man at the top of the food chain for the rest of history. Which won’t be long, because these jokers are going to handle climate change about as well as they’ve handled Coronavirus, in that they’ll actively make it worse and a lot of people and species will die unnecessarily as a result.

But they don’t believe in climate change, or they don’t care, or they just can’t see how it matters if it’s not them and theirs on top of shit mountain, watching their turds tumble down on those who God loves a little less.

***

Do I really think people will show up with guns to intimidate voters? Who the fuck knows in this crazy crap-shoot world? But I know the GOP has been willing to engage in wholesale voter roll purges, and make it super-hard for the wrong voters to register, and draw gerrymandered districts that should be prosecuted as crimes against geometry and that strain even partisan credulousness in their purpose-built geographic contortions. I know the Presdent’s son-in-law, de facto chief of staff, and fellow overprivileged incompetent failure Jared Kushner has already floated the idea of delaying the November election.

I also know that somewhere around 40% of Americans are on board for all of it, the demographic rump of white Christian Americans who like the way things used to be and love Trump for the fact of his unapologetic entitlement and privilege, which permits them to really let their freak flag fly in public. Between their aggrievement and gun collections and the Trump mafia’s legal jeopardy the second they’re voted out of power (when, mark my words, the Republicans who endorsed and enabled them will forget they ever knew such vulgar buffoons and get on to squawking about the deficit again), I think it makes it likelier than not that at least some places we see armed vigilantes like the ones I’ve described up above.

For the record, I’d love to be wrong about this.

***

So what happens when the armbands show up, the vigilantes and cosplay paramilitaries and irregulars in an undeclared war, men with guns and body armor and the unshakeable conviction of their own rightness? What are we going to do?

If all we’re relying on is the courage of individual voters then we’re doing a disservice to democracy, our country, and our chance of hauling this timeline back on the rails, of bending the arc of history back a little more toward justice and maybe saving some of the ecosphere for our descendents, who are going to judge the living shit out of us and have every right to do so.

Back to our hypothetical polling station, where the chill in the air has more to do with the presence of self-appointed poll-watchers kitted out for urban warfare than the time of year and tilt of Earth on its axis. What kind of response are we hoping for? Should we try and field counter-paramilitaries? Try the good guy with a gun thing? Doesn’t that make us like them? Would it even work?

Maybe we should just call the cops and hope for the best. Of course, the same elements ready to drag us back in time at gunpoint have spent the last couple decades infiltrating law enforcement. Either way, it’s not like the cops have been doing much when the vigilantes and cosplay paramilitaries show up to protest at state capitols. I don’t think we can count on them, and I sure as fuck wouldn’t recommend it to voters of color.

So what, then?

***

It’s 8:04 when six bikes pull up. The riders are masked for pandemic protection, but instead of guns they’ve got cameras. They take pictures of the armed vigilantes — in homes across the country, activists and internet sleuths work to identify them and publish their names when they get a match. Other riders have cameras that upload video straight to the cloud. The armbands still have the guns, but now they know the world is watching. There’ll be a record of anything they do or say tagged to their identity.

Will these Recording Angels stop the men with guns? Hard to say. But people are a lot less likely to commit crimes and atrocities when they know other people are watching. And when individuals are identified, and the consequences of their actions can be correctly assigned, they become a whole lot less likely to go all Kristallnacht on a polling place. Accountability is a hell of a thing.

In the story I’m telling, the vigilantes lose their nerve pretty quick. Because their power only derives from their guns, and despite that tingle in your balls you get when you pick up a loaded firearm, the power it gives you is entirely situational and not as great or wide-ranging as you might think. The six load up in their cargo van, and democracy carries on. 

The election is decided by voters and not men with guns and a bunch of privilege and inequality to protect at the expense of everyone else and the planet we live on. It’s as happy an ending as we’re likely to get these fucking days.

***

One last thing: if we don’t want the above scenario to play out — if we don’t want paramilitary vigilantes showing up at polling places for the purpose of voter intimidation in the guise of election security — then we’d better have our response prepared in advance. Volunteers, money, some degree of coordination, the technical infrastructure built in advance. Just like we know they plan to come loaded for bear, we need them to know we plan to come loaded for democracy.

I’m willing to bet if they know we’re serious, they won’t even show up. They are, many of them, cowards after all. That’s why they have to carry their guns in public in the first place.