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.

The Sanders Ceiling and the Dirtbag Left: Why Democratic Socialism Fails Without Social Justice

Friends, humans, socialists! Lend me your eyes. For I come to bury Bernie, and to praise him.

When the histories are written – if histories are written, and more on that later – I think Bernie Sanders, though he will almost surely not be President, will rank as a transformative figure in American politics. How can he not? Things that are mainstream now, things like Medicare For All, a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, were politically unthinkable four and five years ago, and it is, for the most part, entirely thanks to Bernie Sanders.

Turns out that progressive policies are actually pretty popular. As many of us suspected they would be, if the media could be convinced to take them seriously (more on that, too). Bernie’s run in 2016, and the energy that manifested behind it, put those issues into both the Democratic Party platform and, more important, the marketplace of ideas, where they sell like hotcakes at a lumberjack convention. Because why wouldn’t they? They’re great fucking ideas that would make almost everyone’s life better.

So why can’t Bernie, and Democratic Socialism, seem to break through electorally? Or at least get past the dedicated core of supporters who have already joined his Political Revolution?

***

The answer is complicated. But it can be broken down into elements, some of which can be controlled, some of which can’t. For instance, one element that can’t be controlled is the cultural and historical weight of the word socialism, whether you modify it with the word democratic or not. Especially among Americans over the age of, say, forty. You know, the people who actually vote in meaningful numbers. I’m pushing fifty, myself, and remember the Cold War pall that hung over my childhood, where at any moment the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics might erupt into nuclear holocaust. That’s some heavy shit to lay on a kid. But more important, that early training (friend/enemy, good/bad) is hard to transcend even if you’re consciously trying.

And yeah, socialism is much more agreeable to Millennials and Gen-Z and whatever we end up calling the ones who’ll come after them. We could have had it already, too, if they’d fucking turn out to vote in bigger numbers. Not that any generation ever has any moral high ground on that. So file that under ‘we’ll work on it, but don’t hold your breath.’

Also in that file is what I’ll call the Resistance of the Punditariat, who perform our national political discourse on TV and podcasts and radio, and from the pages of newspapers and magazines and political websites, and who are, for the most part, handsomely compensated for doing so. Their salary depends on their not understanding certain things, especially those that might upset the status quo. Not only are they invested in that status quo – as the successful will be in any situation or system – they have also been worked like sports refs for decades now by the folks on the right, who never miss an opportunity to accuse them of liberal bias. It’s to the point where a fair observer has to say they’ve overcompensated. Why else was every third question Elizabeth Warren was asked – back when she was the front-runner in national polling – whether or not she would raise taxes on the middle class? The question’s as loaded as an AR-15. Like in middle school when that kid thought the funniest thing in the world was to ask ‘Does your mom know you’re gay?’

So figure the punditariat – who are mostly fairly liberal in their personal attitudes; I do believe that – will continue to skew anti-liberal/progressive/socialist for the foreseeable future. You can’t control it, but you can take it into account and start working them yourself, calling out bias in framing and the focus on horse-race ephemera when lives and livelihoods are on the line. Like anything, if enough people do it for long enough, that tide can be turned, too. Evolution has a thousand mothers.

***

So what factors can we control? And what does this have to do with Bernie Sanders and his Political Revolution? I’m glad I asked, cuz I got a theory.

My theory is we have two problems, which are inter-related. The first is simply this: socialists, especially the core of Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution, are really shitty at being allies, and, as such, are even shittier at building coalitions. If you think I’m wrong, I’ll point you to all the people demanding Elizabeth Warren endorse Bernie Sanders because of their friendship and ideological similarities. People who, some of them, got in a flame war with Warren’s supporters back in January when her so-called friend and ally called her a liar on national TV, and who called the person who built the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (and was forced out of running it) a corporate stooge. Shit, Warren’s people reached out to Sanders weeks before Super Tuesday and her dropping out of the race, and were rebuffed.

Some of this is the Dirtbag Left, who not unlike the above-mentioned punditariat, have found a profitable sort of noise to make, and whose new salaries depend on their not understanding things like how being an exclusivist jerkwad pretty much guarantees nobody wants to join or even work with you. It’s somewhere between a faith tradition and a cool kidz club from what I can tell: you’re in or you’re out, and fuck you if you’re out, even a little. It works as entertainment, but it’s no way to build a governing coalition. Which is what you need if you want to enact policy to, like, change people’s lives and shit.

But there’s a whopping dollop of blame to put on Bernie Sanders’ fudge sundae, too. For some of his hires, definitely. But the man made some seriously flawed choices. For one thing, his insistence on running as much against the Democratic Party as the Republicans and the billionaire corporate oligarchy is just a really not good way to get Democrats to support you. It riles up the kids, but til they show up to vote that’s a human interest story at best.

But it was Bernie’s choice to dismiss social justice issues as ‘Identity Politics’ for so long that really doomed him.

Put it this way: the backbone of the Democratic party is not, as many white college-educated progressives believe, white college-educated progressives. The ‘Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party’ as folks used to put it. We think we are, and there’s a certain logic to it. But we aren’t the party’s backbone, nor its heart and soul, either.

Women of color are the backbone of the Democratic Party, its heart and soul and animating force. People of color generally, but women of color particularly, and African-American women particularly-particularly. They’re the ones who show up, no matter what. The ones who do the actual work that makes the party go.

Women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants. You can win without them. But only if you’re a Republican.

So, if you want to, say, get the Democratic Party nomination for President, you’d best have a plan to win those voters over. Give them a reason to take a chance on you, Because as previously detailed, anything that can be labeled ‘socialism’ has a hard row to hoe in the US, and since those folks are the ones who catch the worst when Republicans and their coalition of White Christian Nationalists and the Actual Oligarchy are in charge, yeah, they tend not to want to take chances. I mean, put yourself in their shoes for a minute. If the house is on fire, you want to hear from the guy talking about how to put the fire out, not the guy talking about what kind of house you might build later.

And that brings me to the second prong of my theory, which has to do with the limits of a purely materialist critique of the status quo’s utility, not only as rhetorical but an analytical tool.

Like any reductive analysis, a purely materialist (the corporations and the 1% have captured the state and unofficially enslaved us all to an unsustainable economic system with disastrous and unjust real-world consequences) critique flattens the object of its critique, examines it through a lens that shrinks the spectrum in order to highlight certain wavelengths over others. All too often, issues of social justice are among those excluded wavelengths.

Those for whom social justice issues are of more than academic or conscientious interest aren’t thrilled to have their concerns so cavalierly excluded, it turns out. Nor are they thrilled when, as I’ve seen so often, they are blithely told how their issues will be magically solved through solely economic justice, and called names when they fail to achieve the expected moment of epiphany and join the faith tradition.

Remember, these are the natural, obvious allies any effective democratic socialist movement needs to achieve even a fraction of its goals. It’s time to stop asking why they aren’t joining us, and start asking how we can grow not only our tent but our worldview to include them.

***

I have a deep and abiding respect for Bernie Sanders and the movement he’s built. I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing the issues – and policy solutions – of economic justice and class war and democratic socialism into the American mainstream, where even a resistant punditariat has to take them seriously. But I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the limits of not only a Sanders-style Political Revolution that demands adherence instead of building alliances and coalitions, but of a purely materialist socialist critique of late capitalism that filters out issues of social justice and asks those for whom social justice is lived reality to take it on faith that they’ll be included.

For what it’s worth, on a personal level, I still think that more actively fighting the class war and striving to establish economic justice will go a long way to righting social and historical injustice. Like the cereal commercials from when I was a kid used to say: it’s an important part of this nutritious breakfast.

We just have to remember there are other things on the table, which are just as important, some even more so.

***

If you want to change hearts and minds, you have to meet people where they are. You have to find out where they’re coming from, what they need, what they want. And you have to, you know, help them get it. Do the work for them. Don’t tell them how being your ally will benefit them. Show them how it does. It means reaching out, but it means stretching out, too. Becoming bigger yourself.

The most basic tenet of democratic socialism is that we’re all in it together. So let’s start acting like it. Let’s start acting like we understand the only socialism worth having is one that begins with social justice. Maybe then we can get some shit done.

An Open Letter to the Big Banks and Financial Institutions

In a way, you should be thankful. Not everyone gets the kind of chance you have now.

I’m sure you remember twelve years ago: you guys got really into selling derivatives and derivatives of derivatives, and you pumped the housing market up til it popped. The whole economy was set to go down the toilet, with y’all leading the way. You were greedy. You were irresponsible. And you left us holding the bag.

And we, the American people, bailed your asses out. We pumped you full of TARP cash, gave you zero-interest loans, bought those worthless derivatives of derivatives, and dragged your over-leveraged, too-big-to-fail near-carcasses back from the brink of bankruptcy and dissolution. Then we propped you up and kept you going, til now you’re bigger and stronger than ever.

Now that COVID-19 is shutting down the economy, it’s time for you to return the favor.

Loan payments? Suspended. Mortgage payments? The same. Small business grants and low- to no-cost loans? Bring ’em on. Keep paying employees who suddenly don’t have work to do? You betcha. Hire more outside contractors and freelancers so those folks have money coming in? There’s never been a better time.

Like I said at the beginning, you should count yourselves lucky. Not everyone gets a chance to balance the scales when someone saves their lives, preserves their very existence. But you, you now have the opportunity to square things out, clear the karmic ledger, and return the favor we did you twelve years ago when you really, really needed it.

I hope you’ll have the decency and foresight to do the right thing here. Because it’ll be good for your souls, because it’s the right thing to do.

And because if you don’t, and go on in your usual callous, rapacious, self-serving way, we’re gonna burn your shit to the ground and dance on the ashes. Trust.

Something for Warren Supporters to Consider Now She’s Dropped Out

I don’t regret casting my primary ballot for Elizabeth Warren. And no, I did not register a protest vote, though I think that’s legit during primary season (the general election is a different animal). Be it cussedness or hope, I cast my ballot a few days after it arrived, before Super Tuesday put a period at the end of the campaign of the best, most qualified, most potentially transformational candidate of my life time.

Sigh.

But, you know, I’m kind of glad. Like, today I broke my social media fast for an hour or so and went on Facebook, and I read a very smart friend of mine’s long post comparing, contrasting, and weighing the pair of shouty near-octogenarians left vying to vie with the shouty near-octogenarian currently failing our country even more obviously than he has been these last three years and change. As I likely would have, he came down on Bernie’s side, with all the caveats you’d expect, and which I won’t reprise here.

But it got me thinking.

I know the CW is that most Warren supporters have more in common with Sanders than Biden (the actual behavior of said voters seems to be more like a 50-50 split), and on the policy merits that’s true. But that CW doesn’t take into account that Warren supporters are Democrats, and while that may, to some Sanders supporters, make them snakes, or at least complicit with the corporate machine trying to make cogs of us all, those same Sanders supporters seem to forget that running more against the party you’re trying to represent than the party you’re trying to beat in the general election puts a pretty hard cap on the support you can draw. Put another way, the best way to defeat your enemies doesn’t start with beating your allies into submission first.

Still, it’s not like Joe Biden is a particularly inspirational or transformational figure, and if the kind of big, structural change necessary to make our government into something that can address not only our legacy problems of racial, gender, and social justice and rampant, unsustainable income and wealth inequality but the upcoming climate eschaton also happen under his Administration, it will be a fucking miracle.

So yeah, tough choice. One I don’t envy anyone. And if you’ve got strong feelings on the shouty near-octogenarian question, you should absolutely cast your primary vote accordingly.

But if your choice is a) neither or b) who the hell cares?, I have a third option you might consider.

Vote for Elizabeth Warren anyway.

She won’t get the nomination. I know that. I haven’t made peace with it quite yet. But I know it. Another thing I know is she’d make a fine VP choice for either of them. And while I’d prefer her on top of the ticket, I’ll settle for having her on it. Especially given that both these guys are pushing 80, and Bernie already had a heart attack. Way I see it, if she’s getting votes without even running, that makes her a stronger contender, and frankly either of them would be well-served to choose her, since she has at least the capacity to build a bridge to the losing side. That was the campaign she ran, after all, being the bridge between the two wings of the party. Even if she doesn’t get tapped, it still ups her leverage when Convention time comes, and the party’s platform’s drawn up.

Anyhow, it’s just a thought I had, a rationale, if you want one, to vote for the candidate you believe in, even though she’s dropped out. Like I said, if you’ve got strong opinions on the Sanders/Biden question, or just want to have your say in who gets to beat Trump in November, do that. But there’s good reason to follow your heart if you don’t.

Come the general, it’s blue no matter who, all the way down the ticket (and fuck you if you choose otherwise). Between now and then, there’s room left for conscience. Don’t be afraid to stay true to yours.

The Limits of Political Revolution

In 2003 or so, in the height of the Bush II era, when you were ‘with us or with the terrorists’ and the Iraq War was in its first Friedman Unit, I went with my friend Jonny to an event called Drinking Liberally. As you might expect, it was held at a bar, and the idea was for liberals and progressives and so on to gather together and drink, bond, commiserate, and strategize. George W Bush was at the height of his power and popularity, and the various candidacies to replace him were in their beginning stages. I remember we all sat around a big table, with another rank of folks standing behind us. At one end of the table were these two dudes in sweaters doing their absolute best to hijack the conversation, talking over people and extolling their liberal-than-thou bona fides.

Their main point, aside from smug self-satisfaction? That the key to the Democratic party getting back into power was to get rid of all these centrists and DINOs, so the ‘Democratic wing of the Democratic Party’, i.e. its most liberal faction, could ascend to power. By some sort of Underpants Gnomes calculus, this was supposed to lead us to victory in 2004.

Let me say that again: shrinking the party to its hardest hard core of (let’s be honest, white, mostly male) progressives would somehow lead to electoral victory, where the key is to convince the most people to vote for you.

I believe the technical term for that is magical thinking.

I’d love to forget those two smug assholes. Hell, I’d love to forget the whole Bush II era, when conservatives started trying on their brown shirts and jackboots in earnest, and fucked shit up so bad these racist-ass United States actually elected a black man President. And it seems I’m not alone in that. To be honest, it seems like half the damn left forgot the lessons we should have learned back then, which is a big part of what made Donald Trump possible.

Which brings me, sigh, to Bernie Sanders and his ‘political revolution’.

In 2016, I was a Sanders guy, right up til it became mathematically impossible for him to win the nomination. I was thrilled to see someone bring the kind of deep progressive policy and political goals and rhetoric I, a lifelong progressive, had been wanting to see in mainstream discourse ever since I was old enough to vote and engaged enough to pay attention. Even when he didn’t win, I was thrilled when his rhetoric and platform did indeed cross over into the mainstream. I was less thrilled than the candidate himself, who crossed the line somewhere from someone whose goals and interest were driven by principle to someone whose principles were driven by his goals and his self-interest. But that seems to be most politicians, so it’s if not forgivable then not a deal-breaker on its own.

But Bernie Sanders political revolution’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it’s an insurgency defined as much by its opposition to the institutional Democratic Party as it is by its positive political and policy ambitions. Which, if you’re running for the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President, with the institutional backing that comes with it for a general election, is kind of a problem.

Yes, the party leadership has probably coordinated in response to Sanders’ rise. Which is, you know, their job and all that, conspiracy theories aside. But so, apparently, have the voters, who yesterday — and much to this Warren supporter’s chagrin — coalesced around Joe Biden, FSM help us all, as the last man standing/consensus choice.

Turns out snake emojis and sneering contempt for people you’re going to need later on isn’t the best strategy for building coalitions.

Look, temperamentally and policy-wise, I’m firmly aligned with Bernie Sanders (I’m even more so with Elizabeth Warren; the misogyny and deliberate erasure that handicapped her campaign will have to be a whole other post, though). We do in fact need radical change, even radical-er than Bernie himself calls for (ain’t a goddam thing gonna pass as long as there’s a filibuster in the Senate). But you know what we need to get that radical change passed into law? A great big fucking coalition, not all of whom are going to be hard core progressives who only identify as Democrats in Presidential election years.

I told those two guys all those years ago that much as I agreed with them on policy, you can’t get shit done if you don’t have a majority, and you don’t get a majority by telling people they’re sellouts or assholes if they don’t believe just as you believe, just as hard as you believe it. Almost twenty years on, looks like I’m still over here in the corner, saying the same goddam thing.