Our Long National Nightmare Takes Five

Well, as my old roofing boss used to say, it’s all over but the crying. Except for the Senate runoffs in Georgia that’ll decide whether Democrats, and particularly Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, actually get to, you know, govern. Oh, and the Civil/Cold War between the forces of white supremacy and those of us who bought that whole Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness line and think it ought to apply to everyone. That’s still on, too.

So I guess nothing’s over. Which can be depressing as fuck to think about. So let’s take a minute to unpack some shit and see if it makes us feel better.

Start with the big enchilada, the make-or-break thing we should all be resoundingly pleased by, even if we let the polls fool us into thinking we’d be surfing a blue tsunami to happy ending town: Donald Trump has been defeated. As of January 20th of next year, he will no longer be President of the United States.

Can I get a fuck yeah?

I said, CAN I GET A FUCK YEAH?

Seriously, electing a President is not a magic bullet that solves all our problems. Our system of government is too complicated for that (which is a good thing: if the last four years taught us anything, let it be that). But the President can do a *lot* without Congress. Rejoin the Paris Accords? Check. Reboot our foreign policy so we’re not best buddies with the autocrat set? Check. Disband the concentration camps at the southern border? Check and double check.

Pretty much everything Donald Trump has done the last four years — most by Executive Order and personnel choices in key positions — can be undone by Joe Biden, because the only legislative accomplishment of that time was the giant tax cut for the .01%. All the broken shit Donny T and his band of grifters left in the wake of their fire sale? We can at least start getting it fixed. And with an Attorney General and Department of Justice — and US Attorneys nationwide — some of the corruption we’ve seen over the last four years — and, Gawd willing, some of the Hatch Act and Emoluments Clause violations — can be investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted.

Speaking of which, there’s a whole raft of legal and financial trouble coming Donald Trump’s way, stuff that’s been held at bay *only* because he’s been President. He, his spawn, and the ecosystem of grifters and opportunists that formed around them are all gonna spend time in the dock. If Gawd loves us, we’ll get perp-walks and frog-marches on live TV. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Getting big things done is going to be a lot trickier. Especially if Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, which is pretty much a veto in terms of *any* kind of legislation. It’s why the only things that have gotten done since he has been are a giant tax cut for the people he works for and a shit-ton of judges — including the hat trick he scored on the Supreme Court —  installed to lifetime sinecures on the federal bench.

Is there a chance he won’t be? Slim but not zero. If Stacey Abrams can mobilize in Georgia to win both the Senate runoffs there in January, Democrats might get to a 50-50 tie. Which means they get the majority, since Kamala Harris’s only Constitutional duty besides being our backup President is to be President of the Senate, which duties involve one thing: casting tie-breaking votes.

*If* we get to that 50-50 split, and *if* all Senate Democrats can be successfully whipped into line, they can take a procedural vote to abolish the filibuster — an arcane Senate tradition that means it takes 60 votes to call a vote on anything, and the direct reason nothing’s gotten done in Congress for the past decade. Without abolishing the filibuster, NOTHING gets done. No Medicare For All, no Green New Deal, no statehood for Puerto Rico and DC. No stimulus, either, since we taught Republicans during the Obama years that there was no cost to ni shagu nazad-type resistance to allowing Democrats to govern.

So it’s important to be realistic. Which is something folks on the left can have problems with. I don’t mean to poke at you, but remember the hundreds of millions of dollars that went to candidates like Jaime Harrison and MJ Hegar and Amy McGrath? That money could have funded a lot of local and state government campaigns, the winners of which will redraw Congressional districts next year, because the Census. We blew it in 2010, and it looks like we blew it again this year. It’s going to make it harder than it had to be to do anything, because restoring fair representation to Congress and expanding the franchise and turnout are what gets us the majorities necessary to do big things like manage the pandemic and reverse climate change.

Anyway. We are where we’re at, and it looks like the next two years are gonna be a lot of cleanup and backfill, at least at the federal level, and trench warfare with Mitch McConnell to keep the lights on. Unless we — and by we I mean Stacey Abrams and her highly effective network of organizers and activists — can flip those two runoff Senate seats in Georgie. Then we can whip our Senators to abolish the filibuster and get to governing. Minus that, we’re gonna have to give our elected representatives some leeway, cuz nothing gets done without the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress. 

But, again. Donald Trump won’t be President anymore. Isn’t that fantastic? Just utterly delightful?

So what have we learned?

First thing is you really, really can’t trust the polls. We were all shellshocked in 2016 by how off they were, and it doesn’t look like they were much better this year. There’s a bajillion possible reasons why, but my money says the biggest problem is that pollsters don’t factor in Republican vote suppression schemes. Sounds a whole lot more likely than the ‘shy Trump voter’ who doesn’t want to admit who he’s voting for, at least to me. I mean, does anybody really believe shy Trump supporters exist? Conservatives and Republicans are so tribal that even after the four years we all went through, after the catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic that’s half-crashed sociey and the economy, more of them — some seventy million of our fellow Americans — voted for him this year than in 2016.

Republicans — who are the party of white people — have looked at the same demographic trends the rest of us have. More than that, they’ve conceded the argument over how to run our society, because their arguments suck and their policies are disastrous. They can’t win power at the ballot box. So they pursue it by other means, like the SCOTUS fuckery, gerrymandering, vote suppression, and low-key (for now) domestic terrorism. There are no limits, nothing they won’t stoop to. Because they’re in a war for the soul of America, which they believe they own because God said so. That’s why they demonize liberals, and fuck their own health and economy to own us. For a long time, the American left hasn’t wanted to recognize that. But there’s no choice now, and it’s about goddam time.

This leads to my next takeaway: it’s time for Democrats and the left to stop pretending these people are economically-motivated or persuadable. We won this time because of turnout — Joe didn’t have very long coat-tails, you may have noticed — particularly by organizers and activists of color, who are the heart, soul, and future of not only the Democratic party but the left in general. It’s time, I think, for those college-educated white folks like myself — you know, the ‘Democratic wing of the Democratic party’ — to take a step to the side and ask how we can help. I’ve seen — and participated in — a lot of presumption about whose party it is and how to proceed. It’s time we recognize that presumption for the privilege and entitlement it is, and adjust our behavior accordingly.

I guess what I mean to say is that pursuing social justice is likelier to get us to social democracy than the other way around. It’s sure a lot likelier to rouse up the people who actually vote for Democrats. 

In the end, simply put, it’s about power. Once upon a time there may have been comity and civility and blah blah fucking blah, but we’re past all that now. If we want nice things like a functional ecosystem and a fairer, more just economy — where we, like, actually take care of everybody, and invest in everybody, and try and make the whole Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness thing real for everybody — we have to keep eyes on the prize, we have to keep showing up, and we have to listen to and follow the BIPOC folks leading the way.

The last thing is a little more speculative. An idea that’s been nagging at me. That maybe it’s time to set up a parallel effort, a para-state, if you will, that moves in the direction of social justice and social democracy on a voluntary, opt-in basis. A kind of vast, decentralized, international mutual aid society in which those of us who believe we’re all better off when we’re all in it together can prove ourselves right by, you know, actually pitching in and doing it.

That all said, I just want to come back around one last time to say that even though the work is still just begun and the opposition is both intransigent and without moral compunction, we won a real victory in defeating Donald Trump, one we can build on til, eventually, we get to that bright, shining, just, and prosperous future we want for ourselves and everyone.

I feel pretty good about that.

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.

Actually, the Debate was Perfect

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

It will not surprise you to hear I was disappointed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least metaphorically.

Empathy for the Devil

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

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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