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.

The Samurai and the Millionaire Socialist: Liz and Bernie at the Nevada Debate

Oh, how I’ve longed to see the side of Elizabeth Warren who came out last night. All campaign long, I’ve understood as she held back, aiming to be the one who could unite the disparate wings of the party and so not throwing elbows at anyone, for the most part, so that when the general election came, progressives and moderates and everyone else could stand and fight together against the creeping oligarchy and nascent white christian nationalist fascism that threatens democracy, the future, and the viability of human civilization on our rapidly warming planet.

In a perfect world, that would be the campaign for President everyone should want. Ideas, passion, and a relentlessly positive message.

But we do not live in that world, nor, likely, do we deserve to, at least collectively.

For all their bespoke suits and expensive coiffure, the mainstream media are basically wrestling announcers. They want drama, a good fight. And they love the bad guys, the badder the better, because they make for good TV. And while once upon a time news might have been firewalled from the ratings game, a ‘public good’ provided by the networks to justify their use of our national airwaves, that time is long past, and it’s all about them eyeballs for advertisers. ‘Nice lady makes good point’ doesn’t rate much attention next to ‘Presidential candidate brags about penis size’, which is an actual thing that happened four years ago. Never mind their paymasters — and accountants, because these people are decidedly not middle-class — freaking the fuck out because Warren knows how to unrig the game, and published her plan for doing so on the internet.

They all but erased her from their coverage (only three tickets out of Iowa, says the CW, and then the third story is Biden coming fourth, and don’t get me started on the WSJ poll literally leaving her out), til the erasure became a story in its own right.

Then last night happened.

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Liz Warren can’t believe these two poll ahead of her.

 

Remember the first debate, back in approximately 1975? When Warren cracked and stuck a shiv in John Delaney that bled him out on live TV? I’ve been waiting to see that again since then, and boy howdy, did she deliver last night. She was like a samurai: the drawing of the sword and the killing blow one smooth, graceful motion.

It helped, surely, that she had Mike Bloomberg — who is as literal an embodiment of everything she’s stood and fought against her whole adult life as it is possible to be — and she broke out the katana first thing, cutting his heel tendons so he couldn’t run away and then eviscerating him for two hours. It was a great preview of how she’d take on Trump, who is a lesser and thinner-skinned version of Bloomberg, and I’m pretty sure half the country (and some dudes, too) are salivating at the chance she might get to share a debate stage with him.

She bled Pete and Amy some, too, on the health care thing, and more subtly by being the only one standing up for people of color, who make up a majority of the Democratic base and don’t seem much to care for the folksy Midwesterners so keen to invite folks from the other side to the table. She even gave Bernie a few well-placed pokes, on his M4A plan but also for the way his campaign deals with even the hint of criticism of the man, the myth, the legend.

It was a tour de force performance, and I for one can’t wait til the next one.

Bernie had a pretty good night, too. Mostly by not having a bad night. Conventional wisdom holds that when you’re the frontrunner you’re best off staying out of the way and letting the rest of the field fight it out. And despite the bombast and revolution-talk Bernie is, at the end of the day, a pretty conventional politician, even if his views and ideals have been a little left of the Overton Window for most of his career.

There were a couple of moments, though, that did not bode well, I think.

[As always, the caveat: Bernie’s my second choice, I supported him in 2016, and will gladly support him come the general if he’s nominated.]

First was at the end, when asked about the prospect of a contested convention (which personally I think is pretty likely and even desirable, but that’s another post). Everyone but Bernie said let the process play out. There are rules and procedures in place for just this eventuality, so we should follow them. Bernie alone — and for obviously self-interested reasons, since right now it’s likeliest to be him — said whoever had the plurality of delegates ought to be the nominee. It was not a good look. I mean, maybe if you’re a Bernie-or-buster and you want your guy no matter how he wins it. I know there’s a segment of his support motivated by his uncompromising stances on, well, you name it. If that’s your jam, okay, I guess. But I saw a guys who’s in it at least as much for his own ego as he is for enacting a progressive agenda. I’m not questioning his convictions — I believe he believes in what he says he believes — but it was pretty clear four years ago he got a taste for the spotlight and being the man and it’s been pretty clear since it’s a good chunk of his motivation. Maybe not a majority, but possibly a plurality, to make a politi-nerd lol out of it.

The second thing, though, worries me even more.

I haven’t seen anyone else notice this (I think he’s gotten Warren’s exceptional performance to thank for it). But there was a moment toward the end where Mike Bloomberg, of all people, scored a hit with an attack I’ve been waiting for.

“The country’s best-known socialist is a millionaire with three houses.”

Bernie was flustered, he stumbled to explain (CW: If you’re explaining, you’re losing). Something something Vermont, something something, DC, something something woods camp. And here’s where the especial vitriol of Sanders’ supporters is hurting him: they’ve kept him so comparatively insulated from the slings and arrows of a political campaign that he’s forgotten he’s got vulnerabilities. The other Democrats in the race are too worried about alienating his supporters to have brought it up, but I will bet you all the money I have that Republican ratfuckers have a great big goddamn file of opposition research with the words ‘Millionaire Socialist’ stamped on the front. How could they not see this coming? Not have an answer prepared for this blindingly obvious line of attack? For fuck’s sake, he’s running to run against Donald Fucking Trump, a man with not zero but negative compunctions about doing or saying any- and everything to get what he wants. If it was someone else, I might give them a pass, since running for President takes a lot of time and money and it might not make sense to devote resources to that kind of thing til later. But Bernie only stopped running between June and November of 2016. There wasn’t any doubt he’d be back. So the lack of preparation for an obvious, if cheap, line of attack?

Say it this way: I hope he takes good advantage of the pass he’s got on this one. Because right now he looks likelier than anyone to be the one in the ring with Donald Trump and the worldwide plutocrat mafia backing him.

As for the others, Amy and Pete’s circular firing squad was hilarious, Mike Bloomberg should visit a dominatrix once in a while, and I look forward to Joe Biden stumping for whoever wins the nomination and then heading up blue-ribbon panels for the rest of his life.

Very much looking forward to next week in South Carolina.

Make America What Again?

What with the shit-show we’ve got going on right now as a nation — concentration camps on the border, a wag-the-dog escalation to a war of choice with Iran, a serious bump in hate crimes and people identifying as Nazis and white supremacists, a climate crisis that will destroy life as we know it starting to kick in for real, a nationwide election coming up that will undoubtedly be fucked with by hostile foreign actors while the beneficiaries insist nothing’s wrong, and a legislature unable, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to do anything but confirm hardcore conservative federal judges to lifetime sinecures, just to skim the surface — it’s easy to understand the widespread longing to go back to the way things were under the Obama Administration. To get things back to normal so we can all go back to living our lives without having to worry that the demented narcissist with the nuclear football will bring about Armageddon in a fit of pique or even just to avoid jail time.

I get it. I really do. I also would like not to live my life in a fog of existential dread, in which every action is pointless because, Rapture or not, the end is probably nigh for the American experiment and possibly human civilization and what can possibly matter anymore?

But even were it possible to return to whatever passed for normal before — and it isn’t — such a return is not even desirable, both on its own merits and especially in light of the challenges we face as Americans and human beings who live on the rapidly-warming, ecologically-imbalanced, and soon-to-be-downwardly-spiraling Earth.

I’ll explain.

Continue reading “Make America What Again?”

The Best of Both Possible Worlds

I have always referred to myself as a pragmatic progressive. Progressive because of the policy goals and political ends I think best pursuing, pragmatic because I’m not super particular on how we get there, as long as we do. I often find ideologies interesting, but ultimately I think they do more harm than good, because they circumscribe what is thinkable. Also, they often work best on paper, and while theoretical space is a useful tool for playing and working with ideas, the lived world of actuality is almost always too complex for ideology to usefully encompass.

At the end of the day, though, I’m much more interested in (and motivated by) ideals than ideology. And I’m much more inclined to use them to pick ends than means, though they do very much play a role in both.

So, what ideals drive me, politically speaking? What political ends do I seek?

It’s pretty simple, really. I want everyone – by which I mean literally all humans – to have all the tools, education, and material support they need to prosper and thrive, individually and collectively; the opportunity to do meaningful work (whatever that means to them); and the material, cultural, social, and spiritual means to pursue and find happiness, again both individually and collectively.

Pragmatically, it seems to me the best way to get there is a combination of two systems of societal material allocation that often seem at odds: socialism and capitalism.

Both have virtues and shortcomings. Continue reading “The Best of Both Possible Worlds”