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.

This Is the World Conservatives Want

When he was first running for President in 2008, the closest Barack Obama came to a gaffe — defined in political reporting as a politician inadvertantly speaking the truth — was when he said that when things got bad, it made people turn bitter and ‘cling to their guns and their faith.’ Conservatives excoriated him and the mainstream press went along, having been trained over years and decades to a kind of pro-conservative bias out of fear of being perceived as liberal. And in a sense conservatives were right to. Not because it’s insulting to their voters, but because it’s basically their game plan and philosophy of governance. Because people really do become more conservative — by which I mean driven by fear and concerned only with their own, be it family, race, or, in the worst cases, themselves alone — when things get tight. Which is why when they’re elected conservatives do their best to undo not only our social safety net, but the very idea that we can solve the problems facing us by coming together and cooperating. They do their best to shrink the government til you can drown it in a bathtub, and tell everyone that not only are they on their own, that it’s both righteous and good that they should be.

They’ve been on a real tear since 2016. Hell, since 2009, when Mitch McConnell and the rest decided their response to overwhelming electoral defeat would amount to ni shagu nazad. Since it’s always easier to say no than say yes, to tear down than to build, to demand good faith from the other side while acting from grievance yourself, they’ve been more successful than I think even they imagined they would be.

So let’s see where we are now, shall we? Near two hundred thousand dead in a pandemic, the numbers surely worse than we know thanks to a willful neglect and sabotage of testing and data-gathering. Police officers still executing citizens of color on camera despite huge, ongoing, and in some cases effective protest movements, to the point where one suspects a kind of willfulness to their assertion of their right to kill whenver they ‘feel threatened.’ They meet those protests like an occupying army, one that may or may not be coordinating with armed paramilitaries. Like the seventeen year old asshole who crossed state lines from Illinois to Wisconsin with an Armalite long gun to protect Kenosha’s businesses by murdering its citizens in the streets and failing to be arrested by police despite trying very hard to surrender himself. A person can’t help be reminded of the re-open protests — Liberate Michigan! — early on during the pandemic, when those same cosplay paramilitaries got up and spat in officer’s unhelmeted faces, and note the stark disparity.

This is the world conservatives want. This is the world they have built. This is the natural result of their practice of governance and whatever tatters of philosophy remain to justify it when they look themselves in the mirror before they go to bed at night.

Why do they want it? Who the fuck knows? Most of them are still the people Obama got dinged for too accurately describing: victims of the same pandemic, the same economic collapse, the same erosion of the social safety net. They may have voted for all of it, but they surely didn’t think it would work out this way, I’ve got to think. But I’ve also got to think the millennarian strain in evangelical Christianity — you know, the reason they support Israel so devoutly: not because they’re pro-Jewish, but because the Book of Revelation needs the Jews back in Israel to get on with the whole Rapture and Armageddon thing — has something to do with it. As do the oligarchs who fund the whole thing. You’ll notice the stock market’s doing fine even though the world’s going to hell and people are dying in droves and unemployment is as high as it was during the Great Depression. After all, if you’re rich enough, a recession is just an opportunity to buy assets at fire sale prices. The boom and bust of the ‘business cycle’? It’s a feature, not a bug, and screw you, jack, I got mine.

But, at the end of the day, this is the world conservatives want because it’s the only one in which they can continue to govern and hold onto their power. They need the post office hobbled so they can buy stock in FedEx and UPS and so mail-in ballots won’t be reliable. Then people will have to risk catching Covid to vote in person. It dampens turnout, which works out in their favor. They want Russia and whoever putting a thumb on the scale and will bury the story so long as it works in their favor. They want vigilante ’militias’ in the streets armed with military-style weapons, and cops in body armor and no visible identification to match. They want millions of gig workers with no benefits and no minimum wage and no safety net, who will work for scraps and crumbs and live paycheck to paycheck and be grateful for what trickles down.

All along, conservatives have described the world they wanted, this world they have brought about. We didn’t listen, I guess. Didn’t take them seriously. I’m not even sure they all took themselves seriously. I think plenty who profited bringing this about are surprised how far we’ve fallen how fast. That’s the thing about playing with fire. It gets away from you quick.

I’ll you one thing, though. It’s gonna take a hell of a lot of work to rebuild what’s been burned down. I hope enough of us can come together to build something better in its place. If it gets any worse, we won’t be able to.

An Aside on We Build the Wall and the Arrest of Wannabe Supervillain Steve Bannon

It didn’t take a nukular scientist to smell the grift in We Build the Wall, a private-group attempt to crowd-source funds to build the border wall Trump ran on in 2016 that Mexico was going to pay for because Trump was such a great negotiator. ‘I swear I won’t take a penny’ is the GoFundMe version of ‘Trust me’ (which, if you don’t know, if anyone ever says ‘Trust me’ what they’re really telling you is they aren’t to be trusted). The hundreds of thousands of donors to said obvious grift should have known what it was, just as Trump’s voters ought have known they were being pandered to when Trump ran for office, and that he would have similar luck delivering.

Both grifts, though, have one thing in common, which is that they are pitched to their donors’ and supporters’ racism and xenophobia, and that, for at least some of those donors and supporters, that was the deliverable: the opportunity to be pandered to.

And here’s the thing that comprises my aside, my small insight to add to the cavalcade of noise: there will always be people who pander to racists. The reason’s quite simple. There will always be people to pander to racists because people who can be convinced to believe they are special for the sheer fact of descending from a particular ethnic group — or something even vaguer, like ‘whiteness’ — are the easiest people in the world to separate from their money.

Because you’d have to be a real sucker to believe what racism’s selling. And so long as enough suckers do, we’ll keep seeing grifts like this to take advantage of them.

Why is QAnon?

Now, I’m just some dumb asshole with a computer, just like you, and I hope it would be obvious that each believer will have their own special snowflake configuration of reasons and circumstance. But based on my experience and observation, it mostly seems to come down to three things:

  1. Conspiracy theories are attractive because they make sense out of a world far too complex for most, possibly all, humans to fully or even usefully comprehend. There are too many actors, too many agendas, too many forces at work at every level of action and perception. By positing a force both nebulous and powerful enough to steer the course of world events, the believer obtains a frame through which everything can be made to make sense.
  2. Once they’ve bought in, it’s extremely difficult, even impossible, for most people to admit they made a mistake. Especially, in my experience, people who see the world through a hierarchical lens, with themselves at or near the top of said hierarchy. Their privilege, in this view, stems from their virtue. Admitting error tarnishes that virtue, endangering the privilege and making the hierarchy wobble. Nobody likes when their worldview starts showing cracks in the facade, much less the foundation.
  3. Last — and in this case, I fear, most compelling — by projecting such evil debasement onto their adversaries, believers in QAnon and other similar conspiracies not only validate the visceral hate they have cultivated and been encouraged to cultivate by their leaders for those adversaries, they liberate themselves to act on that hate, without quarter, hesitation, or mercy, even making it, in their eyes, a positive moral duty to give in to the violent and/or oppressive impulses that so often follow such visceral hatred.

That’s my two cents. Your mileage may vary.