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.

What Do We Do When the Cosplay Paramilitaries Come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is now, and maybe it always was. 

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

So what, then?

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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.

Dear My Fellow White People

I’d like to suggest that if the color of your skin and the doings of people who lived in the same countries as your ancestors constitutes your greatest source of pride and self-worth, then maybe you should consider doing something worthwhile and constructive enough with your life that you can cultivate that pride and self-worth there. I think you’ll find that it’ll make you much healthier and happier, and no one has to die because you can’t think of a good reason to like yourself.

9/11/18

I was gonna write a whole thing about 9/11, but my memories are no specialer than anyone else’s – and less special by far than many. Besides, look around. We haven’t learned a goddam thing. Bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

So, instead, here is a sentence that is also a haiku:

Kids born after the
towers fell can now fight the
war we’re not losing.