(Header image used courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
I started this column a few weeks before the Russia / Comey shit hit the proverbial fan. Which has made writing this column trickier, but also turned out to be pretty predictive (for instance I was talking about the importance of staying on message w/ Trump / Russia and not letting go and boy howdy has that come to pass). But this piece is about much more than the daily ups and downs of the ongoing crisis. This piece is really about figuring out how to navigate America itself. And with the developing Comey stuff, we now stand at a precipice of all this in a way that is more true now than ever.
2. SNOT BOOGIE
I spend a weird amount of time thinking about the opening scene of The Wire (I feel like this might be common). But I think of the scene less as a cipher for understanding the show and much more of an introduction to the parameters. Because the drama itself covered so many sociological topics from the drug trade, to policing, to trafficking, to politics, to education, to the press, all to the point that it ended up being a portrait of the American city. It was, in effect, a show about society itself. And in trying to show the parameters of our society, we get an opening scene where Detective McNulty and a witness discuss the murder of a young man named Snot Boogie. Who, every time a local dice game was being played, would attempt to grab all the money and run for it. But he was always caught. And they always beat him up and took back the money. This was the cycle every time. Except on this night, someone shot Snot Boogie for that offense. The witness bemoans the fact that the kid didn't have to die. At the end of the scene, McNulty asks the lingering question, "If snot boogie always stole the money, why'd you'd let him play?"
"Got to. This is America, Man."
3. DYSTOPIA MYOPIA
I haven't been able to write these "what we can do" columns lately and it certainly hasn't been for a lack of trying. I'll start a topic, but they take a few days to write. The problem is that by the next day I'm already angry about a more pressing issue and so I'll start writing about that instead. The Trumpian news cycle has created a constant sense of futility. One that is exacerbated by an oh-so-crappy sapping of energy, personal stuff, and constant fear of what boogieman comes next in this administration. I'm not sure there's a word for it other than despair. But it all fed into a moment recently where I outright short circuited.
It was the other week, before the epidemic of Trumpcare 2.0: Boyz in the House (the boyz who vote against women that is), where President Trump was asked about Sean Spicer's job security. This was shortly after the "gaffe" where Spicer was, for some godforsaken reason, trying argue that Hitler wasn't as bad as the folks in the Syrian conflict because he didn't use chemical weapons on his own people. But when asked about Spicer, President Trump said of course his job is secure because he "gets great ratings."
That's when my brain broke.
Every time I think we are at the conceptual bottom of this thing, we fall lower. It was just another in a series of times when your face gets splashed with the cold sobering reality of Trump's unique brand of staggering, dangerous idiocy. The president of the United States defends a Hitler defender because, in the end, he thinks the press secretary's job is to get ratings. It sounds insane. Largely because it is. For it reveals a man who does not even understand "the game" he is actually playing. And it's directly in line with the constant parade of similarly clueless statements, a la Trump's recent comment about his presidency: "I thought it would be easier." This is an equally brain-breaking thing to consider, for it gets at the notion that an adult man who somehow went through an entire presidential campaign would think being president was easy. And despite this, we still constantly look for logic across Trump's moves, trying to find some way to cut through all this. But there is no logic. We know that Trump has no pathology other than trying to make himself look as powerful as he can in any given situation. Which means he will only react and turn on a dime with no thought to the consequences. Which reveals the most terrifying thing of all, the thing that keeps most of us up at night: he's just a toddler playing with a loaded gun.
But we know that already, don't we? We can go right back to the cartoon picture of him as a baby reaching up for a teetering globe. We've always known all of this. We just keep hoping it's not as bad as we know it to be. This is the essential problem with optimism in an abusive system. We always hope for the best thing, we'll even get lost in the minutiae of trying to take the piss out of him on a daily basis and the feeling of control that gives us. We try to restore our sense of power as American voters, and the GOP stands there and says "yeah, let's give this toddler a gun and see what happens." So when we get hit with these continued reminders of what is so impossibly glaring, so impossibly hard to comprehend, it all becomes yet another gut-punch. But the truth remains: the most ill-suited, dangerous, and dumb man runs the country. And that is something one never gets used to, so we fight against that reality in the worst possible ways. We refuse to call him President Trump. We start grading on a sliding scale to try and preserve that sense of power. We start distorting. We stop fighting the bigger shift and focus on the little ones to regain a sense of control. But when it comes to the actual well-being of society, the big shift is always the real problem.
Whenever I say that we're living in a dystopia, I think people get tripped up on the imagined state of what that is supposed to look like. I mean, they're not wrong, because a dystopia is defined as an imagined place, so it literally can't be real. And any imaginings of that place are often ones so ravaged by disorder as to be dysfunctional on every level. We're talking the wasteland in Mad Max: Fury Road or big brother sci-fi otherness of 1984. But why the word dystopia is so necessary to me now is that we are talking about real-life things that are happening to us, but if they were presented in some book or story we would go "that's too ridiculous and implausible." This is stuff far from the common corruption that marks many a politician. Trump's comments fit in with the comically absurd. They are unbelievable. The current president believes it's the press secretary's job to get ratings. He's basically a Vonnegut character. Which brings us back to the same problem: when the comically absurd is made real, we cannot truly believe it because there is no real way to actually handle it. So we revert back to the sliding scale. And that's exactly how we can shrug a comically absurd man into the white house: as an impossibility.
This of course relates to another appropriate word of the times: fascism. For there are many who scoff at the notion that we are dealing with fascism right now. This is because they believe that fascism only looks it does in the the most iconographic images of Nazi Germany. Stormtroopers marching down your street, knocking on doors, and the whole shebang. The truth is that most of the time fascism looks completely normal for a lot of folks. It's sunny days where you go to work and have pretty much no problems out of the ordinary. Fascism looks like everyday life. It has to, really. Because oppression actually needs to be quiet in the everyday in order to properly function and drive wedges in society. It's the old proverb of how you boil the frog in water. You don't just drop it in. The heat has to turn up slowly so it doesn't notice, it can't imagine the boiling is possible, and then it's already cooking (it's just another sliding scale, really). And even in 1930's Germany people got the sense that Hitler was a nutter. There were news cycles that made them angry. They even got the sense that bad things were happening just slightly "off screen", but it was mostly sunny days.
This is exactly what passed the buck: the disbelief that you are in what you are in, because if you actually are in that, then your reality is too terrifying to come to grips with. Denial in its purest form. And that's not even to speak of the sliding scales for different parts of society. Because a lot of Americans scoff when people talk about being scared of a police state, as if wondering if the cops are going to show up at your door, or pull you over, and shoot you for no reason, is some absurd idea. But please, let us ask the black population of this country all about that daily reality (something that was happening at a horrific rate even under Obama by the way). It's a real thing that already exists for a huge population of Americans. And yet we deny. The same goes for another daily horrific reality, which is all of the shouts of "fake media!" from Trump (his update from fake news). The president of the United States is saying that all news media is fake. He's not talking about bias. He's saying fake. This is happening. And people are believing him. It is literally right out of the Hitler playbook of "Lugenpresse" (lying press). All of this is real. It's why I've started actually saying "President Trump", because our refusal to say it is part of a deeper denial. And right now, we need to call a duck a duck. So the reason to use these words like dystopia and fascism is simple: This is how those words should be used.
Which just means we are in a remarkably dangerous time.
4. THE BRAZEN THREAT
There were many who argued (and still argue) that Trump wouldn't be as bad as we think because of his stupidity, as if it would trap him in some ineffective vacuum. They argued it is far more dangerous for evil to be cunning than stupid, but I've never, ever believed that. Those who are cunning are interested in self-preservation above all else. They will play the game. They will not put themselves at risk. They can be planned against. But stupid? Stupid is about the preservation of ego, not self. Which means stupidity will lash out, it will destroy, it will burn itself just to burn you. And I think the effect of stupid is unmistakable. It disorientates. It sows chaos. And for all the things that crash and burn because of that disorganization and stupidity (which we will celebrate), there are just as many are pushed through (like the house voting on health care without having read it or the dismantling of government departments). It is the too-real danger of an evil that does not know to be cautious, nor cares when it breaks something important. And that is a 1000x times more terrifying. From there, Trump's unique brand of dangerous idiocy combines with basic hate, egregious policy, and naked corruption. This all cascades into a threat unlike any other, one I will simply call "The Brazen Threat."
The Brazen Threat manifests across the administration. From the disgusting tacit approval of white power movements, to the constant hypocrisy, to not even trying to hide the lying even under oath, to the intent to destroy government programs purely so business can run amok, to the intended destruction of so many safeguards in the move toward totalitarian thought in order to make things "easier." But it's especially present in the naked corruption. Trump has not divested, nor shared tax returns, both of which he "promised" to do. And now he is stacking up constant benefits across the board, from Mar-a-Lago to the conflicts of interest with his family's heightened role (which are getting more and more brazen, as well). His kids literally shrug off and admit kickbacks and conflicts of interest. And he is paling around with abhorrent foreign dictators, and all the while the Russian elephant just sits there (a sentence I wrote last week, before shit started going down. Ha!). And all this happens in plain sight.
Which reveals how the true horror of "The Brazen Threat" is in what we allow, or more, what we can't stop. All of this shows how powerless we really are. It's terrifying. Even Ivanka Trump tweets "The question isn't who is going to let me; it's whose going to stop me?" (and hilariously misattributes it to Ayn Rand), which is as horrifying a mantra as you can imagine for a government. Sure, the checks and balances of the judiciary system have been our first 100 day savior, but they will keep getting pummeled and dismantled bit by bit. So all of it, especially the Russia stuff, comes down to one simple thing: unless the (mostly Republican) congress wants to call him on any of this shit and get him out, nothing real will happen. He will go on being corrupt, dismantling programs, edging us closer to a comic dystopia... and we can't actually stop him... so what do we do?
Well, we react. We rage. We argue. We regret. We despair. And at our best, we fight with protest, we go to town halls, and we support humanitarian organizations... We do our best. And these are not meaningless things. They are deeply meaningful things. Especially in a democracy. But in the daily battle we keep getting hit over and over because we keep expecting better, keep expecting normal. It's the aforementioned problem with optimism. Only now is not the time for pessimism either, because that leads to inward collapse. No, now it's time to stop playing the game.
5. THE BIG GAME
I can't help but feel like that when it comes to the day to day politics, many of us getting lost in the notion of "scorekeeping." Meaning every day I see people throwing Trump's words back at him on Twitter, or in the news, like we don't know he's a hypocrite, like we don't know he's corrupt, and like we haven't already being doing this for the past year. It's like we keep trying to defeat him with logic. More, we keep reacting to everything he does. He'll hand us a drum and we start banging it, but all it really seems to do is make our arms tired. Then he throws another drum at us. This metaphor kind of sucks, but the point is we live in a constant state of present shock. It makes us forget about the most horrendous thing that happened two weeks ago because of the bad thing happening now and whatever equally horrendous thing is coming tomorrow. Is there any real way to gain traction that way? It creates its own sliding scale. What's worse is that trying to throw hypocrisy at him doesn't work because sowing the seeds of such confusion is part of his administration's very goal. They seek to earn loyalty from their base without having to honor much of anything, and they've mostly figured out the way to do it. Because the base doesn't care that he's a hypocrite who brazenly lies, all because they know Trump isn't a hypocrite in the one way that matters: he hates what they hate. That's it. So they'll keep moving the goal posts right with him. They'll keep allowing for whatever, because it doesn't matter. They want the same thing. And thus to try keep score on this, to even get into the logic of the back and forth, is to engage the futility of playing a rigged game.
And the only one way to win a rigged game is not to play.
But what does that actually mean in this political arena? Because I realize I'm making it seem like I'm arguing we should not be outraged with Trump, or stop resisting, and that's not what I'm saying at all. Quite the opposite. They're critical aspects to moving forward, especially with big legislative pieces and congressional voting. All I'm really trying to do is navigate the pitfalls of what hurts us in trying to deal with this unprecedented president and the toxic daily dialogue that surrounds him. I'm trying to keep sane in the face of the comically insane. I'm trying not to get lost in the daily trap, the news blurb, the endless game of magnet-ball that makes actual resistance and progress impossible. So for the last month I've stopped writing and instead been reading constantly. And my brain has ended up been fixating on two large scale ideas as a means of "solution" (which is a huge relative term)...
The first solution deals with how we play the game itself, and it is the importance of staying on message. Because when we keep looking at what could actually get him out in the end, it's going to be the corruption and treasonous dealings with Russia, right? The fact that he probably owes millions to the Russian oligarchy and knew of their role in the campaign and probably colluded? And the lying therein? And the fact that all this is legitimately horrific? Which means it's going to rest not only on our most litigious and journalistic nature, but on the public pressure that comes with it. Which means staying on target. For when I look at the messaging from the right during the election itself, they beat the fire-less, smoke-less message of "her emails" day and night, non-stop. They did this because, however erroneous, it was the one wedge to drive with the public. And by overwhelming with that message alone, the message dominates.
So in turn, Russia and corruption is not only the most heinous of the crimes, it is the logical endgame target because that is the wedge to drive with a Republican congress (again, I wrote all this before Comey, but now it's more true than ever). Everything else just seems not to slip away. Whether it's the gaffe of the day, or us making desperate pleas for healthcare, it gets nowhere because those are either meaningless or part of what the GOP already condones (but please don't stop fighting these measures; I'm just talking about the endgame). Even calling them and Trump out for their very un-Christian-like and un-Jesus like behavior does nothing. They don't care. Meanwhile, Trump hates the beating of the Russian drum because it is the one that matters the most (hence Twitter banner ridiculousness). Or in the very least, it's one that matters most when it comes to us not getting trapped in "the game." It's the way we get to stop playing.
But while the game around Trump is the bleeding wound of America itself, the problem is that what created Trump is so much deeper than that. So the second solution is about a much bigger game happening beyond this and it's not really a game at all. Because this is about the hearts and minds of Americans...
This is about the war between liberal and conservative values.
6. THE BIGGER GAME
Once all of Trump's particular insanities are stripped away, we are still faced with the cold reality of a divided nation. Because we, like every other society that has come before us, are at the mercy of simple dichotomy: whether the majority of our country wants to move in a progressive direction or a conservative direction. Whatever you call the parties, whatever you think of the players, it is always those two essential forces against each other. And within every democratic society there tends to be 30-40% who always vote conservative, 30-40% who always vote liberal, and then 20-40% who make up the deciders known as swing voters (and in the differences of those percentages usually rests the direction of your country). And for swing voters especially, the votes always tends to be highly reactive. They employ a precarious approach that is often reflective of how they generally feel about the state of country at the given moment (one of the most predictive questions in any election is "do you think the country is going in the right direction or the wrong direction?"). And whatever other discussion we get trapped in during the moment, this is always the overall state of democratic politics.
Alas, I always see these third party hopes and dreams as a solution of escaping this trenchant reality, but this simple negation is always this: voting blocs always need to break down in those two general directions. Because once you examine the growing pains of many party shifts, it always just ends up cannibalizing one side versus the other. History has taught us this lesson time and time again. Even in France, there was the excited talk of new parties emerging, but it broke down into the same dual choice of directions: liberal or conservative. Because in the end, those two general directions are too important. So at this point, we have all the information we need on how third politics actually effect voting demographics. And so to put faith in it, is to put faith in a solution that's already been tested and fails. It's Lucy and the football. And the results are often dire for whatever goal is hoped to be achieved. We've even seen the micro results of this here with Nader and Stein. Which doesn't mean we should ever throw up our hands and say democracy is pointless. It's quite the opposite. There are so many points of purpose to hang onto. We just have to understand our parameters: that sometimes the fight for the direction of the country is as often simple and ugly as a toggling a light switch. But within that light-switch mechanic of popular voting, and this is crucial, there is still the floating notion of the "center" that actually defines the overall politics and shape of a country.
Because within this system, there is the mission of getting the country to embrace a more progressive value system. Now, we could argue endlessly about each value, how they work, why they work, and I would happily do so. But not for this essay. The point is that I believe that liberal values, almost across the board, are objectively the best for America. This does not come from "team" sensibilities. This is not about a personal sense of identity politics, either. This is objective evidence, good old fashioned practicality, and a sense of morality. Along with the understanding that so much actual political expertise (which I do not have) is located in the incredible difficulties of implementing policy. For instance, believing Americans have a right to health care is a core belief that I support, but understanding the infinite amount of reasons why health care is complicated (in that it involves undoing 9 different kinds of social knots, including an entire industry) is just part of the complication of achieving that goal. And so to chide against that complication and believe we should "do away with government interference" is both simplistic and reactionary.
So between the parameters stated and the mission expressed, the obvious question becomes: how do you navigate those parameters? How do you make a go at fighting for progressive values in a trenchant system without resorting to just-overhaul-it illusions of grandeur? How do we change what constitutes the center? How do you effectively move the country to the left?
It's an enormously complicated thing, obviously. It mostly involves inspiring more undecided and swing voters to adopt liberal values, along with getting Republicans to move more toward the center (again, we'll need actual Republicans putting pressure on actual Republican reps). It takes figuring out a real way to engage the conversation of "cultural anxiety" aka "let's never say the word racism." But how do you actually get someone to engage their racism? Does "call out" culture actually work? Does shaming? Does tacit approval just make it keep going on? What actually gets someone to change? Or is this about a sense of power? Because I know when I look at the public discussion I see a lot scorekeeping and that ain't ever good. I see the idea that owning a conservative person on Twitter gives the world "1 liberal point" and thus moves some proverbial needle. Really, that crap's just about restoring a sense of control and power.
But in truth, scorekeeping always solves nothing, because we are talking about nothing that actually addresses diametrically opposed world views. You're trying to pick apart minute verbiage of a single point versus looking at the grand design of a person's mind. But tackling grand design is incredibly difficult. For instance, everyone's been circulating this post from The Oatmeal, which talks about the backfire effect and it correctly identifies how hard is it to change our minds. And as beautifully put as it is, the ultimate danger is that it can be just another trap in its own way. Because I doubt many liberals read and it go "I guess I should listen to more conservatives," but instead, "this is why conservatives should listen to me" (but it should hopefully be a godsend in getting liberals to try and listen to each other). The problem comes back to the same point of how you can't just yell at someone's grand design and expect a shift, nor can we be at peace in diametrically opposed viewpoints.
I bring it up because there's always been this weird idealized myth that there was once some version of America where liberals and conservatives were civil and once respected each other. And while I'm sure there was a lot more polite "not talking about it," there has always been a clashing vehemence between the two. Especially at the intersection of identity and race. The George Wallace figures have always been looming around as rabid forces of discord and strife. And there's nothing Trump is saying that wasn't effectively said by Bill The Butcher and the "know nothing" party. We've been doing this particular dance a long, long time.
Which always brings me back to the same point: While people may be able to get along on so many other fronts, when it comes to liberalism and conservatism there is nothing here to actually agree on, because it is literally to see the way life works in two completely different ways. To that, please understand I don't think conservative people are bad. But I will outright say that I think conservative values are bad for a society. I think the belief structure is deeply harmful to our well-being. Largely because it constantly relies on perceived individualistic wisdom for complex systemic solutions. Worse, it enables a system of morality that breeds non-empathy for other humans (a la "I shouldn't have to pay for YOUR x or y"). And even worse than that, it doesn't even do what it's supposed to because it actually undermines the individual at every damn step (at least for the individual who is not in complete power within the system). But the problem is that convincing people of this always seems to be an attack. Because what we are really asking is always "dismantle your entire sense of the world because you're wrong." Which is this weirdly impossible thing to ask. Of course it breeds defensiveness.
So again, I ask the same question: what will it actually take to move this country to the left? It all might start with skipping argumentation all together and just trying to get the roots of a simpler, but still huge idea: building a collective understanding of society itself.
7. ME & YOU = YOU & ME
When you try to talk about the direction the American government should go in, one of the biggest problems is that there are a lot of folks out there that think that government is the problem.
There are a lot of reasons for this. The first is that giving that much of your paycheck to anyone, let alone the government is an infuriating prospect. I'm pretty sure it breeds most of the resentment right there. But the second reasons is that from an historical perspective, there is a consistent narrative about the dangers of the ruling class, the oppression from dictatorship, totalitarianism, communism, etc. So fearing the government is both logical and emotional in a way that seems very real. The problem with this, of course, is the other side of that historical perspective. Like the glaring and incontrovertible fact that there has never never, ever been a successful modern country that didn't have strong central democratic governments that invested in itself and its citizens. It is literally the cornerstone of every productive first world society in existence. And it rests at the nexus of a robust free-market economy and the government's sense of societal responsibility to its entire population. And thus to deny this simple reality, to conflate the idea of a strong central democracy with the totalitarianism of communism, and to then beat the drum of "small government" in opposition to it, is essentially to shoot yourself in the fucking foot. Not just because it hurts your society by every conceivable metric, but because the belief in small government (with a strong military) is to effectively cede power to something more like a dictator or oligarchy than you already have. We are definitely seeing it now with Trump's dismantling of government programs, but this has been how it has always been. It is an incontrovertible lesson of history. And it all comes from conflating the notion of individual freedoms with societal freedom.
The difficulty of "societal freedom" is trying to get people to embrace what seems like a contradiction: the way to ensure more freedom and opportunity is through more guarantees of centralized democracy. Yes, that means more supportive government, more rules, but also more transparency and more economic participation of our populace. Say whatever you want about those things being sucky, it's what works. It's what always works. But it's not all that much fun and it's even harder to get people to see it in terms of daily effect. Because the hardest thing in the world is to get someone to process something outside of their experience or see anything outside of their own two eyeballs. And it just so happens that systemic thinking is the most extreme form of doing that. Because you not only have to process against a lot of experience, and your own bias of "cause and effect," you have to be able to look at someone else and see yourself.
In America especially, we have a really, really hard time doing that.
Historically, I don't think people realize how unique America is in comparison to the rest of the world. True, the world stage is no stranger to trenchant, unending conflicts; whether it is the closed loop conflicts of Israel and Palestine or India and Pakistan, these eye-for-an-eye ouroboroses are nothing new. But the exact nature of the racial conflict in America is bit weirder than that. For one, we're an odd mega-power in that we're only a few hundred years old. But it's a mega-power founded on what was possibly the worst genocide of all time. One so bad that I bet some of you didn't even think I was referencing Native Americans, which had population estimates that go as high as 18-19 million prior to our arrival. To add to this horror, we were a modern nation founded on slavery to a degree that didn't quite exist in the same way in the rest of the modern world (that is to say it was more extensive and horrific, as Europe wasn't relying on it the way the American South did). And since our inception, we've been a constantly shifting melting pot that plays an ugly game of "scapegoat the immigrant." What was once scorn for the Irish is now just the scorn for Latino population. And of course it always shifts with the nature of outside "threats" whether it was Japanese Americans or the now rampant Islamaphobia. And all the while, the still horrific racism against the formerly-enslaved African-American community just sits there, burning ever on. So yeah, we can talk about a bunch of British guys who didn't want to pay their taxes all we want, but this is actual America. This is what we look like; a great society sprung forth through ambition, aspiration, and the rush to step on another man's neck. We always have the utmost belief that we are the greatest country in the world despite all this, seeing ourselves as the nation that saved everyone in World War 2, and then created the suburb and the American dream in the '50s and... well... this dichotomy makes us weird, egotistical, ignorant, and "great."
Of course, there is much common ground we share with other countries. Particularly in terms of what the world is going through right now with the dramatic rise in globalization and non-white populations growing within them. It's given rise to new sense of isolationism, reactionary attitudes, racism, and even some horrific totalitarian instincts. We're seeing the "far right" upsurge in many national elections, but the Brexit move was legitimately shocking in a lot of ways (when pressed as to why he voted for it, an old British man who voted for it cried out "I will not bend the knee to Germany!" because for many, the world lived in is where they want to go versus where they live now). Speaking of dealing with rabid xenophobia, this leads to a very important point. We talk about the democratic and liberal inclinations of Scandavia, the Dutch countries, even maybe a country like Japan (which is only liberal in some ways) and cite the many ways they've figure out how to lean left and be there for their citizens. But the dark secret is that most of these societies have a pretty homogeneous population. Meaning they don't deal with racism as a "cultural anxiety" point in nearly the same way. They don't deal with in influx of "scary immigrants" who don't look like them. Which, of course, makes it much easier for people to think of themselves as living in a more society-like society. They'll say "yeah I'll give you healthcare because you look a lot like me." It's the ugly truth.
Which just means that Xenophobia itself is the cancer that infects all of this. But instead of facing this reality you'll get thrown all this rhetoric that immigrants are bad and dangerous for your country, despite the fact that by almost every metric they are not. There is never a siege of immigrants that ruins a country. It's just racism. That's all it's ever been. Especially in America, where we'll always be defined by the ever shifting status quo and where you are on the proverbial ladder. Which brings me to the point, in America, so large, so fractured, so diverse, it's insanely hard for white people to look and see that basic societal need of me = you... So guess how great we are at thinking in terms of a system?
It's the main reason why liberalism always seems to have such a tough time being indoctrinated into American sensibility. For as much as it is written into the fabric of our constitution, we primordially understand "freedom" as "no one can tell me to do shit." But now that seems to include "no one can tell me I can't hate you" or even more insanely "no one can tell me that I can't exclude / tell YOU to do shit," which is just rampant individualism parading as freedom. In the collective sense, the real understanding that freedom includes defending each other's freedom, but it always seems to not just depend on us being actually good at explaining the idea of collective freedom / liberal values (this was actually Bill Clinton's best skill, for whatever it's worth). But it really takes going one step further. Because there's that great saying, "government is the worst until the day you need it" and nothing is more true than that...
But how do you get people to see how they'll need it?
8. SEEING THE MONEY
We all think that we see the real America, but what if we're all equally in the dark?
What if, no matter how much we think we understand, we really can't see and understand the other side? I'll give you an example. A lot of wealthy liberal people seem to have no really understanding of how low-wage citizens spend money. Worse, they don't understand how they have to spend money. For instance, there's ethical goods. I was once discussing the matter with someone who ran for a toy manufacturer and he was talking about the popular insistence on having ethically-made dolls (vs. cheaply mass produced from third world countries). The argument was that for just a few dollars or even a few cents more, the American consumer can pick the more ethical and possibly even American-made item. To them, this isn't even a luxury debate, just some piece of ethical common sense we should all do as consumers. And yet, the vast majority of Americans will pick the cheap "unethical" doll almost every time. The ethical-arguers cannot understand this because they don't understand the economic parameters. Spending the extra money is simply not an option because the doll itself is a luxury item. They have so little money that the buying of the doll, any doll, is the economic stretch being made in the first place. So the lowest cost item will always be the once selected, no matter what. Because the family's very survival is at stake. This is how most Americans have to spend money. There is no choice between items. Only choosing the items they need in the first place.
So for all the (valid) talk of the chaotic influence of the top 1%, the disappearing of the middle class might be the single most important issue when it comes to the future of the country. In his new book The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Peter Temin talks about how America has rapidly shifted into two distinct groups that have radically different life experiences and opportunities. One that really makes us more have the economy of a developing nation. This article summarizes it all beautifully, and here's the opening below:
In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology, and electronics, the industries which largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs, and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework, and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies, and count themselves as lucky to be Americans.
The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.
This is so helpful to understand the stark division between the haves and have nots, along with the lie of "mobility" between the two classes. But from this foundation of understanding I want to have a different conversation. I want to get at how most Americans think about being rich and what that actually means. Because the truth is no one ever likes to think of themselves as rich (unless it was their goal to be rich and parade that fact). To most, the "rich people" are always the people who are above us in the economic spectrum. The people who have more. The people who presumably use their money to get what they want and oppress others. It's like people's (valid) obsession with the one percent. But we don't think of ourselves that way. We're never the ones who are rich. Or maybe we simply feel fortunate. Or maybe we feel like a have not. Or maybe even oppressed by those above us. So let's get specific about who we really are.
When examining class structure, one of the popular ways to organize income is to divide the population into fifths (top 20, top 40, top 60, etc). To which, most people would agree that it is okay to think of the top 20% of the country as being rich, correct? I mean, if you have more money that 80% of the country, that seems more than fair. And when people imagine themselves and how they grew up, they never imagine themselves as rich, they imagine themselves in the middle... Well folks, if each of your parents made at least $65,000 a year... you're in the top 20%. You're rich.
I often bring up this fact in Los Angeles and I'll get a lot of silent stares. Because a lot of folks out here came from good situations. Primary FTEs if you will. Sometimes I'll get a lot of "yeah, but..." defenses because that just doesn't feel right to them (as a point of comparison, as little 17 years ago, that number was around $44k). Most of the people out here came from households where each of their parents made at least $100k (which puts them in the top 5%) and they just can't wrap their heads around the idea that they are that much better off than everyone else. But this doesn't speak to their immorality. It speaks to this country's insane idea of what actually constitutes wealth and how we never see ourselves in it (and how that fucks it all up). It's so hard for them to imagine that they have it better off than 80% of the country. Just as it's hard for people to imagine themselves in the top 1%, because they see that as making millions of dollars... except it's true if each of their parents makes $215k a year. We can just keep going up the ladder from here and look at the top .1% who surely don't feel like they're rich either in comparison to the .01%. And so it goes. Now, you'll notice I keep talking about combined household income, but I do so on purpose because it highlights an important divide that even in high income households where parents split, the money still finds its way down to supporting the kids. But in low-income households? Those chances of financial support go way down, which only helps increase the staggering gulf between the two.
But let's take it all even further. Let's say you heard that $65k figure above and laughed because you grew up like most Americans who fall below it (like I did). Let's say you grew up in a household where each of your parents only made $26,000 a year. An amount of money that highlights so many more working class struggles and lack of opportunities that the FTEs will have... Well, even at that amount you are still better than 50% of the country. Yup, half the country makes less than that. And it adds up to such a simple conclusion: most people do not understand what it means to be poor. They do not understand what it means to struggle everyday with low wages. They do not understand how difficult it is to pursue high cost education and support yourself through it (along with the incredible luck you need). There are so many things that are not seen in this and it effects so much about culture. But the one thing I want to fucking obliterate for this essay is the absurd idea that such things are linked to "voting intelligence." Because your intelligence has fuck all to do with your vote.
9. "SMART" PEOPLE
Norm MacDonald, a hilarious comedian that I rarely agree with on political or social matters, had a great line about humanity where he said it so simply, "I think clever people think poor people are stupid." I bring it up because I see the American left talking like this all the fucking time without even realizing they're doing it. To them, it's just like this inescapable fact. They constantly associate being liberal with being smart, especially when demonizing the right. But it's horsecrap. It's always been horsecrap. We can get into certain demographics about college education that skew that way, but that's not what affects voting habits. Even anecdotally, I know brilliant lawyers, accomplished scholars, and literal rocket scientists who voted for Trump. Meanwhile, despite having every conceivable social metric of wealth and education opportunities working against them, 94% of black women voted democratic in the last election because 1) they're amazing and 2) they actually saw the reasons to vote this way (I'll get to that part in a second). So I would happily argue they're the smartest people / voting demographic in the world. But what this does is blow up all preconceptions people have and highlight everything we've talked about so far in this essay from race, to class, to American history, and systems thinking. Which brings us to the most important aspect about understand the liberal vs. conservative direction of the country:
There are people who can "see" society operate... and people who don't.
For all the ballyhoo about what separates us (along with the larger discussion of how fear influences conservative thought), that's really what it comes down to. It's being able to see the benefits of community / society and how that directly impacts you. There are rich people who don't need social programs and so they think they shouldn't pay for them. Just as there are poor country people who don't think they need them and especially don't want to pay for some liberal welfare cheat. These opinions have nothing to do with intelligence, perceived or otherwise, just life experience. If you're a guy who owns a nice house with no kids, you're not going to want to support your local school system, but if you're a teacher in that school system, you're going to see the impact of society giving a shit all the damn time. This is cultural emphasis, not smarts. In fact, I think this seeing ourselves as "smart" and others as "dumb" is how we get lost in "the game" of political conversation. We all think we're the smart ones. It's what we do to put ourselves over the opponent. To get our +1 liberal point or +1 conservative point. I can't tell you how many times I saw liberals posting "Trump regrets" for people who were mad at him because he "wasn't going to build the wall like he promised"... it's like what are we actually promoting here!? Are we getting so lost in trying to win that we're not even talking about what's moral? For as many Trump people are abandoning him for not draining the swamp, there are just as many people doing it for him not being racist ENOUGH or getting his Muslim bans through (and in both cases, it seems to be fewer than we think. Most are just fine with his performance... let that sink in). But they just think they are the ones who see what is really happening here. We all think we're the smart ones.
I see this kind of intelligence relativism happening everywhere and it makes me nauseous. It can be leveled in every direction, too. For instance, I remember having a conversation with a super hippy couple who said they say don't like California because it forces inoculations, but their super conservative state was good for "the smart people" who lived there. These casual anti-vaxxers were sweet as hell, but I just stood there quietly terrified because they were doing an incredibly dangerous thing to their kid (and everyone else). There's a nightmare sequence of logic to all this, but that's exactly why getting into logic of our divides and thinking along lines of intelligence is just a surefire way to dive into a quicksand argument. So the older and older I get, and the more and more I mess things up in my life, the less and less smart I think I am. It may sound silly, but trying to be smarter always gets me in trouble. It's like diving into quicksand. Because what are you trying to prove?
Which is why I always have to remember to zero in on the morality instead. Especially in political argumentation. For instance, we can have an endless debate over the the ethical responsibility of whether or not we should give someone health care when they don't yet have it. But there is absolutely a different moral argument at play when you're deciding to take away someone's healthcare that they currently have. Put as many layers of disambiguation as you want, but it is the failure to see that taking away someone's right to healthcare when they're sick is tantamount to walking up and shooting them in the face your damn self. But for all the political conversations, we often get tripped up the further we go from the moral core of what "our true fear" involves. Because the way a lot of conservatives talk about taxes with health care, they act like they're gonna get a bill for $48,000 for that "black liberal guy's heart attack." In truth, it's such incredibly small part of the taxes that we already pay as a nation that go toward insuring our very health, theirs included. The difference itself is so small, especially for such a great societal result. But it doesn't matter if it's illogical. It's that emotional truth that scares the crap out of them. Thus, in morality, we always have to strive to get at the deeper truth. I always have to remember to ask, what are you actually afraid of in this situation? What do you actually want out of this? What is this really about?
Like, I see people argue about immigration vs. legal immigration and I want to cut through the B.S. so many times. For all the arguments it really just comes down to: do you want to make it easier for immigrants to get into this country or harder? And why? I can't tell you how many times I start having that debate and people get real quiet on the second question. They start citing population or resource worry nonsense. But eventually it gets to that ugly nugget that they often can't admit, nor have really tried to think about, "I don't want more non white people coming into the country because... reasons." So the further you get from arguing about the little details of the tips of the fractal, the more you get away from what matters. But the closer you get to letting someone reveal their motivation (because you can't tell them), then the closer you get to the grand design inside their heads. As it's often said about writing and characters: "You don't know someone until you know what they want."
But when we think about the American system, it's very easy to lose ourselves and not be able to track what we want. I see lots of stories of people who depend on ACA, people who would even lose their lives, but still support Trump and would vote for him again. This isn't "stupidity." This largely comes out of the grand design. It comes out of the conditions of the voting bloc binary. It comes from how most people cannot face a simple idea of shifting their world-view. In the end, it results in a "systemic philosophy" where someone might fear immigrants more than they actually want to live. But hey, maybe they can even dream up a reason for it. Maybe they think dying is God's will, but it sure as hell won't be Allah's... This makes for something really easy to demonize, to see as "dumb," but everything about our behavior comes from pain and the armor of philosophies we build around ourselves to try and survive. Yours included. So much of our grand designs come from fear. As does our violence. As does so much of what makes our worst selves. But cutting through all that? Getting to the heart of our fear? I can think of nothing more difficult. There is only the foundations we try to build to stop it.
Maybe in the end, the only thing we can talk about is what we want and what we can see in society. Maybe it's about acknowledging that we're all in the dark in different ways. We can talk all about what we want from America, but I always say the arc of maturity is going from what we want to what we need. And so it keeps coming back to the irrevocable truths that have nothing to do with how smart we are. It's being able to embrace that simple saying: "government sucks until the day you need it." Just like voting doesn't matter until the day it does. Just like thinking you don't have to stick your neck out for others, but one day you're going to need a stranger to stick their neck out for you... But we never seem to see the second part of that til it's too late. So it all comes back to the question I asked earlier...
How do we show people society itself?
10. THE TWO ENDGAMES
When Obama picked his big post-presidency issue to focus on, a few people raised a curious eyebrow when he selected gerrymandering. For some, it was the first time they even really thought hard about the concept. But Obama has always been a shrewder guy than most people give credit for. He might have comported himself in a heart-first manner, but he always understood the deeper nature of the political game, especially the long game. And his selection tells us so much about what to expect: gerrymandering is going to be the most important thing when it comes to the determining direction of this country.
Back when Obama was first elected, the GOP freaked out. But not just for obvious reasons you might think (i.e. Black President). It was because they saw a shifting country when it came to the racial make-up of the voting demographics and they were voting blue. Based on the way populations were moving, especially with the GOP immigration stance against the Latino community, there were some prognosticating that they might never be able to win another presidential election ever again. Thus, the GOP got to work. Not only with strict voter laws aimed at preventing minorities from voting, but a massive gerrymandering campaign that was meant to redraw districts in key battleground states so that they'd be able to win them. To be clear, the balance of the electoral college was already screwed up, what with the the idea that .8 people in Wyoming are worth 3 Californians, but still, getting those states is what all this is really about. Because they are literally fighting against the tide of a changing look of our nation with one goal: making the voting demographic more white. That's the entire game. White people = GOP victory. That's why we're booting immigrants and banning Muslims and doing everything under the sun in the name of "cultural anxiety." That's why they're using Trump's obsession with losing the popular vote to fuel the narrative of "voter fraud" and making it even more difficult. It's not just the racism. It's control. And of course, when Obama gets to work on this issue he will be accused of gerrymandering for the Democrats, but he's not actually gerrymandering. He's just trying to get us to look like the country we actually are.
This choice is a very logical, fair-minded approach to the big game. But beyond it, there is a more emotional part, too. The aforementioned one about the hearts and minds of America. The end "non game," if you will. Because I keep asking how do you get people to see society? And ultimately I think in the end it falls to the old law of storytelling:
"Show, don't tell."
Democratic politicians keep telling people about the benefits of liberalism, but people don't see it. That's because it always takes people actually experiencing it. For instance, it's no accident the country started embracing a more progressive value system after the New Deal. It was just so outrageously tangible. It gave people work. It saved existing businesses and farms. Meanwhile, I can talk until I'm blue in the face about hard evidence of American job growth under the Democratic party vs. conservative policies, but unless people see it and benefit from it, it might as well be an invisible fluke. To wit, there's nothing more telling when it comes to the grand hypocrisy of creating infrastructure, for it's the most "socialist" tendency of the American government that is "wasteful" when Democrats propose it. But it's just "supporting American jobs" when Republicans do it. Truth is, supporting infrastructure is just a great idea for any country. It's great for American jobs and the beautification of a place that deserves to be both beautiful and efficient (Europe often trounces us in this regard). And we can make fun of them all we want (and even get into the legality of doing so), but Trump's public stunts where he saves factories and American jobs from going abroad are "showing." They might be ruses that contradict GOP policy and his own business practices, but they are still seen.
It just keeps coming back to the fact that it's hard for people to see. Like, in a monopolistic capitalist system, so much about our policy gets divorced from the interest of the small business owner, when it's still one of the most important aspects of resuscitating the middle class. And red tape laws designed to stop brazen corporations just end up becoming obstacle hell for the small business owner (as corporations just pay more to work around them). But even creating small business is so difficult when our society divides and the 1/5 FTEs go off to work in big industry and the 4/5/ low wage earners just can't make ends meet enough to even put themselves in the small business position. But neither can see each other.
Likewise, if you look at those big voting maps and you see this sea of red in the country with the little pockets blue and you realize this is all really simple: it's not red state and blue state, it's just city versus country. It's people who try to live as islands in their own space and it's people who have to live in big complex societies, where you see yourself in that society every day. In that world, the benefits of society are obvious because you live it. But when you're on a metaphorical island of the red heartland? You don't see it, even when it's right there. But the truth is we're all the same community. And every country has to deal with this exact issue. Every country battles between the city and rural instincts of their countries wants. And we all need each other desperately to see this through and be our best possible society for all.
Which brings us to the last major obstacle in the "showing" and that is the way the Democratic party has a tendency to cannibalize itself in this regard. To be clear, I'm probably as hyper liberal as they come when it comes to values, in that they probably align with a guy like Sanders, just add even more support of identity politics (or as we used to call it and probably should again, Civil Rights). But this recent election highlighted not only the strife within the party and its base, but our inability to keep focused on the end mission. You may think this sounds cynical, but I hope the Trump presidency has made it clear that stopping the worst is 100x more important that making a statement about what should be the best. It's not cynical at all because people's fates are at stake. So we cannot ever confuse democratic centrists with Republicans, just as we sure as hell can't confuse Democratic centrists with fascists, just as we can never take the societal benefits of Democratic centrists for granted. Ultimately, Obama pulled off relative miracles in a divided country (and to everyone outside the US, please understand all this ignores the horrors of US foreign policy). So wanting to blow up the Democratic party to theoretically make it more progressive is, quite frankly, juvenile horseshit that puts everyone here at risk. If we talk about the importance of systems thinking and considering the welfare of others, it is outright irresponsible and immoral.
The much less revolutionary truth is that the way you drag politicians left is by putting the same exact kind of pressure on our Democratic leaders that we do now on the Republican ones in the resistance of Trump. In short, if we want to move the country to the left there should be many huge demonstrations in Washington for the issues we face with BLM, drone warfare, and corporate influence in the Democratic party. It takes calling up Democratic senators, stuffing inboxes much the way you do now. The truth is that most tangible democratic action is boring, time-consuming stuff. But it's the stuff that works. It's the stuff that actually understands the parameters of a democratic nation. So I'll say it again, if you'd rather blow up the Democrats to prove an unprovable point, then you have just as much inadvertent disdain for the poor as the fascists do. We have to keep everything pointed toward the mission. We have to keep trying to get people to see society.
To that, we have maybe the single most complex part of our society. Because one of the big narratives that emerged out of the election was that "we needed to see the plight of the poor conservative Trump voter," which is a tough instinct that leads to a catch 22. Because I would argue that liberals very much do understand the economic plight in a way where they want to help. After all, rural and small town America is dying. Which is why we're behind society and aiding programs that can help rebuild the middle class (even though there's a lot we can be doing much better, but that's another essay). So really, the actual thing we have to see is that they can't see it. But then, more importantly, we have to figure out the way to effectively "show" society to them in a way that doesn't involve being total dicks. That doesn't talk down them and just produce more backfire effect. There's a whole problem with the grand design part of all this. But then it gets more complex because there are so many people who put up with so much hate from the rural community, specifically the marginalized ethnic groups that are the target of their scorn, that it's impossible to ask them to tolerate such intolerance. It's like, what, they're supposed to sit down and just say it's okay, sure? It's like how people keep pointing out that "cultural anxiety," is just a softened acceptable word for "racism." It's completely true. And it's heinous. But once someone is labeled racist it's like, okay, I don't know what to do after that in terms of how this moves the needle? Calling someone racist doesn't change their grand design, which brings it right into the push-pull of societal discussions vs. working one on one with a person. So what do we do? This is the most complex situation in terms of trying to accomplish goals. I mean, I'm no savant and I have no fucking idea how to fucking stop racism, I just know how to keep trying. I know I have to keep being vocal in the ways I'm supposed to. Just as I know I have to listen most of all. I know that we just have to keep having the conversation in an open way where I shut up and listen to people who actually experience it... And maybe that's the thing to keep showing? Just as we have to keep showing and breaking down stereotypes across culture. It's all just about making the truth visible. Which is such a hard thing to do. But that's what it always is, especially at its most complex.
I just know I've seen a lot of talk about the arc of progress lately. This is belief that the world is getting better and more progressive overall. In one way, this is an undeniable truth. There's less poverty and human rights violation in the world than there has ever been, which is not to say it's great right now, there's just slightly less than in the past. There has been much hard-won progress. But that "hard-won" part of the saying is everything. The march toward progress is not only filled with dire obstacles, but constant setbacks. And yes, it can all go away in a heartbeat. For it all looks rather grim when dangerous idiots begin talk of using nuclear weapons like it's nothing. Put it this way, we wouldn't be having this conversation if a guy like Trump was in charge of the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are so many times where the progress of the world could have stopped dead. The truth is we are on a precipice right now, and maybe we always are. But right now you can feel it in the air, a thick sweltering of an ugly pollutant. You can practically taste the smell. It stinks. So what do you do on in that situation?
As in, what is the actual point of this essay? I talk about so many different things here in trying to diagnose and cut through the bullshit of the American problem, and I'm sure we could debate the finer details of a million things I brought up. We can talk all about how we need to beat Trump at this game and get America to commit to the idea of living in a society, but it's never that simple. The truth as that this essay all builds to a simple, undeniable, and heartbreaking point...
There's no way to outsmart what we're facing.
There is no way to hack progress. There is no way to magically make Trump disappear without millions moving their internal needle, along with getting actual Republicans to change their mind. There is no way to magically change the parameters of America and cause a singular shift. We have to dive into the nexus of individual view and the societal one. We have to live the reality of the America we want. We have to not only figure out a way to survive, but see beyond the rigged games, dystopia, brazen threats, economic divides, in order to understand everything that makes American society unique, along with everything that makes us the same. This is about understanding what a society is and committing ourselves to be a part of it, every damn day. This is about everyone learning how to look at a stranger and see yourself. Because there will always be a time where you will need the same from that stranger.
It's as undeniable a truth as we have. Even as a conservative military Lt. General like James Freaking Clapper is warning us that Trump threatens the very idea that we are a democratic society and we can cower, it is that very idea of needing a society that keeps our feet on the ground. It is a fundamental denial against every horrific fear that that ugly, brazen man taps into. But I don't know how to get an entire country to come around. I always say this, but in the end, all I have is an argument. So I'm trying to hold onto this strange little nugget of hope and truth and love and see if people want to help in some small way.
I just know there is no skipping it. Which brings us to a most horrible irony of all this... we have to play this game out. We have to push against congress. We have to support our investigative and intelligence institutions. We have to test our faith in democracy itself. Which is a game so heinous that it makes us feel powerless, want to lash out, to grab the money for ourselves, or just to pull out a gun and end it. So we have to remember it's not really a game at all. We have to remember we are just people. You and I are people. Because when we skip that part, people end up dead. When we see people as tax dollars, or as dumb, or as immigrants, or as the others, or just as part of a military strategy, then people end up dead. That's always the story. So we can't skip that part. We can't pull out a gun and fire. And we can't let them not play. We're a democratic society. Which means we need to play this all out.
This is America, man.