Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On the Morning After

I don't know any Trump supporters beyond the couple who have mysteriously shown up on my Facebook friends list. I live in a bubble. When I drive out to the countryside in Washington state, just a half hour beyond Seattle's city limits, I see the Trump signs and I wonder: "What noise do they listen to?" "Do they hate me as much as I fear and often hate them?"

I know the campus radicals, because I am surrounded by them. I was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. I think the New York Times is a legitimate news source. That makes me a centrist in my world. The right-wingers went for Clinton in the primary. The lefty freaks didn't vote at all, because neoliberal world order or something, and by the way, microaggressions are really important and you white liberals better get with the program or something else. So some of my anger this morning was directed towards the wrong target. "I wonder how many Jews in 1933 were complaining about microaggressions? I guess we can look back with some sense of comfort that Primo Levi eventually found a safe space at Auschwitz. Give it up for Leni Riefenstahl. She stood up to mansplaining. A true feminist icon."

I roll my eyes at the concept of a "safe space," but I know that "microaggressions" are real, and I'll plead guilty to mansplaining one too many times in my life. But right now, I'm overwhelmed, like everyone else, by a sense of doom, in which all the problems and complaints in my little world seem so small. The last chance we had at minimizing the catastrophe of climate change is gone. Our chance to reform the carceral state is gone. That dimwit Thomas Friedman declared France our enemy in the run-up to the Iraq War. Well, a Le Pen-led France may not become an enemy of a Trump-led U.S., but it's not crazy to imagine a world in which once stable democracies in Western Europe are turned into hostile forces. A war with China. Although Joe Arpaio may have been defeated, we may actually see an expansion of Arpaio-camps for our latino population and probably our Muslim population as well.  The life for black people, particularly the black poor, will become increasingly unbearable. When I was in college I wrote a letter to Colbert King, a black columnist at the Washington Post. He had written a column about an anti-Semitic hate letter he had gotten. I told him anti-Semitism had now been relegated to the margins of American life, and was most often espoused only by the insane. I told him that racism was the real problem. He didn't think it was an either/or question. He was right and I was wrong. We'll learn to hate gay people again, and to subordinate women all the more. Roe v. Wade may well be overturned. A monster with the emotional intelligence and psychopathic sensibility of the sixth-grade bullies who tormented my autistic classmates is now the most powerful man in the world.

It so happens that I reconnected with one of my first and still one of my very best students last night, right before I was about to go to an election party. He now works as a bank teller in Iowa, while working furiously on his music at home. He has many coworkers who are Trumpies. He says they aren't racists, or sexists, or bigots, just people who are nervous about losing their small little piece of security within this changing world. Who knows? How do you explain what leads so many decent people to make such a terrible decision?

No 800-word column will explain this, nor any 1000-page book. I don't need to hear any sanctimonious crap about how elite liberals like me have ignored the pain of so many people suffering in this economy, or about how a middle-class in the U.S. or Western Europe lives in fear of what they're losing, because, frankly, I'm not ignorant of any of those issues. And it doesn't explain how people who carry such fear run to someone who is such an obnoxious, obvious buffoon.

I guess I will attempt some kind of explanation based on my own life, because, hey, why not. A friend once described the social class structure of elementary and middle school not as a pyramid, in which the popular kids hung out at the very top, and the lower rungs grew steadily wider until you got to a very wide bottom. She said it was a rhombus. The top quarter of the rhombus was quite popular, the middle half was filled with the people who were more or less getting by, and then there was the bottom fifth to a quarter. At the very tip of the rhombus were the hopeless, the autistic, the irredemiably strange, who lacked so many social skills they couldn't even imagine having something approximating a friend. She was not at that tip, but a few rungs up, because she was awkward, and at the time, ugly, but also quiet. So she would get picked on from time to time, but she knew to stay out of everyone's way, to not fight back, to do her own thing, and let those in the middle section, and some of those at the top pick on the few people below her.

Looking back, I did much the same. But there was one exception, one glorious moment of Peter Parker-level heroism. When I was on a camping trip in summer camp at age 10, I found myself in a tent with three other kids, one of whom had cognitive disabilities, what we called in the early 1990s mental retardation. One of the kids in the tent picked on him mercillessly through the night, to the point the kid was bawling. I stood up and said, "Please stop. That's fucked up." And so all the wrath of the little fascist came down on me. This went on for days, until a counselor intervened. She was a fucking idiot. She thought that everyone in the tent was equally at fault, and only humiliated me more in front of the rest of the camp for not toughening up. Lesson learned.

Most of us live in fear of our fellow humans for very good reason. We separate into groups. And when those of us in any given group are mistreated we stay quiet, and avoid trouble, because we have too much to lose.

Don't believe me? If you live in Manhattan, you are just a few miles away from a prison run by thugs who regularly torture inmates to the point of suicide. You rely on the systems of government to hopefully reform that prison, while knowing full well that that reform will be too slow and in the end, woefully inadequate. So why don't you get together with a thousand people, find the thugs who run the prison -- they shouldn't be too hard to find -- at their homes, take them hostage peacefully, and take a stand. What's stopping you? Don't tell me that it's your belief in the system of government. Don't tell me it's your fundamental belief in reform. You know this is evil. You know this is wrong. You know, I repeat, that any reform will be inadequate and will take too long. And you know what's stopping you. You have way too much to lose.

There's another part of you, of course, which understands that your actions are not a matter of cowardice. They are based on religious devotion to decency, to compromise, to civility, which is another way of saying civilization. And you cling to this idea of civilization, because you feel someone has to in the face of so many people behind those signs in those houses, listening to that noise, who have no regard for that idea whatsoever. You will be better than them, you believe. And you know what. Now that I think about it: You may be right.

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