Politics (again)


Well, I really, truly, honestly thought I would write just the one thing about politics, but here I am again.

On Tuesday 11/9/16 at around 6pm PST I put my one-year-old daughter to bed, and as I laid her down in the crib, I whispered to her that, “tomorrow, when you wake up, there will be a female President for the first time ever. You don’t understand, but it’s a really big deal, and it’s going to be really important for you as you get older.”

I don’t really do stuff like that, usually, because it’s silly. But I felt really good about saying it. Because I want her to have all of the same opportunities I’ve had, and I don’t think that should be a big deal.

I then sat down with my wife in our living room and watched as someone I had come to care about was drained of blood for the next four hours on live TV. So I drank the good scotch, cause fuck it. And then I went to sleep thinking that I was a fool to have invested my hope — the hope of my daughter — in our nation.

People seem to feel like politics is nuanced. That there’s a continuum, and that the balance should flow regularly back and forth. So, in that logic, it’s normal for there to be periods of oppression followed by periods of growing freedom; or that we must restrict, and then let be free — and vice versa.

I think it’s actually really simple. Who has the power, and are they using it responsibly? Are their policies intended to make life better for the majority, or the minority? Who speaks for the oppressed and who speaks for the oppressor? Who’s telling me the truth about how hard it will be and who’s finding a scapegoat?

Because the oppressor should always be stopped. They are always wrong. There is no other valid viewpoint, for me.

Those with power must be held accountable. We tell ourselves honorable stories, no matter our actual history. That’s what we believe in, whether we have the courage to trust ourselves or not. Our greatest virtue is that we can imagine our eventual triumphs in the face of our own history.

There used to be some nuance there, in seeing which candidates were a slightly warmer shade of the same color. But there was no nuance in this election.

I would rather see us fail as a nation because we loved too much than see us withhold freedom from one another because we’re afraid.

Jesus definitely came way too early, but it’s hard to say if that particular party will ever get started.

I remember in November of 2000, watching the election results come in, as GW Bush stole an election from Al Gore. It was so long ago that I had to piece together the details for myself, and remembering each bit was so surprising, somehow. Oh yeah, the most contested state was run by the brother of the presidential candidate that usurped the vote? Dangling chads?! Gore conceded, and then didn’t — and then the Supreme Court stopped a mandatory recount?! Al Gore’s running mate was Jewish? Gore won the popular vote decisively and still lost?!

So, we’ve been here before. Sorta (it’s demonstrably worse now). I’m trying to take comfort in that, that we survived eight years of control from these fascist know-nothings (Dick motherfucking Cheney OMG?!). That we could be attacked by terrorists and watch our nation all turn hawk for a while, surrendering so many civil liberties, and so much sense. Eight years of our lives.

When Obama was elected in 2008, and decisively at that, it felt like a fucking enema.

I guess I was naive to think that it was actual change, and not just another wide swing of the pendulum.

Human rights isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s enough for everybody. That’s the part that I don’t understand. Why does it feel like one side can’t have nice things? We can all have nice things. This is the most prosperous civilization in the history of the world (no citations needed! America fuck yeah!).

I didn’t understand who Trump’s voters were. I thought there was a loud minority of white nationalists, wish-it-still-was misogynists, evangelicals, and idiots. I forgot how insidious privilege and bigotry can be. It doesn’t require being a loudmouth; it just requires being okay enough with other peoples’ bigotry.

But that’s not entirely true — I do know his voters, I just forgot about them. Maybe a lot of America did.

My ex-wife is from St. Louis, MO., and I spent a lot of time there with her family from 1998-2004. It’s not a fun place to be when your internal default location is set to Bay Area, CA.

She came from a working class, Catholic family: a father that was a one-time-hippy carpenter and  a mom that was a psychiatric nurse and part-time art history professor.

But her aunts and uncles, and their families, were all middle-America, right-leaning folks.  The matriarch of the family, “Maw-maw,” who when calling the huge group to the table for Thanksgiving dinner said, “Everyone come and eat, even if your Jewish” — that last bit aimed at me, one imagines, unless she just said that all the time. But they were all so kind. And the food was good, and their traditions were lived-in and important to them. In a way that made the more hippy-dippy openness of my upbringing seem paltry by comparison. We ate and played spoons and drank and smoked cigarettes and talked. And we laughed a lot.

There was uncle Patrick, who was gay, and living with HIV. He was at Thanksgiving. You knew it wasn’t okay with everyone — how he lived — but they loved him and wanted him close. He lived in a three-story turn-of-the-century mansion on the south side of the city — where most whites had long since fled from. But you could buy something amazing there for cheap, and the uncles were all in the trades and could help bring it back to life.

There was uncle Tommy, who once asked me — and I believe without any trace of irony (and this is a real thing that happened) — “Why are so many smart people liberal?” I told him what I thought at the time, that maybe a smart person can conceive of things from a broader view, and that, in seeing more clearly the way people are affected by things, they can’t help but have more empathy.

I didn’t feel good about it at the time, and I don’t now. Maybe I should have just said, “I don’t know,” which seems even truer today than it did then — and it was always true. Tommy was an unfailingly kind person, who cared deeply about his family, who served our country in the military, and who worked hard. It mattered to me that Tommy respected me.

He and his brothers were civil war reenactors, and I believe on the side of the confederate army… (I can’t remember for sure), but war history enthusiast nonetheless . Tommy once took me into his room to show me the working WWII Mauser rifle that he had purchased at a gun show. That was the first I had heard that there was a thing called a “gun show.” I held the rifle. It was heavy–I remember that. The wood was worn to an oily dark hue. The gunmetal was dull, nicked, and emblazoned with nazi symbols. I don’t know why he wanted to show it to me, other than to ponder its antiquity and the oblique transgressigvness of its presence, in that place, in his possession.

I don’t know if he meant to communicate anything to me — to make me uncomfortable — but standing alone with him in the quiet of his small bedroom, with the breeze bringing bright afternoon light through thin, white drapes — it did. I don’t think he really understood the dark power of that object. Maybe it was a confession, of sorts. I just told him I thought it was “cool.” And in its way, it was.

I wonder how the last twelve years have been for uncle Tommy? Patrick? Uncle Dennis and Maw-maw. Were the kids that they wanted to make sure went to college able to do anything with the degrees they earned? Are they still in student debt that they can never possibly repay? How did they survive the financial crisis, when there was nowhere to ply their construction trades? How about uncle Hans, with his prescription painkiller addiction? Was he able to get on SSI? How’s his hep-C treatment going? Is he alive?

Maybe things aren’t as great as they once were, for them.

I’m projecting. I don’t know these people anymore and I have no idea if they even voted. I’m making them emblematic of something bigger than them. I shouldn’t do that, but I did. I wish we had found something better than Donald Trump to offer them.

Adam was my best friend since the fourth grade, growing up in Tucson. He was who I measured myself against. I wasn’t smart unless I was smarter than Adam. It wasn’t as cool as it could be until I could show it to Adam. It was funnier if we were together. After eighth grade I moved away to Washington state, but we stayed in touch. He came to visit and I went to visit him.

When I was afraid I was losing my mind, I dropped out of college, I got in my car and drove to Tucson to crash with him. One night we took mushrooms and wandered around the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains and talked. He bummed smokes from me, even though he never inhaled.

He decided he needed to burn the t-shirt he was wearing — a Bobby Brady t-shirt –because it didn’t accurately represent who he was. And he was pretty right about that. It didn’t. He wasn’t some goofball kid, I guess. At least not anymore. He was a serious guy by that point. So we watched the shirt burn away in the dirt. I don’t know how important that gesture was for him in terms of re-charting his self-awareness, but it was important to me that he did that with me present. Things were more meaningful when we were together.

By 2000, I had been living in the Bay Area for five years and he had moved on to grad school, taking his philosophy degree and moving into theology, then living in a Jewish communal-living situation on the UCLA campus. My ex-wife and I drove with our good friend Wafi to see Adam in LA. For some reason we thought it made sense to take some pot brownies on our way out of town, which meant I spent most of the drive curled up in the passenger seat, terrified while Wafi played Front-242 and Skinny Puppy on the stereo.

That was the trip when I learned that I wasn’t really Jewish, and that it might not be okay to bring an Iraqi friend to a Kibbutz.

“You’re Jewish, though, right?” a girl asked me. I think maybe she had been flirting with me. “Well, yeah, sort of. My dad is, but my mom isn’t, she’s German, euro-whatever. Anyway we weren’t really raised religiously.” The look on her face said a lot of things that she wasn’t willing to say out loud.

I don’t know what happened to Wafi, exactly. But we left earlier than we intended. And we didn’t talk a lot on the way home.

On 9/11 I got woken up by a phone call from my then mother-in-law. “They’re doing terrible things in New York on the news,” she said.

Later, Wafi moved back in with his parents to help them run their store. His brother, Munaf, who I played music with — and who I loved like a brother — told me that Wafi had decided to turn away from western culture. So I guess that meant no more pot brownies and Front-242. We never spoke again. Munaf met a girl and moved to Brazil. By that time, Adam had already been living in Israel and was studying in Yeshiva.

At some point in the middle 2000’s I talked to Adam by phone and we argued about Israeli/Palestinian relations. This wasn’t strange. We argued about everything, constantly. Our default mode was to challenge each other. There are pathways in my mind in which this is what I call love.

Israel/Palestine has been debated by people far smarter than me or Adam. His basic position was that they must protect their people. My basic position was that it’s never okay to oppress a population. How could it be right to oppress the Palestinians, when the Jews have spent so much of their history fleeing from oppression?

I’ve seen Adam a couple of times since that conversation, but that phone call was when our friendship ended. Because his final stance — what he felt was the answer that could not be countered —  was that, “might makes right.”

And yet somehow, despite our peoples’ history on this planet, I still believe he’s wrong.

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