Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Reading is Resistance: The Man They Wanted Me to Be

Click here for the formal review in The Los Angeles Review of Books.

I wrote a formal review of The Man They Wanted Me to Be here, but, my source material for that review was a lot bigger and a lot messier and, well, not really a review at all. Sexton's book hit a bunch of issues and ideas that I have been thinking about and struggling to write about for several years now. (Not nearly long enough.) That bigger, messier first attempt at assessing Sexton's work ended up interacting much less with the question “Is this a book you should read?” and much more with the question “How does this help me understand toxic masculinity and through that understanding, help me help push the conversation about ending it forward?” Even though that process didn't fit in the format of a book review, I still think I hit on some important ideas through it, ideas that, at least to me, are important enough to make public, even if I don't have the resources at the moment to turn them into something worthy of the scrutiny of an editor and a publication.

But, that's what blogs are for, and, oh look, I happen to have my own blog series on my own blog about using books and reading to push the world a little closer to justice. Below is that bigger, messier attempt to better understand toxic masculinity through The Man They Wanted Me to Be and to find a way forward. It has been lightly edited for typos, mistakes, and shitty first draft prose. An edit or two I grabbed from the finished review. (Might also be interesting to other writers to compare the two versions, to see in this longer, messier version, where I'm trying to aim for the prose and construction of a review and where I miss badly.)

If it were a virus it would be an epidemic. If it were a foreign country we would be at war. If it were an alien from another planet it would be the villain in a movie. American men are dying and killing. They are suffering and making others suffer with them. Men are letting it happen. We are letting people die and kill. In Jared Yates Sexton's insightful and important book The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making, toxic masculinity is a system of absolute taboos and impossible expectations imposed on men—and through assertions of male power on everyone else--through physical and emotional abuse. Over the last few years—not nearly long enough—I've struggled directly with my own relationship to toxic masculinity and specifically with how to write about it and write at it, in ways that reduce its power. No matter where I start my floundering efforts or what angle I take into the project, I always run up against the same barrier: the men who most need to read about toxic masculinity are the least likely to. I don't know if Sexton has solved that particular problem or if that problem is solvable, but he has made an important contribution to the conversation around toxic masculinity that offers at least a starting point for our recovery from it.

The Greatest Generation is toxic masculinity's masculine ideal; they endured The Great Depression, defeated the Nazis and the Japanese Empire in military combat, and provided for their families often (if they were white of course) earning enough to buy a house and a car, feed their family, and take the occasional vacation, from a job in a manly industry like manufacturing. But this veneration of The Greatest Generation is a destructive force, one that hurts those it is supposed to celebrate and now hurts their descendants.

One of the tropes of The Greatest Generation is “Dad doesn't talk about the war.” As we learn more about PTSD, it's clear that thousands of American men returned from WWII (and Korea and Vietnam and the First Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq...) with PTSD and lived with it untreated for the rest of their lives. We celebrated their stoic silence as they suffered in silence. Or rather, we watched their attempts to cope with their suffering but refused to see it, interpreting three-martini lunches, late night poker games, spending all Saturday alone in the garage, corporal punishment, and demanding their injured sons “walk it off,” as inherent masculine traits rather than as inadequate coping mechanisms, as living up to an ideal rather than suffering from a mental illness. Toxic masculinity predates The Greatest Generation, but Sexton shows The Greatest Generation gave toxic masculinity a core to metastasize around and the fuel to supercharge its transmission.

Sexton argues The Greatest Generation's achievements were weaponized. “If our fathers and grandfathers could survive a depression, ship off to Europe or Asia, and fight the forces of fascism, then we should be capable of conducting civilian lives without complaint.” Sure, your job batters your body and mind so you feel like a crushed can every night, but your grandfather saw his best friend step on a landmine outside of Berlin and he never complained about it. But, of course, it's not enough to suffer in silence; any weakness, any failure, any instant in your life when you are not George C. Scott's General Patton is fundamental proof that you are not a real man like your grandfather. This masculine ideal has always and will always be impossible to achieve, as Sexton summarizes the work of Dr. Joseph Pick, “because gender roles are social constructs and thus impossible to fulfill, the inevitable failure to live up to them can result in psychological damage,” but the lionizing of The Greatest Generation created a specific ideal to fail against, while at the same time many of its members literally passed on their trauma through emotional and physical abuse.

Physical and emotional abuse that Sexton himself suffered at the hands of a number of the men in his life. A key part of the book is Sexton's description of this abuse as well was how he struggled to define himself against it and how, ultimately, he embodied many of the traits he tried to resist until he finally hit rock bottom and sought the professional help he needed to begin healing from his trauma. The arc of Sexton's story feels familiar. It is a narrative arch we've seen in dozens of memoirs and movies about addiction, but this is not the appropriation of a popular form. Sexton's story feels like an addiction memoir because toxic masculinity is an addiction. Sexton writes, “It permeates everything, reverberating throughout our language and tainting our power structure; it plagues every action and thought...Toxic masculinity is a chronic illness, and once we're infected we always carry it with us.”

But rather than consuming a substance, toxic masculinity, as addiction, manifests itself in performance, poses and postures of physical endurance, of willingness to engage in or actual violence, in a stoic absence of any emotion, except for anger. “John whipped and beat me when I didn't fulfill my end of the masculine bargain. If I cried, if I complained, if I was sick or if I simply felt short of his expectations, that's when I received punishment.” As children, men learn the poses and postures that get them hit or insulted and the poses and postures that don't and perform those “until there's no performance any more. There's just a man who knows no other way.” The performative nature of toxic masculinity truly hit Sexton in a breakthrough moment with his father. “The life he'd been living all these years had been one where he'd had to carry himself a certain way lest he got shit from his friends and family. Deep down, the person he was didn't look at all like the one he pretended to be.” Toxic masculinity is not something men cling to because they enjoy it; it is imposed on them by the world and their fathers until it is just easier to become that man than the person they might more honestly be, until they are addicted to the performance. /they defend it because, by the time they have their own children, they know of no other way to be.

Like many men of his generation, Sexton sought refuge from this process on the blogs and message boards of the young internet. But few, if any of those young men had the emotional tools to protect that refuge from the forces of toxic masculinity that drove them there in the first place. On the internet, no one knew how physically strong you were, if you were an athlete, if you had ever cried at a family reunion or on the playground, but instead of using that anonymity to find value elsewhere, they exploited it to ease their performance of those toxic poses and postures, creating “their own patriarchal reality that not only reinforced the old expectations but superharged them.” Instead of feeling free from expectations, they could not even stand the idea that someone might consider their anonymous online avatars effeminate, and so they used that freedom from physical limitations and consequences to relentlessly verbally one-up each other in a contest that no one could win because it could never end, performing an increasingly extreme toxic masculinity, “punishing the world while laughing to prove they're stronger than humanity,” and becoming the trolls that haunt the internet today.

Sexton's ability to perform toxic masculinity gave him access to Trump supporters that few other journalists had. At campaign rallies for Trump, attendees did not see Sexton as a journalist but as another dude and so were open around him in ways they were not for other journalists. Sexton was horrified by the racism, homophobia, and misogyny that he saw and heard at these rallies and his op-ed about his experiences at these rallies brought him to the public eye. The quality of a work of nonfiction, whether it's memoir, journalism, philosophy, cultural criticism, or whatever, is the material it gives its readers to form their own conclusions, whether readers are able to extend their understanding of the world beyond the limits of the book itself. Applying his other insights to his experiences at Trump rallies, we can reach a potentially surprising conclusion; some of that vitriol was performative, spewed by men who did not believe it, or at least not with that intensity, but were afraid their masculinity would be questioned if they didn't. Some, if not many, of Trump's supporters engaged in the same kind of pissing contest that trolls do, where the point was not to actually advance an idea but to prove how tough you, personally, are. To put this another way, there are members of Trump's base, especially men, who don't really believe in him, but feel obligated to attend his rallies, shout his slogans, and even vote for him to prove their masculinity. This is not to absolve them of responsibility for their actions and votes, but to try to define the relationship with toxic masculinity in our search for a solution.

Sexton wants to change the world. A perfect review of a book like this would be able to look into the future and see if he has. I don't know if Sexton solves that fundamental problem of audience. I don't know if the men who most need to read it, both for their own health and for the health of society, will read it. But their sons might. Their daughters might. A new football coach might. And they might find a path forward.

The first step is to just stop. Just stop beating your sons when they cry. Stop using feminine and homosexual descriptions as insults. Believe yourself when you feel like something isn't right. Believe yourself when you feel like you are acting or performing something that is not true to you. Preserving toxic masculinity takes work; relentless physical and emotional work that must envelop a child until the man they want you to be is extruded. Just stop. Just fucking stop. And the thing is, masculine men can still have everything they like about traditional masculinity. Throwing hits in hockey. Shooting powerful guns at a gun range. Pushing your body, taking some risks, late night bullshit sessions with your buddies. All of it will still be there, we just won't be able to snatch those activities from other identities who might want to enjoy them or punish our sons if they don't. And we get the ability to opt out. And we get the ability to try other activities, fashions, and experiences. And we get the ability to ask for help. Seeing toxic masculinity as a performance men are addicted to points towards the ideas needed, not just to prevent its transmission, but to enable our recovery from it. There are millions of people who have learned how to manage their addictions. We can take our knowledge of addictions, our awareness of toxic masculinity, and our growing understanding of PTSD and build something much better than we have today. The only thing we give up is the power to control what other people want from life. A power that, in truth, doesn't exist.

The Man They Wanted Me to be is limited in scope. It is rooted in Sexton's personal experience and uses that experience to guide what science, research, and other observations he brings into the book. This means the book says very little about how people of color experience toxic masculinity or about the experiences of women and people of other genders and sexualities. Sexton is open about the limits of the book and frequently clarifies when an experience is unique to white men while being careful to never center men and white men in particular as “the real victims of toxic masculinity.” But, in many ways, an important book about toxic masculinity, written by a straight white man, needs to be limited in scope because it needs to be personal.

There is a fundamental taboo against sharing anything personal, especially your feelings. In toxic masculinity, men are supposed to be invulnerable and expressing any pain (and even joy) is an act of unacceptable vulnerability. As important as the data is and as insightful as Sexton is with that data, the most important thing he does in The Man They Wanted Me to Be is break that taboo. He shares his alcoholism. He shares his eating disorders. He shares the abuse. He shares his pain. He shares the help he received, including therapy. Ultimately, this book is a permission slip. It says you can explore your own toxic masculinity. You can interrogate the men in your life. You can do the research. And you can get help in the process and that help can include professional help from a therapist or psychologist. And you can share this process with others. Through this process, unlike your father and grandfather and great grandfather who suffered in silence, forced the rest of the family to suffer with them, and passed on the suffering to their descendants, you will become a better human being, a healthier man, and help break the cycle of toxic masculinity.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Reading is Resistence: Stamped from the Beginning and Why You Should Ignore Republican Arguments About Abortion and Pretty Much Everything Else

Every now and then you read a book and the world snaps into place. What was confusing and chaotic is clear. You cannot fathom why someone would do or say something like that and suddenly you see it clearly. Your frustration and anger build, as mine has throughout the course of the administration, and especially in the last few weeks as Republicans across the country attack legal abortion, and then a book gives you a direction, gives you an explanation, gives you a technique, gives you, if not a solution, then a place to start. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi did that for me.

Kendi's powerful insight is relatively simple: the desire to protect and expand chattel slavery drove the racist ideas that became American white supremacy, not the other way around. To put this another way, slavery came first and those who benefited from it created racist ideas to justify its existence and expansion and defend it against those would abolish or even just restrain it. White supremacy then isn't really an ideology based around core ideas that then inform goals, actions, and priorities, so much as it is a system of power based around protecting and expanding the power of the descendants of slaveholders. (I'll get to how this connects to the recent string of forced-birth legislation.)

As a system of power, its ideas do not have to be logical or internally consistent. They don't have to be based in facts. They don't even have to make sense. They just need to provide enough cover to keep the system going. For example, one of the most common racist ideas created to defend slavery was that black people are naturally docile and obedient, that they actually need and love the strict leadership of their masters and that, therefore, freedom is actually bad for them. And when the Civil War started and the Union began to recruit black soldiers, a racist idea was created that black people inherently lack the discipline needed to be effective soldiers. These two ideas are mutually exclusive, but, being an internally coherent logic system was never the point; preserving the system of slavery was and if calling black people docile out of one side of your mouth and calling them undisciplined out of the other helped preserve the system of slavery, you did it. You could do it in the same sentence.

One of the questions I had, when I started Kendi was, essentially, “What the fuck is up with the 3/5 compromise? I mean, seriously, fuckin' A.” One the one hand chattel slavery was built on the idea that black people were not really human (sometimes that argument was based on the Bible and sometimes on “science.”) and thus absolutely not deserving of citizenship in any way shape or form. Every other racist idea was drawn from and circled around that core, because it is very difficult for one human being to treat another human being as a slave or to allow such treatment to happen. So, logically, given that chattel slavery rested on the idea that black people were not really human, they should not be counted towards political representation, right? Only if logic is the point. The point was protecting and expanding slavery and counting slaves towards representation did just that by creating an over-representation of slaveholders in Congress. 3/5 was just the most the slaveholding states could get out of the Northern states and still ratify the Constitution.

When Richard Nixon succeeded through the Southern Strategy he formally transformed the Republican Party into the party of white supremacy and in doing so, he transformed Republican ideology (which, honestly, was pretty fucking racist, misogynist, theocratic, and autocratic already) into an expression of that system of power. The purpose of the Republican party changed from enacting Republican policies, to expanding and maintaining Republican power. This means the only question Republicans (in power at least) pose when deciding on a strategy or policy or evaluating an idea is “Does this protect or expand the power of the Republican party?” Everything else is irrelevant.

So it is not hypocritical for them to oppose every Democrat social spending program that would uplift Americans who are not white men by claiming the federal debt and deficit are existential threats to the economy and then radically increase the debt and deficit when they hold power. The deficit isn't the point, the power is. Nor it is laughably unprofessional for them to spend 6-7 years holding show votes to repeal Obamacare without every actually creating a workable policy replacement. Obamacare as a policy was completely irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was “Obamacare” as a tool to undercut the Democrats and inspire white supremacists to vote. Nor is it preposterously short-sighed and embarrassingly uninformed about the state of the criminal punishment system to respond to the idea that prisoner should have the right to vote with “Do you want the Boston Marathon bomber to vote?” Nor is it 3/5-Compromise level illogical to count inmates who have no connections to and are denied political engagement in the communities where they are detained towards those communities' proportional representation. Does denying prisoners and other people who have been in the criminal punishment system the right to vote protect and expand Republican power? Yes, so say whatever the fuck it takes to keep preventing those votes. Does counting prisoner populations as residents in the districts the prison happens to be in protect and expand Republican power? Given that prisons are often in more white, rural, and Republican spaces and especially given that prison populations are disproportionately drawn from poor, urban, POC and Democratic spaces, hell yeah, you do.

Which brings us to the latest assault on abortion rights. Initially, the Republican party, under Nixon, embraced the forced-birth movement as a way to pull Catholic votes away from Democrats. It eventually solidified into a core current in their base, one they leverage to keep people who disagree with them about nearly everything else, checking the “R” box in every election. But at a more fundamental level, at a level beyond turning out the base, it is a way to control women and especially women of color, who, unlike white women, will be less likely to afford illegal abortions. It will trap them in unsafe domestic relationships. It will restrict their economic mobility. It will drain them of the physical, emotional, and financial resources to be politically active. It will kill them. And given that women and especially women of color vote more Democratic than men, controlling women is the goal.

The reason why none of these new forced-birth bills have any funding for say, free contraception, sex education, or childcare is that reducing the number of abortions isn't the point: controlling women is. The reason why none of these bills make any medical sense is that medicine has nothing to do with it: controlling women does. The reason no one writing these bills seems to have any understanding of the actual biological processes of birth is that actually giving fucking birth is totally irrelevant to the goal, which is controlling women. These bills don't hold men responsible for their part in unwanted pregnancies, in any way shape or form, not because the bill writers don't understand that men are responsible for unwanted pregnancies, but because they don't care: controlling women is the point.

And if this process of proposing logically incoherent, radically ignorant, and wildly unpopular policies looks familiar to you, that's because it is. The Republican party is using the 3/5-Compromise technique again, presenting absurd, nonsensical, and overtly cruel policies so that, in the end, they get as much of that control as they can.

Ultimately, until the Republican party separates itself completely from white supremacy (I, for one, am not holding my breath) you don't actually need to listen to single argument a Republican in power makes, because it is not really an argument; it is a rhetorical device employed to preserve a system of power. That's why exposing their hypocrisy doesn't work. That's why refuting their statements with facts doesn't work. That's why showing logical inconsistencies doesn't work. That's why they don't even bat an eye when they line up to call for Al Franken's resignation and then put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. That's why it's all “free speech absolutist” until it comes to people protesting them. That's why it's all “states rights” until a city acts against their racist immigration policy. That's why it's all “fiscal responsibility” until it is time to conceal the damages of your trade policies with subsidies or write a blank check for war. That's why Republicans in certain places can say “Roe vs. Wade is settled law” while watching Republicans in other states explicitly create challenges to Roe vs. Wade as established law. That's why the party of family values and christian evangelicals can elect AND celebrate Donald Trump. And that's why for ever loving fuck's sake, it is not worth it for Democrats in power to court Republican votes or defend the systems and institutions that Republicans have been exploiting for decades.

The only meaningful, effective solution to the problem contemporary Republicans in power pose to our nation and the world is to completely remove them from power at every level of government and you don't do that by playing along with their systems of power. You don't do that by working within the legislative, executive, and electoral norms they have been exploiting for decades. And you sure as fuck don't do that by treating the humanity of women and people of color as a negotiable policy. You do that by expanding the electorate, turning them out to vote, and following the leadership of those who have already succeeded at both.

It is hard to fight when it feels like you're fighting against chaos. Fuck, it's hard to do anything when it feels like you have no fucking clue why all this fucking shit is happening. And it can be even harder to pull all of that rage into something actionable when you are watching powerful white men threaten the lives of people you love. And Republicans are threatening the lives of people you love. In fact, they have already taken some. And they will take more. Luckily, we still live in a world with Stamped from the Beginning. We still have authors, historians, and thinkers like Kendi who do know why this fucking shit is happening and can explain it to us in a way that snaps all that chaos into focus. And it's not that far from focus to action.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Reading is Resistance: Lost Time

What would you do if you were in a prisoner camp of some kind, cut off from the world, with no way to entertain yourself, nothing to do with the adrenalized energy that can often keep us awake even after the most exhausting days of labor and stress and trauma? How would you pass the time? What would you do to stay sane? How would you feel human when everything around you is designed to make you feel like an object, something discarded, a piece of trash those in power saw fit to “rehabilitate?” Jozef Czapaski and his fellow prisoners in a Soviet War camp organized a lecture series, with each participant sharing something they were passionate and knowledgeable about, something that connected them to the outside world, something that shared the depth of themselves with the compatriots in incarceration. Czapski, a painter by trade, chose to lecture on In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.

Despite giving the lectures by memory, with no copies of the book or any scholarship of the book to reference (or any books at all), and working from schematics that he created himself in preparation for the lectures, Czapski's presentation is extremely insightful, distilling the very essence of Proust into something that can be communicated verbally to those with no familiarity with the work. I doubt serious scholars of Proust will find anything earth shattering in Czapski's interpretation, but he does an amazing job of bringing the biggest and most important aspects of the book to his listeners. For example, he (correctly I think) describes that famous madeleine as, essentially, a set up or a foreshadowing for the moment the narrator stands on a pair of uneven paving stones and the mystery of memory—and the power that mystery generates—reveals itself to him. He also spends a fair amount of his time on what could be considered the climax of the novel, when, late in the final volume, after years of being out of society, the narrator attends a party with all of his old friends. As I remember it, the scene starts with the narrator feeling as though it is a costume party, and all of these people who were so important to his past, had come dressed up as old people. And then it hits him; they aren't in costume. They had just, like we all do, aged.

Czapski identifies something I'd forgotten about this amazing moment: the narrator sees the transience of life, sees mortality, understands at a profoundly emotional level that soon, all of these people will be gone and those who remember them will be gone and there will be essentially nothing left of the people he cared about. But he can do something. He can use his own memory to create something that immortalizes them, not as idealized images, or even as characters in the usual sense of the word, but as flawed, complicated, fascinating, and important people. And through this, after floundering around for years, the narrator discovers his purpose in life, the action that would make his life meaningful. He would save his friends and, through his exploration of memory, give us the tools we need to save ours. And, in an indirect way, give Gzapski the tools to save his own sanity and perhaps his own life.

Given the importance of memory in Proust, in some ways a lecture series based entirely on how the speaker remembers Proust might be the highest expression of the book. If memory were perfect it would be meaningless. Everything in our lives would have the same value or at least take up the same space in our brains. As the translator points out in his introduction, forgetting is what makes memory powerful. It would also be a very different presence in our lives if it were controllable, if we only remembered the memories we were specifically looking for and only when we were specifically looking for them. But memory is not perfect and often we cannot control it. The triggers that elicit certain memories are hidden from us until they happen. And it is exactly those undbidden memories that create the most powerful experiences. We are most moved and in many ways most able to learn when something we had completely forgotten comes flooding back as if we were experiencing it again. This is how we are unmoored from linear time. But that doesn't mean memory is completely chaotic or completely unresponsive.

One of the things that Czapski notes is that he remembered more and more of the book as he worked with his schematics and as he gave his lectures. The more he looked for Proust in his memory the more he found Proust. What follows is another idea about memory, different from anything directly expressed in Proust (at least as I remember it, though it's probably in there somewhere) but still akin to the madeleine and the uneven paving stones: we store much more than we realize. We don't know how much we know until we really start digging into our own memories. Fascism (and in many ways capitalism) argues that, as individuals, we are simply incapable of grandeur, of excellence, of power, of brilliance, of completeness, and it is only through the state (or through the purchase), only through giving ourselves over to the state, that human greatness is possible. But Czapski and his comrades made a powerful counter-argument in their lecture series. They proved that, even in a situation designed to crush them into a kind of singularity, they all still contained multitudes. And the point is not to admire Czapski and his comrades for their series, though it is admirable, but to realize that you are also capable. You can remember more than you think you can. You know more than you think you know. You are capable of more than you think you are. You could put up a fight in a prison camp. You can fight fascism so there are no more prison camps.

As much as the lectures themselves are about Proust and memory, Lost Time is a story about self-care. It is an artifact of survival. It is a statement of defiance. The lesson from Lost Time isn't really one about Proust or In Search of Lost Time, but that being passionate about something is a survival technique. Developing an expertise in something, in anything, is a bulwark against systems of power and powerful individuals who prefer compliance above all, who value those who do what they are told, who find ways to eliminate the asking of questions, because those systems of power cannot take your expertise, they cannot take your knowledge, they cannot take your memory. They can take everything else from you, but they can't get in your mind and excise what you know. That knowledge of furniture restoration, of string theory, of Buffy is yours forever.

What would you lecture on? And if you can't think of something, there are worse ways to spend a few weekends than developing an expertise in something that interests you.

Readers have an extra privilege. The point of books is to encapsulate our humanity in ways that make it easy for us to share with others what makes our lives worth living. Those of us who develop an expertise in books or in a specific book, also develop a constant reminder of what we put in the work for, of why we fight, of what makes life valuable, and also of how we work, how we fight, and how we make life valuable. Czapski is discussing Proust in particular, but his summation of what he believes Proust accomplished is a beautiful summation of what literature aspires to do and what we can achieve or access when we interact with literature: “With his revelatory form, Proust brings a world of ideas, to the reader, a complete vision of life that, by awakening his faculties of thought and feeling, requires the reader to revise his own scale of values.”

This post would have a very different tone if Democrats had not flipped the House of Representatives, if they had not taken back state houses and state legislatures all across the country, and if they had not succeeded with referendums as well. This sense of what we need to do, what we can do when all hope is lost is different when we have been given such tangible and immediate reasons to hope. But you could tell the history of America in the 20th and 21st centuries through the battles we assumed were over. At time of writing, Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan are using their lame-duck sessions to completely undercut the Democratic gains in their states and further disadvantage Democrats in 2020. All of our great victories and all of our great progress has eroded without our constant attention. Our gains were chipped away, our progress diminished, the passions of radical reactionaries loud enough and inconvenient enough to extract concessions from those of us who felt we had better things to do with our time and now we find ourselves in a new version of the early 1900s; African-Americans and many other people of color live in a new Jim Crow, a handful of super-wealthy people control almost the entire economy with nearly everyone else in too precarious personal circumstances to put up much of a fight, and fascism is a threat here and around the world.

I have said this in other contexts, but while I think about Czapski and his comrades in a prison camp and I think about the children and families in concentration camps, complete with numbers being written on their arms, today in the United States, I remember that we have the privilege of memory. We are not yet Germany in the 1930s in large part because we can remember Germany in the 1930s. We are pushing back against the rise of white supremacy because we remember Jim Crow and we remember the lynchings. We can remember what happened and actually do something to stop it and to change it.

And one election is not going to save the world. We have to see the 2018 mid-terms as the very first step, not just in defeating Donald Trump, but in remaking American society to live up to the promises it made after World War II and to live up to new promises we can make with our new imaginations. We have to take Czapski's lessons about books and reading and maintaining your personhood in an impersonal world, not as just a kind of defense against the dark arts, not just as a barricade against those who would invade our minds, but also as the basis for what we build next, for seeing who we can be in the future and finding a way to get there, and for describing a new and better world and what we'll do to create it.

Friday, November 9, 2018

2018 Midterm Debrief

Deep breath. We gave ourselves a chance. We did not end the Trump administration, we did not stop the rise of fascism in America, and we did not finally, finally, finally wipe out the lingering Confederacy that the Republican party has essentially become. Wednesday's firing of Jeff Sessions and installation of Trump lackey as acting attorney general make that abundantly clear. (Of course, we couldn't have one fucking day.) But we gave ourselves a chance. And with the campaign infrastructure we built over the course of this election, with some of the wins in governors races, with some of the election reforms passed by referendum, and with a more advantageous Senate map, we have a chance to really eradicate this Republican party in 2020. The Republican party has been building this particular system of power since Richard Nixon's Southern strategy and it has been successful for decades. We're not going to erase it in one election, especially when there are so many structural impediments to the type of change we seek. But we might be able to do it in in two. Deep breath.

Here are my thoughts about what happened in the mid-terms and where we can go next.

Flipped the House!
We flipped the house in two distinct ways. First and foremost, there is a Democratic majority, which means that (assuming we can make it to January) we have saved Medicare and Social Security for now, as well as what remains of Obamacare, and prevented (well, we'll see what happens in the lame duck) more catastrophic tax cuts. And it also means that there will actually be oversight of this administration. There will at least be a chance at confronting and controlling the rampant corruption in the cabinet. At the very least, it's only a matter of time before Trump's tax returns become public. This was the knife-edge upon which democracy teetered and we needed to flip the House Democrat, regardless of who those actual democrats were, in order to keep us from falling completely over into fascism.

But another flip happened in the House. On Tuesday, the House took the single biggest step I think any of us have ever seen in our lifetimes, and perhaps ever in American history, towards actually looking like the population of America. There are now Muslims in the House, as there are in America, and Native Americans in the House, as there are in America, and Latinx in the House, as there are in America, and refugees in the House, as there are in America, and there are more women in the House, closer to the actual number of women in America and more people of color in the House, closer to the actual number of people of color in America. The House even got slightly queerer.

There was a time in the not too distant past when the argument that the Democrat and Republican parties were essentially the same held water, but, today, all you need is your eyes to know that is no longer the case. The Democratic Party looks like America and the Republican party looks like the Confederacy. And now the House looks more like America.

Flipped Governor's Races, State Houses, DAs, and Newly Competitive Seats
The devastation of the 2010 midterm wasn't really in Congress, but in the states where Republicans were able to leverage the census year to insulate their power from all but the most dramatic voter uprisings. 2010, in many ways, ended up being a culmination of liberal, progressive, and Democratic neglect of state and municipal politics, a neglect that allowed Republicans to entrench themselves at all levels of state government and leverage that entrenchment to create power at the national level they would not otherwise have secured.

In 2018, Democrats, liberals, and progressives paid attention to state and local politics and it showed, with states flipping executive, legislative, and judicial branches, progressive DAs being elected, and ballot referendums successfully enacting a number of policies that will make it easier to elect more Democrats the next time around. It is going to be hard to know this and even harder to feel this in a meaningful way and even harder to feel it with the same intensity as we felt the disappointment in certain losses, but, in this election, we improved the lives of millions of Americans. We saved lives. I'll say that again, we literally saved lives.

Furthermore, even in some high profile losses, the Democrats showed the power of a run-everywhere strategy. An energetic campaign, especially one that draws on both national resources and local volunteer energy, like Abrams (who at time of writing still hasn't officially lost), Gillum (who at time of writing might actually have won), and O'Rourke, can create victories elsewhere. We can confidently attribute two flipped seats in the House to O'Rourke's campaign and maybe two more to Abrams. I think it's also fair to say that the enthusiasm for Gillum probably gave a boost to Prop 4 in Florida. Run everywhere is effective even if you can't win everywhere.

And the thing is: Independents, Democrats, liberals, progressives, democratic socialists, even some Republicans, and others want to save their fucking country from Donald Trump and his brand of white nationalist fascism so why not give all of those people the opportunity to do so by giving them campaigns to work on. When the energy is there you can create positive results beyond winning a specific seat this specific year. And now, in 2020 when the demographics will be even more advantageous for Democrats, there will be thousands of experienced campaign volunteers in every single state ready to take the lessons they learned in this election and apply them to the next one.

American Society is Center-Left
The majority of Americans voted for Democratic governors. The majority of Americans voted for Democrats in the House of Representatives. The majority of Americans voted for Democrats in the Senate. Progressive values won races all over the country, including in red states, in the form of referendums and ballot initiatives. Medicare was expanded. Voting rights expanded. Minimum wages raised. Gerrymandering ended. Marijuana legalized.

When you add it all up, you get a population that is (essentially and, of course, not uniformly) politically center-left. You get a population that, in general, supports the social contract of the New Deal, wants to lower its insane incarceration rate, and wants competitive elections, all of which are core Democrat and center-left policies and ideologies. Why red states consistently elect representatives that specifically, even aggressively, oppose the policies the people themselves support is one of the great mysteries of American politics (if you ask me, it's a heady mix of good old fashioned American racism with Republican identity politics, but that's a post for a different time) but it still contributes to the same conclusion: by and large the American people want Democratic policies even if they don't always vote for Democratic representation.

The Polls Are Alright
For the most part, the election looked like we expected it to look. Of course, there were some surprises both for the Democrats and for the Republicans, but, by and large, the results reflected what pollsters and history suggested: the Democrats would take the House and make gains in other places, while the Republicans would hold the Senate and maintain control in others. For some reason, we seem to treat polls as though they are predictions, when they are really just educated guesses that are useful for assessing political strategies and interesting to interact with in the same way sports statistics are interesting to interact with.

When Donald Trump won the Presidential election, defying all of the prevailing predictions, we reacted as if the very act of polling was somehow invalidated and perhaps even fraudulent. This is another example of jumping to a conclusion in a moment of trauma to find an explanation (any explanation!) for what the fuck just happened. And just like the whole narrative of the white working class and just like the narrative of the flaws of Hilary Clinton's campaign, once every vote was counted (more on this soon), once we got the full story we realized that, in fact, Trump's campaign threaded that handful of a percent needle he needed to win. Literally tens of thousands of votes in three states.

Oh, and there was a sophisticated foreign-lead misinformation and manipulation campaign that (allegedly) coordinated with the Trump campaign itself to boost his campaign. Almost by definition a this-crazy-shit-has-never-happened-before event isn't going to be factored into 538's latest projections.

Polls are not perfect and never will be, and really, aren't supposed to be. They are impressions. They are guesses. They are spectra. They are one of the many different kinds of tools campaigns can use to strategize and people can use to understand our country and our politics. 2016 was an aberration because shit happened that had never fucking happened before. And that's not the fault of polls and pollsters. That's the fault of criminals who defrauded and conspired to defraud the United States.

Results Before All the Votes Are Counted
At time of writing, the odds that Andrew Gillum actually won the governor's race in Florida continue to rise. A recount for Florida's senate seat is all but guaranteed and a recount for the governor's race in Georgia also looks increasingly likely. As the denser, more populated districts with more mail-in and absentee ballots to process continue to work through their ballots, more and more votes for Democrats are added to the totals. It's looking like the number of flipped seats in the House will land closer to 40 than to 30. And two of the three Big Emotional Disappointments on election night, might actually turn out to be Big Significant Victories.

Will that change the narrative that Tuesday was an overall disappointing performance for the Democrats? Even if they eventually hold on to the Senate seat in Florida? Even as all those Democratic votes in California keep getting piled on top of the totals?

Of course not. Once a narrative sticks, even if it is based on data that is eventually proven inaccurate it is almost impossible to change it. It gets even harder when that incorrect narrative benefits those in power (Republicans) and/or fits neatly into pre-existing narratives (the mainstream media idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the Democratic Party). Just like in 2016, when we called the election and drew conclusions from it before seeing exactly how many more votes Clinton received than Trump and before seeing how razor-thin his margins in the rust-belt were and before seeing the actual composition of his voters, we are likely to continue to discuss Tuesday's election is if it were something far less impressive than it was.

There is, of course, an easy way to fix this: do not release the results until all the votes have been counted. Honestly, it should be a law.

We Built the Tools, We Learned the Tricks, On to 2020
Hundreds of thousands of Americans learned, over the course of this summer, the amount of and the kind of work it takes to win elections in this country. Hundreds of thousands of us have learned to canvas, to call, to text, and to organize. Democrats had to develop unprecedented capacities to absorb and deploy volunteers. Progressive think tanks pioneered new data driven fundraising initiatives, developed new Get Out the Vote techniques, and found new ways to tell their story. They found ways to replace Super PAC money with volunteer energy. (For example, I was one of a mass of volunteers who did remote data entry for the O'Rourke campaign.)

But we also know where we need to do more work. We need to start registering voters now for 2020 and be willing to spend the money and time to get them all through the registration process. We need to have the resources to respond to new Republican suppression tactics. We need to be in high schools now, because today's 16-year-olds are 2020's 18-year-olds. We need to give all those thousands upon thousands of volunteers opportunities to keep contributing to the world they want to see. We need to start organizing ballot initiatives that drive Democrat voters to the polls.

And we need to keep fighting now to even get to January. Rick Scott is calling the counting of every vote in Florida fraud. The President is moving to end the Mueller investigation. And I haven't checked the internet in a few minutes so who knows what's being cooked up for the lame duck session.

But I am not exhausted. I am not overwhelmed. I am not deterred. Perhaps the most important thing we learned on November 6 was the work is worth it. Small donations, grassroots organizing, and thousands of volunteers engaging with an aware public can overcome Super-PACs, gerrymandering, and other structural impediments to Democracy.

The work is worth it. Deep breath. On to the next fight.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Why You Should Canvas

There are four weekend days left before the election that, to me at least, will decide whether we will continue our slide into fascism or not. You should use at least one of those days to canvas for a Democrat somewhere. It could be in a swing district like ME-02, but it could also be for a sure thing, (like Elizabeth Warren) or a long shot (like Jay Gonzales). Door-to-door, person-to-person canvasing has been shown to be themost effective way to turn out votes for your candidate and if you don't like what the Republicans have been doing with their power, the best thing you can do is turnout votes for Democrats. But, canvassing is one of those activities where you get out almost as much as you put in, and whatever value you bring to the campaign, you get back in other ways. So, here are some reasons why you should canvas—on top of the whole defending the country against white nationalist misogynist fascism thing of course—for yourself, followed by a few observations from my last turfs.

A Good Walk
I know this sounds like one of the hokey things recruiters will tack on at the end of a pitch, but seriously, canvassing is walking and you, you're not walking enough. Walking is good for you. Being outside is good for you and you're not outside enough either. Well, here you go: a good walk outside. For me anyway there are few activities as fulfilling as walking through a new landscape and canvassing is inherently that.

A Look Inside a Campaign
Politics is almost a parodoxical combination of the simple and the complex. You vote and a candidate wins. (Or you don't vote and a candidate wins without any input from you.) In nearly every instance you will have a choice between a Republican and a Democrat and in an even higher percentage of instances even when you have other choices, you're only meaningful choice will be between a Republican and a Democrat. (Except for you folks in Maine, who now have ranked-choice voting!) And most of us already knew which one we were going to choose, because we've been making the same choice for years. Simple.

But getting more people to vote for your candidate is a massively complex challenge that involves volunteer management, workflow, data collection, data processing, writing, editing, graphic design, coding, polling, fundraising, financial management, and more with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. When you canvas, you get a peek at all of that. You get to see what's on the walls of the offices, how many people are working, and what kind of snacks they have. From whose doors you knock on and where those doors are and the script and talking points you're given, you can get a sense of the campaign's strategy, of how big their canvassing effort is, and of who they think they can turn out on election day and how they think they can be turned out.

If you're at all interested in the mechanics of elections and politics (and you really should be) canvassing is a great way to get a glimpse of that machinery.

Get Out of Your Bubble, But Not in the Stupid Fucking Soft-Focus NYT Piece Set in a Hardscrabble Bar in Northern Kentucky Bullshit Way (Not that I Have Anything Against Said Bar & Its Kindred Bars.)
By the last two weekends of the election, you will most likely be knocking on Democratic doors (at least suggested by the campaign's data), but that doesn't mean you'll only be talking to like-minded people. In fact, there's a good chance you'll end up talking to one of the (for me and probably for you) strangest animals on the planet: the semi-aware American sometimes-voter. Like, dude, this isn't Bill Clinton era political triangulation, this is children in fucking cages, this is the most corrupt administration we have ever seen, this is a President obviously aligned or at the very least amenable to some of the most repressive regimes in the world, including one was the villain in, like, half the action movies in the 80s. This is an obvious partisan hitman on the Supreme Court. This is someone who at the very least had a drinking problem in his life that he refuses to confront but is probably also a serial sexual assaulter. This is lying from the Oval Office at an unprecedented rate. This is a Republican party who's only policy commitment is keeping itself in power by any means necessary. (And they give themselves bonus points when they get to hurt people they don't like along the way.) How the fuck are you lukewarm about any of this? I can kind of understand devotees to the cult of Fox News and though I don't understand why you would ever feel this way, I at least understand why white supremacists are supporting the Republican party. Same goes for all those fucking asshole misogynist men who felt seen and spoken for by Grassley's, Graham's, and Kavanaugh's temper tantrums. I don't understand what the fuck is wrong with you, but I understand how being such a piece of shit would lead you to certain actions. But to see all of that and still think, “I just don't know?” Or, worse, to see all of that and think, “Meh?”

What this tells me is that contemporary mainstream political journalism has failed--at a level far worse than I imagined--in its primary goal of informing citizens on the state of political power in our country. In order to project some strange definition of “balance,” mainstream media has downplayed the threat the contemporary Republican party poses to America, while overemphasizing the flaws in the Democratic party. I mean, the few times I was able to discuss specific issues with people while canvassing they wanted to talk about health care, so we did. OK. Fine. In Maine, I saw an a Bruce Poliquin ad arguing that he was in favor of protecting patients with preexisting conditions, despite voting to repeal the ACA with no replacement legislation to protect the patients repealing the ACA would leave vulnerable. And this isn't isolated. Somehow, Republicans around the country are trying to run on fucking healthcare. They believe they can get away with this because they know our political journalism will not be able to respond.

A current in this failure is how “get out of your bubble” was leveraged by the right to mean, “Let another white guy from the Midwest talk at you.” Somehow, our media has allowed the right to control the debate on connecting and listening to other perspectives to somehow only mean that all liberals have a responsibility to listen to a specific range of conservatives. (And if we don't listen in the exact right way and do exactly what they ask of us no matter how damaging it might be to other populations it's our fault, not theirs if they help elect Trump and Trump-like Republicans.) Somehow, the media has helped create another one-way street in which certain white men get to talk at the rest of us as much of they want and without any meaningful responsibility for their own actions. Which is really tragic, because there are lots of different ways to get out of your bubble. It doesn't just mean talking to your political opposite. It doesn't just mean listening to someone who doesn't believe you are fully human. It doesn't just mean another fluff piece on Rust Bowl Trump voters. There are lots of different types of people you can meet and perspectives you can interact with once you're there. Political belief is a spectrum, in terms of policy and intensity and it is always good to find ways to talk to people on different parts of both spectra.

Canvassing might be the easiest way to do that.

They're All Crooks!
A corollary to the “Meh,” voter is the “They're all crooks!” voter. It is undeniable that the Democratic party has its flaws and that it is influenced by its donors. It is also true, that there have been times in our recent political memory (Bill Clinton's triangulation and Al Gore's subsequent campaign) where there wasn't much to distinguish between public statements and no small amount of enacted legislation. (Again, Bill Clinton era crime bill & welfare reform and some post 9/11 security state stuff. Oh yeah, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) It is also true that there have been corrupt Democrats and that there will certainly be corrupt Democrats in the future, but there is nothing in modern memory anywhere close to what Trump and the Republicans are doing. This, of course, goes back to how “balanced” journalism works. There's a negative story about a Republican being a fucking fascist, well, run a negative story about a Democrat and present them as equal in scale even if they are not even remotely of equal scale.

I should also note, that this is a consequence of “horse race journalism” as much as it is of “balanced” journalism. In terms of what a journalist does, it shouldn't fucking matter whether Republicans claiming to protect preexisting conditions is an effective election strategy because it's a fucking lie. But, instead, the various policies and positions of both parties are presented neutrally, as being equally valid arguments conducted in equally valid ways and the only thing of interest is which one ends up more popular. So voters, especially voters who don't dive deeper than the headlines, come away with the sense that the two parties are both equally bad and so why bother. In fact, one person I talked to was visibly angry that both campaigns were “bothering” him, so he was going to vote independent. Of course, HIS name wasn't the name I had on my list, which brings me to my next observation...

Special Report for the Department of Shocking but Not Surprising
Holy shit there are still a lot of men who will not hesitate to speak for their wives. The last house I stopped at yesterday a man, roughly my age (38) saw my button and said, “We're Republicans here,” which was especially interesting because the woman's name I had on my list was, according the state registration information, a registered Democrat. For all I know, that person had honestly changed her mind at some point in her life and just hadn't bothered to update her registration. That is, of course, a “perfectly rational explanation.” But, much more likely, this guy is a fucking Republican so his family is fucking Republican and that's fucking it. There are a lot of forces, both historic and contemporary that have created Trump's 38-42% approval rating, but a big chunk of it has to be men who believe it is their right to speak for their household and Donald Trump is overtly protecting, shit, even celebrating, that power. (Should also note that “shocked but not surprised” is perhaps my most common emotion in 2018.) (I should also note that if you're not planning on voting at the moment, maybe you could just to deal this asshole a loss. You know the smugness liberals are accused of having? This fucker oozed it, but with that extra dose of 'I can't be smug because I'm a Republican' smugness. Wouldn't you like to ruin his day?)

It's All Rigged
One of the more interesting responses was someone who told me he never votes because it's all rigged. Canvassing really isn't the time for a long conversation about anything, so I wasn't able to drill down to what he actually meant, as that could mean anything from a version of “They're all crooks,” above to, “the Illuminati controls the world.” I bring him up only because, later I realized I should have said to him, “I'm not here to convince you, but, just ask yourself, who wins because you don't vote?” Seems like a pretty good question for anyone thinking of sitting this election out to answer for themselves.

Rays of Hope
My lists the past two Sundays were of infrequent voters; people who had not voted in the last few elections or in the last few midterm elections. This included Democrats, Undeclared voters, Independents, and some Republicans. This means that the campaign has the resources to go after unknowns, to expand its potential base, and to reach votes the Democrats haven't reached in the last couple of election cycles. And a good number of people I actually talked to are voting Democrat! Like, a little over a third of the people I actually talked to. Sure, that's maybe 10 people, but if you all canvas on at least one of the remaining four weekend days, that hundreds or even thousands of Democrat voters. I don't know if that's enough, but it's either do something or don't.

Canvasing Links (Because you're definitely going to canvas now.)

Canvas for Democrat candidate for MAgovernor Jay Gonzalez (Because, last I checked, Charlie Baker was still fine being a member of a misogynist white nationalist fascist party.)