Where the Heart Is

They [Mexicans] brought their third-world ****hole here and while it’s a little bit better than what they had in the process of doing it they dragged us into the gutter with them.

What’s one more racist projection now when Alt Rightists give Nazi salutes and the President-elect’s consiglieres are (brutish or kinder/gentler) white supremacists? Acts speak louder than spew. Still, the line above jumped out at me because of where I came across it. Not at an Alt Right conclave or website, not in a bar or…locker-room, but in an email by a distinguished D.C. cardiologist, Dr. Oskoui, to a group who read and sometimes respond to William Greider’s Nation articles.

Nobody in that group let on they were put out by Dr. Oskoui’s gutter talk [1]. Our collective non-response may have been a sign of maturity—the moral equivalent of non-resistance to spleen in YouTube comment sections. OTOH, William Greider’s own take on the election might be taken as a sort of license to ill. I’m not suggesting Greider was singing a hate song. He allowed he’d voted for HRC and noted his own relatives were “profoundly alarmed about the potential violence expressed by Trump and his legions”: “His racist remarks are a frightening foreshadowing of what his presidency could become.” But in his piece, Greider got past that fear fast. He invoked the late Lawrence Goodwyn’s scholarship on America’s “populist moment” in the 19th C., imaging Trump’s Reaction as a “small d democratic” uprising of “plain people” against elites.

I’ve dissented from Greider’s interpretations of Goodwyn’s work in the recent past and I don’t want to seem captious. But I loved Larry Goodwyn and I’m sure he would’ve hated to see his legacy traduced to justify Trumpism. Goodwyn treated deep populism as a useable past. He recovered rural radicals’ forgotten educational initiatives and recruitment practices that stretched out over years from towns to districts to states, generating innovative answers to quandaries faced by farmers who yearned for access to loans/capital that might keep them from being at the mercy of bankers and markets (and panics back in the day). But.  Goodwyn zeroed in on how that organic process was subverted by a shallow politics of spectacle that trashed populism’s democratic culture (and interracial alliances between black and white tenant farmers in the South). Instead of solutions such as the “sub-treasury plan”—check that out and you’ll wonder at the quality of mind that informed it—populism faded as its target constituency went for “Free Silver” and William Jennings Bryan’s silvery tongue.  Greider has conflated originary populism that so inspired Goodwyn with the “shadow movement” that took over one major party near the end of the 19th C.  “Shadow movement” is a phrase that seems on point when it comes to today’s right-wing faux-populism.  It’s not all dark in America, but it might be getting there. Especially for 20,000,000 folks who got insurance under Obamacare.

II

Doubt Dr. Oskoui will be there for them in the emergency rooms, though he shares Greider’s will to identify with “plain people.” It’s instructive to track how this gutter doctor uses his reactionary imagination—prep work for coming years of resistance to the rule of lies.

Take his evocation of the hollowed out nature of Middle America’s small towns, which isn’t irreal:

Ever drive through small town America? Hell, how about “not-so-small-town” America? Many of these towns look like something out of a WWI or WWII European war movie.  There was one factory or maybe two, but now it sits empty, weeds growing out of the parking lot as high as your head, all the windows are broken out and the roof has caved in.  Over on the outskirts there’s a Walmart that pays $9/hour, but only offers 20 hours/week.  The factory paid $30/hour, full-time, plus benefits and food, power, medicine and beer cost half of what it does now. 90% of what formerly were little diners and shops in the “center” of the town, which might have one actual traffic light, are gone—boarded up and often literally falling apart.  There might be one bank left, a branch of a big national chain, and maybe an antique store.  Maybe.  All the factory jobs left for China and Mexico and everything else died when the middle-class incomes to support them disappeared.  We did that as a nation with our “progressive” and “global” agenda driven by the 50%+1 that live in the closest big city 200 miles away.

I don’t blame you if you’re responsive to the truth content in this summons to change your life and I’ll come back to that “we” (since I’m not out to avoid my own culpability for what’s just gone down in America). But Oskoui’s assault on the city (which is “the black man’s land” as a 60s radical once had it) isn’t far removed from his racist trash talk about Mexicans. He offers himself as something other than a MAGA apologist but he tends to bow to the Don:  “Donald Trump is calling both liberals and conservatives to their American standards and their American values.”  Oskoui wales on post-election protestors who deny Trump is their president.  Yet the fact Trump broke heavy precedents when it came to peaceful transfers of power is down the memory hole. (I’m flashing now on those black commentators—Joy Reid and Eugene Robinson—who brought home to their white liberal colleagues ((MSC’s Republicans got it on their own)) how Trump smashed norms when he suggested he’d lock up Hillary and prevaricated about accepting the election’s outcome.)

While Oskoui excuses Trump, he comes hard at Obama, claiming the president’s policies went against interests of working class people in the heartland. Such B.S. is C.W. since the election. T.P.P., in this telling, trumps auto bailout or “Give them a raise!” or Obama’s battles with the G.O.P. over extending Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.  It’s true Obama bet he could protect the most vulnerable people in America without losing support from those who were marginally better off.  He seems to have lost that bet. But his aim to push a program that promised to provide universal healthcare in the fullness of time (notwithstanding massive resistance from the G.O.P.) was a daring experiment in liberal governance. While Obama’s inside game sometimes made him (and compromised Dems) look bad, there were extraordinary civic raps along the way—democratic discourse worthy of original populists’ faith American politics should engender serious debates about large issues. (I grasp why certain Dems look back in wonder at LBJ’s power politicking, but I doubt nostalgia for his legislative wit and muscle should override memories of, say, Obama presiding over the healthcare summit or his various briefs to Congress or the public argument so many of us participated in around the ACA.) The struggle to enact Obamacare and year by year growth in America’s ensured population amounted to a high moral achievement. That half of a (shrunken) electorate was willing to blow off Obamacare and/or obsess on its fixable flaws—hints at a sickness in the body politic.

III

Our cardiologist is symptomatic here. And I’m tempted to invoke Bill Clinton’s foot in mouth disease when it came to Obamacare.  But, forget him (and his envy of Hillary’s best surrogates). In the life of nations, as Tolstoy once advised, leaders bear no more responsibility than followers for seismic events. Tolstoy’s scripture on “the essential condition of connection between those who command and those who execute the command” teaches us not to lay all blame for this earthquake of an election on candidates.  “Those who command,” per Mr. T., “take the smallest part in the action itself.”

A couple months back Charles O’Brien predicted in an email to me Hillary was likely to lose: “An old rule in politics: if an election is close: and if it rains on Election Day, the Democrat loses. Hillary is rain. The people who want to vote for Trump will vote for him. Hillary? Are there even many people who want to vote for her?” I was warned. And what did I do to stop the rain?  Not nearly enough.

I’d keep my petty failings to myself except I’ve noticed there are any number of leftists who seem to feel no guilt about their own pre-election refusal to go all in for Hillary. I’m hearing a lot of “I told you so” from folks who should be asking what more they might have done for their country.

North Carolina’s Rev. William Barber—Afro-American minister and leader of the GOTV Moral Monday movement—is one American who has no reason to feel guilty.  He evoked the unnatural dread so many Americans felt on election night by putting an impious spin on a bible story: “Y’all said what Jesus said when he saw a fig tree that wasn’t producing…‘Damn.’”

What I appreciated most about Barber’s angle was his clarity that something awful new had happened under the sun. His readiness to cop to his own surprise beats the hell out of pundits who rush to explain why the election confirms everything they’ve been saying for years. (Pace William Grieder.)

I’m reminded now I got a premonitory shock from my familiars around the time O’Brien hinted at the deluge to come. Back in the summer, I came on a Facebook post by a distant relative advising how glad he’d be to see Obama, Michelle and their two “little bitches” out of the White House and “back on the plantation.” When I asked if he wanted my sweet brown son to think a member of his extended family liked the idea of my boy in chains, he avoided the question, taking down his post (and my response). His cover-up seems to be working—my relative is well-defended.  A few days ago, he scoffed on Facebook at anti-Trump protestors: “What are these people scared of?”

No doubt nothing good came from my shaming a relative stranger (if that’s what I did). There’s no quick fixes to the return of the repressed.  In the absence of sustained engagement, my talkback might be confused with the sort of p.c. policing too common in certain left-wing circles and campuses.  Dim critiques of “micro-aggression” do nothing to tamp down iddy viciousness cultivated by Alt Rightists. We can’t censor our way to the promised land, which shouldn’t be confused with “safe spaces.”

Bruce Springsteen’s pre-election “prayer for…post-election” may have been mocked on the day after by a Foxy punk—“It turns out Donald Trump is closer to the working class than Bruce Springsteen.”—but Bruce’s song was right on: “It’s gonna be a long walk home.”

IV

First reader and writer Nathan Osborne started walking before the election, though he felt like a stranger in an unsafe place since nobody in his Ohio surround was with Hillary. Osborne allowed he had a “primal fear of violence or ostracism.” Yet once he “got over himself” and came out as a Hillary supporter: “No-one has yet disrespected my right to display that I will never be down for Trump.” His coming out led to candid conversations in which he leveled with people, acknowledging Hillary’s failings, but explaining why he was behind her “one hundred percent” since Trump was “truly dangerous to our democracy.” He didn’t overestimate the effect of his resistance to Trumpism but he’s right to hope “individual conversations” might “hold back the tide if only for a moment of the psychotic polarization that prevents people from even hearing each other.”

Osborne’s acts of citizenship reminded me how I tried to resist “psychotic polarization” back at the beginning of the Obama era. In 2007-8, I used to argue—1 on 100—for Obama at a website frequented by conservatives, many of whom had military backgrounds. (The guy who ran the site eventually stopped posting my comments, without telling his “Belmont Club” he’d banned me as I hadn’t done anything egregious except disagree persistently with him and his crew.) A few years ago, I recall printing out about 1000 pages of my back and forths with those red state anti-statists. (When I think of that stack, I’m ashamed about how little argufying I did for Hillary.)  Doubt that Q&A changed a single vote. But I don’t believe our conversation was pointless.  It was surely one of my richest experiences of democracy as conjoint communication (to lift Dewey’s phrase).  God knows I learned a lot about America and my own biases. And I believe I might’ve moved a few of my respondents to be less fearful of Obama, damping down their white panic for a stretch.  I ended up exchanging family photos and lore and music picks with one conservative from the Northwest (who left the Club on his own after he picked up on its thought leader’s wretched qualities). I’ll always recall his graceful (out-of-the-blue-into-the-black-Atlantic) addendum to an issue-oriented email:  “I am hearing African rhythm and body percussion, with a newly found appreciation, I do not know where that came from or why.” I found myself steering my secret sharer to my favorite Afro-pop singers and bands. He got into them on internet radio stations, reporting back on his musical trips:

One song had me envisioning a voice calling Hendrix, the next one reminds me of a long ago romp through a Gulf coast sunny day.  The Haryou Percussion reminds me of some pre-electric jazz scenesPower lies in the music, but the music dwells in the soul.

Obama was the vector that enabled a true west white conservative to get that music in his soul. Though I doubt St. Barack would complain if I nod to another presence invoked at the top of a song that captivated my friend, Orchestra Baobab’s “On Verra Ca”: “Alhamdulillah” [Thank God]…

Forgive me for locking on a golden oldie in these bad new days when the final white-lash to Obama’s rise may result in the end of medicare. Yet I want to preserve some record of that time when my conservative friend got his groove on. It will stand for me as a lovely testament to the audacity of hope.

I checked in with my conservative friend after the election. We’d lost touch—not sure if that was due more to email addy issues or polarization in our polity. His updates on his family were more than winning. The lives of his three sons and daughter (married to a Bernie bro who’s like his “fourth son”) evoked this country’s breadth and (yup) goodness. One son’s working life defines why place matters when it comes to Greening of America: “My eldest boy lives in Butte, attended the school of mines and was working in the oil fields for a small outfit supervising training on a rig until the price went so low his company was forced to fold-up the operation. He is mulling over his options from atop the world’s largest open pit mine where the shafts at the entrance have been turned into properly symbolic art.” My friend’s youngest son is a straight-up hero of our time. He’s battled a debilitating, fatal disease that (at one point) had him down to 85 pounds. Against all odds/advice he pursued a theatrical career at B.U. (where “he’ll graduate this year with a BFA in theater lighting design and production, a journeyman electrician’s rating”). Back at 145 pounds, he “spent the summer interning at Glimmerglass Opera House, and is now putting together stage lights for incredible visualizations.”

My friend’s email from the familial region in his mind was suffused with light and sweetness. Yet there were discouraging words too. He noted how he’d battled on behalf of G.O.P. establishmentarians against Alt Right types “who accomplish goals through bullying politics, telling lies, acting underhandedly and deceitfully.” Yet, like so many other more traditional conservatives, my friend still got on the Trump train after the Don won the nomination. In his email to me he treated Trump’s sexual predations as a generational deal, recalling how he himself once tried to “cop a feel” when he was in 7th grade. [Please Mr. H.!  Most wicked wicked 7th graders grow up and out of their grabby ways.]

My conservative friend knows Trump has emboldened extremist scum yet he flips from defensiveness to beamishness in a wink: “We are not bad people we trump voters and I fear there is much ado about nothing.” (I can hear David Frum’s post-election tweet in my head:  “The lovely American confidence ‘everything will be all right’ has itself now become a serious threat to everything being all right.”)  My conservative allows, though, Alt Right types may be more dangerous in the coming days than “global reactions to [Trump’s] trade policy.” He’s worried about what will happen if/when Feds confront extremists: “The problem will now be the pushback when the extreme right gets shut down. Once upon a time they respected sheriffs and local LEO types. I fear, for those intent on shows of force, that is no longer the case.”

America, on verra ca…

V

I went and found a live version of that Baobab track yesterday. But I couldn’t really take hearing their sunny romp. The only song I’m playing right now slipped up on me when I heard it on a mix tape last week in a Spanish Harlem coffee shop as I was read Tolstoy’s musings on free will and the fate of nations. The song, “Abyss,” is a minor key R&B revenge ballad by The Dream who sounds in extremis: “I’m here to put your heart in its place/Chained up at the bottom of the lake.” When he goes for Jacksonian high notes, he sounds as desperate as his smooth-criminal avatar. “Abyss” may be just another love-done-gone-wrong song but in my head I’ve turned The Dream’s lady who can’t feel the sun and “won’t see another day” into something like Lady Liberty.  The message in the doomy call and response on the chorus seems made for MAGA America:  “Now let the water fall…Abyss.  Now let the water fall…Abyss. Now let the water fall…Abyss.”

That’s my soundtrack for where America’s at. But I’m trying to think my way clear.  Maybe my future correspondence with my conservative friend will help me get back homeward.

 

Note

1 Though a prof did mount a high horse on his way to a void: “Doctor, Thanks for providing us with stimulating matter. I do find your views of the American past somewhat abbreviated and would be glad to suggest some reading from our excellent historians. Very best regards Norman Birnbaum University Professor Emeritus Georgetown U Law Center.”

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