"I used to think I was pretty much just a regular person. But I was born white into a two-parent household, which now labels me as privileged, racist, and responsible for slavery. I’m a fiscal and moral conservative, which by today’s standards makes me a fascist because I plan a budget. But I now find out that I’m not here because I earned it, but because I was advantaged … I think and I reason, and I doubt much of what the mainstream media tells me, which makes me a right-wing conspiracy nut. I’m proud of my heritage and our inclusive American culture. It makes me a xenophobe."
Perhaps I should be saying what keeps me awake is the health of our President, with Trump's recent diagnosis of Covid-19. And/or the health of our elected representatives (and all those unwittingly exposed to them) and by extension, our government. Of course that is a concern. But sadly, not one any one of us can impact.
No, what keeps me up is the polarization, lack of civic discourse and critical thinking that now seems to characterize the American scene. To a large extent, the culture wars have been aided and abetted by 45. He feeds and thrives on division, and I fear those divisions he has fomented and exploited have sown a mistrust of government which will last far longer than his term and his involvement with politics.
The above, from an article in The Atlantic, is an edited version of a much longer anonymous post that has been going around social media since June. It was unattributed, and so far, no one has claimed authorship. Given that, and that the full piece, about 5 times the above length, hits every divisive issue in US politics today, with many inflammatory, non sequitor claims, it might even be product of a Russian bot. The stark either-or divisions the writer describes seem hyperbolic, designed to sow divisive conflict.
And yet, the conventions, the campaign stumping, the recent first Presidential debate highlight two entirely different views of the current state of affairs.
Though the polls are currently tipped towards Biden in November, my cautious optimism is shadowed by a rising, soul crushing anxiety. It is hard not to remember the predictions of 2016 polls, and all our excitement right up until poll exit time, as state after state fell for 45. I wasn’t one of the audiences gathered at The Marsh in SF Election Night 2016 to watch master political comedian Will Durst, whose Elect to Laugh had played every Tuesday, segue from a presumed Hilary victory to the shock of our new reality. Post-election, his show morphed into a new show, Durst Case Scenario, though sadly, now, he is sidelined by complications of a stroke. But that evening, stunned, ‘not much to laugh about now’ vapors filled the room.
And though both candidates are the same sex, race and age, who can forget the Bradley Effect?
So, I find myself wondering how many on the sidelines of the visible divides - to mask or not to mask, social distancing vs "it's a hoax", Black Lives Matter or Blue/All/Every Lives Matter, science-based reopening or we need to get back to work, blue or red, climate change or climate deniers - could constitute a silent majority that could return 45 to office. And how would we know? Not everyone articulates their positions to pollsters, or even neighbors, particularly in this time of social distancing. When I was growing up, my own mother never divulged her preferences, “It’s a secret ballot for very good reasons.” (!) And now we live in thought and culture bubbles. Given the number of people I have had to unfriend or disengage from since 5/25 for their painful, clueless or racist statements and or behavior, I recognize I have narrowed the already limited spectrum of opinions to which I am exposed. And with so many of us holed up for safety, wouldn’t it be easy to be caught unawares?
Nixon coined the concept of a “silent majority,” and exploited their fears on his way to a landslide victory. The “silent majority” he spoke of were those concerned about “erosion of their values”, people who feared that had lost control of a complicated and impersonal society that oppresses them, those with “resentment towards groups that might try to overturn the existing social order.” Though never stated, his "groups" were understood to be those who were, for the first time, getting a voice. He harnessed that fear, and his “silent majority” voted in droves.
The question is, who is silent now? How will they vote? And who on either side will vote? Will the election be a referendum on "values"? The "existing social order'? "Law and Order"? The "Economy"? The Supreme Court? Or the huge catastrophe enveloping the world, Covid-19.
I have socialist friends who insist there is no difference between Hilary and 45; they didn’t vote in 2016, and still voice no regrets. (None are black.) I know few people excited by Biden, sadly, myself included. From the largest, most diverse field in eons, we chose the moderate, senior statesman. How much difference will that make? Many disagreed on which VP candidate would make a Biden run more palatable or make him more electable. Studies showed Elizabeth Warren with the most enthusiastic supporters, though others declared it is time for a Black woman (and a younger one). And now we have a history maker, Kamala Harris, the first Black female, the first South Asian female, a child of immigrants (YES!), who has added excitement. But add generations of gerrymandering, accelerating voter suppression (since the Supreme Court defanged the still needed Voting Rights Bill, between 2016 and 2018, 16 million were removed from voting rolls! Florida voters chose to reinstate voting rights of those with felony convictions and the legislature promptly enacted what amounts to a poll tax to prevent their voting, and is now challenging Mike Bloomberg's intent to pay those fines), the Post Office debacle and the pandemic effect, and yes, I worry.
But what scares me the most is that the illogical, extreme, boomerang thinking exemplified in the opening quote may actually reflect thoughts of real people and communities. It ignores the truth, and falsely connects unconnected dots, but the kernel of truth – that equality for all will entail some loss of privilege for some - is the grudging awareness embedded in the grievances expressed, and in much of grievance politics. With spreading protests since 5/25, rather than address racial injustice, the current administration has attempted to paint protestors as “Antifa” agitators and has fomented violence in dispatching “federalized” troops unwanted and unbidden into Democratic cities. Rather than accept the legitimacy of any grievances, in his appearance before Congress, the Attorney General of the United States denies that systemic racism exists! Ok, maybe "systemic racism" is too much to swallow. So swap in the term "racist policies" ? Still denied. Somehow, don't think we're talking semantics.
At a time when so many are just becoming conscious of the gap between the worlds white and Black people inhabit, the government is marshaling its resources (and our tax dollars) in denial. Despite polls declaring the majority of Americans are in support of BLM, the government appears to be taking a page from an old playbook of division and fear mongering. I fear not only that some may actually think like the statement above, but that those who do (along with Russia) might sway those who are not well informed.
After the 2016 election, Obama reportedly mused aloud, "Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early." Many feel the election of 45 was a backlash to the first Black president: for some, any white man was an improvement. I still wince at the West Virginia county employee who gloated on Facebook, "It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady back in the White House. I'm tired of seeing a (sic) Ape in heels." She "lost" her job when her words went viral, only to regain it 6 weeks later (though she was subsequently jailed for embezzlement.) But she was not alone. Hate crimes soared immediately following the election, from schools to the streets. And now emboldened, aggressive, heavily armed white supremacists march on legislatures with the tacit encouragement of the federal government, and police complicity. The FBI cited white nationalists and supremacists as the largest domestic terrorist threat, but that information was buried; the administration cites "radical left wing Antifa and Joe Biden." Likely, this is a recycling of the divide and conquer strategy described (but not practiced by) LBJ more than 50 years ago, a: "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
Above, a "masked, umbrella-wielding man accused of helping incite riots and looting in the aftermath of George Floyd's police-involved death has been identified as a member of a white supremacist group that aimed to stir racial tensions amid largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, according to police. The 32-year-old, dubbed "Umbrella Man," was captured in a viral video back in May wearing a black hooded outfit and a black gas mask as he smashed store windows with a sledgehammer and encouraged people to steal, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in court this week.." this individual's sole aim was to incite violence." Quoted from an ABC news report. The protests had been peaceful before Umbrella Man began the destruction.
That scares me.
The KKK is the original home grown terror group, responsible for countless lynchings, property crimes and riots, yet is still not designated as a domestic terror group. 9-11 is cited as the worst terrorist activity on American soil, though the toll from lynching of blacks alone is double that of 9-11. The FBI has stated that the biggest domestic threat is extreme right wing terrorists and white supremacist organizations, who have also infiltrated the military and police, but there has been no response from the administration. Asked by Chris Wallace to disavow and condemn white supremacy and white supremacist organizations, our President dissembled.
That scares me.
At 4 % of the world’s population, the US has 25% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths. Graphs comparing our COVID-19 death numbers with those of Europe show stark contrasts, with no end in site. It doesn't take a degree in mathematics to see where we stand. Yet, according to an end of July CNN poll, only 20% of Republicans believed the US response to COVID-19 worse than the rest of the world’s! By the end of September, with over 200,000 dead, that number had risen only to 34% according to Pew Research. And 45, up until his admission to Walter Reed Hospital, was again holding indoor rallies with no social distancing or masks. In fact, he and his family showed up late to the debate, meaning they were not subjected to the mandatory pre-debate Covid testing, and didn't wear masks for the 90 minute indoor event. And the Saturday event to introduce a new Supreme Court pick in the midst of an election without social distancing and masks 9 months into a pandemic appears to have been a super spreader event on the White House grounds.
That scares me.
The wealth of the US was built through land grabs (from Native Americans) and labor theft (slavery), both facilitated by othering, a denial of the humanity of Native and Black Americans. That history, unique among the leading nations, is part of why we as a nation have lacked the empathy required to create universal health care, a living wage, child care and other social safety measures. As other nations' governments step into the lockdown void to support their citizens, COVID-19 has exposed our fault lines, yet our Congress went on recess without renewing basic unemployment relief, then reconvened, with no action on relief to date. Millions of evictions loom, yet no meaningful federal policy of relief is forthcoming.
That scares me.
The last week of July, 45, at one of his COVID-19 press conferences attended by no epidemiologist, boasted that he’s cornered 90% of the world’s supply of Remdesivir, the only antiviral effective against COVID-19, for the US, and no one cries out.
That scares me.
That is what we are up against.
But at the same time, I am cautiously optimistic about the potential for real change. But we face so many issues, where do we start?
Certainly, first step is getting Covid under control: masks, social distancing, and everything we can each do personally will be crucial. And of course, strong Federal leadership would make a huge impact. But the fissures, inequities and uneven power dynamics so clearly revealed through this pandemic must be addressed. Our old system failed far too many. We need to work together to create something better.
Certainly, some of the loudest voices for change this summer have been Black Lives Matter. But even in the arena of racial equality, Blacks cannot effect change alone. Systemic change will require a united effort; others must step up, particularly those with privilege. The faces of the protesters, the lines of moms, the white shields, the dads with leaf blowers to deflect tear gas, protests in mainly white cities and towns across America- so many signs of solidarity with a willingness to put bodies and health on the line - to get into good trouble to use the words of John Lewis, inspire me. The many book club discussions of books like White Fragility and So You Want to Talk About Race, affinity groups to discuss racism, the thoughtful responses to NYTimes and Washington Post opinion pieces and to my blog post all spell HOPE. Many of the corporate Black Lives Matter statements, especially when followed by employee counter statements revealing true grievances previously dismissed, seemed more lip service than true plans for change. But we have seen resignations, dismissals, some real efforts to listen and learn, and many groups brainstorming ways to more become more equitable. It feels as if with race, we are at a critical inflection point. Some have dubbed this the third Reconstruction, the initial having followed the Civil War, the second, the Civil Rights Movement culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1963. May that be so! After 400 years in this country, may we finally get the legal protections promised.
But certainly, others are suffering, too, more silently, without a movement, but no less urgently. Neglected as the wealth gap has broadened, well paying jobs automated and moved overseas, abandoned, without hope or a safety net, these forgotten or overlooked Americans need our help.
Divided, we stand no chance. Just as the pandemic has revealed, the rich will get richer while the 95% continue to lose ground. Evictions, food insecurity and job losses mount, and immigrants are demonized. But united, marshaling our energy in a common cause, with empathy for all our citizens and those who wish to become citizens, we can begin to level the playing field. Together we can restore not only civility, but the humanity that a living wage, child care, sick and family leave and universal health care offer.
I have hope, but first step for that hope can only be realized through the crucial 2020 4 letter word: VOTE! And vote early, in case the Post Office is hobbled. Make your voice count.