Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.

 

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Capitalism Creates Cover for Open Secret in #MeToo Era

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver asserts without hedging:

Let’s be clear: no woman asks to live in a rape culture: we all want it over, yesterday. Mixed signals about female autonomy won’t help bring it down, and neither will asking nicely. Nothing changes until truly powerful offenders start to fall.

The #MeToo movement, Kingsolver argues, must not be muted by backlash, especially one that focuses on tone. This commentary coincides with what appears to be a never-ending unmasking of open secrets, recently including Sherman Alexie and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket).

While the backlash and perverse charges of “witch hunt” are valid elements to investigate and reject, just as discussions of race and racism are often derailed by arguments that our problems are really about social class, the #MeToo confrontation of the open secret about sexual harassment and assault tends to skirt the larger culture that allows the secret to fester—capitalism.

Consider David Perry’s Sherman Alexie and Daniel Handler that includes a very important point that can be linked to Kingsolver’s “truly powerful offenders”:

In my Daniel Handler story, I referenced a series of anonymous comments accusing Alexie. I received a little pushback on that, but felt confident in the appropriateness of citing it. I brought it up because of this twitter thread from Allie Jane Bruce, one of the women who talked about Handler….

Bruce writes, “What you will hear, if you listen, is two cis men who speak the language of liberalism, progressivism, and feminism *perfectly* and are capitalizing on it. Using it to promote themselves and their books.” [1]

The #MeToo movement has been a powerful force for exposing toxic masculinity and rape culture, but we must also come to understand that toxic masculinity and rape culture flourish within an even larger culture targeted by Bruce, capitalizing.

The open secret phenomenon is fueled by, made possible because enough people are somehow profiting from the monsters perpetrating sexual harassment and assault.

This helps more fully explain nearly all of these high-profile predatory men from Trump to the newest revelations about Alexie and Handler.

Gender, race, and social class imbalances of power are created and perpetuated by capitalism (a twisted lottery effect that coerces people to tolerate and hide monstrous behavior because they may profit—even when those chances are slim to none), and as a consequence, open secrets persist because sexual harassment and assault are underreported; for example, as Alexie’s non-apology statement confirms, women sexually harassed and assaulted often remain silent, and silenced:

The majority of sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never reported to the police (Rennison, 2002). The prevalence of false reporting cases of sexual violence is low (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010), yet when survivors come forward, many face scrutiny or encounter barriers. For example, when an assault is reported, survivors may feel that their victimization has been redefined and even distorted by those who investigate, process, and categorize cases. (Research on false reporting)

As Kingsolver implores, #MeToo voices need to press forward, women supported by men as allies. The unmasking by #MeToo can unravel toxic masculinity and rape culture, but even as that important work builds momentum, I think we must not be distracted from the equally toxic influence of capitalism, the allure of profit, that also provides cover for the monsters walking among us.

The powerful preying on the powerless is a terrible curse on humanity; supporting and listening to the voices of victims can serve to restore some of that humanity lost as we must once again admit that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”


[1] See How to talk about sex, according to ‘grey-haired’ dads


See Also

In the Shadows of Slavery’s Capitalism

I, Marxist

It is not for the theater alone, but the theater itself would justify the moment in each class I teach when I out myself as a “communist” (pausing, then clarifying the whole communist-socialist-Marxist mess that most Americans cannot untangle).

And that comes early so that I can punctuate about once a class period a key point with “Here is the communist propaganda of the day.” Eventually, this prods laughter when at first there were silent faces, eyes down, of utter fear.

In almost all of my courses, we back up and reconsider terms such as “theory,” “hypothesis,” “belief,” “objectivity,” and of course the cursed trinity, “communist-socialist-Marxist.” What is interesting as well is that most of my students are as ill-informed about “capitalism,” “democracy,” and “republic” as they are misguided about the Red Scare.

While I remain resistant to any and all labels (see this about my born-again agnostic confession), I am, in fact, more or less a Marxist, with the caveat that the term itself and the ideologies surrounding it are contentious, at best.

I was never an Ayn Rand simpleton (excuse the redundancy), but in my early life as a would-be intellectual/academic (my teens), I was powerfully drawn to American Romanticism’s star-struck gaze on the individual—the stuff of the three-name bullshitters, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (for whom I still have some affection, by the way).

But my twenties and thirties included a great awakening that ran through John Dewey (rejecting the either/or thinking of society v. individual) and directly into Paulo Freire, a (the?) patron saint of educational Marxists.

The boy-to-man transition can be a slow one, but I eventually shrugged off my idealizing the individual and demonizing the collective (damned Society), and came to a much more nuanced understanding of the moral and ethical implications (or absence thereof) inherent in the rugged individual myth and the larger consumerism/capitalism norm of the good ol’ U.S. of A.

This transition, I realize, is part of a personal journey to an ethical way of being, and thus, I had to reject rugged individualism and capitalism (consumerism) for their amorality; I had to embrace Marxism for its moral imperative.

Of course, I realize that “moral” and “ethical” are social constructions, not some objective thing handed down by G(g)od; however, I think humans can create norms that seek ways to honor the collective and individual good.

I am still traversing along Dewey’s call to reject the either/or—despite the wealth of post-apocalyptic science/speculative fiction (that I love) grounded in the evil collective assaulting the idealized indivdual. See Winston’s head trapped in the cage under the threat of loosed rats.

Pretty damn hard to resist this warning, but it’s hokum, mostly, especially since this sort of propaganda by Randian capitalists and aimed at demonizing the government is a distortion of a more credible warning about totalitarianism, something more likely when government is corrupted by corporations (not the implied message that government is the inherently corrupt force in the universe).

Thus, my Marxism runs toward the recognition (the paradox) that if we do value individual freedom and the so-call free market (insert sarcastic cough here), the path to those ideals begins with insuring the robustness of the public good first.

Randian capitalists preach that the free market comes first, as the sacred Invisible Hand—while public institutions (gasp) are to be tolerated only and always under a skeptical gaze.

As ideologies, both of these approaches are idealistic, and possibly inherently unattainable.

I remain with the Marxist camp because it is the moral idealism against the amoral idealism of Randian capitalism.

I am willing to concede that having two or three competing pharmacies facing off across the street and corners from each other can work to depress prices—possibly more so than depending on the usually bungled bureaucracy of government to serve the people well (here, read some Kafka).

But the public good will not be served by Walgreens and Ekerd alone in terms of just what pharmaceuticals they sale; in fact, if anything, the U.S. is a horrible parable about the failure of allowing the market to drive the selling of medicine. (Consider Tamiflu, which is mostly sold to create profit for drug companies, but likely is not close to being cost effective or curative for patients).

The free market spawned Viagra and Cialis, we must consider, but cancer is left to private non-profits begging for people to be decent, and, human.

Charity.

So to stand before my students and confess “I, Marxist,” is no mere theater, although it serves that well also.

It is, in fact, an act of confessing my own moral imperative as a teacher, and a human—as flawed as all that is.

It is a defiance in the wake of all the cartoonish Red baiting that has characterized the U.S. for more than a century.

And I persist, although “I’m not sure all these people understand.”

The Vulnerable Are Expendable in the Free Market

…[T]hey all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin (p. 282)

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-37

I am driving my deceased father’s truck, the bed loaded with toys and my grandson in the extended cab, to Goodwill before dropping off my grandson to be watched while I go to my mother’s former assisted living facility to remove all of her things, mostly clothes and her recliner.

My mother is lying in the hospital oncology wing with, as we are just informed, hours or days to live.

Since my one sudden hard cry the morning the doctor told me on the phone about my mother’s cancer, I have been mostly numb, or empty, functioning through, along with my nephews, the necessary burden of managing my mother’s affairs as her body gradually shuts down.

As I leave her things crammed into two large black trash bags beside the recliner separated into two parts, I have a near-moment of tears as I pause to look into the living area of her house, the home I lived in from the age of 10 into my early 20s. My nephews have cleaned the area to an eerie tidiness that never existed when the house was lived in.

The finality of that tidiness, that emptiness, that none of us would ever live there again—this rekindled the sadness that has been resting beneath the necessary resignation that allows the living to navigate the dying.

My mother actually left us when she suffered a stroke about six months ago—with this day just one week from my mother’s birthday, a woman born on Friday the 13th.

Over that half year, she has been nearly in constant poor health, in and out of hospitals. And if possible, our experiences with the current healthcare system and the inexcusably inadequate Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance charade have been nearly as low a level of hell as being told my mother has stage 4, incurable, cancer.

To add insult to injury, these experiences with my parents’ failing health and their dying has coincided with a Republican-led federal government working furiously to dismantle the anemic Affordable Care Act, demonized as Obamacare, mostly with claims that the free market would be better suited to care for the vulnerable in our country that shamelessly waves flags and calls itself a Christian nation.

Of course, those making these claims and creating laws and policy all are wealthy and have all the essentials that their laws and policies deny everyone else, especially the vulnerable:

[M[ore than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell). I bring up these 80%+ because these are the classic categories of people that are considered vulnerable populations in capitalist economies. These are the categories of people that all welfare states target resources to in one form or another, the good ones very heavily.

I believe my parents represent a fair claim that in the free market, being sick and dying are extremely (and unnecessarily) expensive, and if you happen to not have the capital, being sick and dying are incredibly undignified experiences no person really deserves.

To survive her stroke, my mother was airlifted to a nearby larger hospital, a life-saving transfer costing tens of thousands of dollars. That life-and-death moment involved doctors and family having to discuss and calculate the insurance implications, ones that linger for months since the second hospital, unlike the first, no longer accepts my mother’s supplemental policy.

That hellish (and unnecessary) scenario has repeated itself multiple times since then: my father’s death beside my mother in a rehabilitation facility, my mother being forcibly discharged from that facility and denied the high-level rehab her doctors requested, my mother being placed in assisted living, and then the multiple hospital stays leading up to her now lying in Hospice.

My mother’s death will come similar to my father’s—with only a few thousand dollars to her name.

White and working class, my parents grew up and graduated in the idealized 1950s, married in 1960, and gave birth to their obligatory two children in 1961 and 1962. They were the embodiment of aspirational, reaching hard and often for the white-washed American Dream without a hint of skepticism, without any recognition that promise was never really being extended to people not like them.

Dad worked his ass off, and mom raised me and my sister until we were in elementary school, when she re-entered the work force herself. All of that good old American work ethic was aimed at buying the largest lot at a new golf course just north of my hometown where they eventually built their dream home; it cost less in 1971 than the first Honda Accord I bought new, but that house also has more square footage than the home I own now—although my annual salary among the professional class my parents only dreamed about (and lived vicariously through) is many times more than my father’s best annual income.

My parents were politically conservative like much of the South in the latter half of the twentieth century, and therefore, I lived through Watergate, for example, in a household where my parents routinely ranted against the liberal media and felt compassion for the Dan Rather-crucified Richard Nixon.

And for all of their adult and married lives, my parents worked, my father grinding himself into an early grave, I believe. Both also smoked, as people did then, and for my mother, those 3+-packs a day were certainly the root of her dying breaths being taken in the coming days.

And what have my parents reaped for being obedient soldiers for the free market and the American Way? Truly awful final days on this planet because healthcare is a nightmare and the insurance maze is worse than anything Dante could have imagined.

My parents voted solidly Republican their entire lives, and were very much like the white majority that elected Trump. Like those deplorables, that ideological commitment eroded virtually every aspect of their dignity as their grew old and unhealthy.

Yet, this government that they hated, voted against, is all that sustained them toward the end, through publicly funded programs—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

My nephews and I have been scrambling over these six months to protect and preserve their dignity, if not their lives, but it has been an exhausting fight—one that people in the medical field shake their heads about, powerless it seems, and one that people in the insurance game on the distant other ends of phone calls simply just don’t give a damn about.

For all my parents’ faults, and there were many, I can’t imagine they deserve this, being among the vulnerable in the U.S. who are expendable in the free market because they passed their time to be productive.

The vulnerable, you see, in a free market always become the faces of takers, and no market likes takers who no longer produce.

That market was free, in fact, to squeeze the lives out of my parents and then toss them aside when nothing was left.

It is here I must add—imagine how this is amplified, magnified for others among the vulnerable who do not enjoy the privileges my parents had, being white and achieving a pretty solid middle-class living during the golden years of their productive lives.

Yes, my parents suffered the Libertarian delusion that their material achievements were mostly their hard work and solid character, but despite that delusion, they did work hard, and they did deserve better at the end.

Because almost everyone deserves better than the Social Darwinism of the free market; children do, the infirm do, the elderly do, carers do, the working poor do, and even the lazy and the meek do simply by being human.

The problem? This is the sentiment of a socialist, a humanist, and (here is the Big Reveal) Jesus Christ himself.

Here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. we won’t be having any of that bullshit; you know, respecting the basic human dignity of every living being.

Nope, we are all about the middle finger to the vulnerable who don’t have the common decency to pull on their bootstraps and all that.

Woody Allen, Hollywood, and the Monsters of Capitalism: “I thought it was funny at the time”

The Woody Allen dilemma, now resurrected in the wake of Harvey Weinstein being exposed as a serial sexual predator, confronts us on two levels.

Level one is an enduring debate about Allen himself: Is Allen merely attracted to young women in his personal and creative lives, a proclivity that pushes at the boundaries of social norms for consent and age-appropriate relationships? Or is Allen a sexual predator, one who has sexually abused a child?

Level two involves how this remains a debate, how keeping alive arguments about who Allen is provides a shield behind which Allen continues to produce films, accumulating wealth and power, and to remain mostly unscathed—much as Weinstein did for years: When women accuse men of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or sexual abuse, men raise the specter of false accusations—Allen himself responding to the Weinstein scandal by cautioning against a witch hunt in Hollywood.

If we return to level one, we must be willing to acknowledge the tension between consent and women’s (especially young women’s) autonomy and human agency.

Consider for example, a parallel situation involving another powerful and celebrated artist, J.D. Salinger, who courted young women; at 18, Joyce Maynard made a decision:

At Salinger’s urging, I left college — left the world, more or less — to be with him. I will state plainly: This was a choice I made, of my own volition, with as much understanding of the world as an 18-year-old may possess.

Maynard forefronts her autonomy, but we must also admit her decision to be with Salinger was prior to his exposing himself as a monster. In other words, a young woman’s autonomy and consent need not be erased, and must not be demonized, if we keep our focus where it belongs—on the men who are monsters.

So that brings us back to level two and why the most damning possibility about Allen—he is a man who sexually abused a child—remains only a possibility, a rumor, because shouting “Witch hunt!” maintains the accusatory gaze on the victims—imbued with their possibility of being false witnesses.

But the false witness argument is at least a distraction if not a lie:

The majority of sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never reported to the police (Rennison, 2002). The prevalence of false reporting cases of sexual violence is low (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010), yet when survivors come forward, many face scrutiny or encounter barriers. For example, when an assault is reported, survivors may feel that their victimization has been redefined and even distorted by those who investigate, process, and categorize cases.

The valid fear, then, about sexual assault includes the following:

Research shows that rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, or a weak understanding of sexual assault. Misconceptions about false reporting rates have direct, negative consequences and can contribute to why many victims don’t report sexual assaults (Lisak et al., 2010). To improve the response to victims of sexual violence, law enforcement and service providers need a thorough understanding of sexual violence and consistency in their definitions, policies and procedures.

We must add that men who assault also perpetuate the “frequently inflated” narrative because treating outliers as some sort of rampant phenomenon allows the monsters to survive without scrutiny or consequences.

Despite Courtney Love in 2005 and, apparently, Family Guy for years—the open secret of sexual abuse in Hollywood has remained closeted, from Weinstein to Kevin Spacey and dozens (hundreds?) of men including Allen and Roman Polanski.

Another hint about the open secret, Lana Del Rey’s “Cola,” serves as a powerful entry into the root cause of the Allen dilemma narrowly and the sexual abuse reality broadly:

“When I wrote that song, I suppose I had a Harvey Weinstein/Harry Winston-type of character in mind,” Del Rey told MTV of the “Cola.” “I envisioned, like, a benevolent, diamond-bestowing-upon-starlets visual, like a Citizen Kane or something. I’m not really sure. I thought it was funny at the time, and I obviously find it really sad now. I support the women who have come forward. I think they’re really brave for doing that.”

Del Rey, like Allen, has strong personal and artistic connections with relationships between young women and older men, but Del Rey personifies how gender shapes the consequences of those experiences and themes for women:

This kind of reversal has cemented LDR’s legend: Caught between misogynist dismissal of her art and feminist critiques of same, she appears coolly immune to both forms of attack, which boil down to a common shame over heterosexual cliché. Each camp argues that she presents a superficial, even damaging view of womanhood, minus the talent or veneer of commentary to carry it off. Where Taylor Swift and Katy Perry will belt a breakup anthem as a call to arms, Lana has the audacity to stew in her nihilism and laugh ruefully at the men who mistreat her. Gendered, negative responses just feed into her enveloping aura.

Here, however, let’s pause at “I thought it was funny at the time.”

Comedian and film maker Louis CK has released I Love You, Daddy, a poorly timed film by another man with rumors that linger without any real consequences.

This film is either an homage or garbled analysis of Allen, a work that is blunt pastiche that may ultimately be 21st-century fan fiction—seemingly an artistic extension of Allen’s “witch hunt” mantra.

With Del Ray’s mea culpa in mind about her art, a brief moment in Louis CK’s film trailer is telling:

Louis C.K.’s character is not sure he is ok with his beautiful and carefree daughter dating a man three times her age, and at one point reiterates to Malkovich’s character that she is a minor, to which he responds “a minor what?”

Let’s extrapolate Del Ray’s response to her own song: Maybe Allen seemed funny “at the time,” and maybe Louis CK thinks his Being Woody Allen is funny now—but this was never funny because monsters in real life are never funny.

Hollywood has made billions on fictional monsters, but we must now admit Hollywood has made billions by monsters as well—and they continue by the dozens.

“The evil that men do” (here, the sexism of Shakespeare language is prescient), however, is not a Hollywood real-life story alone; the monsters are everywhere, and if we look carefully at the Hollywood cesspool, we see the root of all evil—”the love of money” that empowers the shield behind which monsters thrive.

Weinstein and Allen, although not alone or unique, depended on their power and wealth to make or break the careers of young women—megalomaniacs who disregarded the humanity of their victims.

I have argued before that Tom and Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are the “careless people,” the wealthy who are themselves monsters, who best represent who America truly is as a country—a people poisoned by capitalism, materialism, and consumerism.

The real world of Hollywood, in fact, trumps Fitzgerald’s fictional unmasking of the America Dream, but nothing can surpass the actual Trump clan now lording over the U.S.

The national indignity of Donald Trump being elected president after being exposed on video as a sexual predator himself is something the country can never erase, or even explain—adding to our long history of propping up men-who-are-monsters as heroes and honorable men.

But we should be just as disgusted by Donald Trump Jr. who recently continued the Trump family tradition of stealing other people’s ideas when he Tweeted (like father, like son) on Halloween, our national celebration of fictional heroes:

Like Allen’s “witch hunt” response to Weinstein, Junior is playing the diversion game in order to maintain the shield behind which the Trumps scuttle along as the monsters they are.

Many have noted that Junior appears clueless about both socialism and his dear capitalism, his shield. Framing socialism as some sort of monster itself is a diversion from how capitalism creates monsters and perpetuates them.

Advocates of amoral systems, capitalism, must hide that socialism is, in fact, a moral system—a people consenting to community and cooperation so that everyone has essential needs that support basic human dignity and agency.

Explaining socialism, Oscar Wilde argued: “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair”:

Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and insure the material well-being of each member of the community….

Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road, and encumbering them….The industry necessary for the making money is also very demoralising. In a community like ours, where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind, man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of.

Wilde concludes ( with more prescient sexist language), “The evolution of man is slow. The injustice of men is great.”

The deplorables laugh at Junior’s ignorant Tweet because they think it is funny.

What now? Will we allow “I thought it was funny at the time” to appear on the gravestones of the women and children sacrificed in our quest for the all mighty dollar?

Or like Del Ray can we finally admit it isn’t funny.

It was never funny.

Brave: No Matter Where You Go, There You Are

If memory serves me well—and it is failing in that regard as I tumble toward 60—this is my fifth summer in a row to take a week-long or so vacation grounded in cycling.

For a couple summers, we went to Colorado, Boulder and Ft. Collins, but now we drive the brief hour just north of where I live to Asheville, NC.

But for all the proximity of geography, I might as well be slipping through a worm hole or walking into some sort of science fiction portal involving much more than time.

Jack of the Woods

A blue grass band performs at Jack of the Woods in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

This summer of 2017 has come at significant costs to someone with incredible privilege and a life of mostly leisure—a traumatizing car and bicycle accident at the end of 2016 and then June brought my father’s death just days after my mother’s stroke.

More physically and psychologically tired than I can ever remember being, I walk around Asheville now as the U.S. spirals further and further into proving ourselves to be a truly awful people—primarily because of what we refuse to do.

The majority political party, Republicans, maintain a relentless drumbeat toward repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), pronounced Obamacare, as political theater and a not-so-thinly veiled next step in the renewed racist energy embodied by President Trump.

While the virulent racists in the U.S. may be few, the “best lack all conviction,” more than willing to remain neutral on this moving train of inequity.

A sizable majority of comfortable people (what we enjoy calling “the middle class”), mostly white but all financially stable enough, may think things are bad here and there, but doing something about pain and suffering for the struggling among us (children, the elderly, carers, the disabled) could disrupt what they have, and they’ll risk none of that.

Just last night a few senators (all of whom are enormously wealthy) stalled (derailed?) yet again the repeal of the ACA—some offering rhetorical flurries about their own medical struggles and eliciting praise for their bravery in the face of political pressure.

Also last night, I had a conversation about the fractures among feminists, specifically involving someone such as Emily Ratajkowski who shares a sort of capitalist feminism once championed by Madonna—the right for a woman to control and market herself as men are free to do even when that crosses a line viewed as objectification or sexualizing.

Not to be too simplistic, but Ratajkowski is the sort of brave witnessed in the senators—brave within a system but unwilling to overthrow a system that benefits them.

And I watch and feel this as I walk around Asheville where a bohemian way of life looks brave to me but is really not that brave at all in Asheville, where this has become normalized by being monetized. Part of the tourist schtick of Asheville is dreadlocks, tattoos, tie-die, and quirky eateries along with lots of breweries.

I mean lots of breweries, including the mega-craft brewery New Belgium, which boasts a powerful ownership model and much-praised corporate values.

NB Asheville

The view from the back deck of New Belgium Asheville is scenic and a picture of revitalization of long-ignored areas of cities. But how often do we ask for whom and why?

So on vacation for daily mountain biking and several rounds of breweries each afternoon, I am mired in thoughts of bravery—or to be honest, the lack of bravery in me and those around me whether I am where I live or here in Asheville.

No matter where you go, there you are, and mostly everyone is cowardly and selfish.

And as I often do, I think about the reduced circumstances of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The rarely discussed consequence of the sacred Invisible Hand is that it keeps us often frantic so that behavior that falls short of any sort of human decency looks brave—senators barely keeping a healthcare system afloat that is criminally inadequate but even so better than the alternatives being promised.

To be brave, then, wherever you live, wherever you are, comes with great personal costs. As Ratik Asokan writes: “Most middle-class Indians hate Arundhati Roy—or, rather, they hate the political activist she has apparently become.”

Roy, it seems, has committed the sin of bravery, a sin most offensive to the so-called middle class—and this is about India, a country of tremendous poverty.

“Fiction is the only thing that can connect all of this together,” Roy explains about returning to the novel as a writer after decades writing essays as a political activist. “Fiction is truth. You turn to fiction when you can’t express reality with footnotes and evidence and reportage.”

Normal, it seems, becomes powerful and evil, ultimately. No matter where you go, there you are with your normal against the normal around you.

I feel both at home and entirely out of place in Asheville, but I am merely visiting and spreading my disposable income around town, often at breweries and restaurants where I am just wasting time and hoping to come out the other side—if not brave at least a bit less of a coward.

See Also

The Low Road, Marge Piercy

Freedom, Choice, and the Death of Us

“they did not stop to think they died instead”

“‘next to of course god america i,'” e.e. cummings

Over the course of a couple hours after my mother was discovered comatose, the ER doctor offered us a choice: airlift my mother to a larger hospital for surgery to remove the clot in her brain that caused her stroke or leave her comatose, each moment destroying more of her brain.

Just twelve days later, in front of my mother then in a rehabilitation facility after responding well to the high-risk surgery,  my father became unresponsive; the EMS team summoned by a 911 call were frantically trying to resuscitate my father, kept alive by his pacemaker/defibrillator. Since my father had resisted switching off the defibrillator and choosing a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order, the lead EMS responder asked me where I wanted him to be transported.

Because of the proceeding days when we all scrambled against my parents’ health insurance, my first thought was how was I to know where his insurance would cover this event (ultimately the last moments of his life).

While cycling on the local rail trail near my university and where my mother now remains in a single room—the building in which she witnessed my father’s death—a friend and I pedaled up to a road crossing where a father sat on his bicycle with a trailer attached for children to ride along.

This intersection has decorative circles of brickwork on each side of the road. As this man crossed, he steered poorly around the brickwork—the cart left wheel rolling up onto the brick, tipping the cart and his two sons over onto the side of the trail and jerking the bicycle out from under the father.

These are all complicated and difficult stories about choice and freedom in the U.S.

The U.S. is a cruel and calloused culture that values a false narrative about freedom and choice, an idealized version of freedom and choice as concepts that trump all else.

Even human dignity.

Even life.

Especially in healthcare, education, and providing social support for the poor, the guiding principle is giving people choice, believing that individual responsibility is the root cause of poor health, failing students and schools, and finding oneself in poverty.

The meritocracy and rugged individualism myths are so powerful in the U.S. that winners and losers both cling to them even when the game is revealed to be fatally rigged. As Tim Maly explains:

So there are people who can be so wrapped up in a certain worldview that even in the face of serious evidence that they have been taken in, and despite many warnings from the rest of the world, they persist. Indeed, warnings from the rest of the world seem to serve only to entrench them in their position. With some of them, it’s as if they end up making bad choices specifically to spite the people warning them.

The U.S. has instilled a tremendous amount of self-loathing, in fact, among marginalized groups (blacks, English language learners, women) who feel compelled to embrace the bitter American Dream in order to be American—even as each of them could utter as Langston Hughes wrote:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

The parent cycling with his children in tow was free to choose placing those boys in the trailer, free to choose to pedal along the trail and then to send them tumbling.

And there we must admit, parental choice is not universally a good thing, and we must also confront that anyone’s choice necessarily encroaches on the freedom of others: children routinely suffer the consequences of their parents’ choices.

The children were fine, however, but my mother and father—along with our family—have been navigating a hellscape of healthcare dictated by patient choice and freedom, jumbled with a nightmare of bureaucracy in which mandated and bounded choices are not really choices at all.

In the U.S., we celebrate the choice between a Toyota Camry and Honda Accord (essentially the same car with the free market promise of competitive prices in your local market!), but few people are afforded the freedom of not buying a car at all—and no one is allowed the freedom from sales and property taxes or freedom from insurance and liability for all that driving.

Freedom and choice are in fact a nasty shell game used to keep the masses occupied so that they do not realize only the few have some sort of economic freedom and choice because of the labor of those masses, those people drawn to the myths like moths to a flame but never allowed to survive the allure.

It’s July 4th, a patriotic orgy in the U.S. that is as shallow and materialistic as the country we celebrate.

A people truly committed to equity and our moral obligations as humans would recognize that sometimes, maybe even often, choice and freedom are not as important as insuring that no one needs to choose because essentials are collectively provided for everyone to insure the dignity of simply being a human.

No child left to the lottery draw of their parents, no sick person tossed into the meat grinder of market-based healthcare, no elderly cast into the dark well of individual responsibility.

As we wave tiny plastic flags today, swill (mostly) cheap beer while overeating from our decadent grills, let us roast in the sun and the recognition that we actually have freedom and choice—and this heartless and selfish country is what we have chosen.

For Further Reading

Why poverty is not a personal choice, but a reflection of society, Shervin Assari

‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’ by Frederick Douglass