The Tightening Corridors of Privilege

be_this_guyWhen I left my husband for my the woman who would later become my wife, I did so in 2003 in a very liberal metropolitan area, where being gay, lesbian, trans, or anything in between is mostly accepted and unproblematic. We both know lesbian and gay couples who have lived it longer, however, and we were certainly not blind to their historical struggle to live freely, be accepted, and simply exist in the world. But we felt that attitudes were changing, even when we personally ran across the occasional bigot. In short, we lived with a great deal of privilege as a same-sex white couple.

This month’s American election, however, was a huge slap in the face, cold water washing over us and alerting us to the reality that many of our fellow citizens have no problem with throwing us under the bus. Because I am privileged, that feeling was new. And it hurts. It hurts to think of all the people I have known and liked who saw what Trump is and had no problem voting for him anyway. Yeah, he and Pence (in particular) may think that being LGBTQ is a “lifestyle choice” that you can “fix with therapy” and that so-called Christians should be allowed to discriminate against at will, but the ends justify the means! Whatever those ends are. Tellingly, I have yet to hear or read a solid reason why some people preferred Trump, except that they wanted “change.”

Of course, the LGBTQ population is hardly the only one with a problem right now. My fellow African-Americans are weary because discrimination and hate are not new to them. They greet my shock with a sigh borne of centuries of abuse, kindly revealing my own privilege in dealing with what is for them a very old problem. I see this. And this is the dangerous slope that we are slipping down:  the very privileged white people who voted for Trump do not see their own danger.

First it was the Muslims. Only a Muslim could be a terrorist. Certainly not the white Timothy McVeigh. Certainly not the white guy who flew an airplane into an IRS building. But then came the definition creep. Ecowarriors, those protesters who stood up for the health of the environment. Branding them as terrorists is politically convenient for the oil-owned politicians. Who else might be a terrorist, do you suppose? Latino protesters? Black Lives Matter activists? The right is already calling them this. Might gay pride parades one day be a provocative act, subject to increasingly militarized police intervention?

I’m seeing a great deal of denial even from white allies. They rationalize and seek out excuses. “Chill out, it’s not THAT bad!” Or, “you’ll be fine, it’s not that big a deal,” or “The media is blowing attacks out of proportion; very few people are causing problems.” I’m sure the Weimar Germans felt the same way. And sadly, even though this is looking way too familiar, my even comparing what is happening now with the fall of the democratic Weimar Republic makes people more likely to poo-poo the whole idea as a crazy overreach, because “it could never happen here.” Right.

In 1922, the New York Times did not take Hitler’s antisemitic rantings seriously. I say that if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and walks like a duck—it’s a fucking duck. Donald Trump has made his racist worldview very clear. He might have a soft spot for Jews, given his son-in-law, but his supporters don’t. Steve Bannon doesn’t. Jeff Sessions doesn’t. And when you start marking “them” as targets, the list never shrinks. It only gets bigger. Yes, Hitler killed 6 million Jews. He also killed 6 million other people:  gays, gypsies, communists, political enemies, and the disabled. In the attacks since Trump ascended his throne—, I  mean, the presidency, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, Asians, and the disabled have been targeted.

So far, the only white people in the vulnerable group are LGBTQ and the disabled. But if Muslims and Sikhs (just because they’re mistaken for Muslims) are open game, what about pagans and Wiccans? How long before they’re targeted? What about atheists? Pretty soon, anyone who holds any view that differs from the viewpoint of the people in power become vulnerable. This is what fascism looks like. This does not deserve excuses, normalizing, or Pollyannaesque “it will all be fine” magical thinking.

Tellingly, the normalization has begun. For example, the left is so focused on how reprehensible the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist is that they’ve forgotten the point that Donald J. Trump is himself reprehensible, and he’s president!

Trump’s emboldened followers don’t even bother to hide their deplorable views anymore. The KKK, American Nazi party, they’re all out and proud and singing “Sieg! Heil!” And yet, so many so-called “normal” white people aren’t worried. No, it’s not a problem for them. Today.

Fearmongering is insidious, and it’s enriching many who tell lies for a living. My own father reads and comments on these ridiculous lies, and he believes them all. The problem is that many people do. Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, would have loved it all. If you want to focus the population on a scapegoat (or two or ten), it’s remarkably easy. If you want to radicalize Christians to support a strong man, it’s remarkably easy. Here’s what my own father said in a comment on an “article” titled 200,000 Take to the Streets of Paris to Protest Sodomy-Based “Marriage”:

All churches are being infiltrated. All of them. You’ve heard how the Left wants to change the Catholic church. The United Methodists have recently elected a gay woman to be a BISHOP. Many Methodist churches have sent the United Conference a letter telling them that they do no recognize the authority of this new BISHOP…mine included. I’m still waiting to see what, if anything, my church plans to do besides their letter. It’s getting harder and harder to find a church that hasn’t been infiltrated to the point that it’s no longer a Christian church. These Catholics in France are doing the right thing, but they sadly may stand alone.

My father, like many before him, has graduated from the echo chamber of Fox News to the even narrower echo chamber and outright lies of the alt right. He is lost. His brainwashing is complete. The LGBTQ movement is a conspiracy, a “plot to infiltrate.” The problem is, he’s not the only one. And many of them have gone from simply commenting on articles to attacking people in the streets. Donald Trump has denounced none of them. Silence equals consent. This is our very real danger.

 

The Meritocracy Myth

homeless_man_during_morning_commute_iStock_000004136154XSmallMy father was an army officer, and my mother was a homemaker until I was 9. That’s when they bought property that required her to work. She was a receptionist. We were squarely lower middle class, doing well enough. It never occurred to me that we were underprivileged.

I ended up attending a ridiculously small, rural school (9 kids in my class) with few course offerings beyond the basics. I was Salutatorian of my class, but when I took the SAT and ACT, I felt that I had suffered in my math education, in particular. I made up for this lack by majoring in Liberal Arts and avoiding it entirely. My parents paid for my college. It was affordable then, and I’m grateful. My degree in English eventually led to a good career as a technical writer. I feel very fortunate.

My wife, Ahnna, by contrast, grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Her father was an MIT professor who built the first working electron microscope on the continent. He worked with the likes of Francis Crick and James Watson on their research. Ahnna’s mom hated Francis, whose hands were always where they shouldn’t be at cocktail parties. Ahnna’s mom was a beautiful woman. Her professor father, though, was also an alcoholic and ended up being dismissed by MIT years later, some time after Ahnna’s parents divorced. He died of lung cancer in rural Arkansas, where he spent most of his last years alone.

Most of Ahnna’s secondary education was spent at a private ivy-league prep school in Connecticut. Due to failing finances, her mother and stepfather had to take them out of the fancy school to finish their education. As the disabled child of one in four kids, Ahnna had to pay her way through much of her college. Her father, in Arkansas, could occasionally be persuaded to send her a check, but mostly she got by with a long-term babysitting gig. She still considers those girls to be “her kids.”

The difference between Ahnna’s upbringing and mine is pretty vast. Her parents were mostly liberal and well educated. Mine were extremely conservative and largely ignorant. But then, I have always felt that I was an apple that fell a long way from the tree.

A few years ago, an old school friend of Ahnna’s came to stay with us awhile. He had the ivy-league prep school advantage, his father’s money behind him, and went on to Emory to pursue a degree in law, like his father. Their fellow classmates included people like Tracy Chapman, the daughter of Martin Luther King’s lawyer, Mary Travers’ daughter, and other children of celebrities and well-to-do or influential people. In contrast, my classmates were the children of simple farmers, machinists, and factory workers—mostly blue collar. No one you’ve ever heard of. Worlds apart.

After the old prep school friend had been with us awhile, he determined that a composter would be useful. Indeed, I’d thought of getting one for some time, but they can be expensive, and I had other priorities. So I was absolutely flabbergasted when he called up his old friend from school, who was president of a garden supply company, and asked him to send us one. For free. And he did.

This illuminated me on why so much of meritocracy is a lie. By virtue of his birth to a well-off lawyer in New England who could send him to a fancy prep school, this man had made contacts that would serve him for the rest of his life. Company presidents, bankers, people who knew people. People who would be willing to do him the favor of a free composter. And here’s another difference:  it would never have occurred to me to ask a friend for something free from their company. Ever. But when you move in elite circles, there is a certain quid pro quo. It’s like being part of a secret club, and the members help each other out, because they know that they might need the favor returned down the line. With a job. A contact. A loan. Who knows?

Meritocracy is the belief that an individual makes it in life solely on their own merits. In other words, if you work hard, you will be successful and get ahead. While it is certainly true that you won’t get far if you don’t work hard and put your best effort into things, that alone does not guarantee success.

I witnessed the rise and fall of the best damn coffee company in the world in Austin, Texas. They made their own unique drink, literally the best I’ve ever had or will have. But they were competing with Starbucks. They did develop their own following, though, largely based on the personality of the owner, who had a star-like quality. They even expanded to four stores at one point. I invested in them. But uncontrollable shit happened, like construction around their newly opened downtown store that cut into their traffic. That location had to close. A misstep on the books. Another store closed. And it’s not like they didn’t work hard. The owner had a cot in the back room of his main store and often worked from 7am until close at 10pm. He worked hard, all right. And still, after a number of years, the business failed. Why? Because there are a lot of variables that you cannot control. Sometimes it’s just pure bad luck.

If the owner of this coffee shop had had an investor with the vision to help make it happen, I think they’d still be around today. It’s damn hard to start if your resources are meager to begin with. He didn’t have ivy league buddies.

Now, I’m not trying to disparage prep school kids or ivy leaguers. But they have a built-in advantage that all but guarantees their success. George W. Bush got into Yale because his father did. He made Cs. He had contacts to get him into high-powered businesses. Politics. You know the rest. Candidates for president seldom come from public schools.

And yet, the meritocracy myth endures. These people succeeded on the basis of “their own hard work.” Well, that isn’t the whole truth. Likewise, this myth is used to disparage the lower classes, but particularly minorities: poor black kids, the myth goes, don’t get ahead because they’re lazy and would rather live off welfare. But the poor black kid from the impoverished areas doesn’t have prep school buddies to leverage. They don’t have easy access to money and the other markers of privilege. Of course, every now and then a black kid (or Latino, etc) does break out of poverty and becomes successful. People might point to Ben Carson, for example, as “proof” that any black kid could achieve that if they only bothered to try. But the rare exception does not make the rule. It’s like comparing a horse race between a well-maintained and well-trained horse and one that has been undernourished and weighed down with 100 pounds on its back. The latter horse may indeed cross the finish line. It may also collapse under the weight on its back.

There is one other strand that winds its way through the meritocracy myth, and that is the current Prosperity Theology espoused by many American evangelicals. According to Prosperity Theology, God wants to bless his believers with financial prosperity, and if you are wealthy, then it is a sign that you have been worthy of this blessing. If you are not wealthy or are struggling, then God has not favored you, and you have fucked up. This is a very convenient belief, because it validates evangelical ministers for being ridiculously, obscenely wealthy (they “kept faith”). It is also a convenience to believe that if someone is poor, sick, or struggling, then that’s just too bad for them, because it’s their own fault. In short:  “I can wash my hands of your problems.”

It is astonishing that a religion based on belief in a man who healed the sick and tended the poor and who owned practically nothing, who exhorted his followers repeatedly to give to the poor, has produced this very American evangelical view that you can ignore the poor completely and still excuse your conscience about it. This is the spiritual version of the meritocracy:  if you are struggling, not only are you not working hard enough, but you’re clearly morally lacking as well, because God would have blessed you if you deserved it. Wow.

The white classes are more likely to believe these than minority classes. And why not? Why feel guilt about the plight of others if you have a handy excuse? Of course, even white people struggle with sickness and poverty. This isn’t a racial problem; it’s a class problem. Making excuses on the basis of DNA will not change that.

We must change how we think if we want to move ahead and create a just society. Life cannot be about “us vs. them.” We have to stop the automatic judgments based on birth, class, race, income, and material possessions. None of these matter in the end. We must care for one another, not throw each other under the bus. I have observed that those who do not care for others beyond themselves often end their lives alone. Ahnna’s father was nearly dead on the floor of his cabin when a neighbor found him and took him to the hospital, where he died. With no one there to love him. I would not wish this on anyone. Caring about others, helping others, these are actually acts of self-care. They enrich us, they increase the love for us. The alternative is grim.

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
~Matthew 8:20

Neighbors, But Not Friends? A Dark Morning in America

So our hateful 2016 election is done. Those of us who believed that America was truly great have to concede that there is a darkness, a rot in the body of the republic. The man who has belittled every “other” you can think of (Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ, Hispanics, women, the disabled, members of his own party) will now hold the ultimate power as President of the United States, with the full backing of a GOP-majority Congress. Oh, yes, it is morning in America, all right. And it is dark.

kkkBut some are celebrating. The KKK (see photo) are out and open and having a ball. The White Nationalists, which embody the alt right, have inserted their propaganda into mainstream conservative media. Antisemitic tropes straight from the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are openly spoken by our new president-elect. His voters wanted change. They’re about to get it.

Yes, there will be change, but not the kind that brings back the happy (white) middle-class days of the 1950s. That economy is gone, those days are gone, forever. All nonwhite nonChristian minorities are going to have it rough, but so will the Trump believers. Here’s a list of what you can expect from an empowered GOP:

  • Repealed/Degraded Environmental Protections
    Flint, Michigan’s crisis will be nothing compared with what happens next. Increased drilling, relaxed emissions standards, more fracking, more and bigger pipelines, with the inevitable degradation of land, air, and water and increased disasters induced by global warming.
  • Repealed/Degraded Equal Rights
    Muslims, LGBTQ, immigrants, and women, will lose rights in the name of the Evangelical right and “Homeland Security.” These communities will be harassed, and emboldened bigots of all kinds will feel free to set upon anyone they think doesn’t have a right to exist.
  • Obamacare Repealed and NOT Replaced
    Anyone who thinks the GOP has a plan to replace Obamacare is fooling themselves. God help anyone with a preexisting condition.
  • A Right-Tilting Supreme Court
    Don’t expect reasonable verdicts once the majority sympathizes with a conservative Christian viewpoint. The rights to abortion, gay marriage, and any number of privileges may well be revoked. Welcome to the theocracy.
  • A Recession
    That’s right. If Trump carries through with his trade battles, the world and the US in particular will likely fall into recession. This won’t be pretty, either. Remember 2008?
  • An Emboldened Russia
    The Russian government cheered at the news of Trump’s presidency. Why not? They worked hard for it. If Trump no longer sees America as a counterbalance, then Putin will likely “annex” the Baltic states. Will he stop there? Who the hell knows? The Ukraine is probably sweating bullets, though.
  • An Increase in Political Chaos Worldwide
    With the US turning inward, the rest of the world is on its own. That isn’t necessarily bad, but many democracies are facing the challenge of nationalist movements of their own. Which brings us to…
  • The Real Risk of Authoritarianism
    If a man keeps saying that he likes the way authoritarians do things, you should believe him. Trump has praised many dictators and despots. He has advocated for authoritarian changes, such as the right to make it easier to sue the press for libel. He is not in favor of a free press. He isn’t even in favor of due process, which is the belief that anyone charged of a crime should have the benefit of a legal process to prove or disprove the charge. How bad can this get? It depends on how much the feckless GOP in Congress are willing to collude or stand up to him. Given what we saw during the election, there isn’t a lot of spine there. And that’s scary.

This is all bad enough. But the primary reason Hillary supporters are scared to death isn’t because “our candidate lost.” It’s because Trump is, perhaps, a willing tool of the white nationalists who support him, and at whom he has winked in numerous speeches. Here are some of the things his nationalist supporters said of him (source: Mother Jones):

“Donald Trump’s campaign statements, if nothing else, have SHOWN that ‘our views’ are NOT so ‘unpopular’ as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are!”
~ Rocky J. Suhayda, Chair of the American Nazi Party

“‘African-American’ is pretty for ‘jungle savage. We normal whites move away from these jungle creatures whenever we can. But the murderous hands of government, guided by Big Jew, again and again and again push us back in with the savages.” 
~ Alex Linder, 2005, The Aryan Alternative

“Hitler, of course, has been demonized because he lost.”
~ Don Black, KKK Grand Dragon, to Business Insider

“White people are realizing they are becoming strangers in their own country and they do not have a major political voice speaking for them. Trump is one example of the alternative-right candidate Knights Party members and supporters have been looking for.”
~ Rachel Pendergraft, national organizer for the KKK-affiliated Knights Party

“Just know that we three percent, we militiamen, are standing at the ready across our nation. And when you strike, we will strike back. We will level and demolish every mosque across this country.”
~ Jon Ritzheimer, Anti-Islam activist & participant in the Oregon occupation

It is not unreasonable to assume that Donald Trump is not simply unconsciously parroting White Nationalist propaganda, but that he really believes it. His father, Fred Trump, was arrested at a KKK riot in 1927. Donald Trump was not only sued for refusing to rent to minorities in the 1970s, he refused to cooperate with the investigation, destroyed files, and when he was finally forced to settle, he promptly resumed his practice of not renting to minorities. In short, it is not a reach to conclude that Donald Trump is a racist of the worst kind.

So yes, on this depressing morning after, those of us who did not vote for Trump are scared, sad, and disappointed in our country. If you voted for Donald Trump in spite of the encyclopedic documentation of his dislike for all “others” already mentioned above, then by all means, enjoy your victory. But I, as your neighbor, wonder why, if you were truly my friend, you would support a man who will only do harm to me and mine. A man who would nullify the legality of my marriage, which undermines my wife and children’s legal rights. A man who would preemptively classify an entire community as terrorists, guilty until proven innocent. A man who has no problem with “shoot first and ask questions later” when it comes to dealing with American citizens on the street. A man who has no problem denying people of color a fair chance at housing. A man who has no problem with sexually assaulting any woman he’s attracted to. You wanted change. Well, you got it. But it comes at a very high price. God help us all.