Looking for voices of reason in the middle of America’s most successful kayfabe administration
On the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish, there’s kind of a running bit that illustrates how people have a hard time comprehending complex systems such as evolution, without wanting to assign motivation or direction to it. Often when they’re talking about interesting physiological behaviors or adaptations, they’ll word it in terms that suggest intentionality: like “the plant wants to reach the most sunlight,” or “the female spider wants to find the healthiest males to mate with.” Usually Dan Schreiber will ask something like “does the spider know this is the healthiest male?” to which John Harkin usually responds, “does she even know she’s a spider?”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as I’ve been barraged with media that seems to want me to be perpetually panicked, angry, and frightened. Obviously, I’ve brought some of it on myself by diving back into the Performative Awareness Platform known as Twitter — even in read-only mode, it works perfectly as designed, taking me from resting anxiety to blood-boiling, panicked rage in about 60 seconds. But even when I’ve got that shit turned off, I’ve seen the people who I usually trust to be rational become obsessed with Trump’s bullshit rambling quotes about not accepting the outcome of the election. It’s a coup! He’s going to throw out the ballots and the Republicans are just going to appoint him President!
One of the only voices of calm and reason I’ve been able to find is from Teri Kanefield, who wrote a great op-ed for The Washington Post (and has been talking about it in Twitter threads). I’d encourage anyone who can get around the paywall to read it, but essentially, she reminds us all that he can’t do that. He can’t control state elections, he doesn’t have control over state legislators, and he doesn’t control the judiciary. He just wants you to believe that he can, because he’s losing in just about every legitimate poll available.
Of course, it is unequivocally, undeniably, unacceptable for the President of the United States to be casually speculating about a treasonous coup during a press conference. But, I mean, welcome to 2020.
People should understand now that it’s possible for something to be an unacceptable perversion of American Democracy and basic human decency; but also at the same time, meaningless nonsense trolling bullshit. I’m not saying ignore it. I’m saying don’t build a news cycle out of the headline “Trump is forming a coup to stay in office despite the election results.” The message should be that it’s unacceptable for him — or anyone anywhere near the presidency, for that matter — to be saying shit like this, not that it’s something that we need to be worried about and prepared for. If a child is throwing a tantrum and threatening to hold his breath until he passes out, you tell him to stop it; you don’t immediately call 911.
I think Kanefield’s key point — at least, it’s the one I most strongly agree with — is that all of this panic helps no one but Trump. It helps cement this baffling idea that he’s somehow powerful enough to overthrow the American government, control the minds of 50% of the population, bend the legislative branch to his will, and display a preternaturally savvy understanding of the media and how to manipulate it. All this about a barely-functioning moron who is clearly in way over his head. Who not only lost the popular vote, but lost it by the largest margin since 1876. Who is hated by the military — who I’m assuming would be at least nice to have on your side for a proper coup — because he’s a draft-dodger who routinely, casually, and openly insults and denigrates them. Who has the “support” of the Republican party, but only by means of a relationship that’s less like the houses in Game of Thrones and more like sharks and remoras, in that they’re spineless opportunists who don’t really give a shit about most human beings.
You can tell how widely Trump is disliked when even the conservative jackasses speak out against him. One such jackass has accurately pointed out that Trump’s interactions with professional media are more like professional wrestling than genuine governmental communication. And I can’t think of a better analogy than comparing Trump to kayfabe: He saunters into the ring and blathers off some racist, misogynist, blatantly anti-American bullshit. The people who we look to as referees or announcers all lose control and scream about this unprecedented display. No one can imagine what a decent American adult could possibly do when a competitor dares to break every norm of the sport and bring a folding chair into the ring oh my God I’ve never seen anything like this before, is this the end of America as we know it?!
If you’re in the media, or if you’re a politician hoping to stop this nonsense, then you have a responsibility when it comes to responding to Trump’s bullshit posturing, if you respond at all. What you don’t do is keep asking him if he’s going to do it, cementing the idea that it’s up to him to decide. Instead, you point out that he can’t do it, and that’s the end of the story. Or, if you believe that he can, you explain how, and you tell us all what the American public can do to circumvent it. It’s irresponsible to keep treating this asshole like he’s Billy Mumy in The Twilight Zone, magically gifted to enact whatever cruel whim he comes up with.
This whole incident is a perfect example of how the media — both legitimate and social — just stumbles over itself trying to give him more attention and more unearned significance. I suppose having someone in the office of the President who will just randomly spout out racist, fascist bullshit is like a negative zone version of the Puppy Bowl: it’s cheap, it’s easy, and it gets a strong, immediate reaction from the audience. And the state of mass media in the 21st century is a complex system that happens to feed off of knee-jerk reactions to blatantly provocative trash. Our insistency on immediacy, and on the distrust of gate-keepers, has created an environment where even the cheapest and laziest disturbance can ripple out into a gigantic, self-perpetuating feedback loop, more quickly than actual news has ever been able to spread.
But giving Trump credit for “manipulating” that environment would be as misguided as assuming butterflies have insidious powers of weather control when they flap their wings and cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet. (Now I’m going to be embarrassed when we discover the butterflies have been the supervillainous architects of 2020 this whole time).
If this is a chaotic system, like I’m suggesting, then it’s probably a mistake to assume malicious intent on the people warning us about every incident of Trump’s incompetently authoritarian, clown-fascist posturing. In fact, I’d assume that most have the best of intentions. After all, if the president is even casually threatening to refuse to leave office, it is news, even if it’s not an imminent threat. I think the issue is that people are ignoring the notion that journalism and politics are both supposed to be a public service. It’s not enough to tell us what’s happening; you have to either put it into a useful context if you’re a journalist, or tell us what you’re going to do about it if you’re a politician. But one of the few things that both the “left” and the “right” can still agree on is that our politicians don’t feel obligated to represent us. For over a decade, most of the people representing me in the federal government have been less interested in impactful legislation and more interested in crafting the most impactful, buzz-generating statements on Twitter. Let that sink in.
Calling Trump “the heel” — in the perpetual Wrestlemania that national politics in 2020 has become — can be interpreted as an attempt to diminish his awfulness, but that’s not the case at all. It’s not hyperbole at all to say that four more years of Trump would be catastrophic for this country. But it wouldn’t be a “master manipulator,” or some shadowy dark state puppet-masters taking over the country in a violent or non-violent coup. It would be more a case of Americans just giving into apathy, selfishness, and hatred, letting the cancerous decay take over everything. It’d become a nation of Tucker Carlsons and Kellyanne Conways. But calling him “the heel” is a good analogy because it’s a reminder he’s not just a tool for the Republicans to root for or hide behind. He’s there to give the Democrats somebody to boo at.
In 2016, the Democrats spent an entire convention reminding us that Trump was a demagogue. I’m guessing that they didn’t ask Michelle Obama what that word means, exactly, because they sure as hell seem to be trying to make us as fearful and suspicious of each other as they can. It should go without saying that I’m voting for Biden. And more than that, I like Biden, and I trust him, because he’s one of the few politicians at the national level who seems incentivized to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. But I don’t know what the hell Biden’s campaign is doing.
There are all the annoyances with overwhelmingly frequent donation requests, and tone-deaf and robotic messaging, which are all probably inevitable in a national election campaign these days. But what I find disconcerting are the messages that seem to be intended to make us afraid or worried. I’ve seen donation requests that claim “the polls” put Biden at Trump within 2 points of each other, so it’s crucial that I send a grassroots donation of $100 or more, even though I’d already read on the same day that Biden is winning significantly in polls all over the country. I’ve seen claims that the Trump is raising hundreds of millions of dollars and Biden is the underdog, right after seeing reports that Trump’s campaign is as bankrupt as his casinos and Biden is out-funding him significantly.
I understand the desire to keep people involved and keep voters from becoming complacent, but if you can’t do it honestly, then that sets a horrible precedent. When apathy is largely responsible for putting one of the most obviously shitty and dishonest people in the United States into the office of president, we can’t just shrug and say, “eh, politicians and political campaigns lie all the time. That’s just the way it works.” There’s something very dishonest about whipping people into a panic about the president stealing the election in an unprecedentedly underhanded coup attempt, and then telling us that the only way we can stop it is by voting. Doing otherwise just undermines the entire system of democracy that we have in place. You can’t warn people that they’re in imminent danger and then not give them any tools to actually do something about it.
There is no real choice in this election — it’s either Biden or disaster. But that was also true in 2016. I think a lot of liberals like myself assumed that since nobody in their right mind would vote for Trump, there was no chance he’d make it into office. And I think the Clinton campaign made the mistake of assuming that the race was between Clinton and Trump, when in fact the race was between Clinton and apathy. That’s exactly why I want the Biden campaign to focus on the whole “build back better” message (which I happen to think is perfect) and less on the “Trump is a lying piece of shit and he sucks” message. The reason is because the goal of the Democrats in this campaign shouldn’t be just to win, but to get people engaged again, helping build up our communities, restoring faith in our democracy and our ability to do better. Stop letting some shithead dominate the conversation and make everything about him. Instead, remind people how the government — and law enforcement — are supposed to work for us, instead of being in control over us.
In other words: back off the hyperbolic “coup” bullshit until you’re trying to get us to actually mobilize to overthrow the government. Until then, just try being honest with people about the severity of what’s happening in the government, and our role in it. If you want to encourage voting, encourage voting; don’t just gin up meaningless social media engagement and call it “activism.” If you want people to volunteer, give them opportunities to volunteer, and do what you can to make them productive. Give people opportunities to combat and counteract voter suppression attempts, instead of just being angry about them. As it is, yelling “Trump is going to throw out your ballots and steal the election!” seems only a step removed from “Obama is coming to steal your guns!”
Trump is obviously unfit for office, and he’d already done 10,000 disqualifying things before he even started lying about a disease that’s killed over 200,000 Americans so far. This is serious. But our role in it at the federal level is pretty simple and straightforward: research the candidates for local and state races as much as possible, make informed choices in those races, vote Joe Biden and Kamala Harris into office, and encourage friends and family to do the same. If we want to be more involved, we can volunteer for campaigns or volunteer to work at the polls. Or we can get back to focusing on local issues, where we can probably make better use of our talents and have a larger impact.
But part of the beauty of having a representative government is that the vast majority of us don’t have to spend every waking moment of the day in a panic about what’s happening in the federal government, because people have been screaming at us that not being anxious 24/7 is the same as being complicit. Hell, if you want to convince more people to vote for Biden and Harris, just remind them what it was like to wake up not worried whether the federal government had collapsed while you were asleep. Remind them what it was like to be able to travel and not be embarrassed to be American. Or to travel at all, for that matter. Maybe campaigns want each of us to feel like we’re super-important, but our actual role at the federal level is pretty simple and straightforward. But over 300 million people taking the responsibility to do something simple and straightforward can make for a complex system that wants to do the right thing.
You can’t spell “Unctuous toadies Giving up any semblance of integrity and Abdicating any responsibility to their students and their country” without UGA!
Image of the “100,000 square foot” Tate Center, its “95,000 square foot addition,” and the tiny stadium you can just barely make out sitting across the street, from the architecture firm Cooper Carry’s website
For a while I’ve been reading Stacey Abrams’s book Our Time Is Now, but I had to put it on hold. I was trying to read it before bed, and it would make me too angry to get to sleep. I knew that my home state of Georgia had had a contentious election for governor, and that the presumptive “winner” of the election, Brian Kemp, was known nation-wide for pulling some extraordinarily shady and undeniably unethical maneuvers to push the vote in his favor. Unethical as in the secretary of state refusing to recuse himself from overseeing an election in which he was a candidate.
What I hadn’t known was that “unethical” was the charitable interpretation. Kemp and the Georgia Republicans were guilty of blatant voter suppression. Abrams pulls no punches in the book, calling it like it is. And knowing that they would so casually and blatantly subvert democracy like that, and assume that it didn’t matter if anyone found out, is absolutely infuriating. Even more infuriating that they kept up their voter suppression for the 2018 election, forcing people in some districts to sacrifice an entire day trying to get into their understaffed and under-equipped polling station. One of the most egregious offenses was purging hundreds of thousands of registered voters, disproportionately in Democratic-leaning areas.
Most recently there’s been a bit of voter-suppression fuckery from my alma mater, the University of Georgia. The “UGAVotes” Twitter account announced that the Tate Student Center wouldn’t be made available for voting, giving the excuse that it was because of “concerns about social distancing.” Instead, students would be able to vote in downtown Athens, and they’d even be provided with a shuttle!
It didn’t take long for people to point out the obvious problems with that. Sending 37,000 students to the same polling places as the other 125,000 residents of Athens is likely to cause the same kinds of delays and long line-ups that plagued the majority-black-or-Democrat districts in 2018. It would also be no safer than the student center, because you’d be just causing a greater concentration of people in downtown Athens instead of a few blocks away.
“Those comparing this matter to a football game should be able to recognize that football games will be played outdoors but we will still require social distancing by substantially reducing capacity to the stadium. We have eliminated tailgating as well due to a desire to keep the campus as safe as possible and limit visitors during the pandemic.”
Twitter is horrible and is responsible for so many bad things, but it did make me happy to see so many people calling them out for such a blatantly self-serving and hypocritical statement. After people nationwide responded to their bullshit by pointing out that if the stadium — which again, is just across the street — is so safe, they could just use it as a polling place, the University eventually responded with an unctuous bit of finger-pointing, offering the Coliseum, if approved by the Secretary of State and the local election office. Because you know, if there is any group that’s proven itself to be a bastion of integrity and honesty, it’s Georgia’s Secretary of State and local election boards.
After having spent four years at UGA, I have to say I’m kind of at a loss as to why the GOP is so devoted to keeping the students from voting. While the students are generally better educated and more ethnically diverse — which is to say, not Republican — there’s also an obsessive, overwhelming devotion to the football program and alumni donations that fund it, and to the Greek System — which is to say, extremely Republican.
I should mention that I don’t know for sure whether the members of the UGA administration making these decisions are actually Republicans, but I would be stunned speechless to discover that they weren’t. Every executive at UGA that I was aware of was a weird hybrid of the dean from Animal House and one of Paula Deen’s sons. A kind of good-ol’-dean that I can easy imagine forming a human centipede of sycophants from Athens to Kemp’s office in Atlanta and all the way up to the seat of Trump’s favorite Fox News-watching recliner.
But it is good for an embittered chuckle to see the conundrums the GOP gets into when their evil schemes clash with each other. They need COVID-19 to be just dangerous enough that it prevents liberal arts majors just finding out about class inequality from being able to vote, but not so dangerous that it keeps them from stuffing students into dorm rooms and classrooms to get their tuition, or keeps them from stuffing a bunch of drunk people into their comically overpriced seats in a football stadium. It’d be almost funny — if it weren’t politicizing a deadly and highly contagious disease for the purposes of subverting American democracy. Maybe you had to be there.
Somebody should do something to make people more responsible
Copying the most important link from this blog post to the top, to make sure it gets noticed: if you can, donate to causes like the World Central Kitchen, an organization that’s actually helping people instead of just complaining. If you can afford it, an especially cool way to donate is to bid on the artwork that Mike Mignola has been making to support the WCK.
The whole thing just seems like a perfect illustration of the decline and increasing selfishness and apathy of American society over the course of my lifetime. Casting Bob Woodward promoting a book release in the role of Deep Throat just feels too poignant, in the same way that so much of 2020 has seemed to be plotted by an amateur author who doesn’t yet understand why it’s bad to be too “on the nose.”
But I keep deleting it, because I keep feeling like my time would be better spent elsewhere. I’m sure that I have gifts to provide to society that will be revealed at some point, but being able to give insightful commentary about the goings-on of rich people in Washington, DC is not one of them. I don’t really give a rat’s ass one way or the other about Bob Woodward. I was still in diapers when Watergate happened, and every detail I remember about it is from the MAD Magazine parody of All the President’s Men. Until last week, I thought that Woodward was the one Heartburn was about. (Turns out it was Carl Bernstein). I have a B- history student’s grasp of the 20th century, is what I’m saying, so it’s unlikely that the definitive record of this entire incident will be revealed on a blog by an intermittent game developer with an audience of about 15 people on an active day.
Besides, nobody’s talking about how much Bob Woodward has suffered here. If he weren’t such a patient and diligent reporter, there might now be 200,000 more surviving Americans who could’ve bought a copy of his book!
That’s the problem, the thing that keeps making me pulling me back into pointless, un-constructive anger at people who don’t care and will remain completely unaffected. Obviously, waiting to reveal information isn’t as bad as willfully deceiving people about it for political gain (even the Post describes what Trump did as “downplaying” the virus, as if he were just incompetent, instead of what he actually did, which was actively engage in a disinformation campaign about it). But when the end result is the same and the motivation is the same, does it make a tangible difference?
The Trolley Problem
Woodward’s defense for waiting to reveal the information — and calling it a “defense” is inaccurate, since he talks as if he has nothing to justify — was that he wanted to give the full story, and his deadline was the election:
Again, Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture — one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.
Woodward’s effort, he said, was to deliver in book form “the best obtainable version of the truth,” not to rush individual revelations into publication.
And always with a particular deadline in mind, so that people could read, absorb and make their judgments well before Nov. 3. “The demarcation is the election.”
The most charitable interpretation of this is that he sees himself as something like the Watchers of the Marvel universe — spending an eternity overseeing the day-to-day activities of ordinary humans, forbidden to ever intervene. But there’s no shortage of tell-all books about the corruption and incompetence of the Trump administration. Hell, Woodward has already written one. This book is coming out at around the same time as the criminal Michael Cohen’s, who’s more blatantly doing a press circuit — and starting his own podcast, because of course — to promote it. What’s the difference, apart from the obvious assumption that Woodward’s book will be better researched and infinitely better written?
Reacting to the Democratic National Convention, and reconsidering what it means to truly reject cynicism.
Serendipitous photo of my three choices for Democratic Presidential candidate in reverse chronological order, via Rolling Stone
I watched most of the Democratic National Convention this week — they really should consider continuing the new “infinitely more watchable” format even after the pandemic — and I found myself just crying and crying. It shows how hard the last four years have been when all it takes is a bunch of people earnestly talking about hope, decency, and empathy to provoke such an emotional response.
For a while now, even before the United States collectively shit the bed and elected one of the worst people alive to be President, I’ve been feeling increasing frustration with and outright despair over the political atmosphere in America. It wasn’t just that awful people were pulling all of us down into the mire of their own awfulness, it was feeling increasingly uneasy seeing the opinions and the tactics of people who were ostensibly supposed to be on “my side.” Watching the convention last week, and seeing the reactions to it online, made the last piece fall into place. I realized that I’ve spent decades being manipulated.
Not manipulated into believing in liberal or progressive causes; I do that because I’m a decent human being. I mean manipulated into being hyper-wary of being manipulated. It goes back decades. For all I know, it started as a well-intentioned attempt to teach media literacy to a bunch of naive 80s kids. But over the years, it’s grown more and more pervasive, transforming from a healthy skepticism to a defeatist cynicism.
While I was watching the speakers deliver a message of hope and equality, I was focused on looking for “tells.” Kamala Harris’s familiar and practiced suite of Generic Politician Gestures, as she was the first woman of African and Indian descent to accept the vice presidential nomination from a major party. Paying close attention to who was and wasn’t present and who was given the most speaking time, during the Cory Booker-led roundtable of Presidential candidates now united in support of Biden. Considering the strategy behind using a teenager with a speech impediment as a shield, as an impossibly brave young man went on national television to share a story about how Joe Biden helped him, knowing that Biden’s opponents are shamelessly soulless, bullying, cowardly shits who wouldn’t hesitate to disparage a child if they thought they could get a few poll points out of it. And I thought about using loss to push emotional buttons, as Biden described his own grief to show empathy with Americans who’ve suffered loss, and I found myself sobbing at his perfect description of grief as a deep black hole that opens up in your chest.
Any time something makes me cry, I’ve been indoctrinated to ask: is this real? Am I being manipulated? Is this something maudlin or insincere? Should I be embarrassed? Am I being set up?
On its own, I don’t think that’s all that unusual. But over the decades, it seems to have metastasized into the kind of paranoia that seems to be the one thing left in the United States that’s truly bipartisan. More and more of what we’re hearing from self-described progressives is echoing what we’re hearing from the members of the current kakistocracy and their enablers. Mistrust of institutions. Dismissal of the “main stream media.” Convinced of corruption that wasn’t just widespread but completely saturated every American organization. Trustworthy public figures aren’t just rare, but completely imaginary.
Much of this was obviously due to the increasing volume of troll accounts, motivated either by political gain or just a lazy nihilism. We’ve seen how the Tea Party-infused GOP and Trump administration feed on nihilism and despair, profiting from the belief that nothing is real and nothing matters. But especially this year, as more Americans are finally admitting that they can’t go on denying all of the systemic racism, institutionalized misogyny, and white supremacy, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish the nihilistic trolls from the more vocal and militant people on “the left.” No one is to be trusted. All our institutions are irreparably corrupt. There’s no hope for reform; everything must be torn down. We’re surrounded not by people who occasionally stumble while trying to do the right thing; everyone is a latent racist or misogynist or fascist desperately trying not to reveal their true nature.
All this time, I’ve been feeling stressed that it’s getting harder to tell the difference between the trolls and sincerely militant liberal progressives and socialists. I’ve felt like it required more and more work on my part to determine whether something was being said in good faith or not. Finally, I remembered the only useful thing from my philosophy classes: something has to make a difference to be a difference. If I can’t distinguish between trolling bullshit and sincere bullshit, then it’s just plain bullshit. No matter how earnest the person may be about dismantling the systems of oppression.
To be clear, I’m guilty of it to some degree. When Warren, my favored candidate, dropped out of the race, I threw a tantrum online. I complained that we’d squandered so much potential for change by turning the Democratic candidacy into a choice between two old white men. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that the person who was the most entitled to be bitter about Warren having to withdraw from the race — Elizabeth Warren — wasn’t joining me online in complaining. Instead, she was throwing her support behind the party, against Trump, drawing attention to progressive causes, and championing the campaigns of other Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.
I’ve seen a lot of people announcing that Joe Biden isn’t their first choice for President, as if that makes them special. He wasn’t my first choice either. I’d given up on the Democratic Party and political engagement in general until I heard a speech from Pete Buttigieg. He described the end of the Reagan era, for better or worse, and that was the first thing in years that sparked hope in me that things could get better. I was 9 years old when Reagan was elected, so it’s been the standard for almost my entire life. I have no other frame of reference, but I do vividly remember how Reagan-era politics was contrasted with previous administrations, from a media still trying to process what was happening. It was all about media manipulation, optics, and spin taking precedence over authenticity, government as a service, and progress. Hearing a candidate saying “it doesn’t have to be this way, change is possible,” was inspiring.
Finding out later on that he’d have been the first openly gay President was proof that change was possible. Just a decade earlier, the leading Democratic candidate for President had said that he was against marriage equality “because of [his] religion,” and resorted to the GOP’s obstinate and cowardly excuse that it was a matter of states’ rights. Gay rights had been a hot potato that no one in the Democratic Party was willing to hold onto, and by 2020, a gay front-runner for the Presidency was hounded by criticism that he was too conservative.
Call me a single-issue voter, but that’s the realization that finally snapped me out of my cynicism, and got me fired up for a Biden/Harris administration. While the Democratic Party was just perpetuating more of the same while claiming to have the moral high ground, Biden forced the administration to finally “evolve” and make a stand. Biden officiated the marriage of two White House staffers, while party insiders and pundits were still lamenting how he was prone to “gaffes” like standing up for basic human dignity that the rest of the party wasn’t ready to embrace.
As far as I can tell, Biden wasn’t his own first choice, either — it took him forever to throw himself into the running. I don’t have to wonder about any hidden motivation, because I can’t imagine what he has to gain by being President. Few of the candidates this election have sounded sincere — except for Cory Booker, of course, who always speaks with 150% conviction — not because they’re lying, but because they’re always having to deliver a set of talking points repeatedly over the course of more than a year to thousands of different people. But throughout Biden’s acceptance speech, I didn’t have a moment’s doubt that he was being sincere. I believe he’s in it to help people.
I believe Kamala Harris is in it to help people, as well, even though she absolutely talks like a politician and a lawyer. Tone and optics should be irrelevant in the post-Reagan era. Trust is more important. She’d already earned mine by virtue of seeing the course of her career; if all she wanted were power or money, there are much, much easier ways she could’ve gone about getting it.
So in other words, I’m rejecting the bullshit idea that as a liberal progressive, I’m “begrudgingly” voting for Biden and Harris. I’m rejecting the idea that the Democratic Party doesn’t represent all the people that it claims to. I’m especially rejecting the idea that American government is a pendulum that only works for one half of the country at a time. We’ve seen multiple times what happens when you have a bastard occupying the White House who only cares about placating a base instead of working for all Americans. Anyone who suggests that a moderate is irreparably compromised simply doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care, how democracy is supposed to function. It’s not about getting enough votes to win an election, it’s about electing the person who’s going to do their best to represent the needs of everyone.
The overwhelming message I got from the Democratic National Convention was one of inclusion and unity. I reject the conclusion of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said that the convention wasn’t “targeting” her because it didn’t include the prerequisite number of Muslims, or a Latino who’d run for President. I reject the complaints of atheists, who’ve insisted that mentions of religion and faith somehow exclude the nonreligious. If we want to make people realize that social justice isn’t a zero-sum game, in which improving the lives of long-marginalized people means making life worse for the people who’ve historically benefitted from inequality, then we have to commit to that. We have to reject even the notion of “marginalized” and acknowledge that everybody truly means everybody. If that’s a “moderate” message, then I guess I’m an unashamed moderate.
That’s the message I got from the convention. A party that’s finally committing itself to genuine inclusion, and making a government that serves everyone even when it’s not trying to get their votes. Are they going to fall short on that pledge? Undoubtedly! But I don’t live up to all the pledges I make for myself, even with the best of intentions. Why would I expect perfection from an inherently compromised and messy process involving thousands of people? Electing decent and honest people who believe in government as a service is the first step. Decency and honesty aren’t just a low bar set by a hopelessly corrupt and incompetent administration; they’re an essential first step to a government that works for everyone. Damn anyone who tries to dismiss hope and optimism as gullibility and complicity. Damn anyone who can’t see past winning a single election, when the election is just the first step of a never-ending process to make things better.
We all know that voting Trump out of office is the barest minimum a decent human being can do. But if we’ve learned nothing from the Obama Administration, it should be that having an honest person with integrity in the office is just the start. It’s what keeps us stable enough for actual progress, so we can disagree about important things without having to argue against immorality as if it were a valid political stand. It’s what lets us be confident that the people we disagree with are arguing in good faith. Personally, I’m looking forward to trusting people again.
Rejecting the idea that America is nothing worth celebrating right now.
I barely remember 1976, but whenever I do try to bring up a memory, it’s invariably dominated by some version of the American flag. On a button, on a patch, on clothing, in fireworks, on a parade float, in bunting hung all around town, in every advertisement, on every TV commercial. I wonder if people born after the bicentennial are really able to appreciate how the entire United States seemed to be obsessed with displays of patriotism.
Especially since for the rest of my life since then, patriotism has been decidedly out of fashion. For about as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as I’ve been living in Northern California, I’ve been surrounded by people rejecting Independence Day — if not the entire notion of America — as simple-minded jingoism at best, a cruel lie at worst. This year in particular, I’ve seen so many comments saying that the 4th is nothing to celebrate, America is a failure and an embarrassment, we’re all doomed, etc, that I’d almost think I’d woken up in Iran.
But you know, fair enough. The USA is in a sorry state right now, what with a bunch of people giving the office of President to one of the worst people on the planet, and then spending years letting that racist moron and his moronic followers all set the tone of our national conversations to the point where we act like we actually have to defend the most basic of truths and our most basic decency. On top of that, we’ve got a lot of people who’ve spent the last few years wishing we could have Obama back to fix everything, having to come to terms with the fact that they’ve spent a couple of hundred years hitting the snooze button on meaningfully addressing the country’s history of systemic racism. It seems like a bad time to be shouting that America is a perfect shining beacon of liberty.
And really, there are few things as quintessentially American as saying “America sucks.” Dissatisfaction and revolution are what started the USA in the first place, after all. The part that seems to be a more recent development — at least “recent” in terms of my own lifetime — is the desire to just shrug and let it lie there. To interpret it as “America sucks, because America has always sucked,” instead of “America sucks right now, but we can be so much better.”
When I was a teenager, at the start of the Reagan era, a bunch of opportunists decided to waste everybody’s time for a couple of decades by inventing a twisted bizarro version of America and insisting that it was the proper one. One of the most prominent sentiments from that was “Love it or leave it!” which is, obviously, anti-American by definition — the entire philosophy of America is the idea “Love it or change it.” But for some reason, back when hypocrites like the “Moral Majority” and trash like Newt Gingrich declared that they were the true keepers of the American Ideal, everybody just kind of shrugged and rolled their eyes. We let a bunch of fools and garbage people decide what it means to be “American” in the public consciousness. Instead of just rejecting them, we decided to reject the whole notion of American patriotism. Maybe since it was the late 80s and early 90s, we felt like it was more fun to mock people than actually making an effort to stand up for something?
Whatever the reason, it’s left us at what I pray is the final death rattle of the Reagan era, surrounded by people who’ve taken that cartoonish version of American exceptionalism to its grossest extreme. It would be pitiful, seeing Sarah Palin or Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham or Donald Trump struggling to form coherent sentences out of the last 40 years worth of insipid GOP catch-phrases to defend things like systemic racism, police brutality, or the violent murder of school children. But I feel no sympathy for them, since they chose to reject the light, and they each deserve whatever is coming to them. The people that I do worry about, and I do sympathize with, are the well-intentioned people who let these hollow, evil, shells of human beings set the terms of what they stand for and what they stand against.
When I was writing about Splash Mountain and growing up in Georgia, I talked about the false version of “the South” that everyone grew up just taking for granted. I don’t think I sufficiently described why it made me so sad, though. It’s a feeling of being unmoored, as if having my history taken from me. Knowing that it was a false history doesn’t help that much. So I can easily sympathize with the people who feel a bit of panic at seeing Confederate statues being taken down, even if they know intellectually that that panic makes no sense. In my case, part of it comes from remembering how I consciously tried to get rid of my southern accent, because I didn’t want to be associated with the popular conception of southerners as under-educated, racist, rednecks. Now I don’t sound — or feel — like I come from anywhere in particular. Instead of just rejecting all the things that white supremacists and anti-intellectuals stand for, I let them co-opt “the South” and let them decide what it is to be from there. I thought I was rejecting them, when I was actually just giving up and letting them steal my home from me.
Obviously, I don’t have any patience or sympathy for the type of people who yell that America is the greatest country in the world while refusing to take any actual responsibility for living up to its ideals and making it great. But at the same time, I don’t have any patience for the people who just want to mope and declare “America’s not worth celebrating this year” and then leave it at that. I mean, protest all you want, but at the same time: bitch, get over yourself. Pretty much everything that’s wrong with America this year was wrong last year and the 200+ years before that. Just because you’re only just now finding out about the evils of capitalism doesn’t mean you get to lecture the rest of us who want to eat a hot dog and watch fireworks. Great people living in America have spent centuries accomplishing amazing things in spite of the systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and injustice towards native people. It’s astoundingly shitty — not to mention disrespectful to the people who’ve worked hard to make things better — to just throw up your hands and cede the country to a bunch of racist assholes. Especially since the only way those assholes seem to be “winning” is because they found a way to exploit our own apathy and complacency.
And for that matter: it’s been disappointing to see grown-ass adults throwing tantrums when their preferred presidential candidate didn’t get the nomination. I was extremely disappointed when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, but there’s one thing I noticed: she got over it. And she got right back to work. A lot of people seem to think that the political process ends with the election of a President, which makes me wonder if a lot of people were paying attention in middle school Civics class. There’s this idea that we’re entitled to a President that satisfies every one of our demands, and that the process of finding one person to represent the needs of over 300 million people shouldn’t require compromise. That’s not just unrealistic; it’s downright stupid. Electing a President is the start of the process, not the end. They set the course for the administration, but it’s up to the rest of us to do what we can to make things better for everyone.
I really like the phrase “a more perfect Union.” Taken out of context, it implies a relentless pursuit of self-improvement: no matter how perfect things seem now, they can always be more perfect. I know that the 4th is ostensibly to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but I’ve always been more a fan of the Constitution, anyway. Besides, stating definitively what you intend to do, and then spending a decade figuring out a plan to actually achieve it is another one of those things that feels quintessentially American. And that’s not some lazily cynical criticism, either; it’s praise. America is more than just a declaration or a list of ideals; it’s an ongoing process.
Maybe it’s the fault of the historians who insist on referring to America as a “grand experiment.” The intention was to remind us that the liberties we enjoy aren’t guaranteed, and that they’re by no means permanent or protected from collapse. But calling it an “experiment” implies a passivity that’s deadly for a democracy. It implies that we should wait and see what happens, instead of working to make it happen ourselves.
I’ve seen the suggestion that the Declaration of Independence is a sham and a lie, because it claims that all men are created equal, but was written and signed by slave owners and rapists, for the purpose of keeping for themselves land that had been stolen from Native Americans. But I don’t see what we accomplish by rejecting the idea as a lie or a failure, instead of seeing it as an aspirational ideal that we’re still, over two centuries later, working to achieve. It’s better to learn from history instead of just assigning a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review to it. And it’s no more accurate to ignore all the positive things a human accomplished than it is to ignore the negatives and present them as flawless paragons of humanity. You might as well say that Benjamin Franklin made all his contributions via a friendly mouse.
I’ve also seen the suggestion that rejecting the American right wing’s version of American exceptionalism requires us to admit that America isn’t at all exceptional. After all, there are plenty of other democracies around the world, plenty of strong economies, plenty of countries that promise the blessings of liberty to their citizens, and plenty of countries with a higher standard of living than ours. All of that’s true, but there is one thing that makes the USA exceptional, and that’s part of what we celebrate on the 4th of July. America is the only nation I can think of that is defined by its ideals instead of by its geography or by its ethnicity. That’s pretty remarkable, because it means that none of us are just working off a vague feeling of what the country means to us; we’ve got an actual template that we should be working towards. One of those ideals is that we’re a nation of immigrants. So if some asshole tries to run for President on a platform of fearing, persecuting, and driving away immigrants, we should all have enough damn sense to recognize that as inherently un-American.
And it means that they’re ideals that we shouldn’t dismiss as nothing more than an accident of our birth. When I see someone going on Facebook and saying that “they’re not feeling the fourth of July this year,” I think about the hundreds of people who’ve subjected themselves to cruelty and indignity to give their families the chance at the life that could be so carelessly taken for granted by someone else. And when we call for social justice, we’re not calling for constant struggle, but for a world in which no one has to struggle for the same things that we take for granted. And where we don’t have to see someone being murdered by the police turned into just another one of your callously insipid memes.
So if I’m this grumpy and sick of seeing such performative cynicism playing out throughout the country, I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who’ve worked so much harder than I have to make the USA a place that lives up to its ideals. I imagine it requires a level of sympathy that I lack. I so often find myself saying, “If you really don’t have the hope that we can improve, then why are you still inserting yourself into the conversation? Step aside, shut the hell up, and make room for the people who actually want to make a difference.”
We need to have an America that’s defined by the best of its people instead of the worst. We need to acknowledge that optimism and positivity may be corny, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less realistic or inauthentic than relentless negativity. We need to stop dismissing the aspiration to improve ourselves as being a worthless endeavor simply because we haven’t achieved it yet.
America is joining a gym membership on January 1st, even while people tell you that you’ll just give up and it’s a waste of money. America is buying an acoustic guitar and pledging to learn how to play it, even though you’ve got an assortment of musical instruments lying around the house that you were never able to learn. America is trying to learn a second language just for the sake of learning it, even though people tell you it’s too hard. America is always working to become the most perfect version of yourself, rejecting anyone who tries to control you via fear or via misplaced nostalgia, but also rejecting anyone who tries to ruin you with despair.
I hope that this year brings change, and next year is one that we can all feel less conflicted about celebrating. But we can’t just fall back into our old patterns of complacency, looking for quick fixes from the government, or easy-to-identify villains to whom we can administer the sickest of burns and most devastating owns, as a substitute for actual civic engagement. Any of us who are embarrassed to be American need to snap out of it and recognize it’s our responsibility to make America a place where intelligence, integrity, decency, and mutual respect are honored. It’s up to us to define what America is, and we shouldn’t trust the definition to a bunch of idiots and self-interested maniacs. It’s up to us to appreciate dissent and uncertainty and realize that it’s all part of the effort to turn America into the place it’s always aspired to be.
For as long as I knew her to be vocal about politics, my mother was a steadfast, Rachel Maddow-watching Democrat. Even as the rest of the state shifted from blue to red — or, if you include Atlanta, purple — she remained convinced that the Republicans were on the wrong side of most issues. And she was definitely not a fan, to put it mildly, of the fetid sack of garbage currently calling himself president of the United States. (My words, not hers).
But she was also adamant about one thing, which was that she refused to let someone that awful get in the way of what was important.
And that’s the idea I’ve been trying to keep forefront in my mind. As we see “politics” get more and more divisive; pundits continue to spew increasingly indecent nonsense; common-sense issues of basic human decency continue to be treated as if they were somehow controversial; online discourse filled with nonsensical noise and blatant lies; and political “leaders” continue to show themselves to be belligerent, shameless, and classless; it’s difficult not to feel like the country has been overrun with millions of degenerate people, every one of them complicit in selfishness and evil.
But I try to always ask myself: who’s profiting from my feeling isolated and angry? When I see people who’ve been treated far worse than I have still able to spread a message of unity and hope, what right do I have to feel despair? And ultimately: why would I allow people for whom I have absolutely no respect get in the way of my relationships with the people that I do respect?
It’s a quandary that a lot of people have been wrestling with over the last three years: the man who’s acting as president just straight-up sucks. It’s no secret. There’s no denying it. So how could so many people vote for him?
I mean, let’s just agree to stop humoring the idea that there’s still any question of whether he’s racist, misogynist trash. We knew he was in the 1980s. We knew it in 2015. It’s not as if there were any mystery before the election, so acting as if his behavior in office has been surprising is insultingly disingenuous. And now, any accusation of “he’s gone too far this time!” is nothing but performative nonsense, since he’d already done a dozen inexcusable things that should’ve made him unelectable long before he even became the nominee. It’s hard to believe that anyone is still wasting our time denying that he’s racist, considering he started his political “career” by accusing the first black President of not being born in the US. Nobody should act like we didn’t know he was trash, especially since he was caught on a live mic during a presidential campaign, bragging about sexual assault.
Still, people have spent the past three years trying furiously to normalize it. We’ve all heard various attempts to offer a rational explanation for something that should never have happened. For a while after the election, the media tried to convince us of the “economic anxiety” story — we were sold an image of strong, hard-working Americans in coal mining towns and farm towns throughout the heartland, who’d all spent years being ignored by Clinton-era elitist Democrats. The only problem was that these stories just didn’t hold up to the facts. The actual demographics of Republican voters didn’t have much in common in terms of economics, but a lot in common in terms of race. But it’s not tactful to just admit that millions of people voted for a racist piece of shit to be president of the United States, so we’ve been expected to pretend that it’s all reasonable and normal.
In the 10,000 years since January 2017, it’s been a never-ending cycle of the White House doing the stupidest, most corrupt, most irresponsible thing; pundits and Russian troll farms making increasingly batshit claims to defend it; news channels pushing click-baiting video clips with their pundit delivering some devastating take-down of someone who should never have been given a national audience in the first place; late night shows building a new industry of comedy-outrage, asking “can you believe what he did this time?!” as if any of us are still capable of surprise at this point; and the rest of us left wondering what happened to all the sane grown-ups in the country. And in my case, wanting to get some kind of justification from his enablers to explain why they chose to put us through all this.
But they just shake their heads and lament that “we’re more divided than ever,” even though they’re the ones who voted for someone who led racist pep rallies chanting about building a wall.
This week, after seeing the colossal, inexcusable failure of this despotic clown car of an “administration” in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and then the police brutality protests — protests not just in all 50 states but around the world — I think I’ve finally got a theory: this whole time, I’ve had it backwards. They don’t enable him; he enables them.
In case that seems shallow for a life-changing epiphany, hear me out. I feel like a lot of the assumptions I’ve been making over the past four years have been exactly backwards.
What prompted my “wait a minute… we’re in The Bad Place!” moment was seeing that in the middle of this complete vacuum of leadership during multiple crises, he’d ordered peaceful protestors to be tear gassed so he could stand in front of a church and wave a Bible around in front of a bunch of cameras. I was livid. Almost without thinking, I found myself back on Facebook, posting a link to it with my thoughts. I wanted to ask “can you believe this?!” I wanted to find someone who’d voted for him, and I wanted to rub their nose in this. After all, this had to be the turning point! How could anyone possibly see this and endorse it? How can anyone support this blasphemous perversion of everything Christ taught and still call themselves a Christian?
Keep in mind that this was after I’d already pledged about a dozen times over the years to stop giving him any attention. Stop fanning the flames and instead, help starve them of oxygen. Instead of indulging in more performative outrage, concentrate on doing something that will actually make a difference. I don’t know if the blatant pandering worked on his “base,” since even though I keep hearing about his “base,” I haven’t actually seen them in person. I have no idea how many of them there actually are. The only thing I know for sure is that it worked on one person: the guy who got so angry that he went on Facebook to complain about it.
I could’ve acknowledged that we’re at what feels like an unprecedented turning point in America, in which we finally recognize our responsibility to each other and begin making actual changes to dismantle centuries-old systems of white supremacy and unjust law enforcement. Instead, I chose to complain about the one person in the country least capable of and least willing to actually make a difference. As he threatened to send the military to attack American citizens, then ran to his bunker to hide, it was clear to everyone that there’s a leadership vacuum at the federal level. But really, it’s not simply a vacuum, but a black hole. It destroys everything it can, absorbing everyone’s hate and outrage and despair.
Now, people have been warning us constantly about the “distractions” of this administration. But it’s always taken a form like “While all of you were distracted by some outrageously offensive thing, what was really happening was some sinister new policy.” There are a few problems with that:
It’s pompous and condescending. It’s almost as infantilizing as when liberals suggest that Trump voters were “tricked” into voting for a con artist. No, most of them were adults who knew what they were doing, and they should take responsibility for it.
It ignores the fact that we can be upset about multiple things at once. A real President is more about policy but sets the tone for public discourse. So when this asshole goes around spreading conspiracy theories, making up stupid and/or racist nicknames for his opponents, and lying on the public record, that’s actually harmful and shouldn’t be dismissed as pure spectacle.
It assumes an agenda that is far too competent to come out of this administration. Sometimes people talk as if Trump is secretly a mastermind for absorbing the attention of the media, but I’ve seen zero evidence that he has any actual skill or talent at anything at all.
Attributing any conscious motivation to Trump’s outrage-absorbing properties is a bit like, well, attributing a motivation to a virus. I’ve seen the suggestion that since Trump is too incompetent to be an actual leader, he’s more of a puppet figurehead for some Cheney-esque shadow government. Except puppet Presidents are supposed to be charming and not so blatantly awful; even George W Bush understood how to be civil. And puppet Presidents aren’t supposed to throw so many people under the bus before they’ve had the opportunity to profit from their corruption — poor James Mattis had to be complicit in the evil of this administration for three whole years, and now he’s got nothing to show for it except multiple book deals. If Trump were a construct of the right wing, he seems less like a puppet and more like ED-209.
As far as I can tell, no one actually likes Trump, and it’s mutual. Nobody supports his ideology because there really isn’t one other than trying to destroy as much of the progress of the Obama administration as possible. I suspect that the chaos is the whole point. Selfish and evil people can keep taking advantage of the system to do whatever they want to do, and as long as Trump is absorbing all of the attention and the outrage, they don’t have to worry about trying to keep it secret.
That’s what’s happening on a grand scale, and I think it’s happening on a personal scale as well: Somebody’s frustrated that people keep yelling at her for saying the wrong thing? Trump gives her a pass to complain about “political correctness.” Somebody’s frustrated that they pay taxes and never see visible results, and then they hear about bureaucratic waste? Trump gives them an excuse to assume that all taxes are wasteful, and so it’s not selfish to want to pay less. Somebody’s frustrated that politicians never seem to get anything done? Trump gives him an excuse to say the whole system is corrupt, so it’s not lazy to just throw up your hands, call yourself a “realist,” and say that nobody else genuinely wants to fix the system, either.
So when I start to wonder, “how could so many millions of people support Trump?” I have to remind myself “they don’t.” From what I’ve seen — and I’ll admit I could just have an extremely skewed and sheltered impression, but I doubt it’s that far off — very few real people are actually cheering on or even defending this guy. I don’t see millions of Americans rallying around a trusted leader; I see a bunch of people using a loud, attention-grabbing asshole as their own Portrait of Dorian Gray. He absorbs their flaws, so they don’t have to confront them. He’s not just the president for white supremacists and self-interested multi-millionaires; he’s also the president for the type of people who said just between you and me, don’t you think the Obamas seem a little preachy and full of themselves?
Maybe that’s an even more cynical take on the state of America, but it actually gives me a bit of optimism. For one thing, because it’s the first explanation that makes any sense to me. I tend to assume the best of people, but even so I think I can recognize the difference (eventually) between sincerely good people and rotten people who are just putting up appearances. And it’s never made sense to see people — who I know are good people — choose to support putting children in cages, or mocking disabled people, or disparaging women, or undermining the free press, or any of the other 10,000 inexcusable things this jackass and the rest of the national Republican party have done. I’m not going to be so condescending to say that they were “duped,” but I do believe that they mistakenly thought they were choosing the lesser of two evils and never believed that it could get that bad.
In other words: I can’t even imagine being a responsible adult in 2016 and choosing to vote for Trump. But what I can imagine is a couple decades without seeing much change in local politics despite Democrats or Republicans being in charge, or all the promises of “Hope” at the beginning of the Obama campaign turn into years of impasse and obstruction, and being convinced that federal politics just don’t matter all that much. And if the counter-argument is my liberal relative posting photos on Facebook comparing Trump to Hitler, I’m probably not going to be swayed by that. (Even if this is one of the rare cases where Godwin’s Law isn’t actually that much of an exaggeration).
The other reason it gives me hope is because I can see parallels in my own behavior. I’m so often tempted to use “Trump supporter” as a litmus test because it’s just simpler, faster, and easier than the alternative, which is waiting for them to actually cut through all the qualifiers and excuses and “I don’t defend Trump, but…”s and “I’m not racist, but…”s and actually explain their views. There are so many people who are just making noise, arguing nonsense as if it were a rational position, refusing to argue in good faith, and just wearing us down until we’re too exhausted to care anymore. We may think that it’s easy to spot troll posts or propaganda — and it often is — but it doesn’t need to be convincing on its own. It just needs to be loud and pervasive enough to wear us all down and make it difficult to distinguish signal from noise. So I want to have a shorthand to use, so I’m not caught wasting my time trying to engage with someone who just wants to waste my time.
If I can say “you might not be racist, but you’re complicit in racism,” and use that as grounds to cut somebody off, it’s a real time- and energy-saver. And to be clear: that is absolutely, 100%, a valid stance for some people to take. We’ve seen repeatedly how systemic racism is about more than just the overt white supremacists, but is perpetuated by people who prioritize their own needs and their own comfort over social justice. But we’ve also seen how social media — and especially attempts at activism via social media — will repeatedly show us the violent, unrepentant white supremacist, and the clueless or careless person caught saying something inappropriate in public, and present them to us as equivalent. Some people are just trash, and there’s no point wasting our time on them. But most people are pretty complex and generally try to do the right thing but inevitably screw it up sometimes. For whatever reason, social media hates that kind of ambiguity, and needs to have a shocking exposé that proves somebody was a latent asshole this entire time, we just knew it. Everybody’s got to draw their own lines, and I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m positive that false equivalencies and “cancel culture” isn’t it.
I should be clear that I’m not in any way trying to undermine or belittle the damage the Trump administration has caused to the country. To be clear: this has been, objectively, a disaster. And I genuinely believe that Trump being re-elected would mean an end to American democracy as I understand it — that’s not exaggeration. Even if you don’t include the lives unnecessarily lost to a disease they initially dismissed as “no worse than the flu” although they had ample proof otherwise; even if you don’t include the environmental protections that have been arbitrarily and vindictively rolled back; even if you don’t include all the civil liberties and basic human rights violations committed against immigrants; even if you don’t include the blatant attempts to undermine the free press and replace it with state-run media; Trump’s actions would be inexcusable. If only for the degree to which they’ve lowered our public discourse, destroyed our trust in each other, and degraded our belief in America. You don’t have to be one of those pretentious historians who describes American democracy as an “experiment” to recognize that this is a violation of the ideals we’re supposed to stand for.
I should also be 100% clear that I’m in no way suggesting that we excuse, forgive, or ignore casual racism or continue to treat it as inevitable. Anyone who was disgusted by the murder of George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Trayvon Martin, should be forced to acknowledge that these aren’t just one-off events, but the inevitable result of centuries of white people treating black people as “less than” or even “other,” and slowly building systems into our society to reinforce that. I’ve no doubt that at least 90% of the people responding with “All Lives Matter” aren’t saying it in good faith, but instead are using it as a time-wasting deflection. Still, I’m sure that there are people who do genuinely believe that we’re close to living in a “post-racial” society, because they’re not forced to confront it every day. That should be something we can fix. We should all be forced to acknowledge that we’re not one community yet — we can be, but we will never be until we make a real effort to overhaul the thousands of ways our community works to make sure that non-whites are at a disadvantage.
So my goal isn’t really to excuse, explain, or forgive Trump supporters at all. Because that’s really not my job. If people were actually gung-ho about voting for this fool, there’s not much we can do about that now. Let other people decide for themselves how they feel about 2016, and let’s devote our energy to moving forward and figuring out what we can do now to actually fix things.
I don’t know what the answer is — but I can link to smarter people than me who are trying to make things better. And the first step is to reject any notion of despair, laziness, or division. Don’t act like good people are outnumbered in the US. Trump was already lying about how much support he had on inauguration day. We have been shown over and over that both US political parties and foreign “agitators” have been creating loads of fake online accounts to make it seem like offensive, nonsensical ideas have more support than they actually do. We’ve seen that he was impeached, and is only still in office because of 50 self-interested senators, few of whom would even make a statement defending him. We’ve seen that there is no genuine loyalty among Trump and the people he enables, and they turn on each other and abandon each other the moment it’s politically convenient. We’ve seen Trump get increasingly hysterical, spreading increasingly outlandish bullshit via platforms owned by white billionaires who profit from the controversy — these are not the actions of a party that’s “winning” and has genuine grassroots support.
The thing to remember is that Trump not only lost the popular vote in the 2016 election, he lost by a lot. Greater than the populations of Wyoming and Vermont combined. By almost as much as the entire population of the United States when the electoral college was introduced. And not only did he lose, he came in third. Second place went to Hilary Clinton. First place was a tie between apathy and complacency.
We’ve already seen that Americans — especially white Americans — put too much emphasis on “we’ve elected a black President!” as proof that we’d moved into a new post-racial age. Now we’re seeing some Americans insist that it was all a lie, and that we’re no better now than we were before the Civil Rights Act. Obviously, neither of these are true. Even after three and a half years of an incompetent racist president, things are better now than they were 50 years ago. Better than even 20 years ago. It’s inexcusable how slowly we’re advancing, but we are advancing. Just like voting for Obama didn’t fix everything — ask all the gay couples who had to wait for his opinions on marriage equality to “evolve” — voting out Trump isn’t going to fix everything, either. It’s an essential first step for us to survive at all, but it’s still just the barest minimum a responsible human being can do.
Biden was my second-to-last choice for President, but he doesn’t have to be President just for me, but for about 330 million other people too. Of the 10,000 things that make the Trump “administration” illegitimate, one of the most damning is one of the least directly harmful: he doesn’t have any sense of obligation to serve anyone who doesn’t keep him in power. Even Republicans should recognize that that’s not how America is supposed to work. A system where Democrats get their own private President for 8 years and then Republicans get theirs for 8 years is not sustainable and is definitely not progress. It’s been disheartening to see so many people who are ostensibly progressive talk as if any dissent were betrayal. As if reducing the needs of 330 million people down to a choice between two candidates were ever going to be anything other than a compromise.
It’s understandable that in an increasingly noisy environment, where malicious actors are spouting extremist nonsense that no decent human could actually agree with, that we’re all wary of sacrificing our integrity. Few of us want to be unwittingly helping perpetuate a system that periodically promises progress and then does nothing. But I feel like healthy skepticism often gets corrupted and turns into apathy — where someone actually believes that the whole system is corrupt, and the people trying to do good are just as bad as the people openly abusing and exploiting the system — or it turns into its own kind of absolutist self-righteousness — where someone actually believes that dissent and compromise are the enemies of progress, instead of the tools of progress. When I heard that Pete Buttigieg was running for President, I expected that a well-educated gay Christian from the midwest would meet with a lot of resistance. What I didn’t expect was that the most virulent attacks on him would come from people claiming to be Bernie Sanders supporters.
There’s a meme going around that says, paraphrased, that we can have political disagreements about things like tax rates, zoning, appropriations for schools; but not about questions like “are gay people human beings?” and “are Nazis bad?” and “are black people bad?” It seems straightforward enough, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve spread it or similar in the past. But if you think about it for a minute, it’s not really saying that much — all you’ve done is pledged to reframe the way you treat other people around the most extremist, and likely most deliberately divisive, way to describe important issues. I’m a strong believer that the easier it is to say something, the less valuable it is to say it. So if you find yourself arguing for a statement that should be trivially true, you should consider whether that’s actually the argument that’s being made. It doesn’t do much good to yell “racism is bad!” to someone who doesn’t believe they’re being racist.
With so much noise and so many people acting in bad faith, it’s especially worthwhile for us to take a minute before we respond to anything we see. Are we responding to a real person, or are we being fooled by a troll and just adding more noise to the conversation? Are we responding to actually share some information or shut down something genuinely harmful, or are we just trying to get in a sick burn of a takedown? And most importantly: is the person actually saying what I’m accusing them of saying, or have we just both reduced each other’s viewpoints to the most absurdist and extremist shorthand? Are we actually making progress, or are we just playing into a long-running attempt to keep us focused on all the things that divide us, instead of all the things that bring us together?
There’s a reason I started this post the way I did. Back at the beginning of the year, I realized that we’re in the world for way too short a time to be wasting any of that time on the things and people that don’t matter. And I realize I keep letting my perception of what matters get skewed by spending too much time in an environment filled with performative, divisive noise. At a minimum, I need to pledge — hopefully for the last time, until it’s time to help drum up the vote in October — to stop giving any attention to Trump. We need to be listening to competent people with actual answers, and a genuine desire to help us get through this pandemic and work towards real social justice, and any time spent being angry at an idiot is just a waste of time. And after that, I need to remember that disagreements aren’t just unavoidable, but necessary for a democracy to function. Instead of concentrating on our differences for the sake of preserving my imagined “integrity,” I need to concentrate more on the things that we all have in common. There are a lot of people who want to tear everything down and keep everything for themselves, but there are a lot more of us who genuinely want to make things better, and simply disagree on how to do it.
A begrudging defense of US democracy and learning to move forward in unity with a bunch of bigoted morons.
If I were editing together a sizzle reel for the highlights of Western Democracy, I don’t think I’d be including much from the 21st century. Seeing the US elect a black President was a highlight — especially for the side benefit of seeing bigots in sputtering, baffled rage like the kids in the rich camp at the end of an 80s teen movie. But apart from that, there’s been enough crushing disappointment in my fellow citizens that I’ve often started to wonder whether democracy was a good idea in the first place.
For one example: there was that wave of Web 2.0 evangelists promising to democratize the internet. It was sold to us as a world without gatekeepers, in which everyone has a voice. What it became instead was a world where millionaires handed out super-powerful microphones to any asshole who’d increase “engagement” enough to bump up the artificial value of their publishing platform’s IPO.
Another: all the bans against marriage equality across the US and the rest of the world, in which a bunch of bigots spent decades arguing that it was fair and just to put the rights of a minority up for a popular vote. (Don’t forget: the aforementioned first black President, who’s now frequently championed as if he were some kind of hero of LGBT rights, asserted that he was opposed to marriage equality because of his religion, but believed it should be left to the states to decide. Even though as a constitutional scholar and the child of interracial parents, he should’ve known better).
Next: the citizens of the UK decided to make the Magna Carta seem like a bad idea, by taking the silly, lighthearted, and trivially irreverent idea of Boaty McBoatface and applying it to racist, global-economy-threatening, backwards isolationism.
And then it culminated in November 2016. All of us who’d been raised learning about both the importance of checks and balances in government and the necessity of being a good and honest person in society got to watch tens of millions of people vote for one of the worst people to be President of the United States. Not just worst people for the role of President. Worst people in the United States. And then instead of saying “oh my God what have I done?!” they proudly held up their lovingly selected pile of dogshit and said “Ha ha, suck it, liberals!”
In the time since the election, the initial shock has subsided, and the rest of us have gone from asking ourselves “How could this happen?” to “Where are we supposed to go from here?” Our government and all the other interconnected systems that make our society work are based on the fundamental assumption that functioning adults will show the barest minimum level of civic responsibility. If adults can be so consumed with selfishness and apathy that they’d take their one responsibility as citizens and say “well, screw it, why not vote for the corrupt, incompetent clown?” then what’s the point of any of it?
That’s the mindset I’ve been in for a couple of years now. But recently I’ve grown to appreciate the value of democracy again, and I’ve got Mark Zuckerberg to thank for that.
Last month, a “leaked” recording of an open meeting at Facebook revealed Zuckerberg speaking out against Elizabeth Warren’s pledge to break up anti-competitive tech giants. In it, he delivered his own pledge to “go to the mat” fighting against it. Zuckerberg has had at least a couple of private meetings with Trump since then.
It’s tough to describe the kind of despair I felt after hearing that. I was already feeling the kind of depressive anxiety that comes from being an American with an internet connection in 2019, but this added a new level of hopelessness. For the first time in my lifetime, we have the potential to have a genuinely progressive Democrat in the office of President. It could mean a rejection not just of Reagan-era policy, but of the pervasive white male superiority that’s desperately and cravenly clawing to maintain its hold over the country. And it could all be ruined by some weird asshole billionaire just for the sake of maintaining his own source of immense, unnecessary wealth.
Except for this: the same democracy that lets some racist vote for a sleazy grifter for President of the United States is what makes Mark Zuckerberg’s vote worth exactly the same as mine.
Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, and Peter Thiel combined all have the same voting power as the passengers of a fully-loaded Prius plug-in hybrid with a “Coexist” bumper sticker. Every single asshole in the Trump administration combined with every Republican senator hypocritically supporting them, is no more or less powerful in a popular vote than even the number of black supporters at a Pete Buttigieg rally.
Since November of 2016, we’ve been deluged with thinkpieces imploring us to get inside the mind of the Trump voter, to acknowledge and renounce our coastal elitist bubbles and connect with the heartland that forms Trump’s base, and even to upend our lives and move to “red states” to “turn them blue” again. There’s been so much of this talk, you might even be fooled into thinking that Trump won the election.
He didn’t, of course. He lost the popular vote. By a lot. Even with the proven Republican gerrymandering and proven Republican attempts at voter suppression and proven Russian interference in the election. He lost by almost 3 million votes, which means that Trump lost the popular vote by almost as much as the entire population of the United States when the electoral college was instituted.
I mention the electoral college because the Republicans only “won” because they manipulated an inherently un-democratic system to appoint their candidate President. Ironically, it was a system included as a concession to states panicked about a too-strong federal government that would ignore the representative branches, ignore states rights, and govern by fiat. In other words: Trump is in office because the GOP manipulated a system that was intended specifically to keep people like Trump from ever being in office.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of chuckleheads insisting that focusing on the popular vote, or complaining about the electoral college, are all just the bitter grousing of impotent liberals. But that’s one of the biggest lies of all. It suggests that the political theater that the media focuses on is the most important part, and that it’s all a game of strategic machinations and counter-machinations where the end goal is to “win,” not to govern fairly and justly.
And more simply: it suggests that Trump has the mandate of the people, which is just objectively false. Even if you ignore the popular vote. Even if you accept the ludicrous idea that the 85% of the US population living in urban areas is somehow less American than those in rural areas. Even if you accept Trump’s hilariously bullshit and deliberately misleading “Impeach this” map. Even if you accept the more accurate “Land doesn’t vote, people do.” visualization that still shows areas as uniformly either red or blue.
But it’s important to remember that Clinton didn’t “win,” either. As embarrassing as it is for Trump that he still lost the popular vote even with so many people keeping their thumb on the scales for his benefit, it should be embarrassing to Clinton that she didn’t win by the largest landslide in American history. Trump was repeatedly caught on video and audio saying racist and misogynist things, and was recorded at a rally openly mocking a disabled person. If over 60 million people can see and hear all of that and still not want to vote for you, you don’t have the mandate, either.
The real winner of November 2016 was apathy. The idea that either the system was working as intended and was just inherently unfair, or that the system was irreparably broken and not worth even trying to fix. For eight years, there were a lot of people heavily invested in telling us that having a left-of-center black President was radical. For the past three years, there’ve been a lot of people heavily invested in telling us that the nation is irreparably divided in ways that it hasn’t been since the Civil War.
Although I’m backing Elizabeth Warren for as long as possible, it was Pete Buttigieg who knocked me out of my sense of despair and convinced me that there was a way out of the current mess. His most insightful observation is that this is the end of the Reagan era of politics, and good riddance. It’s been in effect for most of my lifetime, so I’d started to think that it was just the way America worked, instead of a deliberately constructed system of media manipulated and reinforced complacency that indicts Obama and the Clintons almost as much as it does the Bushes and Reagan.
Buttigieg’s other most valuable insight is that people knew full well who they were voting for. A lot of people — including me — who were trying to make sense of the 2016 election spent at least a year afterward getting flustered at news stories and showing them angrily to suspected Trump supporters, asking “Do you see what you’re responsible for? Can you understand what you did?!” As if they’d somehow just missed the news. It’s a lot like trying to punish a dog by rubbing its nose in its mess, as if a dog, of all creatures, wasn’t already aware of what shit smells like.
The reality, I believe, is that individual people are as “purple” as voting districts are. Maybe I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky, but I’ve encountered very few people who were actually gung-ho pro-Trump. They were well aware of the thousands of things that make him unfit for the Presidency, but they believed — incorrectly — that either it didn’t matter or that there were other issues that were more important.
I can’t stress enough how wrong that was. No matter how much people might want to insist that we don’t know what’s in their hearts, that people contain multitudes, that politics requires compromise, etc. ad nauseam, the fact remains that there was an objectively wrong choice in November 2016, and they made it. They want to suggest that there’s a moral equivalent between my voting for Clinton despite having issues with some of her opinions on foreign policy, and their voting for Trump despite his bragging about sexual assault and holding rallies promising to build a wall to keep out brown people. Nice try, but no.
But at least it’s a start. To think that around half of the people in the country who cared enough to vote saw a campaign based on lies, bullying, fear, and bigotry, and said “yes, that’s what we’re all about,” suggests that the US is irreparably doomed. To think that people saw a campaign based on lies, bullying, fear, and bigotry, and gave an exasperated shrug, at least suggests we can get better.
Whatever the plan is, it doesn’t work unless it works for everyone. That means rejecting any idea that doesn’t make the process as democratic as possible. Obviously, that means a flat rejection of any President who brazenly admits he doesn’t work for people who didn’t vote for him (spoiler: he doesn’t work for the people who voted for him, either), and tries to act as if Californians and Puerto Ricans aren’t US citizens. It means a flat rejection of legislators who are more preoccupied with stuffing judicial appointments with as many people of their party as possible instead of actually legislating. It means rejecting anyone who tries to suppress or manipulate the vote. It means eliminating the electoral college. These are all the basics, and anyone who suggests it’s “partisan” to support democracy is selling you a bold-faced lie.
The more complicated part that people like me have to realize is that it means including everyone, including the irretrievably broken assholes. The bigots screaming racist shit at a Trump rally need to be part of it, so we can assert that they are in the minority. Divide and conquer is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it’s depressing how often we still fall for it. Not just from the obvious sources like the Republicans who rely on it to stay in power, but anyone who profits from your “engagement.” But if we continue to believe the bullshit narrative that we’re a nation divided, with elites in the big cities having no idea how good honest folk in Trump Country live, then we’re essentially ceding half of the country over to self-interested grifters.
One of the insidious ideas that’s been floating in the American consciousness ever since Reagan and his followers farted it out is that being patriotic or pro-America is a “conservative” idea. I mean, I’m sure that people have been calling each other “un-American” for as long as the country’s existed, but at least in my lifetime, it was during the 80s that liberals stopped arguing against it. So all the grossest representatives of white America would wrap themselves in the US flag and wave sparklers around and insist that only they represented true American values, while liberals couldn’t figure out how exactly to promote globalism, diversity, peace, and equality as being somehow not mutually exclusive with patriotism.
It seems like we were so eager to show how chauvinistic and militaristic we weren’t, that we stopped defending the trademark, and we just let astoundingly hypocritical politicians and redneck assholes (and sometimes, both) take it over. “America, Fuck Yeah!” became a joke, along with schmaltzy displays of patriotism. It’s only by insisting that patriotism is somehow partisan that you end up with the disgusting spectacle of the President of the United States telling US Representatives to “go back where they came from.”
Instead of pointing and laughing at the hypocrites and rednecks, we should’ve been showing the right way to do it. Insisting on a version of America that works for everybody, and to listen to people when they tell us over and over that it isn’t working for them. Demanding that we all share what we’re entitled to, instead of being treated like special interests. If there is anything good to come out of this nightmare, it’s that maybe more people will be knocked out of their sense of complacency and finally be forced to admit that the system hasn’t been working for people who aren’t straight, white, and upper middle class.
On a more practical level: the podcast Majority 54 with Jason Kander is entirely devoted to the idea of restoring our democracy and rejecting the lazy idea that we’re a nation hopelessly divided. It’s a good slap back to reality for those of us who’ve spent too much time being influenced by Vox headlines and Twitter threads.
There’s also Represent.us, which is drawing attention to the problem and asserting that democracy is not a partisan concern, no matter how much the GOP would like to insist that it is. And via Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams is campaigning for free and fair elections.
It’s appropriate that the shithead currently acting as President has a history with the WWE, because this is in a lot of ways the kayfabe administration. Everyone spreading a lot of bullshit that they know is a lie, the only truth being that there’s a lot of money in getting people wrapped up in the spectacle and eager to scream at the heel. I still say voting us into this nonsense was inexcusable, but I have to believe that there’s a viable way out for all of us. It sure as hell doesn’t mean that we have to like or respect or even empathize with each other, but we do just have to share and do the barest minimum to act like responsible adults.
Reports from an alternate timeline where the sky’s the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.
Like everybody else in the US, I saw the story about a man being beaten and dragged off a United Airlines flight for refusing to “volunteer” the seat he’d paid for. Seeing friends’ reactions to it on Facebook beat and dragged me just far enough out of my white middle-class bubble to realize that yes, it’s almost definitely the case that the man’s ethnicity played a factor in how far it was allowed to escalate. Fortunately for you, the reader, it didn’t drag me far enough out of my white middle-class bubble to convince me that the internet wasn’t interested in hearing my opinion about it.
When I saw the video that had been recorded and broadcast by a passenger on the plane, I was sitting in San Francisco at my job writing social media software for mobile supercomputers. I watched the video on my touchscreen-enabled internet-connected tablet computer, playing in a window on the screen around the comments coming in live from viewers around the country, next to a sidebar describing how the reality TV celebrity who was now the President of the United States had authorized military theater missile strikes on another country without Congress’s permission.
And in response to one of the most viscerally blatant abuses of power against a person in an objectively, grossly unfair situation, reaction was mixed. Outrage against United Airlines was running neck and neck with assertions that the real problem is the guy didn’t do what he was told.
It was at that point when I realized son of a bitch, I’m living in a shitty 1990s corporate-run future dystopia.
I spent years making fun of those things as being hackneyed and adolescent. I rejected anti-corporate paranoia as sophomoric, literally — the kind of thing that college students choose as My First Liberal Outrage Experience on their way to becoming truly Woke. Now here I am just one cybernetic implant away from living it.
What’s especially magical about the United Airlines incident is how it combines so many 21st Century United States attitudes into one thoroughly unproductive and distressing conversation. There’s absolutely a streak of the “Conform! Embrace the police state!” types, but it’s at least tempered with — if not actually overwhelmed by — the kind of lazy, cynical, apathy that pervades everything in 2017. Even cheering the Chicago PD for beating up a guy would be taking too strong a stand. Instead, you get more of the “Well, actually, FAA regulations state that…” contingent.
They’re not defending United, oh no. They just want to make it clear that it’s not as simple as you’re making it sound. There are just so many shades of gray to the issue of a corporation requesting the physical assault of a civilian for not peacefully complying with the fact that they’re denying him the service that he paid for.
(And yeah, I will go to the easy comparison: it’s the same thing you heard a lot of before and after the election. People kept insisting that they’re not necessarily a supporter of Trump, but then would go on to defend one of the hundreds of completely reprehensible and un-American policies he proposed during his campaign. “Look, I’m no fan of the man who openly mocked a disabled reporter during a campaign speech, I just believe in common sense immigration reform, like a multi-billion dollar wall between two peaceful trading partners.”)
So now I’m in the biofuel-powered hoverboat of someone who knows enough about crappy 90s dystopian sci-fi to be able to make fun of it, but not enough to actually live in it. And on the bright side, if we had to pick one thing from the late 80s and early 90s and agree that we were going to make that our future, we could’ve done worse. At least we’re not all living in a global version of that 4 Non Blondes video.
What terrible reviews of Trainwreck tell us about the sorry state of pop-progressivism on the Internet
Trainwreck is reasonably (if not spectacularly) funny, and the most surprisingly brave thing about it is that it’s so often sincere, not that it’s so often raunchy. It’s also overlong, oddly paced, too reliant on celebrity cameos, and disappointingly reluctant to go over the top with its gags, especially since we’ve all seen just how amazing both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader can be when they’re free to go full-on bizarre.
What Trainwreck isn’t:
I’m not quite sure how anyone could have misread this movie as badly as they did. When the first reviews came out, a recurring complaint was that all the potential of Schumer’s breakthrough feature film starring vehicle had been Judd Apatow’ed: turned into a raunchy but ultimately conservative spin on a completely conventional movie format.
It wasn’t until the very last scenes of Trainwreck that I started to see why some people may have thought their America’s New Feminist Hero had been straitjacketed by a guy who likes to make movies about 40-year-old stoners getting happily married. It’d still be a dense and wrong conclusion, considering the rest of the movie, but it was just a simple misinterpretation that could easily be cleared up by one of my remarkably insightful blog posts.
But not only does Amy explicitly explain what the point of the final scenes were, Hader’s character interrupts her repeatedly to say “Yes, I get the metaphor.” She went out of her way to make sure her message is clear, but it’s still not clear enough for the faux-progressives.
Our Miss Schumer
Take for instance “Judd-ging Amy: The Slut-Shaming Heteronormative Morality of Trainwreck”, which, if the title didn’t already give it away, is written with the tone of someone who doesn’t understand that Los Feliz Daycare is a parody account.
In case you can’t make it past the part where he inexplicably puts “married” in scare quotes, the gist is that writer Peter Knegt and his diverse group of friends felt betrayed. They’re long-time devotees of Schumer’s stand-up routine and Comedy Central series, and for them, this was going to be their big event movie. (“…like I imagine various demographics might approach ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Dark Knight.'” where “various demographics” is code speak for “straight nerds”). But Judd Apatow took Schumer’s slutty, boozy persona that they all identified with, and turned it into a judgmental and heteronormative morality play that “slut-shamed us and brought Amy Schumer along for the ride.”
It seems to throw the very people Schumer has been vouching for all these years under the bus with an essential moral that excess behavior will only lead to unhappiness and that we best assimilate into societal norms even if it doesn’t feel natural. Why would Amy Schumer — our Amy Schumer — want to express such a notion?
Okay, for starters, she’s not your Amy Schumer.
The basic premise of the entire article is more backwards and offensive than even the most willfully ignorant interpretation of anything in Trainwreck. It says that a successful woman at a huge breakthrough point in her career, who’s got her own television series (not to mention the pull and the sense of loyalty to cast her friends and family along with the people she admires), managed to write, star in, and co-produce a feature film, but simply couldn’t help but get steamrolled by a man who’s powerful in the industry.
Another thing I find “problematic” is the increasingly widespread trend of people so eager to take offense at something they find “problematic” that they forget how fiction works. So they insist that celebrities explain it to them, or else there’s gonna be hell of think pieces about it on Salon. Knegt even acknowledges that Schumer’s slutty, boozy routine is an exaggerated persona. But he ignores that to go on for another page and a half, refusing to acknowledge that stand-up routines are painstakingly written and rehearsed performances, instead of just humorously-delivered affidavits.
For me, the reason this crosses the line from just annoying to downright infuriating is that Schumer has been so deft and clever at handling it without having to explicitly explain it. One of the most subtly brilliant things about her TV series (and which is carried on in Trainwreck) is that all her characters — even the wackiest and even the most offensive — are named Amy. That implies that they’re all, at least to some small degree, aspects of her. Which is huge, because it removes both the defensive distance that comedians usually keep between themselves and their subjects, as well as any sense of judgment.
That’s why my initial take on Schumer’s material years ago was so flat-out wrong: she’s not just a shallow gender-swapped, raunchy shock comic. She didn’t just combine Lisa Lampanelli’s “I can be as raunchy as any man!” schtick with Sarah Silverman’s “I play the part of a clueless white girl to make a larger point” and call it day. The bulk of her material is carefully constructed to talk about multiple things at once, and she almost always includes herself as a target. It’s what elevates much of her material to satire instead of just gags. And it’s probably why Knegt and his friends have always felt that she was representing them instead of judging them.
I Feel Like I Won
As long as I’m draining all the humor out of things by over-explaining them, let me do it with the bit that Knegt quotes (in full) in his article, the one where Amy has to endure a bridal shower with a bunch of “Stepford Wives” from Connecticut.
Schumer adapted this joke into the storyline of Trainwreck with a couple of changes. It’s the changes that Knegt takes issue with, by — surprise — finding them “problematic:”
But the other, much more problematic difference is that it seems Amy doesn’t quite feel like she’s won the game this time. She even feels the need to call up the person whose baby shower it was and apologize.
Considering that he’s a self-professed fan of Schumer’s comedy material, it’s weird that Knegt would only acknowledge the change in wording (with a “fair enough,” as if it were arbitrary), and the addition of a scene afterwards, instead of taking into account how the context, subject matter, timing, and in fact the entire punchline changed. Here’s a few things that he either missed or didn’t acknowledge:
That joke is old, in stand-up terms. If you’ve heard a comedy bit enough times to have it memorized, you can be sure that Schumer’s heard it a thousand times more. And considering that Trainwreck isn’t a “best-of” concert movie, but instead a debut screenplay, you can make one of two conclusions:
The woman who’s co-written three seasons of a comedy series, years of stand-up sets, Comedy Central roasts, and countless smaller routines for hundreds of appearances, was either so in love with that one gag, or so hard up for material, that she just put in as much of the bit as Apatow and Universal would allow.
Amy Schumer’s really smart, and she reworked some of her older material to fit in with a larger message, to make it say something more than it did as part of her stand-up set.
I’m skeptical that even Judd Apatow was saying “Shit, early cuts of our romantic comedy are only 2 hours long. We need some filler material, quick. Amy: do your ‘Connecticut Stepford Wives’ bit!”
Schumer’s raised her own bar for shock value. Changing Amy’s contribution to the game wasn’t just arbitrary. “I let a cab driver finger me” just doesn’t have the same punch after doing a commercial for Finger Blasters with a bunch of teenagers. So there’s probably a reason it was changed.
The stand-up version of the joke is still funny, but kind of mean. At least by Schumer’s standards in 2015. Not undeservedly mean, because she’s making fun of her friend for being ashamed of her younger behavior, and making fun of the arrogant and judgmental women who’d try to shame her. But in that version of the joke, they’re exclusively the targets. The gag is “I really shocked the hell out of those uptight bitches.”
The old joke is still there. You still get to see the shocked expressions on Nikki Glaser and Claudia O’Doherty’s characters. (Which is itself funny, knowing that instead of bringing in the usual suite of blonde actresses hired to play the Stuck-Up Bitch role, they cast a bunch of women comedians). But it doesn’t end there. Schumer’s newer material builds on the assertions of her older stuff, adding more layers and more targets, but without losing what made the original gag work.
The timing of Schumer’s line completely changed. Now it’s more drawn out, into a vulgar (but still pretty funny) story about having to fish out a condom that’d gotten lodged in her cervix. After the “she just said something shocking!” moment, we get to see how she keeps pushing it just for the sake of making everyone uncomfortable. And the person she’s making most uncomfortable is no longer the friend who’s ashamed of her past and worried that Amy’s going to embarrass her. It’s her sister, who’s long been the butt of Amy’s jokes for living a “boring” “normal” life.
Amy’s line is no longer the punchline. Instead, that goes to the character played by Schumer’s friend Bridget Everett, who feels “empowered” enough by Amy’s story that she can admit to getting double-teamed by her husband and another dude. It’s telling, too, that Everett’s story is about a kind of sexual adventurousness, while Amy’s has been changed to be not about casual sex itself, but the tedious and kind of gross aftermath of it. That acknowledges something that wasn’t present in the old version of the joke: some of these women have their own wild-ish stuff going on too, without choosing between the polar opposites of “enjoying life” and “being married.” (It also shows that Schumer isn’t so wrapped up in her breakthrough starring vehicle that she won’t give good lines to her friends).
She doesn’t call her sister to apologize. It’s kind of a pivotal scene in the movie, in fact. Her sister calls her, Amy casually (but sincerely) apologizes, and her sister dismisses it as no big deal. Partly because she just knows that’s the kind of thing Amy does, and she understands where it comes from even if Amy herself doesn’t. But mostly because there’s something much more important to talk about.
What Schumer’s done is keep everything that made the old bit work, and then added a layer of empathy and self-awareness to it. The character of Amy had been so concentrated on saying “fuck anyone who tries to judge me” for so long, that she’d ignored how judgmental she’d become herself.
I think the funniest line in her “Last Fuckable Day” sketch is when Julia Louis-Dreyfus asks her “Are you that girl from the television who talks about her pussy all the time?” Amy looks absolutely elated and replies with a delighted “Yes! Yes! Thank you!”
By complaining that Trainwreck sold them out and is being judgmental of them, Knegt and his friends are saying they’re not interested in actually listening to anything that Schumer wants to say beyond the most superficial level. They just want to feel empowered by hearing her talk about her pussy some more.
But At What Cost?!
Now, if I went off on a tear every time a young writer for a queer blog found something “problematic,” I’d never get anything done. It’s the kind of thing they do, and I understand where it’s coming from even if they themselves don’t. But when I hear basically the same thing coming from a Pulitzer-recognized film critic, I worry that it’s becoming a trend.
What makes Knegt’s article such an easy target is actually part of what’s good about it: it’s completely honest in what it’s trying to say and why it upset him and his friends. And while he does ignore everything Schumer’s trying to say with Trainwreck in favor of how it didn’t meet with what he wanted to and expected to see, at least he does it by comparing it to her older work.
The Taming of Amy Schumer by Stephanie Zacharek is more worrisome because it not only ignores the fairly easy-to-read message of the movie, it compares it to a simplistic, two-dimensional, and frankly antiquated conception of what feminism is supposed to be. (Granted, it’s the Village Voice, so know your audience and all that. But still).
Zacharek gets off to a good start, lamenting how there’s an extra burden on women writers and comedians now that we’re living in the age of the “problematic:”
in the current climate of watchfulness — one in which every joke must be constructed and sealed drum-tight so as not to offend anyone, at any time — it’s not enough for a woman just to be funny. Women comics must also be spokespeople: for feminism, for all women, for anyone who might be perceived as oppressed or marginalized in any way.
Yes! So far, we’re in near-complete agreement. But then the entire rest of the review contradicts or undermines everything in that first paragraph.
Zacharek’s problem with Trainwreck, like Knegt’s, is that she believes the movie is too focused on conservative moralizing. And she too believes that it’s mostly the fault of the same man:
But there’s a much bigger, more insidious problem with Trainwreck: Schumer may be the writer and star, but Judd Apatow is the director, and in the end, you can’t escape the feeling that somehow Schumer’s vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies, even the best ones, follow […] Apatow and Schumer probably believe they’ve made a feminist picture, but the reality is something different. This is a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.
Complaining that the movie isn’t feminist enough while also asserting that Schumer’s will has been beaten into submission by Apatow is a pretty impressive double standard. I can only assume, naturally, that Zacharek’s original vision for the review was wrestled into the standard Village Voice template by some male editor.
(Hopefully, he’s also the one who thought “Don’t be a Hader” was a funny gag. Because if that’s hers, I don’t even know why I’m bothering).
Some of it I’ll assume is just tone-deaf instead of sexist: I’m skeptical that if she were aware of just how much of Amy Schumer’s material has been devoted to ruthlessly excoriating the bullshit, esteem-destroying standards of beauty in the entertainment industry, and how much she’s mocked her own weight gain, “baby fat,” and the men who’d call her “butterface,” Zacharek wouldn’t have described Schumer’s appearance as “like a Campbell’s Soup Kid.”
To illustrate how there’s an unfair added expectation for women in comedy to be funny and smart, Zacharek references another Voice piece about Inside Amy Schumer, and a couple of sketches from the show. But she only references the ones that went super-viral, and the reason that they went super-viral is because in addition to being funny, they were so overtly political that they were easy to interpret.
But the entire premise, that Schumer’s too occupied with being feminist to just let loose and be funny, is completely invalidated by the existence of Cat Park. Anyone who doesn’t think ending a sketch by having a cat looking into a microscope to develop a vaccine to save the world’s children is someone who just doesn’t understand comedy. I said good day, sir.
And more than that, the true genius of the series is how it takes an overt statement and then layers more stuff — from a point about feminism to some shamelessly goofy gag — on top. One of my favorites is still Love Tub, which is a parody of The Bachelor that wants to say more than just make the obvious assertion that The Bachelor is backwards, sexist bullshit.
In a lot of ways, it’s another expansion and evolution of the “Stepford Wives of Connecticut:” it’s still indomitable-spirit Amy sticking it to the squares and prudes. But the target is no longer just some concept of boring “heteronormativity;” the target is the corruption of that into a schmaltzy and insincere televised competition for a man’s attention. The guy’s creepy whispered “Congratulations” as he undresses the “winner” is still my favorite part.
Amy’s still doing her slutty-and-boozy-as-I-wanna-be schtick, but it’s even more exaggerated. She still, without question, gets to end the night saying “I think I won,” because she refused to take any of that bullshit seriously. But the coda takes it a step farther: you’re not supposed to watch the end of that sketch and conclude, “Now there’s an independent woman who’s entirely got her shit together.”
Still, for some reason, people went to see a movie called Trainwreck, and they went away feeling betrayed that it wasn’t intended to be aspirational.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
Zacharek’s review of Trainwreck is a prescriptive piece of film criticism dressed as a progressive one.
It starts with the assertion that Schumer’s making an argument she’s no longer particularly interested in making, and then criticizes her for doing a lousy job of making that argument. Essentially, Zacharek is faulting Trainwreck for not being about Kim Cattrall’s character in Sex and the City (which began in 1998):
We think we’re getting a movie where a woman gets to enjoy the company of lots of partners, without remorse or shame, the sort of freedom men — some of them, at least — have enjoyed for centuries.
Or in other words, the same assertion that was the basis of Schumer’s stand-up routine for several years.
And this is despite the fact that every piece of promotional material before the movie’s release made it clear what the premise was: what happens when a character like that has lots of remorse- and shame-free sex and then falls in love with a boring, “normal” guy? That had to be in the press kit.
While Knegt sees it as a betrayal that Schumer’s not still doing her earlier, funnier, stuff, Zacharek’s holding up a lighter, yelling “Freebird,” and demanding a repeat of the deepest cuts from Ms. and Cosmopolitan-era feminism. Even after dismissing the idea that women can’t be funny as a “boneheaded dictum,” she goes on to let the counter-argument of that frame the rest of the review. Women can be as funny as men! Women do enjoy sex!
It doesn’t matter that Schumer’s spent her career distilling complex observations about feminism and empowerment into two-minute long comedy routines. Why can’t she keep doing that? We just want to hear the same trivially true assertions repeated over and over again.
What Amy actually wants — Schumer or Townsend, take your pick — is pretty much irrelevant. You want to write a story about a woman whose self-destructive behavior is visibly making her life worse? What are you, some kind of prude? We paid our money to see a successful and empowered career woman (circa 1988) who gets to have it all and can be just as raunchy as any man. But instead of that, you went and wrote something conventional. So arrogant.
Also it’s not funny enough. You should smile more.
What’s especially frustrating in this case is that Trainwreck contains exactly the simple-minded gender-swapped romantic comedy that internet progressives crave. Amy works for a lifestyle magazine! (And it’s a men’s magazine! That’s run by a woman!) Bill Hader’s character is the over-achieving career guy who’s got it all… except love. Not only is he a surgeon who has every single famous athlete as a client, he also does award-winning work for Doctors Without Borders! Vanessa Bayer is Amy’s enabling, perpetually horny, commitment-phobic best friend. LeBron James is Hader’s supportive and nurturing best friend who’ll do anything to keep him from getting hurt.
In the age of feminism-as-meme-and-YouTube-series, that’s supposed to be enough. It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s any acknowledgment of context or whether it’s saying anything of substance: just look at it! Isn’t that something?! Like, subscribe, and retweet.
But the most interesting aspect of the basic premise in Trainwreck is that no one comments on it, ever. It’s just accepted as a given. I’ve been struggling to think of any instance in the entire movie where someone makes any reference to traditional gender roles, or makes any sort of comment that it’s weird how everything is swapped, and I can’t remember a single one. The only thing that comes even close is when Hader tells her he’s slept with three women, and the gag is that she replies “I’ve also slept with three women.”
In other words, Schumer is so uninterested in the argument that women can do everything men can, that she doesn’t even bother making it.
Strong Female Character
There’ve been sketches on Inside Amy Schumer that started with the premise of the gender swap, like the uptight office worker who finally breaks free of his inhibitions at an all-male version of Hooters, or the porn from a lady’s point of view that still turns out to be for men. (Note the pop-up ad for O’Nutters). An underlying message is that the swap is silly, because the context will always be completely different. The double standard is just too deeply ingrained.
Which turns out to be depressingly accurate, since in Trainwreck, Amy gets criticized for not even being able to be a lovable fuck up in the right way:
…her character in Trainwreck is at times so badly behaved — toward a man she supposedly loves — that it’s hard to be on her side. We shouldn’t have to approve of characters’ behavior; in comedy, especially, it’s more fun if we don’t. Still, we have to be mostly sympathetic to Amy for the movie to work, and if I were Aaron, I’d run a mile from her. […] Anyone, man or woman, can be an emotional bully. And in the end, it’s supposed to be a triumph that Amy is won over to the wonders of monogamy.
In the movie’s terms, we know she’ll never miss any of those other guys, because she never had much invested in them anyway. Trainwreck pretends to be frank about sex from a woman’s point of view, yet it refuses to reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is. A retreat into the safety of couplehood is the only possible future it can imagine, the necessary corrective to sleeping around. In its too-tidy universe, good girls don’t. And bad girls probably shouldn’t, either.
We already know that acceptable behavior in a romantic comedy would be creepy if not outright illegal when applied to real life. But there’s a much older fucked-up but universally accepted aspect of romantic comedies that’s even more insidious and more pernicious: the double standard. When men in romantic comedies (and real life) do stuff that’s callous, insensitive, selfish, or irresponsible, it’s a plot complication. We scramble for justifications: he’s just defensive or insecure. He’s been hurt in the past. It’s the age-old mantra for women everywhere: “I can fix him, I just know it.”
When Amy’s self-destructive behavior causes her to be insensitive or hurts people’s feelings, she becomes completely irredeemable and unsympathetic. Toxic. Avoid at all costs. Character flaws don’t just make her a bad person, but a bad role model for young single women and men everywhere.
Knegt’s article says it’s a “cringe-worthy montage” (and yeah, the montage aspect is pretty cheesy) when Amy tosses out all the booze and pot paraphernalia in her apartment. What he neglects to mention is that this scene comes after Amy gets upset over a break-up, drinks to excess, hooks up with a guy she doesn’t like at all, comes just short of being guilty of statutory rape and assault, and loses her job as a result of it.
In a later scene, she outright tells her sister that she’s not happy, and that she feels like she’s “broken.” The response from Knegt and his friends, apparently: “Sack up! Learn to deal with it, because you’re making the rest of us look bad.” It’s the kind of compassion that says a true friend is the one who holds your hair back when you puke while you’re drinking yourself to death.
And Trainwreck absolutely does “reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is,” just not in the too-tidy way that Zacharek wants. It says that one of the consequences of sex is that people can get hurt. That’s the entire point of John Cena’s character.
I think Zacharek’s read on the character — “somehow he believes they’re exclusive and is crestfallen to discover his mistake” — is totally at odds with what’s shown in the movie. It’s not “his mistake,” since it’s completely reasonable that he’d have different expectations from their relationship. And it’s not that he “somehow” thought they were more serious, since they’re going out to romantic comedies together. (Incidentally: the movie-within-a-movie was bafflingly pointless). As he says, having to declare that you’re “exclusive” is not something that adults do after high school, since they’re supposed to talk about it with each other and get a mature understanding of what they’re both hoping to get.
Their break-up is not at all ambiguous: she likes having sex with him (even if it is “like fucking an ice sculpture”) but had so little respect for him that it never even occurred to her to consider what he wanted. His last lines are explicit: “Fuck you, Amy. You’re not nice.”
Still, the script puts the blame on Amy but doesn’t condemn her for it. She genuinely doesn’t understand that he could’ve wanted something different, because isn’t this just the way things are for everyone? If you’re not married by your early thirties, it’s because you’re never going to be because you don’t want to be. That’s just the way things work.
(To underscore that — or maybe it’s just a funny recurring gag, but I’m going to run with it anyway — there’s the suggestion that he might be gay and doesn’t even realize it himself. He’s just going through the motions of what he thinks he’s supposed to like and supposed to want).
Another of my favorite sketches from Inside Amy Schumer shows how men and women can have very different expectations after having sex. It’d be easy and simple just to say that the guy’s a dick for taking advantage of her and then immediately forgetting about it. But the sketch careful to exaggerate how much she’s responsible for her own unrealistic expectations. Which says to me that whether she’s playing the apart of the emotional bully or the one being taken advantage of, either way she’s going to be the one who takes the blame.
Ten Things I’m Not Saying About You
This time, Schumer’s getting criticized (albeit indirectly, since remember she’s apparently nothing more than a mouthpiece for Judd Apatow) for saying that “a retreat to the safety of sobriety and monogamy” is The Only Way.
Except of course she’s not saying that at all. The most didactic that Trainwreck gets about monogamy is to say that it’s nothing to be afraid of, and nothing to be dismissive of.
Typically, when a flawed character is criticized for being a negative representation of Everyone Who Ever Lived Who Has Any Recognizable Traits In Common, it’s because there’s a genuine lack of diversity. The character has to bear the weight of representing everyone, because there’s no one else in the story who can.
That’s not the case with Trainwreck at all. Not only are there many types of women, there’s many types of relationships. Tilda Swinton’s character seems to be a fascinatingly bizarre take on Richard Branson, and she’s callous, cruel, and just plain weird, but there’s never even the slightest question whether she’s exactly where she wants to be. Bayer’s lecherous idiot doesn’t just come out of the movie unscathed, she gets awarded with a promotion. I already mentioned that Bridget Everett’s character is happily enjoying married life in the suburbs with her husband and the other guy who double-teams her. Even in Chris Evert’s cameo, she spends the entire time not-at-all subtly hitting on Hader.
And of course, the boring, uptight housewives are now even more boring and awful than they were in Schumer’s stand-up routine: now the scandalous secret is that one of them is sneaking a whole box of Skinny Cow ice cream at night. That’s like a whole ice cream!
As it turns out, people didn’t need to spend so much time worrying about what she was saying about them. On the day that Trainwreck opened, Schumer came right out and said what it was about:
Which, really, is the most offensive thing you could possibly say to some people: this isn’t about you.
At the beginning of the movie, Colin Quinn’s character is lecturing his two daughters about how monogamy is unrealistic. The humor comes from two places: that he’s dismissing monogamy as a fundamental concept when it’s completely obvious he’s just frustrated he can’t fuck around like he wants to, and that the two little girls are repeating what he says word-for-word as if it were a crucial life lesson.
Fast forward to the girls as adults, and we see that one sister has taken the lesson completely to heart and the other has rejected it. One sister is having plenty of remorse-free sex and partying and advancing in her career, while the other has settled down in the suburbs with a dorky guy and a heartbreakingly nerdy stepson. One sister is living exactly the life she wants to lead, while the other is just settling for doing what she thinks she’s supposed to be doing.
Can you see what she did there?
I don’t know how much of the movie autobiographical, just like I don’t know how much of Schumer’s stand-up routine is “true.” Not only is it none of my business, it’s almost completely irrelevant. Unless I need her to explain to me explicitly how much of it is satire so I can determine exactly how much offense I can take.
What I suspect, though, is that the finale of the movie is framed like a totally conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment, specifically as a pointed “fuck you” to anyone who’d dismiss it for being a conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment.
Throughout the movie, she’d mocked the men she was sleeping with, mocked her nephew, mocked her brother-in-law, mocked her sister for being boring, mocked her job for being beneath her, mocked herself for falling in love and becoming such a cliche, and mocked cheerleaders and sports in general as being stupid and pointless. In the end, she puts on the cheerleading uniform, does a cheerleading routine to a song she hates, and — as befits an empowered 90s woman — makes a run for the basket. The entire time, Hader’s character is telling her that she doesn’t have to do this, but she keeps doing it anyway. Of course she doesn’t have to do it, but she wants to.
And then, when she’s breathlessly trying to explain what it all means while he’s saying “Yeah, I get the metaphor,” is the first time since I Know Where I’m Going that I almost teared up at the end of a romantic comedy. Partly because Hader’s a good actor even when he is playing it totally straight, and the look on his face was one overwhelmed by sincere appreciation. But mostly because I was genuinely happy to see her be truly fearless and risk looking stupid to get what she wanted.
This Is What You Think Is Hot?
I said earlier that it’s disappointing that the sketches from Inside Amy Schumer that go viral are always the ones that are overt in their message, when there’s so much even better material that works on multiple levels. An exception to that is the one that went viral at the beginning of this season: Milk Milk Lemonade.
In the grand tradition of funny stuff that boring people like me love to write think pieces about to over-analyze: it’s a parody of Anaconda that wants to say more than just “Anaconda is kind of silly.” It suggests that women having the freedom to objectify themselves is a pretty shitty substitute for actual empowerment.
When Anaconda came out, everybody was stumbling over themselves to use terms like “sex positive” and “positive body image” and “owning your own sexuality,” trying desperately to put a progressive spin on a video in which a bunch of women writhe around in the jungle celebrating each other’s loaf pinchers before presenting them to Drake. Putting the whole thing over a sample from a 20-year-old novelty song was apparently supposed to be an example of “taking it back.” Inside Amy Schumer’s version responds, “Nah, I don’t want it. I’m good.”
Something that’s not mentioned in Schumer’s video (for that matter, I’m only assuming it’s parodying Anaconda in the first place): I’m going to call bullshit on any claims that Anaconda is positive or empowered when it spends so much time saying “fuck the skinny bitches.”
And that’s why I think “Milk Milk Lemonade” is kind of brilliant, and ultimately why misinterpretations of a romantic comedy I liked but didn’t love were enough to set me off on a few thousand words of rambling commentary. The video makes a pointed commentary, but it’s not particularly interested in condemning or even really judging anybody. More than anything else, it feels like Schumer wanted to dress up with her friends and have fun.
It’s gloriously, unapologetically juvenile. If it makes a statement about women owning their own bodies, it does so the same way a six year old makes a statement about owning a cookie by licking it before anyone else can — ha ha I ruined it for you! It treats the whole thing as completely silly, because it is silly. “My sense of self-worth isn’t dependent on whether or not a guy is turned on by my ass.”
But also: hey, if it’s your thing, knock yourself out. No need to get defensive because it doesn’t affect her. She’ll just be over here dancing with Amber Rose and Method Man because they seem cool.
To me, it shows just how much the culture of “engagement,” retweets, trending topics, and think pieces have helped corrupt every progressive “social justice” ideal into a defensive version of “fuck the normals!” (And how that’s always rationalized with some “they attacked us first!” justification like the inexcusably insipid “always punch up!”) The goal of self-actualization has been de-emphasized in favor of just swapping one version of conformity with a different one. Inclusivity has given way to word-policing. The word “heteronormative” has been so casually tossed around as a pejorative that people now act as if “hetero” is the toxic part of it.
And every time some pinhead pipes up with an antiquated opinion, people stumble over themselves to correct it, or to at least show they are vehemently opposed to it. Not because it actually advances anything, but because it’s easier. At some point, we each have to decide how much of our lives we’re going to waste reacting to other people’s opinions of us. Otherwise we’re going to just keep having the same stupid arguments every 5 years until we’re all lying in our cryo-feeding tubes croaking “People can be whatever they choose to be!”
Amy Schumer gets to make her voice heard and waggle her ass in tight skirts. She gets to mock anyone who’d judge her for her looks and make fun of her looks for a ton of comedy material. She gets to write at length about cunnilingus and about a girl winning the heart of her One True Love. And she gets to do it without demeaning or mocking anyone who doesn’t deserve it, because they’re simply not a threat to her.
Some people may call it selling out, but I’m like, “Really? Because I feel like she’s won.”
A silly game from Nintendo raises the eternal question: why do LGBT types always make such a fuss every time they’re deliberately and actively excluded?
If you read any sites that talk about video games within the past week, you’ve probably seen the story about Nintendo’s new game Tomodachi Life. The “game” — from the sound of it, it’s more like a toy than a game or even a simulation — allows for characters of opposite genders to fall in love and get married, but doesn’t allow it for characters of the same sex. When some gamers started a kind of hashtag protest, Nintendo responded with a spectacularly tone-deaf comment to the Associated Press, saying that the game was supposed to be a silly alternate world instead of a simulation of real life. “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life.”
The internet quickly filled with a flood of confused and reactionary commentary like the Google Maps lady stuck doing donuts in a parking lot. There’s been a ton of posts and comments talking about what happened, what actually happened, why people are upset, and why it matters. On Gamasutra, Christian Nutt wrote a great summation of the situation and why it’s a problem, from the perspective of a man who’s played the game and who happens to be married to another man. (Except in Tomodachi Life, in which he’s married to a woman).
Today, Nintendo released a statement that gave a sincere apology for the situation and a pledge to work harder at inclusivity going forward. Really, that should be the end of it. It’d be just petulant to expect a more sweeping change to a quirky novelty title, Nintendo’s a notoriously conservative company that has a lot deeper problems with racial and gender inclusivity than this one game, and people got the chance to raise awareness of how much they care about the issue and why it’s important to them. There’s not a lot more left to say. Making it out to be a controversy is itself a big part of the problem; it’s something so “normal” that it should never be considered controversial.
But… it’s rare for a video game to drop such a perfect metaphor into our laps, so I’ve got to give my take.
No Weird Stuff
Above is a promotional video from Nintendo for Tomodachi Life, which shows Mii versions of Nintendo executives talking in their strangely-pitched computer-generated voices, singing and dancing in stage shows, racing as snails with human heads, taking to the runway in fashion shows, and hitting on female Nintendo video game characters. “Just think of all the crazy match-ups that can happen in this game.” But don’t think of too many crazy match-ups, because Nintendo doesn’t want any weird stuff. Like dudes hitting on other dudes.
On Polygon, Samantha Allen writes that Nintendo’s statement was rooted in hatred and bigotry, pure and simple. The rest of her piece is fine, because it talks about the heteronormative concepts that lead to a statement like “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary:” it assumes that straight people falling in love and getting married is perfectly natural and normal, but gay people doing the same thing is a statement. But I do take issue with the claim that it’s rooted in hatred and bigotry; frankly, I think calling it “hatred” is lazy.
Hatred is easier to deal with. If someone proves himself to be a hateful, unrepentant homophobe, you can just say “sheesh, what an asshole” and write him off. Same with an arrogant bigot who’s convinced that he’s calmly and rationally proven that your concerns don’t matter as much as his own. But Nintendo’s initial statement comes from a place of more subtle and systematic prejudice. It’s like the aunt who insists on calling your boyfriend your “friend,” and who keeps trying to set you up with a nice girl. (Note: purely a hypothetical in my case).
That’s not to say that it’s benign or that it should be given a pass, but just that it comes from a different place. And you have to handle it differently. Otherwise, you just make it seem like the full-on, recalcitrant bigots have all the numbers on their side.
Of course, it’s also not to say that the reaction is overblown or the issue shouldn’t be a big deal. That seems to be the most common reaction on message boards: why do LGBT types/liberals/liberal LGBT types/”social justice warriors” have to turn every little thing into some big issue? One of the comment threads was from a guy who made that exact point and qualified it by pointing out that he’s bisexual; apparently he’s the Lorax, and he speaks for the LGBTs. But instead of reinforcing his point, his mention of his own sexuality just underscored why one aspect of a deliberately silly game could blow up into such a big deal in the first place: it comes from the assumption that what’s important to one person is important to everyone else, and that one person’s experiences are a good indicator of everyone else’s experiences. (Besides, any gay man can tell you that bisexuals don’t actually exist).
Christian’s take on the game and Nintendo’s response describes how the struggle for LGBT rights has turned personal relationships into political issues: “…living, for us, is an inherently political act.” That’s true, but I think a lot of people miss the fact that the political aspect is a side effect, not a goal. When someone suggests that gay rights activists put forward their most “straight-friendly” relationships in a bit of political theater, it exposes their own biases and prejudices: theater has to have an audience, and the gays must be trying to sell an idea to the normals. That takes an already marginalized group and marginalizes them even further; anything you want is defined in terms of how it affects me. So you look at a lesbian couple in their 80s and consider how their marriage would impact the civil rights struggle and its longer-term effects on fundamental societal institutions. You don’t consider the simple fact that a couple who’d been together for decades would want to get married, and what a travesty it is that they couldn’t.
That’s why Nintendo’s first response was spectacularly tone-deaf, as opposed to outright “hateful.” Hate says that anything outside of my experience is wrong; cluelessness and callousness say that anything outside of my experience is weird. It assumes one version of “normal” as the default, and then assumes that anything that falls outside of that is an aberration. So a guy chasing after a girl on a beach is just how romance works. A guy chasing after another guy would be making social commentary.
We’ve seen this over and over again: heterosexual marriages are normal, so gay “marriages” must be a political agenda. Straight relationships among young people are about romance and commitment, but gay relationships must be all about sex. Action heroes are men, so having female action heroes must be an attempt to defy conventional gender roles. Leading characters are white, so introducing a non-white protagonist means the story must be about race and take advantage of the fact that he’s “exotic.”
Based solely on that Nintendo Direct video, and the amount of time spent with characters hitting on and fighting over each other, it’d be reasonable for anyone to assume that it’s Nintendo who declared that romantic relationships and marriages are a big part of this silly game. And it’s Nintendo who asserted that having characters who represent your appearance and your personality is a big part of the game. But then we’re supposed to believe that it’s the LGBT contingent who are turning it into an issue simply by pointing out that we’re not represented?
And the reason it’s such a great metaphor is that in video games, much as in real life, gay relationships are on by default. 99.9% of games don’t care about gender, so the only way you can prevent two characters of the same gender from pairing up is to explicitly forbid it. In the US, the only people who are “redefining marriage” are the ones who have been going in state by state, taking the idea of an institution that everyone understands, and appending “unless you’re gay.” In Tomodachi Life, the team had to explicitly make the effort to ensure that only characters of opposite genders would fall in love and get married. So who’s the one making such a big deal? It’s not the LGBT people in the audience, the ones who fell in love with someone of the same gender not to rock your world and defy your notions of conventional relationships, but because it’s simply normal to them.
Just Don’t Call It Woohoo
The effort it takes to allow for gay relationships is simply not to forbid it. The Sims is the first game I encountered that allowed this, and it could even tell I was gay before I could. I’ve told this story before, but I can’t remember if I have on this blog, so excuse the possible repetition:
In addition to letting you create your own characters and houses from scratch, The Sims also gives you several Maxis-generated families to start with. One of these in the first game was the “Roomies,” two women who were, according to the description, “new in town and looking to make friends.” I decided to create a “family” of two guys in the same neighborhood, who’d meet the girls, they’d all fall in love and get married, and pursue the music career. It’d be just like ABBA. I made the guys — “Tubbs,” because he dressed like a Miami Vice character, and “Logan,” because he dressed like a Sandman from Logan’s Run — and moved them into a house together, then had them start chatting with each other to build their relationship.
It turned out that the guys hit it off really well. I’d start a conversation between them, and they’d spend the next hour of game time just chatting with each other and sharing their dreams. They advanced from “friends” to “best friends,” and eventually got so close I started to wonder whether they’d seen combat together. Eventually, in addition to the conversational options, a new option appeared: “Give back rub.” What’s the worst that could happen? I thought. Nothing wrong with a dude giving his bro a completely consensual, heterosexual back rub.
But that’s when the hearts started appearing over their heads. I’d done it. It was my fault, because I’d given them permission. I’d somehow, completely inadvertently, unlocked a whole range of romantic options for the guys. And, I admit, I was “curious.” It’s just one night, after all, and it’s not like they’ll be locked into this as some kind of lifestyle choice, and I’ve already got a couple of very nice ladies set up for them, and well, why doesn’t this really seem all that weird to me?
My Exodus International-style attempts to get the guys back on track ended, predictably, in disaster. They preferred talking with each other and occasionally making out to talking with the Roomies. Tubbs, as it turned out, was progressive enough to be comfortable with bisexuality, and he quickly hit it off with one of the ladies. Logan didn’t want any part of it, though, and worse than that, he was crazy jealous. Tubbs’s ex-gay conversion started to get hot and heavy, and Logan reacted by slapping him, crying for a bit, and then going into the kitchen to make dinner. Because it was the original The Sims, though, using a stove meant instant suicide. A fire started, everyone panicked, and Logan was consumed by flame. A fittingly William Friedkin-esque end to the whole affair.
When a Sim dies, the game gives you a crematory urn that you can place in the backyard to turn into a grave. I did that, and Tubbs basically ruined the entire night with all his grieving. He abandoned the Roomies, choosing instead to go to the backyard and cry over Logan’s grave. His new girlfriend got bored, then came to the backyard to cheer him up. He was unconsolable at first, but eventually started to come around. Completely autonomously, she asked him to dance, and the two danced on his dead boyfriend’s grave. The game had let me consciously and subconsciously experiment with relationships, play around with the idea of what’s “normal,” and even push the characters towards a darkly comic moral retribution. All before I was ready to come out or was even able to recognize that coming out and being comfortable with myself was even an option.
(When I first told this story to my ex-boyfriend, his response: “Your first sign you were gay should’ve been when you bought a new video game and immediately wanted to re-create ABBA.”)
That’s an example of why representation is such a big deal in games and movies: it is, for lack of a better term, a “safe space” to see your own conception of what’s “normal” be abstracted and simplified and experimented with. The realization that this doesn’t seem that weird to me was a calming reassurance that “coming out” didn’t mean I’d have to transform into one of the bizarre stereotypes I’d always seen on TV and in movies. The game was effectively saying that it didn’t care one way or the other, so why should I? In retrospect, even the swift moral retribution for Logan’s wickedness was helpful: over the years I’d come up with so many possible nightmare scenarios of what would happen if anyone found out My Horrible Secret, that seeing one played out so broadly comic and cartoonishly helped defused the tension. It’s a big deal because it reminds players that it’s not a big deal.
Of course, somebody at EA or Maxis came along with The Sims 2 and effectively ruined it. They added the option of marriage — strictly non-denominational, of course — by giving a Sim new options for Sims with a high enough relationship level: “Propose” an “Join.” Two Sims could “Join” in a nice ceremony with all their Sim friends and it’d form a lifelong memory and a new spousal relationship.
But only if they were of opposite genders. Everything else was just as gender-agnostic as before, but if you had two Sims of the same gender, they could only “Join Union.” Every aspect of the relationship was exactly the same (except for the possibility of pregnancy from sex, of course) but they explicitly made the effort to distinguish real marriages of semi-autonomous computer-generated polygonal people with the politically-motivated civil unions of gay Sims. Of all the boneheaded decisions that EA has made over the years, that’s simultaneously one of the subtlest with least pragmatic impact, and one of the absolute worst with enough symbolism attached to wipe out almost all my goodwill towards the series. The beauty of The Sims was that it made no value judgments. The insult of The Sims 2 was that it said this distinction matters so much that we’ll go out of our way to differentiate it.
Of course, The Sims isn’t a completely free-love society; there are explicit rules against macking on underage Sims or blood relatives, for instance. And while Sims will take care of a lot of stuff on their own, they won’t do stuff like initiate romantic relationships, so players who want to play with the rule #nohomo will only ever see gay Sims if they create them themselves. Even after reading Christian’s description of Tomodachi Life, I still don’t have a clear idea of how autonomous it is, if at all — if the player doesn’t actually have control over which Miis fall in love and get married, then there is a technical question of how you implement that. If a Mii representing a straight player just automatically gets married to a Mii of the same gender, that’s really no better than Christian’s example of his Mii getting married to a woman.
But whatever the details, it’s not an unsolvable problem, because plenty of other games have solved it. And the key is that anybody who claims it’d take a ton of effort is either lying or mis-informed. If a Bioware game needs to write a whole plot line and dialogue for one of its established characters falling in love with an established character of the same gender, then that takes some effort. In a game where players create the characters and decide what they do, then it’s as simple as “don’t forbid it.”
And if you are going to make the effort to exclude me, at least do me the courtesy of acknowledging that you’re the one doing it. Don’t assume that what’s perfectly normal for me is actually some politically motivated social commentary. And don’t act as if removing the restrictions that exclude me is the same thing as catering to some special interest.