Stuck in neutral
On objects at rest and why they stay at rest
Top notes: Hello and thanks, as always, for being here and for continuing to make this little writing and organizing project possible. It’s not lost on me that there are a ton of sites/services/etc. asking for your money, and also that just living right now is wildly and increasingly expensive. The fact that each week a few more folks say “yeah, I’ll support whatever this dude is doing” means so much. This weekend, I’m going to be sharing my first piece just for paid subscribers. I originally wrote it in 2020, but I’m updating it for the current moment. It’s about Wisconsin politics past and present— a “how we got here” essay, if you will. I plan on doing this occasionally, offering a subscribers-only piece on the weekend. For now at least, all of you will get a copy in your mailbox, just with a paywall midway through. While of course I hope folks read and like it and choose to subscribe, I don’t want it to be overly pressure-y. If you hit that paywall and want to read more (I mean, not to brag but there’s a part in there about how the Republican Party evolved from a proto-hippie free-love commune in Ripon) but you aren’t in a position to become a paid subscriber, no worries. Just toss me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll help you out.
You all are very kind and I’m very grateful to get to write for you. Corny, but true. Now for more words.
It’s been one of those weeks where everything feels connected. Sometimes, that’s a mirage. Sometimes, that’s just our own confirmation bias. Sometimes (most times), we just need more sleep. But occasionally, there’s a thread that’s worth pulling. Let’s see where it goes:
My kids had a long weekend off of school, so on Friday, we drove down to visit some good friends who live in the pretty part of Indiana— the part with the hills and the trees and the quarries, not far from where I was first introduced to sugar cream pie a couple of decades ago. The weekend was perfect. Our friends were amazing hosts. Our kids dumped leaves on one other’s heads and ran around our friends’ chicken coop. Indiana (by which I mean, of course, the nostalgicized Indiana in my heart) remains undefeated. We drove home on Monday after not having paid any real attention to the news all weekend. Somewhere along the way, we passed a billboard with a stark black and yellow typeface proclaiming that “Jesus was fed up with politics, too.” There was a hashtag. #HEGETSUS. Apparently, there’s a campaign— funded by a handful of wealthy Evangelicals and fueled by hip Christian marketing guys— to promote Jesus’ continued relevance to a skeptical nation. This was my first sighting in the wild. I’m not going to comment on the theology of the campaign; I think it’s probably different from mine. It just seemed notable that of all the things they could have focused on to promote Jesus’ like-us-ness, the hip marketing bros went with how he (purportedly) thought that politicians were bums.
At some point on Monday night– after my kids were fed and bathed and laundry was shuffled through machines and I had taught a couple of Barnraisers Project classes– I caught up on the news. It was bad, which I knew it would be— though I didn’t predict that it would be Celebrity-Emboldened Anti-Semites Now Appearing In Public levels of bad. I read a lot of articles about how democracy is hanging by a thread and about how that thread is thinnest in Wisconsin, the state where I live. Every day, it seems that there is a new reminder about how my fellow Wisconsinites and I have already made a mess of things and how we’re likely to make an even bigger mess come November. Now, I am a big fan of democracy. I don’t like to see it under attack. But I’m always fascinated by how these articles— which disproportionately interview White people— pretend that mass disenfranchisement and elections as pre-ordained affairs are a new thing. I mean, there’s no way to say this without sounding like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting when he looks disapprovingly at Robin Williams’ bookshelf and scoffs that “A People’s History of the United States will… knock you on your ass,” but, um, we know that this has always been our collective story, right? There’s always been a certain amount of inhumanity that we accept as the cost to doing business.
I went to bed thinking about the Jesus billboard again and I got mad because the point isn’t that politics is annoying but rather that it keeps people sick and poor and isolated and unfree. But then I remembered that I wrote a whole piece last week about how I think that politics is annoying and well, Evangelical billboard marketers…you got me. I too just want to stay comfortable and not have to see the ads with the serious voices and the angry typefaces. I suppose I should learn more about this Jesus character now.
On Tuesday, there was more news to read. The New York Times published a story about the midterm elections and how they are going to be quite bad for the Democrats, especially in the House of Representatives. The headline was that the Democrats are vulnerable in many Congressional seats that they normally win with ease. Some of that is due to inflation, of course. It’s a bummer! But it’s also abortion— or, more precisely, the fact that the Democratic pitch has been solely about the Dobbs decision, and in states where reproductive rights are at least partially still protected, voters don’t feel any urgent, present-tense need to vote on that basis. They are already personally taken care of. Other people’s futures are expendable.
Most of that particular story took place in Rhode Island, where the Republicans are running the amiable former Mayor of Cranston, Allan Fung. Fung seems like a nice guy. The ad on his website is jaunty and upbeat. He drinks coffee milk and talks about how he’ll “bring down prices at the pump” and “turn the economy around,” which means that he wants less regulation and more oil production. Perhaps he’ll win and he’ll be a part of a Red Wave or perhaps he’ll lose. I don't understand how polls and prognostication works, nor am I fully convinced that Rhode Island actually exists.If he does win, I don’t think that the changes he’s proposing will help working class Rhode Islanders very much at all, however nice he might be. That’s not the point of winning an election anyway.
That same day, the Times also published a column by Jamelle Bouie. It’s about W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, a book that Bouie argues describes most of what you need to know about America, past and present. Black Reconstruction, of course, is the story of how America’s first great democratic-abolitionist experiment flickered to life and then was quickly extinguished. You likely know about some of that story—about the power and promise of the communities and institutions built by emancipated Blacks after the Civil War, about the very real difference made in so many Americans’ lives by even a small bit of reparational social democracy, and of course, about how evil Southern racists eventually won the day and rolled it all back. The part that interests Bouie the most, though, is the role of Northern Capital on both sides of Reconstruction’s boom and bust. It wasn’t that Reconstruction worked for a while because the racists didn’t make a fuss and it ended when they suddenly did again. It worked when big money in the North felt that the threat of a reinvigorated White Southern economy was greater than the threat of wealth and power transfer to poor Southern Blacks and Whites. Once the powers that be in the North became more worried about all of that empowerment than about Southern competition, it was time to pull the plug. The Klan and the good old boys would do the dirty work, but only because they were allowed to.
The legendary author, activist and Angeleno Mike Davis passed away on Tuesday. In many ways, he represented the best of the American Left. Davis was pugnacious and loving, deeply committed to people and unsparing in his opposition to the systems that make life less sustainable and bearable. He wrote a lot of books that are worth reading— his history of Los Angeles (City of Quartz) is his most famous. As I’ve been thinking about Davis over the last couple of days, though, the book most on my mind has been Prisoners of The American Dream. It’s about the American working class, and why (so far, at least) they’ve never led a revolution against their bosses. There are a lot of answers to that question— most of them beginning and ending with racism— and Davis explores them all. Behind every big trend, though, are individual decisions. A good chunk of Prisoners focuses on the specific moments when labor leaders chose to cozy up to the folks in power (corporations and politicians) rather than lean into the messier work of cross-racial organizing. That’s to say, it’s a book about the comfort of having a seat at the table and who and what gets sold out when that choice is made. It’s about getting yours and taking a flyer on other people’s lives.
Somewhere in the midst of all of this burying myself in one heady block of text after another, the week kept creeping forward. On Tuesday afternoon, we found out that my son’s fourth grade teacher— a woman whom he loved deeply, a teacher who sparked his class’s love of writing so much that they self-organized into an adorably nerdy little graphic novel publishing cooperative— won’t be coming back this year. We don’t know the details, but it’s health related and my heart breaks for her and her family, whatever the specific issue may be. But of course, my first instinct wasn’t to think about her at all, but to fixate on the implications of her departure for my own kid. I wondered whether he’ll mourn this loss for a couple of days or for the whole year. I worried that the rest of fourth grade may already be shot— that it’ll be unduly stressful for him and I won’t know what to do to help him out. I worried about all of this and forgot that a community member to whom I’m deeply grateful is sick and I am only thinking about the part of the story that hits our family. I know that’s what we do… as human beings, as parents, as former fourth-graders who’ve never fully shed our own pre-adolescent insecurities. I don’t blame myself, but it’s worth noticing.
Tuesday turned to Wednesday and I kept thinking about my own White parental angst. I remembered a Civil Rights Movement anecdote that’s been haunting me lately. It’s about Freedom Summer, when SNCC and CORE enlisted a volunteer army of White northern college kids to help register Blacks Mississippians. The Freedom Summer kids trained in Oxford, Ohio, just across the border from where I was once an (activist-y, collegiate) Indiana boy on them (activist-y, collegiate) Indiana nights. The part of the story I only recently learned about, however, was that the volunteers weren’t enlisted because SNCC needed numbers, nor because White college kids had any special skill sets. As James Forman related to Howard Zinn (of course!), the movement needed White bodies in large part because organizers knew that, once the kids made it to Mississippi, Southern Whites would inevitably rough them up pretty good. They’d be threatened and hurt and perhaps even killed. And SNCC needed that— not because it would change the volunteers or their White southern antagonists but because it would inspire the kids’ don’t-rock-the-boat northern parents to make a fuss. SNCC wanted calls to northern Congressman encouraging the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Those calls weren’t coming when Blacks were beaten and killed. They’d only come if White parents’ own sons and daughters were the ones receiving the blows.
I reread Forman’s recollection of tactics and tradeoffs again and, per Will Hunting, I was, um, pretty much knocked off my rear end. I mean, I’d prefer if that wasn’t how American social change worked. I’m not naive, but it still seems so cynical and sad, this idea that White kids were only useful for the movement for the sympathy we enlist in death. But then I remember that’s literally what happened. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed. The calls from worried parents streamed in. The Civil Rights Act passed. Some lives matter, is what I’m saying.
Wednesday dragged on and there were more articles to read about how American democracy is at stake and how, if it dies, it will be because the Republicans in the Wisconsin State Legislature were craven and power-hungry and how a whole lot of White voters in rural parts of the state fell for race baiting and Big Lies about the 2020 election. If the Democrats lose again, smug White liberals in places where our country’s power and money tend to flow will have all of their preconceptions validated once again.
At some point, in the midst of reading about pre-emptive recriminations and anticipating the recriminations still to come, I remembered seeing an article written in the aftermath of the 2020 election by Bill Hogseth, an organizer with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. It was about how there was actually a lot more people-centric organizing in rural, White places than you’d expect, but that those organizers couldn’t convince their neighbors to vote Blue because people didn’t trust national Democrats. I recalled that Hogseth had a lot of suggestions for how Democrats could prioritize working people everywhere, including in rural areas. I reread that article on Wednesday. It’s still compelling. Neither the state nor the national Democratic Party ever took any of its suggestions to heart though. Nor have they truly taken similar suggestions from other rural organizers, like Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin. There were other things to care about and other people to fight for, I suppose.
In less than two weeks, we’re all going to go vote. Perhaps reproductive rights and voting rights and climate protection and justice for all will win big, unexpected victories. More likely, there will be small rays of hope and a broader undercurrent of defeat. If the forces that keep us poorer, more fearful and less caring win, we self-righteous losers will have more good reasons to direct our ire at the same cast of villains: the virulent bigots, the self-serving politicos, the unhappy-looking dudes walking around Home Depot in Let’s Go Brandon shirts. We will, like Jesus, apparently, wring up our hands at how exhausting all of this political stuff was again.
We will perhaps say something fleeting about the system itself— about where power and privilege lives, whose voice actually counts, whose calls to their Congressmen are more likely to be heeded, whose angst over their kids’ future deserves our sympathy. Ours is a system that has always tolerated, and even desired, a certain amount of fascism, bigotry and inhumanity just as long as some of us aren’t bothered, as long as some of us don’t ever have to change, as long as some of our children are never at risk.
We might say all that, but odds are we’ll get distracted. We won’t do anything about it. We’ll just hunker down for another election in a couple of years.
There has been a story to my week, I think. I’m not just making it up. It’s about how some villains are visible while others are invisible, and about what happens if you’ve spent months worrying about whether or not other people will ruin the country because they’re bad at voting. It’s about how easy it is to go about life and never truly admit that we can’t break a country that’s never been stitched together to begin with. It’s about how the work ahead looks a bit easier if you realize that we’re still building a more beautiful place from scratch. Mike Davis and W.E.B. DuBois knew all that, and they knew who should be leading us to a more beautiful collective future. They also knew, though, that there was and is a role to play if you’re one of those for whom this brokenness was always meant to benefit.
Some weeks, we go into the woods and we emerge again and the world is waiting for us, yelling at us, offering a choice of whether we deflect blame or admit that we are the inheritors and perpetrators of a real mess built on our collective behalf.
It’s a hell of a choice. It’s no wonder that some weeks (most weeks), it takes a chorus of reminders for us to face it. I hope we do face it, though. I hope we collectively choose well.
Song(s) of the week:
Well, if this essay is supposed to be an honest accounting of my past few days, it’d be dishonest to pretend that most of it wasn’t soundtracked by the new Taylor Swift album. I mean, I have two ears and a heart. My favorite song is “You’re On Your Own, Kid” because it sounds like a Weakerthans song, which is another way of saying that it sounds like Taylor is singing about what it feels like to be nostalgic and cold and stuck somewhere in Manitoba. More specifically, it reminds me of “Tournament of Hearts,” which is about curling. “You’re On Your Own, Kid” isn’t about curling. Everybody know that. But I did just spend 2000 words making spurious connections, so what this end note presupposes is… maybe it is?
[As always, you can find the collected song of the week playlist on Apple Music or Spotify].
White Pages Subscribers-Only Discussion of the Week:
Last week was serious (and good). We swapped election survival hints. This week, we’re goofing off and talking about Halloween. No rules, as long as it’s Halloween-related. A couple of folks are even telling me that scary movies are good, actually. The discussion is just getting started but you all, the costume ideas alone… holy cow. We already have a toddler asking to be a ham sandwich and grad students going as “Party Bison” and a “Sexy Pistol Shrimp” (!!!).
I am joking! I like Rhode Island! I appreciate that Providence tore down a freeway and built some nice pedestrian bridges. I also love the story about those art dudes who built a secret apartment in the Providence Place Mall. And have you had coffee milk? Delicious.
I feel for you entirely. It's ok that you were thinking about your kid. You can't control what happens to his teacher but you will inherently want to help make sure your own kid is okay. You've got plenty of empathy for her. You had a moment that focused on him.
As for the rest of the deluge... it's intense, and I feel like there are a lot of voices talking loudly about the end of democracy. That said, are you familiar with Anand Giridharadas? Two podcasts I've listened to recently (over three episodes) have been entirely comprised of interviews with him because of his new book, "The Persuaders: Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age," and I feel like there's a glimmer in them. Amid all the darkness about the intentions of Eussia's Internet Research Agency, etc. his Rx is up your alley. You're already doing the work it takes to save democracy.
So much here, but first: if you, like Thomas, need to see to believe, please come to Rhode Island. Or at least the South Coast of Massachusetts, where we also drink coffee milk.
I saw that billboard yesterday in Massachusetts. What got me is that I believe Jesus was *all about* politics. He was fed up with power being hoarded and keeping us all in bondage...which is not what the conservative Christian bros are interested in, at all. They want to sanitize the Gospel and keep the discussion of power out of church conversation -- dividing Christians with the most basic of what connects us, the Good News.
Phew. Good thing you wrote this newsletter as individual points, so that I can take bite-sized pieces.