The Boys Are Back In Town

On yelling at the people in the bars and not wanting to admit that you're really yelling at yourself


Friday night they'll be dressed to kill
Down at Dino's Bar 'n' Grill
The drink will flow and the blood will spill
And if the boys want to fight, you better let 'em

-Phil Lynott

We just had a weekend, I guess. As you likely heard, a few days ago the Wisconsin State Supreme Court issued its second consecutive “we are extremely ok with killing our neighbors” ruling. This means that, as I’ve written this piece over fits and starts on Friday and Saturday and Sunday nights, there have been people who live very close to me who have been out in bars. It’s not just bars of course. There have been people in hair salons and people in Mexican restaurants and apparently two states worth of people strolling up and down the streets of Lake Geneva, but it's been the people in bars that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

It’s just… well… I have so many questions about the recreational mechanics of it all. What is their night like? What do they talk about? Are they paying attention to the soundless episodes of 90 Day Fiancé or House Hunters: International or whatever other Not Sports are on TV? Is it particularly exhilarating to excuse themselves to go to The Bar’s restroom rather than the restroom to which they’ve been consigned in their own house? Late in the night, does “Don’t Stop Believing” still come on? Does it still have the same impact that it did in the Before Times whenever two or more white people were gathered together in the presence of alcohol? Do people still hug and sway and belt out the chorus, do they still forget for a minute that the person next to them isn’t actually their best friend, that it’s just the song talking?

I assume that every conversation is just one paean after another to how transgressive, and liberating all this is, how notable the facts of the matter are: We are here. We are out at The Bar. Would you believe it? Just a small town girl! Just a city boy! Taking the midnight train to [an epidemiologically ill-advised destination].

I’ll give the benefit of the doubt that the first of those conversations felt amazing. I’m wondering how the fifth, how the tenth, how the twentieth feels. What happens when the once-wet concrete of the stories we tell ourselves starts to harden, when its well past the time when a third party could come along and offer their initials as a counter-point?

I keep wondering if they’re having fun, those people out at bars. And no, I’m not asking whether or not their nights included individual moments of enjoyment. I have no doubts as to whether a favorite beer poured from a tap for the first time in a couple months tastes delicious. I trust completely that it is quite nice to see friends and loved ones in settings that don’t require three login codes and a mute button.

I’m also sure that, when asked, those people out at bars will claim that they’re having an absolutely terrific time. I’ve already read enough of the million or so “Let’s Interview People Out At Bars And Restaurants To See If They Approve Of The Decision They’re Actively Making” articles to know that they will swear up and down that they feel great, thank you very much. And I’m sure they’re not lying, neither about their assertions that This Is All Very Fun and Not Weird nor in their moral justifications for their actions.

And yet…

As many of you know, last week I wrote about the kind of interactions/relationships that actually help white people move down a path towards racial justice. I’ve realized since doing so (thanks to a few delightful follow-up conversations) that I may have unintentionally buried the lede. What I didn’t mention explicitly is that there has been a clear pattern in every one of the most useful and transformative racial justice conversations I’ve ever witnessed: They always get to a point where both people honestly admit that they don’t know how to reconcile the values that they hold and the life that they’ve been living. Once you’re there, you’re no longer having an argument- you’re helping somebody you care about reconcile that contradiction.

The pathway towards that place comes not through laying gotcha traps to trick the other person into admitting their hypocrisy, but a nimble dance between the questions you ask them and the questions you ask yourself. While you’ll spend the majority of time in a good conversation doing the former, how much you are trusted will eventually have more to do with the extent to which you’ve pushed yourself on the latter.

Let’s go back to the people in the bars. I’m angry at them, I suppose, but to be honest they mostly make me intensely sad. While they claim outwardly that they don’t feel badly about the choices that they are making- that to the contrary they feel GREAT-- at the core of their moral justification is an intense declaration of non-interdependence. What we are doing is fine, they yell, mid-Fireball-shot, because our actions have no impact beyond our immediate gaze. If we tip our bartenders generously and wash our hands thoroughly and don’t walk around spritzing passerby with spray bottles full of Covid than we assume that the tail of our influence stops abruptly at the tavern doors.

Here’s the thing about that justification: In the smallest possible sense, it’ll do the trick. It’s an easy way for your conscience to draw a get out of jail free card. But damn if it won’t kill you in the long term. Because, whether you admit it or not, what you’re actually arguing is that your life and your actions don’t matter, that you’re not there for the world and therefore the world isn’t truly there for you either.

This isn’t really about the people in the bars. Don’t get me wrong— I’m not lying when I say that I’ve been obsessed with them these past few days. I know full well though that in doing so I’ve fallen into the predictable trap of the self-righteous. It’s the old Northern white liberal move— gawk at the gauche ugliness of the Bull Connors of the world from the comfort of your restrictively-zoned subdivison. Add to that, of course, our collective tendency to go full hall monitor on each other during Covid times, as the alternative would be to have to mourn the fact that we’ve lost our ability to trust our own instincts. Most of all, though, I can’t look away from the people in bars if I didn’t find the Gordion Knot in which they’ve caught themselves so intensely familiar.

We have one heck of a time admitting it to each other, but I’ve never met a white person yet whose life, at the heart of it, doesn’t contain a deeply justified contradiction between their values and their actions. We’re all pretty good at this self-delusion thing. We may claim that the nonprofit where we work is truly driven by mission and social justice and isn’t merely protecting the comfort of its employees. We may tell the reporter that we moved to the suburbs not for whiter schools but because we could get more house for our money. We may yell over the din of last call that our law firm’s pro bono work is enough to justify the amount of time we spend helping companies get richer. We may stumble to our car still arguing that our occasional Facebook post is enough to make up for all the hard conversations or difficult life choices we’re avoiding making. We’ve all got something— that’s just the nature of simultaneously living in a world built on the lie of non-mutuality and of having been placed at the top of that world’s hierarchical piles.

What I’m hoping for you, as I’m hoping for myself, isn’t somebody to simply scold you for being a hypocrite. It’s for somebody to walk with you as you admit that you want to resolve that contradiction but that you don’t know how.

The people at the bars know that there are many, many others who disapprove of their actions. They know that every well cocktail downed, every new friend greeted with a “uh oh, here comes trouble,” every assertion-to-nobody-in-particular that “Baby Got Back” is their jam only earns them more scorn and skepticism from the likes of people who read anti-racism newsletters. And as the lights go down and the bar fills up and the sentences get more slurred, I have no doubt that your scorn and disapproval is being openly mocked and cursed. But when you witness the shouts and the puffed out chests, never forget that what you’re hearing isn’t conviction but fear. And not only that, never forget that you know a few things about that particular brand of bravado. You too have pretended to speak with that conviction before. You two have cursed a hater or two and you’ve tried to tamp down the sadness that lies underneath at all.

Over the past week I’ve had a lot of folks ask me for more advice on what to say to white folks in their lives who are doing things of which they disapprove. And sure, I’ve got some things to say there, but my first piece of advice doesn’t have anything to do with those other white people. It’s to start here. What contradiction are you still wrestling with? What move have you suspected you should be making that you aren’t? And what do you need from folks around you to stop dragging your feet, to admit that you’re ready for more but you don’t know how?

It is worth paying attention to the moments when we swear up and down that we are not interdependent, that we are in this alone, that there is no point in caring. It is in those moments that we’re hungriest… not for an argument, but for somebody to be, to us, a living counterpoint.

End notes:

I am still working through emails from the past couple weeks… and yet… for real, please keep them coming. I’m still at I should probably be better at encouraging comments on these posts themselves— seems like a nice way to make it more than a two way conversation.

You can also find me on all of the normal social media places that I wish were publicly owned and not run like a dopamine and outrage fueled slot machine (but which remain the best place to see pictures of friends and their pets and their children). I just discovered, 100 years late, that Instagram stories are fun!? Huh. I look forward to joining Tik-Tok when I’m 80.

Image credits here (they’re all from the Library of Congress Roadside America archive, which is a DELIGHT).

Man, we just fell about the place….