They held an election this Tuesday at the high school gym near my house
On ends and means and feelings of foreboding that I hope to God turn out to be wrong
Notes: I know I’ve written a lot this week, and this isn’t even my first take on Tuesday’s Wisconsin election. I’ll give your inboxes a break for a bit after this and I thank you for your patience with an extra essay. It just felt like there was a weight I couldn’t get off my chest if I didn’t write some more. And, as always, thanks for taking typos in stride. My only time to write these days is in the middle of the night.
Oh, and as I alluded to in the subtitle— I would love nothing more than for this to age badly. I hope that we dodge the worst case scenarios that we fear right now.
Finally, if you want to help shift the patterns that bedevil this place, please toss some support to organizations doing powerful organizing in Black, Latinx and Hmong communities in Milwaukee, particularly BLOC and LIT. And, if you don’t have time to read my piece, read this one, from a couple of LIT’s Youth Organizers.
I don’t know Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly but I bear him no personal ill will. There’s no reason for me to believe that he isn’t a smart, principled family man who loves his kids as much as I love mine. I’ve never met him, but we have mutual acquaintances whom I respect. It’s clear that he and I disagree about a whole bunch of things. For instance— I don’t think affirmative action is as bad as slavery, I don’t think that Antonin Scalia’s opinion on gay marriage was good and I have never held a fundraiser at a gun range the day after a mass shooting). I’m equally sure, though, that he’d take umbrage with a bunch of stuff I believe or have done.
I did enjoy his multiple folksy campaign ads, especially the one at the diner where a server is trying to get two guys to order “Dan Kelly” as their entree. Is the subtext of the ad that the dudes are going to eat the Justice himself? I mean, he’s literally sitting right there. Seems dark.
Man, he’s really into the Constitution though. He hammers that point home in all those ads. As for me, my favorite part of the Constitution is when they amended it so that more people could vote without threat of death.
I’m no philosopher, but I do know about the trolley problem. It is, of course, a classic ethical thought experiment (I’m pretty sure it was first developed a couple years ago by the writing staff for The Good Place— again, I’m not a philosopher) that generally takes the following form:
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on an entirely separate set of tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. There is no good reason for the trolley to crash into the people. In fact, there are a number of simple, common-sense decisions that could be made that would prevent a tragic outcome. However, you have the opportunity, if you choose, to re-direct the trolley directly onto the tracks, killing the people instantly. Again, and I can not state this enough— you don’t have to redirect the trolley into the people! However, if you do, it is at least somewhat more likely that Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly wins his election and retains his position on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. This would in turn assure a continued ironclad conservative majority in that body. It’s not clear why this is the case or what it has to do with a trolley but stick with me here! Also, I just re-did the math and realized it’s not five people at risk, but a state of five million, especially (for a variety of complicated but predictable reasons) the Black, Latinx and Hmong residents of that state’s largest city. What do you mean this doesn’t make sense? Just answer the question! What do you do?
You know, that one. The classic trolley problem.
I needed to write about this past Tuesday because I’m not sure if I have ever felt anything quite like the combination of grief, rage, hopelessness and love that just crashed over me, wave after wave, through the course of that awful day. I’ve lived in this town long enough to have had it break my heart many times over. Even with all the ways that I’m sheltered from the extremes of pain here by my race, gender and class, this isn’t a big city. I’ve been to memorials for toddlers killed by stray bullets. I’ve marched alongside the grieving family members of young Black men killed by cops as well as frightened families whose parents were arrested in ICE raids. I’ve talked to more teenagers than I can count who, by fifteen and sixteen, are already emotionally spent and exhausted and rightfully livid at the world around them.
But Tuesday felt different. You’ve probably already heard the math by now: We had a preventable election in the midst of a pandemic. There were five polling stations for a city that normally has 180. Poll workers were (wisely) too scared to show up, so that’s all we could manage. There is partisan finger pointing as to whether we could have opened a couple more had the city election commission utilized the National Guard more fully, but by the time you’re debating “Why didn’t we send more soldiers to staff the hell election?” you’re not exactly on solid rhetorical ground.
One of the five polling sites is less than a mile from my house, the Riverside High Gym. My son loves that gym- it’s where he plays indoor soccer in the winter. He scored his first ever goal there.
We drove by that gym on Tuesday, the kids and I. We were on our way to a spot we’ve discovered, a little utilized forest trail in an obscure county park where we go almost daily but have almost never seen another human being. It is literally a social distancing miracle and yes I know how lucky we are to have found it. I also know that I shouldn’t have driven by that high school on the way, that there was no good emotional justification for doing so.
I knew it would be a mess. I knew it would get a reaction out of me. What I didn’t know was how much that sucker punch would knock the air out of me.
You all, I can’t even begin to explain that line. It just kept going and going and going.
It snaked well past the high school boundaries, down multiple blocks and into a nearby park. People in masks, people who didn’t have masks. Young people, old people. People who were trying their damndest to keep a six foot distance but who were part of a formless mass that is impossible to conform to CDC guidelines even if everybody’s trying their hardest. Dejected faces. Convicted faces. Tired faces. Faces that would eventually get rained and sleeted on because it is April in Wisconsin and that’s what happens here.
I knew so many people in that line, as well as the other four across the city. Friends and acquaintances who requested absentee ballots but never got them. Absolute heroes who were scared and angry but who all had deeply personal reasons for standing in those two-hour-long lines. I know other heroes who didn’t get absentee ballots and stayed home. There’s no road map for the kind of Sophie’s Choice that folks had to make here. I love those people. I want them to be safe so badly.
There are so many reasons why seeing that line just knocked me to the floor. I’m still disentangling them all from each other. I’ll be doing so for a while.
Maybe it was the Russian Roulette of it all. I looked at that mass of people and couldn’t tell if they had just signed their own death sentence or somebody else’s death sentence or if somehow, just somehow, tens of thousands of chambers were empty that day and we’ll get out of this without any additional deaths.
Maybe it was my wife. She’s a family doctor. She’s been working so unspeakably hard— often seven days a week— since all this started. She’s gotten almost no time to herself, very little with me and the kids. She and her colleagues show up every day and try to hold up the levies with their bare hands. They’re happy to do so. They’ve been doing such an admirable job, but even before Thursday the cracks were rippling through the concrete and the flood waters were surging. I will never forget the mix of dejection and rage on my wife’s face when she came home that day. If I felt like I was sucker punched, her face looked like there had just been a death in the family.
Maybe it was my kids. Bear with me. I know that the “listen to the wise thing my children said that just happens to correspond with my pre-existing political beliefs” trope is tiresome. I just can’t get over the conversation we had in the car after we saw that line. I’ve made this commitment, as many of you know, to talk to them about what’s going on in the world, to find age appropriate ways to puzzle through it together. But then my six year old asks me “so wait, why didn’t they just let everybody vote by mail like we got to?”and I’m just left a complete stuttering babbling mess.
There isn’t a single villain in this story. Our Democratic Governor could have pushed harder, sooner. Multiple Democratic campaigns were (at best) passive about pushing the election back as well, particularly those that served to benefit from business as usual. And I’m sure that, when all is said and done, that local election commissions will have made all sorts of mistakes.
But come on, “no single villain” isn’t the same as saying “no primary vision.” We wouldn’t have gotten here without the disproportionate stubbornness of three bodies: the Republican leadership of our State Senate and Assembly as well as the conservative-majority Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts (the former of which ruled against postponing the election, the latter which struck down an extended return period for absentee ballots). And that, of course, brings us to Justice Daniel Kelly. Given recent voting patterns, his race was always going to be a rock fight, but experts agreed that a lower turnout election would help him tremendously. Forcing a state’s citizenry to roll the dice in a “your franchise or your life” game is one hell of a way to ensure that lower turnout scenario.
You know, classic trolley problem.
I’m not a conservative Wisconsinite but I know a good number of them. I do my darnedest to remember that while their values and philosophy don’t square with mine, that doesn’t make them malevolent. The ones I know the best really do believe that if their party was in power everybody in the state would be better off. Maybe I’m naive and every single one of the individuals who put their finger on the scale to try to win one for Big Dan Kelly did so out of pure power lust and enmity for folks like me. It seems much more likely, though, that many were guilty of being so committed to a very particular story of good guys and bad guys and progress and entropy that it became easier to accept people’s lives as collateral damage. That doesn’t absolve their actions. Far from it. It does, however, have different implications for the rest of us.
You know what? Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why I still can’t get over what happened here on Tuesday. I sling a bunch of words in this space about how groups with power (white people in particular) are addicted, in a million big and small ways, to a narrow vision of how we want to arrange the world. Be we progressive or conservative, influential or not, trusted with making decisions for ourselves or large institutions, it’s not that we want to cause pain for pain’s sake, but that we aren’t willing to tolerate any real changes to the ways in which we’ve arranged the chess pieces of our lives. I write a version of this story regularly. Sometimes the harm-causing protagonists, the ones so unwilling to give up their comfort and routine, are cops and neighborhood watch members. Other times they’re white parents or NFL fans or holier-than-thou activists. Most of the time, I’m implicated personally.
We keep this violent, destructive pattern going for a lot of reasons. Power protects power. We’ve been taught that this is just how life works, led to believe that a different world isn’t possible. As empathetic as we might intend to be, we have in us an intense set of fears that drive our moral compass back towards selfishness.
This entire murderers row of bad reasons, though, is enabled by our ability to separate our actions from their impact they have on others. We live segregated lives where we can avert our gaze from the folks we hurt the most, the folks more likely to be on the receiving end of a self-serving choice. Our individual beams gets refracted through a prism and what comes out on the other side is simultaneously non-specific and blinding.
But on Tuesday, I had to watch as the decisions made by a small number of powerful white people shined clearly and directly. The direct line drawn between Point A (individual actors drunk on their world view) and Point B (their devastating human impact) was completely impossible to ignore. I had to drive by and see those lines. And in two weeks time, I won’t be able to help myself again— I will have to look at the infection data, to see if my worst fears have come true.
I wish I could look at Tuesday as a simple parable of good guys and bad guys. It would absolve me of so many awful decisions. All I’d have to do is get out the vote come November. But while there’s some clear villains in this individual story, and while those villains deserve our righteous rage, the broader world we live in has plenty of blame to go around.
After Daniel Kelly was first appointed to the State Supreme Court, he gave an interview with the PR department at his old law school. In it, the California native waxed rhapsodic about the residents of his adopted home state. According to Kelly, “[T]here’s nothing like Wisconsin, the people there are remarkable… I’m not one to ascribe characteristics to people, but my experience with Wisconsinites has been extraordinarily welcoming from the very beginning.”
I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot these past few days. Again, I believe in taking Daniel Kelly at his word. I want to trust that he truly loves his fellow Wisconsinites, every last one of them. I wonder if he has any regrets right now, if he feels that what’s being done on his behalf is worth it. If so, I wonder how he squares the values he professes he holds with the collateral damage left in its wake.
And then I wonder how and why I keep doing the same.
My childhood pastor had a saying about theology that wasn’t actually just about theology: “There are two religions in the world— the religion of being right and the religion of being in love, and you can’t be a member of both at the same time.”
A small number of people made their mark on that ledger this week. If we’re going to get out of this together, the choice for the rest of us is clear.
Song credit: Game of Pricks performed by Waxahatchee (orig. Guided by Voices)
Image credits here