In the week between the Republican and Democratic national conventions I had a travel day that ended up running several hours long, taking me from Raleigh, where I’d been teaching, to DC, where I was supposed to change planes, then back to Charlotte because of equipment failure, and then ultimately to Minneapolis, where I would see family. On the last leg, Charlotte to Minneapolis, I was in the very back row, on the aisle, and the middle seat was free. The woman on the window looked about retirement age, was cautiously but graciously chatty, and we gabbed for a bit about how both of us had been delayed all day. She was going to Minnesota to stay with her sister’s kids so her sister and sister’s husband could take a vacation. Their mother lived in a nursing home there, and she’d pay her a visit, too.
She talked about how much she liked the Mall of America, and Lake Minnetonka, and I knew we were leading very different lives. Across the aisle from us, a nine-year-old boy was flying alone and when a flight attendant asked him if he needed anything before take-off, he said, “No, ma’am.” My row-mate said, “You don’t hear kids say ma’am much these days.” I said I noticed it too, and wondered aloud if my seven-year-old son, who’d just flown by himself the previous week, would have said ‘ma’am,’ though I was pretty sure he’s good about ‘thanks’ and ‘please.’ Between her love of world’s largest mall and her love of manners, and her small-town home of Florence, South Carolina, which she described as “very safe,” I had the hunch that maybe we also saw the world differently, too.
We continued to chat as the plane took off, and by the time we were at about cruising altitude, the woman began to go into something about The Direction Our Country Was Headed, and caught herself: “I don’t usually like to talk politics, because it can be so heated.” I asked if we could agree to be respectful, but disagree if we needed to, and see if that worked – was she game? She was. So we did for the rest of the flight.
Every year my wife, son, and I, along with my parents and some friends, go up to the same set of cabins in Tofte, Minnesota, on Lake Superior’s North Shore, about 50 miles from the Canadian border. They are bare-bones, but there is an 80-year-old Finnish sauna on the property, which is right on the lake, and each night we sit in the heat with just a candle to light us, and then go into the frigid lake, then back, for several rounds, until we are more relaxed than at any other time in our lives. The cabins are run by a hilarious Scando-hippie couple named Jan (‘Yon’) and Kathy (self-explanatory).
There is no Wifi and very little cell service in Tofte, so my computer was off the internet for the week of the DNC, but I caught up on my phone via Facebook most mornings, and then watched some of the replays of speeches. By turns this was heartening, harrowing and confusing. It was strange to read the posts of friends, many of them about how great the convention was, how each speaker warranted a new round of, “See! So much better!” How easily so many people fell into an acceptance that the stark contrast between Trump and the Republicans on one side, and Clinton and the Democrats on the other, as if choosing one side was an unquestionably important, valuable or positive thing to do in that convention moment. Meaning, of course the election is important, but somehow people really seemed to want a team to root for. That the entire DNC was framed by an insistence on the US’ continued exceptionalism made the proclamations on my social media streams that much more disjunctive. It highlighted the way Facebook two-dimensionalizes, in more ways than one, the actual mettle of human interaction.
A couple moments of the convention moved me: both of the Obamas’ speeches took me back to how significant the 2008 election was; how great that first campaign felt; how much Obama has done as president, even as I’ve been disappointed with a lot of his leadership; how, even though we are now in such a harrowing time with regard to the safety and abuse of black bodies in America, I believe at least part of what makes it so painful is that technology has simply made visible what many of us who’ve lived in relative safety could previously choose not to see. We are entering a time when denial is less and less of an option, and for a diminishing number of us.
I also found myself either rooting for the Sanders faction that was in protest mode, and then alternately wondering if they were not maybe Trump plants, because the cameras managed to catch some really obnoxious ones. I also thought the debate around whether they should ‘get in line’ or keep on going to be troubling and revealing and ultimately the crux of something. Weren’t my favorite Democratic rabble-rousers (Paul Wellstone, Bernie Sanders) the ones who didn’t get in line?
Democracy functions more equitably as more people feel worthy of being heard. Even though Plato wasn’t a defender of it, more recent thinkers suggest it’s the ability of as many of us as possible to choose how and by whom to be ruled (or ‘led’ if that’s more comfortable), and the opportunity for many kinds of people to ask to rule, which makes us more open. Jacques Ranciere says when we place ourselves into the conversation, whether welcomed or not we are enlarging what he calls the ‘distribution of the sensible.’ I don’t think you can say ‘get in line’ and then still call yourself inclined toward this principle of democracy. It’s supposed to be messy and contentious. That is how we find together what we can believe.
I could see some of the Sanders’ protesters as spoiled, and I was skeptical of him as a potential president (even as I agreed with his positions, and am so happy versions of them have made their way to the DNC); so I was not that let down by his defeat. I still think the voices of his diehard supporters, even at the convention, remain vital, if for no other reason than to point out that anything framed within the confines of the DNC’s anointed activities is on some level bought and sold. Meaning, within a functioning democracy (and yes we can debate whether we are in either), critique of power is pretty much always a good thing because it helps the powerful respond to the actual beliefs people hold. And within such a top-down funding structure (someone I know was invited to a $25,000 per person fundraiser for Clinton on a boat off Martha’s Vineyard this week), I really mean bought and sold.
I got in a couple arguments with people about exactly who was being shouted down by these (presumed white male, though likely representative of a more diverse group) Sanders supporters. And what I tried to articulate is that it doesn’t actually matter. Even a civil rights leader, at the moment he or she is speaking at a major party convention, is framed within the context of the big-money, exclusionary politics that the official Democratic party has largely become, and I think it’s okay to point that out. One’s potency as an activist or revolutionary is a little bit siphoned off by that financed set of interests, even if the work one does on the street is truly profound. It’s the same way that great people lose at least a tiny bit of their currency when they take on a corporate sponsor, or make an ad. No matter how real and profound your message is (and yes some of that corporate sponsored work produces great benefits, and yes there are real heroes at work within the Democratic party, too), you’re still helping someone sell something, ultimately, and most likely that something was made through at least some exploitation of someone else’s time and place. As viewers we intuitively recognize when someone’s energy and mission have been purchased and that changes the dynamic at least a little.
Seeing the convention through social media streams, then picking and choosing individual moments to watch (ie, totally avoiding Bill’s speech), revealed something a little bit desperate and unpleasant. It has to do with exceptionalism, and with the default toward binary thinking so many of us get into. That is bad, over there, we say. This is better, over here! So this must be good. No, this must be great! It’s how we keep going, when the going gets tough. We have to not be that other thing, which is so bad! If we’re not all together not being the terrible thing, then we are destroying ourselves by raising questions about whether the thing we are being is good enough to celebrate, or just less than awful! Get in line!
If Donald Trump is one of our major party candidates, and the other is beholden to our largest financial institutions, how is our country exceptional? How are we not yet another imperial top-down power, even if we have a history of ideals and practices that sounds good on paper, but whose pages lay on the table of genocide, slavery and perpetual land-grab?
If you do think we remain exceptional, and that that status is important to you, why? Why is that not nationalism? Isn’t nationalism of any kind not a step on the path toward fascism, and if Trump and a banker’s bidder are leading the two major parties, is this the kind of exceptionalism we want to uplift? And if some part of you needs to believe that our country is still exceptional, what is that impulse in you?
What I liked about the shouting-down, what is so vital about Occupy and Black Lives Matter, is that they have insisted on bringing other voices into the room. They help us see what we think are the limits of our politics and grow them. For the $15 per hour minimum wage to be sensible, or part of the platform, a lot of us may have to be rubbed the wrong way for a while. Some people may have had to camp in front of city hall or bank buildings, and it may not have been clear to you why, but we wouldn’t have the DNC platform we do without them.
I grasp, at least intellectually, that some people really think Hillary Clinton is a great leader. I don’t get that, and I should cop to that bias. I get that she is competent, powerful, worthy of the job, and could be a good president. I get that it’s important that we have a woman president. I get that a lot of the critiques of her have been sexist and hateful. I believe that she will be many times better than Trump would. Personally, I don’t think she’s a great leader, based on her choices so far. I think she’s too tied up politically with big finance, capitalism, and privatization as they are currently practiced; she has referred to young black and brown men as ‘super-predators’; she sat on the board of WalMart, which is hard on poor workers; she is pro-charter schools; she voted for the Iraq war; she is too much of a hawk on Israel, and won’t mention Palestine; she got on the right side of LGBTQ rights when it was convenient not when it was just. As much as she might lean a little more to the left now, in part thanks to the so-called failures of Occupy and the Sanders’ campaign, all those wrong-sides-of-history make it hard for me to be excited. I am going to vote for her, and possibly even with a certain confusing enthusiasm, and I am excited about the move left within the DNC platform (though how much of it will come to pass as law?) But I don’t follow the flag-waving, or the I’m With Her.
The terrible, beautiful pull of the Khan’s speech at the DNC and the aftermath between them and Trump creates questions: What did their son, exactly, die for? Something exceptional? Or something mundane. For his death to have meaning – for that story to guide us through the election choices we make – does it have to be on behalf of ‘The greatest nation on earth?’ I was so moved by their presence. And I was so emptied by it, too. I wanted there to be some place for us to say, it would have been better had we not gone into Afghanistan and had you not chosen to sacrifice yourself for an ideal that is maybe no longer as valid as it once was. History has changed, Humayun. We aren’t that place, anymore. You weren’t defending that place.
Though maybe for that family that ideal is still real, and I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. It would be better if Humayun Khan were alive to talk to me about it. And since he’s not we attach meanings or lack of meanings to his death, and that is what makes me bereft: the ordinariness of our call to sacrifice.
On the plane, over Roanoke, my row-mate told me a friend from Venezuela, who lives near her and her husband in Florence, warned them that continuing down the path of Obama and Clinton would lead us to the kind of societal collapse her home country was experiencing now. That was the way of socialism. I said I didn’t think Venezuela was exactly socialism, more like fascism or despotism around a single industry that has collapsed. She said, “Now I don’t mind Medicare because that’s not socialism because I pay into it and the government administers a program.” I actually laughed, hopefully good-naturedly, and said, “That is exactly what socialism is when it works. You pay for something, the government runs the program, you get something back.”
By this time, though, we had already talked more easily about our actual lives outside our political views: she is a retired police officer and school teacher; she raised her daughter alone; she’s remarried to another ex-officer. For me, pretty fascinating. She seemed to have a lot of personal integrity, at least from our brief time together. So, while I could rib her about Hillary Clinton as Hugo Chavez, maybe I couldn’t write her off.
There’s an easy narrative flow, a flight map, from Reagan, to Bush II, to Trump. We recognized Reagan as scary but we didn’t take him seriously, then we did. We didn’t believe Bush II could get elected after eight years of Clinton, so maybe we voted Protest, or didn’t work hard, or saw Gore running a poor campaign and threw up our hands, sure that cooler heads would prevail (also – so many of us did better in the 90s, so many of us white already-middle-classish people anyway, and so many of the rest were yet invisible then) that when the Supreme Court elected Bush II in 2000 we were stunned, and perhaps we began taking threats from the right more seriously. And then he won again, but we could blame that on the Kerry campaign to some degree (doing work for them around the election in Pennsylvania was a frustrating experience of the kind of dysfunction that usually only exists in arts non-profits), the fact that it’s pretty hard to switch leadership mid-war.
Then we had Obama, and everything made sense. The campaign was amazing and forward-thinking (technology, and good people, together!), the reasoning was historic, the man was brilliant, it was just so impossible it might work. We all wanted it. We all said, we want this change.
And it did work, it happened, and it seemed for a second like a new time. In North Philly, where I was helping get people to the polls, there were Mardi Gras style parties on the street when the state was called for him, for us.
Only we were coming out of eight years of Bush, we had been moved to the right by Clinton and Gore, and there was an economy to ‘save,’ which Obama did, using the tools that built the master’s house. We got out of the recession, but if you were poor you never really did. If you were white and poor, in an increasingly polyglot, increasingly visible country of multiple racial and class identities, people who were doing better than you ever were, seemingly within moments of arriving, the forces that brought this to bear on you and yours seemed like they pointed to Obama. It must have been him. Or us. Those of us in cities, with services, up north, smugly enjoying what we accomplished and benefitting from it.
The videos of the bodies felled; and the guns. The intransigence in Congress. The increasingly ridiculous candidates put forward by the right. The rhetoric that built steam with its racist dog whistles and fear-baiting and the massive, massive isolation between rural and urban populations. Relying on the same banks that fucked us to save us. In New York, I ride a CitiBike through the neighborhoods the banks helped gut.
Even as cities become more exclusive, and in their own ways divided, we still see each other here. We know – we have to admit even grudgingly – most of us are not monsters. On some level, forced to be neighbors, we can’t hold on to irrational fear for too long. Can we?
If you expand the map a little, there’s another layer to see: the trip from Reagan to Clinton to Obama to Clinton. This is the map on the screen in front of my face while the woman from Florence, South Carolina and I talked, while the plane’s landing gear dropped, depositing us into Minneapolis-St. Paul’s tarmac, finally, about 8PM at the end of a long day.
She and I never raised our voices at each other, even as things did get sort of passionate. We actually managed to remain respectful, even though I later joked to friends that they’d need to support my GoFundMe page for tongue reattachment surgery because I’d been biting down so hard at certain key points.
We had very interesting moments of both agreement and disagreement arising from a lack of common terms, or a simple passing-down of information: I told her about the Kansas town where the police chief and BlackLivesMatter organizers had, after Dallas, cooked for each other so they could have a conversation. I asked her about the recent shooting of Philandro Castile in Minneapolis and she said she’d worked at Internal Affairs and it was important to get rid of bad cops.
Another telling moment: I asked her about gun control, as an ex-cop, and she said, “I’m against it, very strongly.” I said what about assault rifles, and she said “No one needs those, we can get rid of those.” I said, “Isn’t that gun control?” We often ask ourselves on the left: how can people vote against their own interests? How can a retired officer vote for the candidate who is against gun control, or a poor person vote against the estate tax? And maybe the answer is she’s not, entirely; she just toes the line depending on how she’s asked. Or her own interests are misinformed by lies, as when she claimed that “all the research” showed that places that had easy access to guns were statistically safer. When I came at her with the difference between New York City (where neighboring states also have strict or strict-ish gun laws) and Chicago (where Indiana, for instance has some of the most lax) she simply refused to acknowledge the possibility.
As the plane taxied, we bonded on our mutual dislike for helicopter parenting, and the fact that it was okay to tell other peoples’ kids to stop bullying your own. The conversation, although painful, was fun. I am a half-Jewish dyed-in-the-wool lefty (or worse) talking to a 69-year-old southern small town hardcore Republican about multi-lingual classrooms, safety, parenting, socialism, and Where Our Country Is Headed. I don’t usually have such ranging discussions with my friends.
At one point she said, “You could never have had this conversation with my husband. He’s a great man, but he has a wall he puts up, right here,” and held a stiff hand in front of her neck. This made me think that political discourse could become (again?) more about moving margins, reaching people who would not clutch their own throats over another person’s ideas.
Two excellently smart friends of mine have a relationship counselor that advises couples to adopt the mantra “can this be okay?” Because most of the time, most things, if you go past your ego, and your desire to control your partner, can be okay, at least for a minute. If it cannot be okay, you will know soon enough. So can Sanders’ supporters’ heartbreak and rage at the convention be okay? I bet it can. Even if it’s not on your timeline. I bet unaffiliated people like me could watch the DNC without wincing if people with all the power in the country, at the center of the debate, were not trying to decide what voices were appropriate and silence or oversimplify those that were not part of the message they wanted to communicate.
All of the above: The Democratic party is the more humane of the two; there is a slowly creeping fascistic tendency in the way even the Democrats run election campaigns and conventions now; how long can we put aside our basic needs, ideals and concerns because one or another election is so different from what came before?
All of the above: Trump is a terrible demagogue narcissist. He’s a destructive force; he is also speaking to people in ways that land, and while it’s scary to those of us for whom he doesn’t land, those people are human, some of them are smart, and all of them deserve not to be written off. Some of them are just reciting what they’ve heard, and when you scratch the surface they aren’t nearly as crazy as the commentators.
All of the above: as friends of color have pointed out, white people on the left are experiencing in this election cycle what LGBTQ people, people of color, and women have experienced forever, and that is the least-worst is often the best choice given the other options. The idealism of young people on the left even if they are mostly white people is not a bad thing because it speaks to politicians in a non-wearied way. Black Lives Matter and Sanders supporters are peas in a pod, even if one group or another behaves in ways those of us who see the wisdom of the other don’t appreciate or take seriously.
Of course I feel I need to vote for Hillary Clinton. Of course this election is historic. Of course Trump is at least a sociopath, a menace to the world, and Clinton is our best option at the moment. But can we have, even during the seeming urgency of ‘get-the-job-done’ of this election, a day where we say ‘where are we really going? What are we really working toward, and what about our myths and stories has become part of our own undoing, even as told by those of us who seem to want to make things better? What is the hope for the left within the Democratic party?
This last section is called I don’t want to end with a simplistic bromide about how both sides are really not that different from each other, we’re all just the same under the skin, etc. I am just glad we didn’t simply get in line and stay on our sides.
The woman’s name is Grace. We leave, shake hands, and exchange emails, in order to settle a score in January. Just before we “deplane”, she makes a passing comment that she is sure, totally convinced, and she’s heard this from a lot of people, that Obama will not leave the White House willingly (because he’s such a socialist?). I say I think that is a little nuts and propose we write each other after the inauguration to check in and see what’s happened. Later, I remember a bunch of people said that about George Bush in early 2009. That was, we felt, a legitimate fear.