Why politics matters

(Note: I wrote this on November 11th, a few days after the election.)

I’m more interested in politics than most. I find it compelling in the same way that many guys my age find sports; I can recite the number of Democrats in Congress the same way that they can tell you Miguel Cabrera’s batting average. But I’ve always viewed my obsession as more noble than mere entertainment. I’ve always felt that politics matters; that my votes and political contributions and occasional time persuading friends were making the world a better place. Admittedly, a lot of that is probably self-serving tripe. But if it were entirely tripe, I think I would have abandoned politics as a hobby and obsession a long time ago and moved on to something less stressful and with lower stakes.

A lot of people in my generation feel differently. They view politics with some measure of apathy or cynicism or both. They feel that both parties are the same, irredeemably corrupt or two-faced or hypocritical. As a result, they dabble in nihilism and fancy. One of my friends tries to persuade me to vote third party whenever we talk politics. He seems to fail to understand that I’m actually a liberal, not a libertarian, and that, even if I were sympathetic towards Gary Johnson or Ron Paul, I’m not interested in making feckless efforts at change. The outcome of the election is too important for me to waste my energies on a useless option. His facts are usually correct but his moral foundation is broken. If one is a straight, white, wealthy male, like him, then politics does not matter beyond perhaps a small percentage change in marginal tax rate. It becomes a frivolity, just like sports. And then one supports frivolous candidates, like Gary Johnson, who couldn’t be bothered to learn where or what Aleppo is. After all, isn’t gazing at one’s own navel more important than engaging with the rest of the world?

In other words, for too many people, especially young people, politics (and so much else) is about mostly empty posturing. It’s not about what we truly believe, or about what constitutes the most effective route for achieving progress. It’s instead a form of hipsterism (and, like hipsterism, it’s associated with the privilege of the rich and mostly white). The people who wear thick-framed glasses even though they don’t need them to see are doing so to project an image of intelligence and sophistication. And the people who talk trash about caring about politics, or about believing that one party is generally better than the other, are projecting the same image. They are trying to communicate their sophistication and intelligence through their world-weary cynicism. They are donning their own empty frames, and peering down their noses at the rest of us. I’m tired of their shit, and I’m not going to hold back any more.

(One brief note on this. During election night, before I realized that the apocalypse was upon us, I watched Buzzfeed’s coverage of the election, live-streamed through Twitter. It was appalling. My roommate called it a self-parody of millennial culture. Four young people sitting around a coffee table were discussing the latest news coming in from Kentucky or Ohio or wherever. They would talk for a couple of minutes, spouting inanities, and then the camera would break away to something different, like to the roving interviewer who was taking a sip from a flask from someone in the audience, or to the team beer-pong event, or to one woman who was – I kid you not – actually showing us how to bake a cheese-covered pretzel in the Buzzfeed kitchen. Also interspersed were reactions of their “senior news editors” (who didn’t seem very senior at all) to the “fails” and “lols” of the various primary and general election campaigns. And the commercials were for apps like Cheddar, which apparently helps you organize your life by syncing all of your devices, which I imagine must be tough if your hands are constantly occupied with circle jerks. It was like the show Silicon Valley, except without the jokes. It was like attending the circus while America was burning. I had to turn it off before I threw up.)

So why does politics matter? I think we saw it Tuesday night. And not in the obvious and rather abstract ways that people talk about it in the media. It’s true that Trump will cripple any efforts to reduce global warming, thereby probably dooming the next generation to higher sea levels and catastrophic weather and famines and refugee crises. It’s also probably true that Trump will tank the stock market, consigning the Americans lucky enough to have 401(k)s and IRAs to an additional several years of work to able to retire comfortably. And I’m sure another four years of Republican foreign policy will be a disaster for the rest of the world (if not us), that deregulation of the financial industry will plant the seeds for the next financial crisis, and that, contrary to his protestations, Trump will be even more favorable to lobbyists than Clinton would have. (In fact, K Street is already licking its lips in anticipation.). Any one of these alone is a small tragedy, and I feel sad and horrified and hopeless when I think about any of them. (I feel saddest of all for Obama, who worked diligently and intelligently over the last 8 years to make America better, and now his efforts and his legacy will be tarnished by an orange horror-clown. I guess it’s easier to break things than to build them.)

But I understand if none of them speak to you on a visceral level. The climate will get hotter in the future, innocent brown people half a world away will die needlessly, and bankers will plunge us into another recession at some point. These are concerns, to be sure, but perhaps ones that appeal more to our reason than our emotion.

In contrast, the really corrosive aspects of the Trump victory, which we’re already seeing signs of, are much more personal and raw. I’d encourage you to visit the Twitter feed of Shaun King, a journalist for social justice. (That phrase has been much maligned in recent years, but we need it now more than ever.) Scroll past the endorsement of Keith Ellison for DNC chair, and read the stories of people harassed and abused, shocked and scared, angry and powerless. Read about how white nationalists and neo-Nazis and assholes in general have been encouraged and emboldened by the victory of someone who supports them, not just tacitly but also overtly. Read, most horrifyingly of all, about how mere kids are chanting phrases like “build the wall” and “white power” in the halls of schools. In other words, if you thought politics would get better when enough old assholes died out, you were wrong. The arc of the universe does not bend towards justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. said. In fact, it’s bending away from justice as we speak.

What Trump’s victory really means is that fascism has come to America. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a red state or blue state. (I think we saw Tuesday night that those phrases are somewhat meaningless anyway; Trump was as successful in Michigan as he was in Arizona.) It means that if you’re walking down the street, or going to class, or filling up your gas tank, you’re a potential target for abuse. It means that the same look over the shoulder that a woman takes when walking down a dark street in the middle of the night is the one that will be adopted by millions of Americans, the ones unlucky enough not to look like the members of the white working class who drove Trump to victory. It means that I now feel unsafe in my own country, and that I worry about my parents in their small suburban Phoenix house. That’s something I thought I’d never say. The people in those stories, especially this one, are just like me, so I don’t think this is an overreaction or hysteria on my part after a shocking event. The more likely scenario is that these vicious attacks are just the beginning.

I find myself thinking about a lot of my friends, not just the libertarian ones, and trying to discern if they are part of the problem or the solution. I’ve become filled with hate, or more accurately impotent rage. I recall a conversation I had with one of my friends about Twitter. Here’s a long-ish article, well worth reading, to provide some context. In short, Twitter has become a “honeypot for assholes”. It’s where bigots and bullies traffic in bigotry and bullying, protected by the veil of anonymity and the reluctance of Twitter to crack down on harassment. It’s where people of color and women have been subjected to merciless, incessant attacks and even doxxing, and have been forced to leave the medium as a result. My friend and I talked past each other, as we often do, but the crux of the argument was this: how do we balance the competing values of freedom of speech and freedom from abuse? My friend took what was, in my view, an extreme position on the side of the former. In other words, there is no speech so outrageous on Twitter that the company should do anything about it.

I found myself thinking today about that comment in the context of the privilege I discussed above. What if my friend were black, or overweight, or a woman, or a Jew? What if he had experienced harassment online or otherwise? What if he knew what it meant, and how psychologically shattering it is, to be a victim of abuse? (I remember getting into a fight with a racist right-wing Swiss guy and being so mad that I was shaking.) My friend needs freedom of speech, but he doesn’t need freedom from abuse. Isn’t it as simple as that? And, if ideology is reducible to status or privilege, what does that mean for taking action against this piece of shit that our country has somehow elected? My friend is a well-meaning person and I don’t mean to denigrate him. But these are the thoughts that have been coursing through my head since Tuesday.

Most of all, I’ve concluded that I want to do more to make America great than my somewhat idle gestures before. I’m not going to flee to Canada or Europe (and Europe has its own, similar problems, of course). I’m angry, and I want to do something about it. Giving my money and my vote is great, and I will continue to do that, but I want to participate in politics and contribute my talents and time to defeating the bastards on the other side. I want to feel like part of a community, to be a brother standing in solidarity. Isn’t that what politics is really about? And isn’t that what separates it from entertainment?

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