Goodbye, Appalachia

Dear Appalachia:

I want to start this letter with a little anecdote. A couple of weeks ago, I reopened some of my journals from the months right before I was set to go to graduate school. In those pages, I talked about how I hoped to one day come back to my beautiful home state of West Virginia, to give back to the state that had nurtured me and played no small part in the person I was. To do my part as an educator to help our young people think critically and analytically about the world around them and about the pressing issues facing our state and its future viability.

Seven years down the road, I’m afraid I have to let go of that dream. Probably forever.

This hasn’t been an easy decision for me to make. Time and again while I’ve been here in Syracuse, New York, I’ve gone to bat for the people of good ol’ WV, arguing that many of them feel disenfranchised, that the progressive intelligentsia just needs to find the right way to communicate our values and the native goodness of Appalachians will come to the fore.

Ah, what a sweet summer child I was.

It quickly became clear during the 2016 Election that all the things I had thought to be true were illusions crafted of my misguided hope in the better angels of our natures. Instead of despising Donald Trump for his brutality, his uncouth attitude, his racism, and his willingness to assault women with impunity (and to brag about it!), my fellow Appalachians turned out for him in force because of those things. They saw in him the opportunity to spit in the eye of the progressive administration that had done a great deal for them and, in pushing for cleaner energy, would also help create a viable energy economy for Appalachia.

Needless to say, I was horrified. How was it possible, I wondered, that the hospitable, kind-hearted people that I had known growing up–with their not-quite-Southern accents, their generous attitudes, their homespun wisdom–could have turned out for this monster conjured up by the GOP?

But then, the more I thought about it, the more this American tragedy began to make absolutely perfect sense. I gradually realized that I had papered over and repressed the unpleasant and unpalatable truths about my fellow Appalachians.

Somehow, I had managed to forget my own youth in a small town in West Virginia, where to be a boy who was smart and used “big words” was mocked and derided for being gay. Where being smart was somehow a badge of shame and where, if you wanted to be popular, you basically had to be a dunce or a jock (or preferably both). Somehow, I’d managed to forget how belligerently, pugnaciously ignorant so many people in my home town were (and we weren’t even in the worst places in West Virginia, not by a long way). I somehow managed to forget that some of my dearest friends and family cling to the idiotic sentiment that climate change is propaganda (for whom? I always ask, but never get a thoughtful answer). Somehow, I had managed to fool myself into believing that IF ONLY my people were given the tools, they would see the light and move forward with the rest of us.

But all of that came back with full force. When I took to social media (including Facebook) to express my outrage at the shitshow and the terror that was about to erupt upon us in the wake of the election, an acquaintance from high school decided to message me and criticize me for my “divisive” language, liberally sprinkling terms like “bro” and “dude’ throughout his missive. The cynical part of me believes that he was not-so-subtly trying to assert his masculine, military persona over me, urging the high school faggot to shut up about his gay rights. The more generous side thinks he was just trying be comradely. In actuality, it was probably a little of both. In any case, it was infuriating to have my very legitimate fears dismissed out of hand, when the evidence was right in front of us that this newly-resurgent GOP would, indeed, act to sweep away the rights of queer people everywhere.

In any event, this exchange, brief and one-sided as it was (I responded to him outlining my concerns, but he never answered back), revealed to me why you, Appalachia, are no longer my home. You cry out that you have been ignored and overlooked by the educated elites on the coasts, and yet you do nothing to better yourself. So many of your people wield their ignorance and their uneducated status as a weapon, a belligerent, pugnacious fuck you to those who do, actually, fight to make the world a better place. And yes, that includes you, the out-of-work and economically dispossessed that call West Virginia, and Appalachia as a whole, home.

Of course, by the time of this conversation I had already decided to wash my hands of you, Appalachia. There was just too much about my home state that I couldn’t stomach any more. I had tolerated for far too long the cowardice of West Virginia Democrats on social issues ranging from LGBTQIA+ rights to women’s reproductive rights, and New York (for all of its flaws) had shown me what true Democratic leadership looked like. I knew, with a dreadful and final certainty, that there was no longer any hope for me in returning to WV. I just….couldn’t.

I want desperately to come back to those mountains, those hills, those open skies full of millions of stars. I want so badly to feel that sense of home again, to drive those wickedly twisty roads but…I just can’t.

I’ve been betrayed, and for me the hurt no, the anguish, goes far too deep to ever fully heal. Were it not for the fact that my immediate family is still in West Virginia, I would probably never visit again.

But there are some bonds that are impossible to break.

Still, in my heart of hearts, I’ve had to let you go, Appalachia.

And the worst part?

I don’t even think I’ll miss you.

Trump and the Terror of History

In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history:  On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.

They are, in a word, terrifying.

By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.

Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.

However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?

The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.

And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.

So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.

The short answer is:  of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote–which looks to be quite substantial, by the way–is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.

Weekly Rant: Dear Dr. Stein

Dear Dr. Stein:

I struggled with writing this letter and with whether or not to put it out into the public. Finally, though, I decided that I need to have these thoughts in the public sphere, so that you can know how your decision to deliberately undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton has had real consequences for people like me.

This election, American voters ultimately had a choice. This was more than about the two candidates. This was about choosing a flawed but progressive candidate who represented an incremental but steady march to the Left on many issues and a raging, xenophobic, racist know-nothing that proudly assaulted women (to say nothing of his running mate, who has made no secret of his disdain for LGBTQ+ Americans). This was between bringing into power those who would work to protect our country’s most vulnerable citizens, rather than ushering into power a man buoyed by the absolute worst impulses in the American psyche. This was about forward progress against a descent into the worst sort of barbarism.

Once it became clear that the match-up would be between Clinton and Trump, the ethical thing for yourself and the Green Party to do would have been to make a sacrifice–and make no mistake, that’s what it would have been–in order to help rouse and excite the Left for Clinton. Instead, you went out of your way to paint Hillary as the epitome of all that was wrong with politics, and in the process you have helped bring into power this creature known as Trump, as well as his legions of deplorables. You helped to obliterate the Obama legacy and have helped solidify the tide of hatred and danger that threatens to sweep away everything you claim to hold dear.

Already, we have seen the effects of this as social media has exploded with reports of assaults on all of the minorities that Trump has targeted throughout his campaign. People that I know personally have been assaulted by Trump supporters, emboldened by his victory.

And for my part, for the first time since I came out of the closet as a queer man in 2002, I feel afraid to be who I am. I am afraid to be queer, and I can’t help but lay some of the blame at your door.

You and yours could have prevented this, but instead you valued principle and ideological purity over and above the bodies, lives, and well-beings of people of colour, immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBTQ+ people, and countless others. Rather than helping to unite the Left, you continued to sow division, diminishing enthusiasm for Clinton and in the progress throwing many others under the bus for the service of your own ego. You could have encouraged your followers to vote for Clinton, but you didn’t. And this is the result.

I will forgive you, those who voted for you, and those who were persuaded enough by your message that they sat this one out. I’ll forgive you because I have far more in common with you than I do our mutual enemies on the Right. I’ll forgive you because I know that we have to move forward together on a progressive agenda.

But I will never, ever forget what happened this year.

And you shouldn’t either.

Donald Trump as Terrifying Postmodern Fever-Dream

When I started writing this blog post, I thought, “Do I really need to add another note in the strident cacophony of commentary surrounding Donald Trum?” (Yes, I really do think things like these in my private hours. Sue me). But, after discussing the most recent debate with my students in the context of postmodernism (and the postmodern condition more generally), I decided that yes, indeed, I do have to say something.

If you’ve read your Baudrillard or your Lyotard, you know that we are living in a world of seemingly endless meaning(lessness), where objective truth(s) matter less than the “truthiness” of any particular claim. While one would be excused for thinking that we had reached the apex (or perhaps the nadir) of the postmodern condition of endlessly contingent meaning with the myths and misdirections surrounding both 9/11 and the Iraq War–to say nothing of just the whole Bush Presidency–such a thought seems positively naive in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendancy.

There have been oceans of real and digital ink spilled about the fact that many Trump supporters don’t really care about Trump’s seeming passing acquaintance with the truth. In many cases, they either a.) don’t care that he routinely lies and misrepresents information, since he is so good at saying what he thinks, so that his lack of veracity is always secondary or b.) the followers themselves don’t actually know the truth or the facts. I’m still not entirely sure which of these aspects I find most distressing.

Actually, for me they are both equally damaging to the ongoing health and well-being of our democracy and the body politic. When it comes to the point that none of the metanarratives and sources of knowledge upon which we have come to rely–whether that be the democratic process, the free press, or the intelligentsia more broadly–are able to command the loyalty of the people, we are in the midst of a crisis. And believe me, I do not use that word lightly (it gets bandied about a lot in academic circles). It truly does terrify me that no one seems to have faith in the sources of knowledge that we have so far relied on to make sense of our world.

Somehow, then, we’ve come to a crisis point, the seeming telos of the postmodern crisis in knowledge, a crisis that strikes so deeply into the heart of our citizenry that it’s hard to see how we can manage to climb our way out of it. Does it matter that Trump rarely (if ever) has any solid policy proposals? Clearly not, since his supporters continue to follow him even though respected economists, military strategists, intelligence officials, and other policy thinkers have thoroughly debunked almost every single policy or proposal that he has so far made in this campaign.

Just as disturbing, however, is the fact that the real Trump (if such a thing can be said to exist) has begun to blur terrifyingly into the caricature. One need look no further than the third debate to see this, when his frequent interjections of “wrong” caused me to pause and ask, “Am I watching Alec Baldwin on SNL or am I watching the actual Donald Trump?” As Baudrillard would say, it doesn’t really matter, because the simulacrum has replaced the actual lived reality to a degree that Baldwin is Trump and Trump is Baldwin.

Now, of course, the question always occur to me:  so what? What do we do with the idea that Trump represents some sort of telos of the crisis of knowledge and metanarratives that have allowed us to make sense of the political and social landscape at least since the end of World War II? What can one possibly do to turn back this terrible tide that seems to have swept away any and all certainty about the way that we make sense of the terrors of the contemporary world?

It may not, in fact, be possible to do so, but we have a collective duty, both as knowledge producers and knowledge consumers to hold both ourselves and our sources of information accountable. We must get out our knowledge comfort zones and actually start critically thinking about our own ideas and those of others. While we may still end up disagreeing with those on the other side of the political spectrum, this type of meaningful dialogue and engagement, not just the retreat into affect and overblown emotion, may just allow us as a society to move forward.

It may be too late to stop the rise of Trump, but I’m hopeful–and, dare I say it, downright optimistic–that together we can make sure that he, or someone like him, does not rise again. Furthermore, we can, if we give in to the better angels of our natures (pardon the cliché), perhaps build a better world for everyone.

Weekly Rant: Being Queer as a Political Act

I’ve spent the last week struggling with the events of Orlando. Not since I was a teenager and fully realized the import of Matthew Shepard’s death have I felt this way:  angry, terrified, and deeply, ineffably sad. How is it possible, I find myself wondering, that in 2016 I should still feel like my life as a queer person is somehow worth less than my straight friends? How is possible, I ask myself, that a group of young queer folks could be gunned down in cold blood in a gay bar? How?

However, in the days since, I’ve become increasingly convinced that if the massacre has done anything, it has ruthlessly torn away the myth that we are living in the golden age of assimilation, when we have all been thoroughly incorporated into the fabric of American society. We queer folks have made some tremendous advances in the last year, and we shouldn’t forget that. However, if we had believed that the legalization of same-sex marriage was the apex of our political struggles, the events of a week have ago have put the lie to that myth. We may have gained some legal power, but we are still systematically marginalized.

One can see this in the way that the mainstream media has already co-opted what is most certainly a queer tragedy and spun it neatly into already-existing discourses surrounding terrorism and gun control. The issue for is not that these aren’t important and pressing issues; it’s that the importance of this event for LGBT+ folk gets subsumed into a set of issues that mainstream American political culture is infinitely more invested in and feels comfortable discussing. Furthermore, it just highlights, again, that we as a culture seem utterly incapable of thinking about the ways in which different issues intersect. Oh, the pundits and thinkers pays lip service to this sort of intersectional thinking, but then they immediately retreat into their comfort zones. If you want to hear substantive and meaningful discussion about what this event has meant for queer people, and especially queer people of color, then you should check out a program like Code Switch (a great podcast in its own right, I might add), which recently released an episode focusing on the intersection of race and queerness in the aftermath of Orlando.

This event has also reinforced for me the necessity of collective spaces of queer mourning. As an academic and someone who spends a great deal of their time thinking through the complexities of these sorts of issues, I understand the impulse to seek out explanations, to find some way of making sense of what has transpired. At the same time, I think we queer and feminist scholars do ourselves a grave disservice if we retreat too quickly into the academic and the cerebral. Instead, I strongl believe would do better to truly engage with our feelings and affects. These are our queer brothers and sisters that were slain in that night, and acting as if the incident is a mind puzzle to be unlocked does little either for us as mourners or for those who lost their lives.

Just as importantly, this has also reinforced my long-standing philosophy that being queer (a designation I utilize to include all variants encompassed by the LGBT+ communities) is, in itself, a political act. The legalization of same-sex marriage a year ago suggested that, after years of agitating, the assimilationist wing of the movement had at last emerged triumphant. HRC and others like them might have been excused for believing that they had succeeded in their (laudable if somewhat limited) mission of integrating queer folk into the fabric of mainstream society and politics. Now, however, we know that these efforts were in their origin always limited. If we want to make this world a safer place for queer folk, we must consistently, every single day, work against the systems of normality and exclusion that have made this event possible.

If you think that being gay is just being part of your identity like eye or hair color, I can only say, without equivocation, that you are wrong. Look around you, and you will see that your life, your love, and your family matters less than our straight fellows. One need only look at the recent wave of “religious freedom” and “bathroom” bills spreading like a poison through state legislatures to understand that the LGBT+ community is under direct and vitriolic attack from the American Right. If we do not stand up for ourselves, if we do not denounce the infuriating hypocrisy of those who send their “thoughts and prayers” with one hand while propagating hate-filled legislation with the other, then we will be swept into the dustbin of oblivion.

The battle lines are drawn, my friends, and the time has come to decide which side we are going to take. On one side are those who will stop at nothing to ensure that their vision of “morality” and “ethics” is forced onto the rest of us. Religious zealotry has taken many forms in 20th and 21st Century America, and we must do everything in our collective power to ensure that it is does not have any more of a chance to spread its noxious poison into our political and cultural institutions. The American Left has been negligent in the last 30 years as these groups have exerted an influence far exceeding their actual relevance, and that must come to an end.

On the other, however, are those who remain invested in making this a safer and more just world. This isn’t just a matter of who you love–it is far more complicated and urgent than that. There is a war against our very identities currently underway. To ignore this fact would be to perpetrate a grave injustice against those 49 innocents who lost their lives in an Orlando gay club (and don’t get me started on the way in which some members of the media insist on referring to as a generic nightclub). If we want to survive, we have to fight.

And we have to–WE WILL–win.

In Praise of “The Diane Rehm Show”

Anyone who knows me know that I am a huge fan of NPR. I mean, come on, I’m a doctoral student in an English department, OF COURSE I would love NPR. From This American Life to All Things Considered, I rely on public radio to provide me with a voice of reason about politics and culture. When it comes to NPR shows, however, one of my all-time favorites has to be The Diane Rehm Show.

Day after day, Diane Rehm goes on the air to bring to light important issues percolating in American politics and culture. While she often has shows that focus on the current politics, just as often she hosts a panel discussing such wide-ranging topics as the bleaching of the coral reefs (the subject of a recent episode), the blight currently affecting many commercial varieties of banana (still one of the most compelling episodes), and she also frequently hosts a guest author. The interviews with authors are often quite revealing, as they give us a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the creative mind.

I am a particular fan of the weekly news roundup on both domestic and international politics. While some have accused Ms. Rehm (and NPR more generally) of being straightforwardly leftist, I actually find her to be a moderate and rational voice. She frequently invites guests and panelists that are straightforwardly conservative, and will often have both a Democrat and a Republican during the same segment. She remains invested, in my mind at least, in cultivating civil dialogue across partisan lines, and that is an invaluable trait in these troubled and divided times.

While part of the pleasure of The Diane Rehm Show stems from what can be termed its NPR aesthetic, a greater measure comes from Ms. Rehm herself. She can be by turns charming and piercing in her critical questions. She is not afraid to ask her guests–no matter how exalted and self-confident they might be–the tough questions that she knows her listeners want answered. And if you think that you are going to get by with a bit of empty rhetoric, rest assured that she will nail you on it and demand a more straightforward answer.

Further, I have often been surprised by how mature the conversations are between Diane and her call-in guests. We all know how unpleasant these situations can get (there’s a reason I avoid comments sections like the plague), but somehow Diane manages to keep even the most unruly and sometimes uninformed voter on track, and she has that truly remarkable knack of turning even the most obtuse and arcane question or comment into something more relevant. She truly cultivates a magnificent marketplace of ideas, and it is not exaggeration, in my mind, to declare her (as many have before me), a true national treasure.

While Ms. Rehm has announced that she will retiring at the end of 2016, there is still hope that the show will carry on her remarkable legacy. A number of guest hosts have begun filling in for her with increasing frequency, among whom is my personal favorite, Susan Page of USA Today. Regardless of who ends up replacing her–or if, indeed, the series has a sustainable life at all after she leaves–there can be no doubt that Diane Rehm has made an indelible impression on the face of both NPR and on American civil, political, and cultural discourse writ large. I can think of no higher praise.

Weekly Rant: Why “Bernie or Bust” is Complete and Utter Political Suicide

Once upon a time, way back in 2003/2004, I was a devout and fanatical devotee of the Cult of Howard Dean. Here was a man, I thought, that represented the true liberal wing of the Democrat Party. This in contrast to the eventual nominee John Kerry, who I felt was far too moderate for my tastes (particularly when it came to the rights of the LGBT community).

Well, we all know how the Dean campaign ended up. The media managed to exploit all of his weaknesses, and his meteoric rise to frontrunner was matched by his equally precipitous fall from favour. As a young and fiery liberal, I was pretty heartbroken, and I considered not voting at all. Yet, in the end, I recognized that a John Kerry, no matter how moderate, was infinitely better than another 4 years of George W. Bush.

Fast forward to 2016, and the chorus of “Bernie or Bust” and its associated hashtag. I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve been here before. This time, though, it seems like there is a very real possibility that the legions of folks who support Bernie Sanders will not come out to vote should he lose the nomination (which seems increasingly likely to happen). Or, worse yet, that they will decide to cast their vote for Trump, in the hope that he will shake up the system to such an extent that the revolution is sure to come (Susan Sarandon suggested as much in an interview with Chris Hayes, though she subsequently attempted to walk that comment back).

You know what? I get it. I really do. I know how intensely frustrating it can be when your candidate, the one who fired you up and inspired you to get into politics, gets taken down by someone else. You can blame the system of course–and with some good reason–but at some point you also have to accept that there are others that didn’t agree with your choice and that you have to compromise with them. And if that means accepting a candidate you don’t necessarily like, it’s worth remembering that that candidate that wins (in this case, Hillary Clinton) is still miles away more progressive than anything produced by the GOP, no matter how iconoclastic they appear.

And you want to know something else? If you, dear voter, decide to either sit out this election or vote for Trump in the hopes that it will lead to a Democratic sweep in 2020, I would remind you of how well that strategy worked in 2000. The parallels aren’t exact, of course, but the fact remains that we ended up with a disastrous 8 years of George W. Bush because of dissatisfaction with Al Gore (among other reasons).

So, while you may be frustrated that Bernie Sanders may in fact lose the nomination, please don’t buy into the Bernie or Bust mythology. Frankly, it appears childish and more than a little petulant, and that is hardly the attitude the Democratic Party wants to take right now, in the age of Trump and others like him.

Instead, let’s gather around the eventual progressive nominee and march forward into what will hopefully be a brighter future.