Category Archives: Politics

Dispatches from 2020: Be Careful of a Damaging Primary

Because I like creating series on this blog, and because I’m very invested in the outcome of the 2020 election (aren’t we all?), I’ve decided to start a new series entitled “Dispatches from 2020,” which will feature commentary on issues that we should pay attention to as the campaign heats up, as well as strategies that we may want to adopt if we want to halt the descent into madness and fascism that seems to characterize so much of American politics.

Because, I don’t know about all of you, but I’m already becoming very stressed out about 2020. Many Democrats at all levels of the ticket are squabbling and sniping at each other, while Trump continues to be himself, even as his poll numbers have recently ticked upward. Recently, he’s made it abundantly clear–if there were any remaining doubt–that the 2020 election is going to be all about white grievance and straight-up racism.

At the presidential level, the leading Democratic contenders (with the possible exception of Joe Biden) are moving leftward, which may (heavy emphasis on that word) pay dividends with young voters and progressives but may run a significant deficit in the general, particularly in those moderate states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) that were such a pivotal part of Trump’s victory. And Sanders, and some of his supporters, continue to insist that he is the only one that can possibly lead the Democrats to presidential victory, and so they are unwilling to accept the possibility that he might legitimately lose.

And, of course, everyone is taking aim at Joe Biden.

Don’t get me wrong: I totally understand why many voters, especially younger ones, find a lot of fault with Biden, both for his record and for his age. If I had my druthers, he’d not have run, leaving the field open for a younger crop of candidates with a progressive vision. For there can be no doubt that his long record in public service is increasingly proving to be a handicap with the left wing of the party, and it doesn’t help that he seems chronically incapable of actually defending (or at the very least explaining) why he took the positions he did.

Nevertheless, we have to accept that, for the moment, he is in the race, and he does poll remarkably well against Donald Trump. FFS, even Fox News recently released a poll that shows Biden leading Trump. I, for one, do wish that he would get back onto his game and start drilling down into policies, specifying the exact ways that he’ll right this ship of state that has gone so dreadfully off course. While I doubt that most of those policies won’t be nearly as aggressive as I personally would like, they would probably poll well in exactly those parts of the country that we’re going to need in November 2020.

I worry that whoever emerges as the 2020 victor may be irreparably damaged by their primary fight, and we know how that turns out. There’s no doubt (in my mind, at least) that Hillary was irreparably damaged by her primary fight in 2016, and while there is of course no single cause of her defeat, it seems patently obvious that the sorts of attacks used against her by those on the left–including and especially Sanders and his supporters and Jill Stein–depressed turnout on the Left. If we learned nothing else of 2016, we should remember that sometimes it’s okay to pull the punches and that we cannot (cannot) lose sight of the future in the pursuit of an immediate political victory.

For make no mistake: for every blow that lands on the eventual frontrunner–whether that’s an indictment of Joe Biden’s legislative record, Kamala Harris’s time as a prosecutor in California, or Elizabeth Warrens’ foolish decision to claim Native American ancestry–the Right will turn it into a vicious attack ad. We have got to get two important facts through our heads. One, the right is deeply cynical, desperate, and power-hungry. They know that their policies are widely unpopular, hence their willingness to resort to use dastardly methods to get what they want. They know, all too well, that many on the Left are just looking for a reason to stay home on Election Day, and they will act accordingly.

Just as importantly, however, we have to remember that bad actors outside of the United States are also looking for any opening to continue sowing discord in our electoral process. Attacks that land on any of the candidates will give them yet more weapons in their arsenal, and they certainly make good use of them.

All that said, I do think that the primary is a good time to iron out exactly what it is that we stand for as a party. We must remain aware, however, that we need a message that will resonate in all parts of the country, not just in the base states of New York, California, etc. A relentless pursuit of ideological purity, and a punishment of any who don’t tow the lie, could very well saddle us with four more years of this hellish nightmare.

If we want to have any hope of seeing even a vague resemblance of a progressive agenda get put forward–let alone see our republic saved from the slide into despotism that it seems to be in–we need to do two things. One, we need to make sure that we pull some of our punches during the primary (as tempting as it is not to do so), and we need to unite–absolutely and unequivocally–behind our standard-bearer as soon as possible. As we go into the next round of debates, I hope that the candidates, and their supporters, take those needs to heart.

Now, I know that will not sit well with a lot of people, especially since it continues to look like Uncle Joe might actually end up winning the primary. Of course, a lot could change between now and the finish line. But I’m telling you right now that if Joe Biden wins, I’ll support him 110%, just as I will every other candidate.

And if you care about our republic, you should, too.

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Weekly Rant: Every Republican Must Be Driven out of Office

I say this with a heavy heart. The GOP is done.

In the aftermath of Trump’s racist tweets this past Sunday, his doubling down on them, and his truly frightening incitement of a rally chant of “Send her back!” regarding Ilhan Omar, the fact that so many Republicans across the country have not vociferously condemned should disturb each and every one us. More than that, it demonstrates, once and for all, that the GOP has nothing to contribute to American political life.

Oh sure, most of them gave at least some measure of a mealy-mouthed condemnation of what he said. The ever-spineless Susan Collins said that he should delete the tweet, and sundry others have offered faint condemnation, first of the original tweets and then of his incitement of the chant in North Carolina (for more on the latter, see this Slate article). Others, such as Andy Harris of Maryland (my own congressman, Andy Harris, bent himself into mental pretzels trying to say how Trump’s tweets weren’t racist at all).

Far too many, however, prefaced their remarks with full-throated condemnation of the congresswomen: Susan Collins, for example, said that she fundamentally disagreed with with the four congresswomen. John Kennedy of Louisiana hyperbolically referred to them as the “four horsewomen of the apocalypse.” Most infamous was the truly disgusting and sycophantic Lindsey Graham, who decried the four women as communists who hate America, even though he told Trump that he should challenge them on ideology rather than launching personal attacks.

Grammatically speaking, these comments indicate where the true emphasis of their condemnation lies: with the Squad. From Susan Collins to John Kennedy, all of them imply that it is these four women’s fault that Trump went after them with racist tweets so staggering in their vitriol that it caused even cynical me to take a step backward. This really shouldn’t surprise us, however. The Right has a history of justifying their bad behavior toward people they disagree with by pinning the blame on the opposite party. However, the fact that they would so transparently cave to Trump’s racism, even knowing how dangerous it is to do so, is truly breathtaking.

Given that fact, we must finally admit what has been staring us in the face for some time now: the GOP is an active menace to American society. I know this might seem like an outlandish claim, analogous to their strategy of painting anyone who criticizes the U.S. as somehow not worthy of American citizenship or respect. However, it’s clear that, if the GOP isn’t driven out of elected office, the tide of white nationalism will only continue to grow, emboldened by Trump and by his party’s refusal to condemn him.

Indeed, total annihilation at the ballot box is the only thing that will convince the Republican Party to abandon its tolerance (and often outright support) of racism and white supremacy. If they can’t even muster the wherewithal to join in the House resolution condemning the original tweets (with the exception of four of their number), why should this country’s most vulnerable populations think that they will go to bat for them if things get even worse? One has to wonder if there is anything, literally anything, that today’s Republicans will do in defense of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ from those who would eliminate them.

Let me be clear, I mean that we must do everything in our electoral power to sweep them from office from the top of the ticket to the bottom, from the presidency to the town council, from the U.S. Senate to the local dog-catcher. Because, when you get right down to it, electoral defeat is the only language that these corrupt cowards can understand. After all, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that the reason they don’t challenge Trump is because they’re afraid that they will either lose a primary or general election. Well, then, let’s show them that there are also consequences for standing up for Trump.

This will, of course, require a great deal of heavy lifting on all our parts. The GOP has shown itself ready, willing, and able to suppress the votes of anyone they think will vote against them, and with the Citizens United and gerrymandering cases having already been decided in their favour, they now have almost limitless power to do so.

Nevertheless, there are signs that their power is not infinite. The improbable victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in Alabama–largely as a result of the massive turn of black women–revealed that there is hope in this country. It will take a hell of a lot of work, and it will require that we all do our part. We must have important conversations, with those on the right, the left, and the middle, even when it’s difficult, even when causes strains between us and our family and friends. We must all do our part to show them that there is more at stake than tax cuts and deregulation and conservative justices. We need to remind them that, if they care about the most vulnerable people in their life, that they’ve got to put their votes where their feelings are.

I truly believe there is no other way to restore this republic to the health and vitality that it once enjoyed. The GOP has proven, unequivocally, that it doesn’t have either the ability or the willpower to stop our downward slide into fascism and tyranny nor the desire to do so. Their continued enabling of Trump and their willful ignorance of the growing tide of white nationalism, racism, and white supremacy should scare us all. If we, collectively, want to restore even a modicum of health to the body politic, we must show the GOP that this will not be tolerated. They must endure the same sort of period in the wilderness they endured after Nixon’s downfall, but this time it must be true everywhere on the electoral map.

They wanted to “take their country” back? Well, now it’s our turn.

Regarding the Death of Others

Warning: The following post may be troubling for some readers.

I’ve been struggling with my thoughts and feelings about that viral image of Oscar Alberto Martínez and his daughter Angie Valeria, who drowned in the Rio Grande in an attempt to reach a better life. I’ve cried bitter tears as I’ve reflected on the various aspects of this story, and I cannot look at the photo without feeling them come again. I weep not just for such a senseless loss of life, but also because we know live in a country where the lives of those seeking terrible conditions are viewed as expendable, just another outrage, to be chewed up and spewed out and left behind by the relentless media machine.

I’ve also struggled with the ethics of showing (and viewing) the image. On the one hand, I completely agree with those who argue that the nonstop sharing of this image serves to repeatedly traumatize the communities of color who are already feeling terrorized by this administration and its actions. There is no question that we as a culture do not publicize white bodies in nearly the same way as we do bodies of color, and it is true that the visual exploitation of black and brown bodies has a long, deep, and vicious history in this country (lynching is but one example of this grisly phenomenon). We should always be conscious of this when we see this photo, and we should demand more sensitivity from our media outlets when it comes to publicizing the deaths of minorities.

On the other, I also believe that it is important that this image be shared, that it call us all to account for what is being done in our name. For, like it or not, it is our elected officials who are allowing this to happen. It is our elected officials, particularly the Republicans, who are responsible for their deaths. If nothing else, it is my hope that this image will convince us of the need to get people, particularly young people, motivated to get out to the polls and vote. If we have anything less than absolutely phenomenal turnout, then we will have only ourselves to blame if deaths like these, as well as the continued imprisonment of children in what have rightly been called concentration camps (or, for the more squeamish, detention centers).

The more I gaze at that image–and trust me, it is incredibly difficult for me to do so–the more I feel its ethical pull on me. There’s just something…wrenching, I suppose you’d say…about it. Though their faces are (blessedly) not visible, I still feel part of me break every time I look at them, their legs so neatly in line, as if they merely waiting to be awakened. I feel the life that no longer inhabits those bodies, and my mind cannot help but imagine, with an almost unbearable clarity, the terror of their final moments. Their bodies, though no longer alive, call to me, and I yearn, with a bone-deep ache, for the ability to save them.

One would think that the sight of such an image would touch at least a few conservative hearts, or at the very least would call forth the empathy and embodied sympathy that is so much a part of the Christian experience. But, alas, such does not seem to be the case, for many Christians on the right, adopting a pose similar to that of Jeff Sessions, seem to believe that because “those people” attempted to come here illegally, that they are to blame for their fate. Not only does this conveniently ignore and misstate the facts–that seeking asylum is perfectly legal–it is also a fundamental betrayal of the injunction to hospitality and compassion that was such a key part of Christ’s message to this fallen world.

Of course, it’s also true that we live in a world where Trump, the ostensible leader of the free world, reacted not with empathy but with blaming as soon as he was asked about the image. It still boggles my mind that our president is a man so utterly devoid of any streak of human feeling or emotion that he cannot even utter a single coherent sentence that does anything other than continue to cast blame. Is this really the best that we can do as a country? Don’t we deserve to have as our leader a man who heeds the call of empathy, of sympathy, and of common human decency?

It’s hard not to feel a sense of despair at the evidence that we now live in a country where regarding the death of a father and his daughter fails to ignite absolute outrage. If, as Adam Serwer noted in The Atlantic, the cruelty is the point, where does that leave us? What hope is there for a country where so many people can look at an image of a father and daughter who drowned trying to reach a better life and find within themselves nothing but a renewed hatred for the stranger? We can, and we must, expect and do better.

If anything, these tragic, needless deaths are a potent reminder to us that we need to do everything we can to sweep these monsters out of office in 2020. And I’m not just talking about the presidency, though obviously getting Trump out of the White House is absolutely vital if our democracy and our country is to survive. I mean that we need to get Republicans out of office wherever they are found. If we, collectively, have any desire, any desire at all, to see our republic restored to some semblance of its past goodness (however flawed it might have been), then we must all do our part to heed the call of that image. We must all reach inside of ourselves and recognize that part of ourselves that responds with embodied sympathy to the pain and suffering of others.

If we do so, and if we act to make that sympathy a part of our politics, we might just be able to remake our politics. If not, I fear for the future. And for our collective soul.

Book Review: All Politics is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States (by Meaghan Winter)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review. It’s an unfortunate truth that the last few years have seen a hollowing out of Democratic power. From state houses to the nation’s Congress to the Presidency, the forces of the right have been shockingly and distressingly successful at grabbing the levers of power. This is, of course, no accident, as Meaghan Winter reveals in her book All Politics is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States. Indeed, as she points out in frightening detail, the right has been very effective not only in grabbing power, but in ensuring that they keep it, even if it means going against their constituents’ own wishes. The book focuses on three states and the ways in which they have confronted (and been confronted) by these realities: Missouri, Colorado, and Florida. We see numerous egregious examples of Republican abuse of their new power, ranging from gerrymandering (the sheer scale of their effrontery is truly hard to grasp) to a systematic and ruthless rollback of all the things that progressives have fought for (climate change, abortion, and guns are three key issues). It’s hard to say whether Florida or Missouri provides the more glaring object lesson in the outright cynicism that seems to motivate the Republican party these days. In both cases, state governments have done significant damage to both their states and, in the case of Florida, the planet in their mindless service to their right-wing donors. As guilty as Republicans clearly are for this state of affairs, Winter is not shy about showing how Democrats and other national liberal groups have also been negligent in their response. For too long, she argues, Democrats have focused almost exclusively on federal office, which has meant that not only has money been spent on those big-ticket races, but also that they only seem to care about states during major federal election years. Any other time they are forced to fend for themselves, with often disastrous results. Throughout the book, Winter focuses not only on the big picture and on the negative, but also on the hardworking progressive activists, legislators, and donors who have done their part to roll back this seemingly relentless tide. These are the people–mostly but not exclusively young–working long hours (and not getting paid for many of them), while turning themselves to the herculean task of building a society and a government that works for all people rather than the privileged and moneyed few. Though they don’t always win, it is heartening to know that there are still those who believe in a better world and are able and willing to do what it takes to bring it into being. Further, Winter deserves credit for paying just as much attention to their invaluable efforts as she does to those of their cynical counterparts on the right. As we continue to feel the endless buffeting of our democratic norms, All Politics is Local is a timely reminder that all is not lost, that we can take back our future. At the same time, however, it does not shy away from revealing the enormous difficulties that we still face across the electoral map. What’s more, we have to go into this with eyes wide open about the work involved. Progress is not (nor has it ever again) something that is accomplished and then forgotten about. It is a fight that must be constantly pursued in the face of those who would continue gaming the system for their own advantage. Winter’s book makes it clear that we must fight against those forces at every opportunity, and we must not let down our guard. If we do, as we have so often in the past, then we will have only ourselves to blame for the ruin that results. These days, it’s easy to lose sight of the small, local details, caught up as we are in the daily horror show that is the Trump administration and its cynical allies in the Senate. However, if we take the lessons of All Politics is Local to heart, we can, perhaps, make this country, and this world, a better place for everyone to live in.

Book Review: Siege: Trump Under Fire (by Michael Wolff)

Let me be upfront by saying that I had distinctly mixed feelings about Michael Wolff’s last book, Fire and Fury. While it was, admittedly, tremendously entertaining and dreadfully (one might even say sinfully) readable, I ultimately felt that I had not really learned anything. It was mostly just a rehash of existing information, with a few gossipy bits thrown in for spice.

I had many of the same feelings about Siege, the sequel. Very accessible, gossipy, and more than a little soapy, it shows a President, and a White House, always on the brink of utter collapse.

Siege moves along at nothing short of a lightning pace, taking us through the familiar hallmarks of the Trump Presidency: gross incompetence, constant staff infighting, paranoia about the Mueller investigation, etc. However, that very speed is one of the book’s most significant weaknesses, as it denies Wolff the chance to really dig in deep into the material that he usually covers only glancingly. Sometimes, I had the feeling that Wolff was just rather bored with the whole affair and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.

As readable as the book is, however, there’s not much in this book that we haven’t already encountered elsewhere, either in traditional news outlets (which I generally find more reliable than Wolff) or in the numerous leaks that seem to be such a hallmark of this administration. This deprives the book of much tension, and by the end I didn’t feel that I’d really learned anything new. More distressingly, what new information there is–most notably Wolff’s claim that Mueller had drawn up an indictment against Trump–has been called into question. It doesn’t really inspire confidence in Wolff’s journalistic ability.

My more major complaint is that Wolff relies entirely too much on Steve Bannon. I find this repellant for a host of reasons, but two are particularly important. Firstly, it remains unclear why, exactly, Wolff relies so much on Bannon’s (profanity-drenched) commentary about Trump and his administration. The obvious answer is that Bannon is one of the few people who will still talk openly to him, but that still leaves one to wonder why Wolff seems to think that he can offer any significant insight on the administration or its doings. Secondly, Wolff commits the crime of elevating Bannon into a status that he most definitely does not deserve, as some sort of oracle that possesses the key to both Trump and his voters. In addition, Bannon just comes across as a grouchy old man who likes to swear a lot and has a very high opinion of himself (one which Wolff clearly shares).

Structurally, the book doesn’t ever quite seem to have a sense of what exactly its governing principle is. There is rarely a sense of cohesion between one chapter and the next, and it sometimes feels as if Wolff is merely jumping to whatever subject seemed to catch his attention at that particular moment (a phenomenon not dissimilar to what Trump himself does). One gets the feeling that this book was a bit of a rush job and, in my opinion, it could definitely have done with some more time to be sculpted into a coherent narrative rather than a series of simultaneously hilarious and alarming vignettes.

Where the book succeeds, arguably, is in its ability to get into Trump’s psychology (as much as any work will ever be able to do so). Wolff has a keen eye for the foibles that make Trump tick and that remain key to his persona. Throughout Siege, Trump emerges as a very paranoid and inept figure, one whose confidence comes from his extraordinary good luck and his ability to survive the sorts of stumbles that would be the end of any other politician (or other public figure). And, of course, the real best thing about the book is that, like its predecessor, it will no doubt get under Trump’s skin.

All that said, I will assert the same thing that I did about Fire and Fury. If even a third of what Wolff asserts is true about Trump’s state of mind, we are in very deep trouble. But, as the bookshop clerk responded when I said this to her: “I think we’re already in a lot of trouble.”

Book Review: “The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent” (by P.E. Moskowitz)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review.

Of all the issues facing us today, one that continues to excite an enormous amount of outrage from the right (and sometimes from the left) is that of “free speech.” Whether it is Milo Yiannopoulos being met with fierce protests at UC–Berkeley or racist psuedo-scientist Charles Murray being met with a similar outrage at Middlebury College, the First Amendment is on everyone’s lips. P.E. Moskowitz’s The Case Against Free Speech is thus a very timely contribution to the fraught (and sometimes violent) discussion surrounding this pressing issue.

I was honestly quite excited about this book. For some time now I’ve been grappling with the complicated issue of free speech and how it can be that Nazis and others who advocate genocide have their rights championed by people across the political spectrum. Though I don’t always agree with Moskowitz’s conclusions, I appreciated the way they lay out in exhaustive and excoriating detail how it is that free speech has increasingly become an empty signifier. While we pride ourselves on our championing of this essential right, the reality is that we have always imposed certain restrictions on certain types of speech, usually so that those who possess power can continue to do so without undue interference from below. Given that many (though not all) of those who have attempted to impose such restrictions have come from the right, it is galling to see them now up in arms.

For me, the most compelling (and convincing) example of the American right’s hypocrisy is their continued bankrolling of radical conservative thought in the American academy. At the same time as they are doing so, of course, they help to lead the charge against those who would push back against such corporate control of our intellectual life. For people like the Kochs, free speech only matters in so far as it allows them to continue building their influence and, it goes without saying, their wealth.

Throughout The Case Against Free Speech, Moskowitz gives attention to those whose stories are frequently left out of (or deliberately effaced) in discussions around free speech. In these pages we meet those young people who led the protests against Milo and Murray, the labor protestors of the early 20th Century, and numerous others who openly confronted the injustices they saw in the world. Dismissed by many as special snowflakes and rabble rousers, here they emerge as people of passion and deep intellect, profoundly invested in changing the world for the better and confronting the deep and structural inequalities that have blighted (and continue to blight), the promise of the American dream. As they point out, it is almost always the marginalized who are sacrificed on the altar of free speech. Those who have been discouraged (often violently) from speaking truth to power are all too frequently the ones who are the first to suffer in these battles.

There were times when Moskowitz’s history lessons threaten to detract from the primary thrust of their argument, and it would have helped if they had tied together those deep (and very problematic) histories with the issues of the present. Part of this, I think, comes from the book’s organization, which doesn’t seem as coherent as it should be. It sometimes shuttles between past and present in a not-entirely-coherent manner, and this makes it easy at times to lose track of the thrust of the argument.

It’s worth pointing out that this book is straightforward about its political investments. Moskowitz is very clearly a radical, and in my view this allows them to sometimes fire their criticism at both those who are acting in cynically self-serving ways and those who, for better worse, truly do believe in the essential virtue of the American experiment. Be that as it may, The Case Against Free Speech is nevertheless required reading for all of those who want (or need) to take a good, hard look in the mirror at the myths that we construct around ourselves and that prevent us from seeing the realities of our troubled present.

At the end of the day, however, The Case Against Free Speech leaves us with a conundrum, one that has no easy answers. Do we really want to abandon the idea of free speech, as empty as it may sometimes seem? What would this actually look like in political practice? These are questions we will all have to grapple with, both today and in the days to come.

Book Review: “It Came from Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office” (by Dale Beran)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing a free copy of this book for review.

Sometimes, you read a book that shines on a light on some of the most unpleasant parts of our culture and society, and you suddenly feel as if you have fallen into an utterly unfamiliar world. It Came from Something Awful is just such a book.

Dale Beran takes us deep into the dark, sinister, bleakly cynical parts of the internet that many of us would probably never explore on our own. Here we find the truly toxic, nihilistic folk who inhabited spaces such as 4chan, primarily young men dissatisfied with their lot in life and determined to take it out on whomever got in their way. He draws fascinating (though not always sustainable) connections between the counterculture of 1960s and the present, showing how the relentless ability of capitalism to commercialize resistance has generated precisely the feeling of nihilism that has become so toxic and that has left a generation of young men feeling powerless, angry, and dangerous.

Beran’s book succeeds the most when he is detailing the complex history and terrifying personalities that inhabit this online world. While some of the names are familiar, others are less so, and it is clear that he has a very close inside knowledge of this strange new world that most of us have probably never encountered. He doesn’t let himself get too bogged down in the technical aspects of it, either. His is very much a story of a generation of young men who, confronted with profound inequality and the growing power of various social movements, found solace in the ability to take nothing seriously.

Until, of course, they did. As Beran explains, as the 2000s wore on, the bleak cynicism expressed by these young men became ever more vitriolic and dangerous, until at last it burst into the open with the murderous rampages that became so much an unfortunate part of the American landscape. And then, of course, there was the greatest troll of them all, Donald J. Trump, who was the apotheosis of those mens’ desires, the cure (it seemed) for everything that ailed them.

At times, Beran’s argument seems to mistakes his premise for his conclusion, i.e. he goes in with the conclusion that Trump was brought into power by these men, and that is what he proves. However, I think that the title (and the book’s big argument) may be overstating the case that a bit. There’s no question that a very visible part of Trump’s support came from just the sort of young men that Beran profiles, but I was left wondering just how many of these people actually voted, and how many of them just amplified Trump’s brand and normalized him for those who actually did vote for him.

Relatedly, it sometimes felt as if Beran’s political leanings were encouraging him to deflect the blame for the rise of the alt-right everywhere but on the men themselves: neoliberalism, capitalism, Hillary Clinton (because of course), and the advent of the internet and the anonymity that it provides. In my view, there is a very distinct difference between providing an excuse for someone’s behavior and explaining it. The former implies an abrogation of guilt, while the latter is an attempt to aid in understanding. Certainly, Beran wants to accomplish the latter, if for no other reason than that we must continue to address the societal forces that rendered the alt-right possible. However, he is not always as successful as I think he should be in blaming these men for their own horrible impulses.

Overall, however, I found Beran’s book to be compulsively readable, mostly because it confirmed so many of the things I already suspected to be true. From GamerGate to PizzaGate to the march on Charlottesville, the men that he chronicles in It Came from Something Awful are truly a pestilence, and we must continue to fight them. If we don’t, we run the risk of continuing to allow them to control the contours of the debate. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. While that is true in some instances, I do worry that books like this contribute to that unfortunate trend of giving these unsavory people exactly the sort of attention that they crave. It is, unfortunately, the inescapable double-bind of the world that we live in. If it does nothing else, Beran’s book provides us a valuable form of understanding.

It’s up to us to do something with it.

A Requiem for Appalachia

How 2016 permanently damaged my relationship to my home, my family, and my roots.


It was the day after the election in 2016, and I was talking to my Mom. “I’m sorry that your candidate lost,” she said, “and I know how sad you must be. But I want you to know that no matter what that we’re still family.”

Coming from my staunchly Republican mother, this was an olive branch, and in better circumstances I might have been more willing to receive it in the spirit with which it was no doubt intended. However, I was (I’m sure) very surly about it. Still, it was a small island of security in a world that suddenly seemed as dangerous as it had when I heard of the murder of Matthew Shepard almost twenty years earlier.

In the days following, however, I continued to stew about this exchange. I harbored suspicions that my parents voted for Trump, but it was one of those cases where I just didn’t want to know. They’d expressed enough skepticism about him that I held onto a faint sliver of hope that they might have voted for Gary Johnson. Needless to say, such hopes were vain (though this wouldn’t be confirmed for some time), but at that point it was easier to pretend that they hadn’t voted for a man so loathsome and so antithetical to the values that I held dear.

Finally, a few days later I told my mom how I really felt. I confessed that, for the first time since I heard about the murder of Matthew Shepard, I was afraid of living in my own country. I don’t normally cry in front of people (though I sob at commercials and movies and books when I’m by myself), but I lost it then. I just…couldn’t hold it back anymore. She seemed to understand exactly where I was coming from, and she even offered to wear rainbow bracelets as a sign that she still very much loved and supported me, her gay son.

At the time, and to some degree in the present, I thought that was a great step forward. I have to admit, though, that some part of me thought (and thinks): well, that sort of gesture means a lot, but it’s not enough.

And it never will be.


I’ve long struggled with this aspect of my relationship with my parents. I’ve been staunchly liberal since before I went to college, and after I came out I became even more so. I was the kind of screaming, hair-on-fire liberal that many people mock, and many, many conversations with my parents (particularly my mom) ended with us screaming at one another. Sometimes, it seems that we’re just too temperamentally similar to ever really be able to discuss stuff like this.

At least, not if we want to continue speaking to one another afterward.

Things were pretty ugly in 2004, when Bush and his “God, guns, and gays” campaign swept him through his re-election. I knew that my parents voted for Bush both times, but the second time really hurt. It hurt to know that my parents, with whom I am very close — I’m an only child, after all — could vote for someone who would take specific actions that would hurt me and the people that I care about. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t get them to understand how their electoral politics threatened my day-to-day life. It’s not that I ever doubted they loved me; it was just…they didn’t understand how their political choices contradicted their personal feelings for me.

To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure that I ever got over that completely, and 2016 just brought all of those old emotions and all of that unresolved bitterness out into open again.

Well, sort of in the open anyway.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for me to have the types of conversations with my parents that I need to have. I tend to get very emotional about politics — that tends to happen when legislative agendas affect your life on a regular basis — and I don’t always approach differences of ideology with as much tact and patience as I should. This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that I’m a first-gen college student, and this has created something of an intellectual divide between my parents and me. They think I look down on them because they don’t have college degrees, and I find it frustrating that they don’t seem able (or willing) to speak the same language that I do.

The other important thing to remember is that it’s very hard for me not to come across as contemptuous of people with whom I vehemently disagree. I recognize this about myself and do what I can to combat that tendency, but it is increasingly difficult to have meaningful conversations with people who know so little, not because they aren’t intelligent, but because their information diet is so unhealthy. Unfortunately, this makes most such exchanges with my mother extremely emotional.

Recently, I had another of those very emotional conversations, and it went about as well as could be expected. But then, maybe that’s not fair. While there are still a lot of unresolved issues from 2016 (and heading into 2020), we at least agreed to begin opening the channels of communication, not necessarily in an effort to change our vote, but to at least help us understand one another better.

It’s not ideal, but it’s a start.


In the years since 2016 I’ve struggled with a profound sense of alienation. Every time I go back to West Virginia, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m entering a foreign country, one where I’m viewed with suspicion and even outright dislike. I am, after all, all of the things people in working-class areas have been taught to hate: college-educated, queer, in an interracial relationship. Is it any wonder that I feel like a stranger in my own home sometimes?

Indeed, it seems like every time I go home I’m confronted with the blistering reality of just how far people in my state are willing to go in their retreat into ignorance.

These incidents are wide-ranging, but they happen with alarming regularity: the guy at my father’s work who told him that Michelle Obama’s book Becoming was underselling (categorically false by any measure); my friend’s coworkers who claimed that Jordan Peele’s Get Out was racist (the skewed perspective that enables such a belief is staggering); and the revelation that one of the two news stations that my parents and friends frequently watch is owned by Sinclair Media. 

For someone who once harbored dreams of returning to Appalachia to teach after finishing my graduate work, this is tremendously frustrating. How can I ever hope to find a place for myself there, when seemingly everyone bends over backward to drown themselves in ignorance?

It’s hard to accurately put into words the pain I feel each and every time I go home. I can’t shake the sense that most of the people there would be quite content if I didn’t exist. And, while I still feel a peculiar lightness in my chest when I behold the breathtaking beauty of those hills and hollers, those rivers and streams, I can’t shake my awareness of the hatred and intolerance that all too frequently take root there.

And it’s more than just the atmosphere. West Virginia is currently in the throes of the natural gas boom, and it’s like a knife to the heart to see the ways in which the gas companies are destroying my beloved hills and clogging those rural country roads. I kid you not, I see about a hundred trucks a day pass by my parents’ house, a constant reminder of the perils of this industry.

Yes, I realize that these companies frequently bring jobs to the area, but I have to wonder: at what cost?

Some things, it seems to me, are beyond price.


About a year ago, I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. At first I liked what I was reading, if for no other reason than that it’s still very rare to find a book written by a person from Appalachia that gains nationwide attention. However, I soon realized that the book, while ostensibly a memoir (and hailed by many in the punditry as a sort of Rosetta Stone of how to understand Trump’s America) was actually just a conservative manifesto dressed up as a memoir.

Like Vance, I have a conflicted relationship with my Appalachian roots but, unlike him, I don’t embrace a firmly conservative perspective about what to do about it. In fact, I actively reject it. It is the cynical conservative movement that makes it possible for the West Virginia state government to continue to sell out to fossil fuel companies while defunding education. It’s the cynical conservative members of the state legislature (to say nothing of the governor) who continue to sell their constituents hatred of all kinds while defunding their future and that of their children.

Yet I do agree with Vance in one key respect. 2016 made me confront, for the first time, a truly uncomfortable truth about my fellow Appalachian residents: that their independence can be their own undoing. Thus, while their independent, stubborn streak has frequently been a source of strength in dark times, recently it has taken a distinctly ugly turn. It has slowly become a canker, eating away at the soul of Appalachia. What was once a place that welcomed the stranger had now become a wasteland of hatred, where delegates can joke on television about drowning their hypothetical queer children and Islamophobia is peddled at the state house.

Is it any wonder I hate going home sometimes?


What’s the takeaway from all of this? I’m honestly not sure. NPR has recently done a series of snapshots of situations similar to mine, and while it was validating to see others struggling to find common ground with families and friends who have become strangers, in other ways I find that even more depressing. What it reveals is that the fundamental ties of what bring us together as a country have broken down even further during Trump’s time in office.

There’s no question that the fraying of the social fabric is a real and present danger in this country, and Appalachia is one of those places (I think) where that fraying is most visible. The thing is, though, that people there have to make the conscious choice to do the right thing, to take the higher road, to become a place of welcome rather than retrenchment and resentment. And, while I know there are people there who do exactly that–you’d be surprised just how many queer people there are in West Virginia–sometimes I worry that they are too few to stem the tide.

For me, the aftermath of 2016 has made it impossible — for the foreseeable future — to move back to state that I once called home. I know that might seem silly and naive to a lot of people, but I just don’t have the energy to move back to the state that continues to be one of the bastions of support for Trump. How can I ever hope to feel at home there, when it is so clear that so many of the people I once thought to help have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don’t want it and are in fact likely to become even angrier should I be foolish enough to offer it?

I don’t know what the future holds, either for myself or for the region I called home, but there are times when I have hope that somehow there will come a time when it will be possible for me to return there without that feeling of loss, despair, and anger. Perhaps in ten years, or twenty, when the Trump fever has broken and things have been returned to a state of quasi-normalcy in the country at large.

Still, I worry that something has been irrevocably lost, something irretrievably broken in these dark times.

I mourn for a world that I’ve lost.

But then, perhaps it wasn’t ever really there.

Weekly Rant: On Being a #BernieNo: 5 Theses

Well, I was going to write my new blog post on Kamala Harris’s new book but, since Bernie announced his candidacy today, I decided I’ll go with a rant instead. So, allow me to make it clear why I’m a #BernieNo (as opposed to the obnoxious and toxic Bernie Bros).

1.) Bernie is an ineffective legislator. Despite his many years serving in the United States Senate, he has achieved remarkably little. It’s really rather staggering when you think about it. What’s more concerning for his prospects as a presidential candidate, to my mind, is that this doesn’t bode well for his ability to craft any sort of legislation that has a chance of making it through Congress. Furthermore, it’s a well-attested fact that Bernie seemed unable (or unwilling) to forge alliances with his fellow legislators (Barney Frank was apparently not a fan).

3.) Bernie is an egomaniac. There, I said it. Bernie seems to be under the impression that he is the only one who can rescue the country from its myriad ills. It’s pretty staggering that people still make the claim that Hillary felt she was entitled to the nomination, even though she won the popular vote by quite a large margin and even though Sanders still seems to operate under the assumption that his assumption of the Democratic crown is only his due. This despite the fact that he has done very little for the party whose nomination he seeks, which leads me to…

4.) Bernie isn’t a Democrat. To my mind, it takes a particularly egregious sense of self to believe that, as an stubborn Independent, you have the right to come in and take over a party you have done literally nothing to help. In fact, Bernie is well-known for his contempt of the Democratic Party and its politicians, frequently painting them as just as bad as Republicans. If you want to be a part of the Democratic Party, then fine, our door is wide open. However, if you’re only going to be a Democrat when it suits you, then I am not here for it.

5.) Bernie is disingenuous. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Sanders referred to almost anyone who opposed him as “The Establishment.” The Human Rights Campaign (who advocate for the LGBTQ+ community) was the Establishment. Planned Parenthood (which presses for safe, affordable abortion) was the Establishment. And why? Because they supported his opponent. And the real kicker? Bernie Sanders, a United States Senator, IS PART OF THE ESTABLISHMENT. His effective weaponization of this empty term is one of his most grievous offenses, as was his grouchy (and, to put it mildly), lukewarm concession to Clinton in 2016.

6.) Bernie doesn’t care about black people. Or queer people. Or women. Bernie, like so many Marxist bros that I had the displeasure of encountering in graduate school. Like those men, Sanders sees things only through the prism of class struggle; anything else is secondary. One would think that, given the ways in which intersectionality has become part of the everyday lexicon of Americans since 2016, Bernie would adjust his language accordingly, but he continues to cling to the belief that nothing matters but economic justice. Fix the rigged system, he claims, and prosperity will inevitably follow. More perniciously, he continues to act as if one’s other social identities don’t matter (and are certainly not worth organizing politics around) and to excuse the white racists who he presumably sees as part of his base.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If, heaven forfend, Bernie should lock down the Democratic nomination, I will assuredly vote for him in the general. And I will do so without an ounce of reservation, and I might even be able to muster up the sort of excitement that I now feel for Kamala Harris. I recognize that, much as I dislike him, he is miles and miles better than Trump.

For make no mistake, we are in the midst of a full-blown existential crisis. 2020 may well be the last chance that we have to get this country back on track. After all, Justice Ginsburg will almost certainly not make it through another presidential term, and the planet will be a burnt cinder if we don’t take meaningful action on climate change.

All that being said, 2020 is going to be a bloody slog.

Heaven help us all.

Weekly Rant: West Virginia, We Need to Talk

You know, for a while there I’m sure (as The Onion put it) that West Virginia was feeling pretty smug watching the slow-moving disaster in Virginia.

Well, never let anyone think that we can’t hold our own when it comes to looking like huge dumbasses on the national stage.

Cue Eric Porterfield, West Virginia Delegate. His behaviour over the past week has shone a spotlight on why it is that West Virginia struggles to keep its brilliant young people, attract investment, and in general remains a laughingstock to the rest of the country.

In a series of remarks, Porterfield has referred to the LGBT+ Rights Movement as equivalent to the KKK, argued that queer people are a public menace, and suggested that he would drown his children if he happened to find out that they were gay. All with no sense that anything he was saying or doing was harmful, bigoted, and cruel (unsurprisingly, he wore a red MAGA hat during a television interview). When pushed about his implication of drowning his children, he said he was just baiting the libs. Because yes, joking about drowning your gay children is sooo funny. What a great way to show the world how much you lack human compassion!

To me, though, the most upsetting thing about this whole debacle is that it is so unsurprising. When I was a member of the Young Democrats in the aftermath of 2004, I distinctly remember a speaker informing us that Kerry lost the election because of “God, Guns, and Gays.” As a young gay man and proud Democrat, it was one of the most insulting and dispiriting things I had ever heard, and I still feel that betrayal almost a decade and a half later.

Things have only gotten worse since then for queers in West Virginia and, despite the passage of protections at the local level (for which several cities deserve great respect and applause), the climate there is not friendly. Though I once thought about returning to my home after I finished my Ph.D., at this point I don’t think that you could pay me enough to go back there. I much prefer to live in queer-affirming states like NY and MD, thank you very much.

Nor am I the only one. In fact, there’s quite an expat community of queer folk from WV who have left the state, taking their talents with them. After all, who wants to stay in a state that seems so dead-set on alienating every minority group that it can?

West Virginians, I urge you to wake up and smell the coffee. I know that you’ve convinced yourself (or allowed yourself to be convinced) that your ignorance and bigotry are some sort of principled stand in the culture war, but you are literally hurting your loved ones. Every time that you allow a man like Porterfield to keep his seat after these kinds of hateful comments, you send a message to your queer family and friends that your own right to feel insulated from political and cultural change is more important than their literal right to feel safe in their own state.

If nothing else, you should realize that the problems you face–the flight of young people, the dearth of decent job opportunities, and on and on–are only going to get worse when people like Porterfield are the face that you present to the nation at large. No one wants to relocate to a state known for its bigotry, and that most definitely includes young people. How long do you think you can continue on this path?

West Virginia, I know you’re better than this, I really do. I know that there’s love and compassion and earthy wisdom in those hollers and mountains, but for the love of all that’s holy, you’ve got to start showing it and standing up for it. Looking like a bunch of ignorant rednecks isn’t a political statement: it’s a one-way ticket to desolation.

Despite everything, I still think that there is a lot of good in you, but you’re going to have to work really hard to show this to the world. I know you can do it, though.

I have faith in you.