Tag Archives: Politics

Reading History: “Starstruck in the Promised Land” (by Shalom Goldman)

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

From its founding, Israel has had a particularly strong relationship with the United States, and it has, throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, become increasingly critical to American foreign policy in the Middle East. While it was, at first, praised by those on the left, as the plight of the Palestinians became more of an issue in the international community, the stance of both American popular culture and (to a lesser extent) political culture changed, so that it was those on the right who championed Israel and those on the left who sharply criticized (and often condemned ) its actions.

While numerous books have been written about the relationship between the United States and Israel, less examined has been the ways in which various figures in popular culture–singers, actors, and writers–have played a key role in the formation of such attitudes. That’s where Shalom Goldman’s Starstruck in the Promised Land comes into play. Drawing on a wide variety of documents and evidence, Goldman convincingly demonstrates how key popular culture has been to the ways in which Americans think about Israel.

Even before the founding of Israel as a state, Americans were obsessed with the Holy Land. Throughout the 19th Century, American literary figures from Herman Melville to Mark Twain visited the region, and though they were hardly positive in their commentary, they nevertheless revealed how key the Middle East was to the American psyche. For Christians, especially those of a more apocalyptic bent, the region was a key part of their theology and their vision of the world.

As Goldman moves into the 20th Century, we see how more and more literary and artistic figures took up the cause of Israel. These ranged from composers such as Leonard Bernstein to authors such as James Baldwin. Bernstein in particular would become a key figure in Israel, often staging concerts for Israeli soldiers. As a scholar of film and popular media, I particularly enjoyed the ways in which Goldman interweaves the politics and history of the modern state of Israel with some of the key figures and texts of the era. Films like Exodus and singers like Johnny and June Cash were especially vital to the Israeli cause, the former by figuring the Israeli founders as freedom fighters not unlike those in many western films (the film’s leading man was Paul Newman) and the latter by continuing to highlight the integral relationship between Christianity (particularly of the evangelical variety) and Israel.

Goldman also demonstrates the extent to which American political stances on Israel–as well as those of our popular culture figures–have mapped quite neatly onto the cultural wars. Just as evangelical Christianity became a dominant political force in the latter half of the 20th Century, so they saw an embrace of Israel as key to their own cultural and social beliefs (hence the trips that the Cashes, devout Christians, made to the Holy Land). At the same time, as civil rights became a stronger current on the American left, it became more and more common for American entertainers to take up the cause of the Palestinians.

Just as importantly, Goldman discusses his own biography and how that has shaped his own stance on the subject. It is sometimes easy to forget that politics, for all of its ugliness, actually involves real people whose lives and identities shape how they think about and engage with the thorny questions associated with this troubled region.

Overall, this book is a strong contribution to our understanding of the deep history of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Goldman writes with erudition and nuance, recognizing that there are no simple solutions in the dilemma of Israel, and that the relationship between the United States and one of its key Middle Eastern allies has been and may always be complicated and messy.

This book is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to gain a nuanced and balanced understanding of this particular aspect of foreign policy. Given the extremes of emotion that Israel tends to arouse in both those on the left and the right, this book’s equanimity is a gift indeed.

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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.

Weekly Rant: On Queer Progress

Look, queers, we need to have a talk.

When Taylor Swift’s new music video dropped, I only heard about it tangentially at first, mostly because I’m not a huge fan of her pop music (I know, I know, I’m a monster). However, then I watched it, and I found myself caught up in its utopian delights, with its queer stars, its addictive rhythm, and its vivid colors. And, of course, there was the note at the end encouraging viewers to petition the Senate to pass pro-LGBTQ+ legislation.

There were, of course, the explosion of think pieces taking down Swift for any one of the following: appropriation, shallowness, false pretenses, etc., etc., etc. For many, it was far too simplistic, and to see it as some sort of mark of progress for queer people–or, for that matter, to celebrate Swift’s embrace of her queer fandom. To many, it was just another way that popular culture had appropriated and misused queer identity.

To my mind, the logic underpinning these critiques is flawed for two reasons: one, it’s a music video. By a pop star. OBVIOUSLY it isn’t going to be some masterful polemic. Two, and more importantly, it’s followed by a call to political action. While, of course, it’s unclear just how effective that might be, it seems to me that Swift deserves at least a little bit of credit for encouraging her listener’s to become more politically engaged (considering how young those listeners are, and how many of them there are, this seems to me to be very important).

This takedown of Swift is, of course, part of a broader trend within certain circles of queer left activism that I find troubling for both philosophical and political reasons. There are some who find the recent inclusion of queer people into capitalism and the military (as well as other facets of mainstream progress) a problem because it buys into the system rather than overthrows it (to be replaced with…IDK. Nor do I know how, exactly, such an overthrow would take place).

However valid those criticisms are, to my mind they obscure the progress that has been made and how meaningful that progress is, especially for young queer people. I think it’s a good thing that, in some places, the police are actively embracing the queer community (I, for one, would rather have them on our side than against us). And sure, one can be cynical about the ways in which corporations are now cashing in on Pride Month, but again, I would much rather have them in our corner than otherwise (I also love rainbow swag, but I digress). These things are cultural capital, and it matters that we’ve accrued them.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is a lot of room for reform in the world of policing, and I am not by any stretch of the imagination a military apologist. However, I am not in favor of abolishing the police, nor do I think we gain much by relentlessly vilifying them even when they are doing the things that they are supposed to be doing and acting in good faith. To do so, I would argue, de-incentivizes such groups from helping us when we need it most. Why should they feel the motivation to help us in our times of need when we are so intent on demonizing them even when they don’t deserve it?

I would argue that it is more important now than ever to make sure that those who have power (both real and symbolic) understand and embrace our struggles. Every victory we win makes it easier to continue advocating for the bigger goals that we have. The more the mainstream grows comfortable with various aspects of queer identity–even if that’s just seeing rainbows in a store window–the safer and better our lives become.

Nor is this take-down phenomenon limited to the specifically queer left. We have seen time and time again how politicians who, after deep reflection and after processing input from their constituents, have changed their stance on issues only to be reprimanded for doing so. Hillary Clinton Barack Obama, Joe Biden…all of them changed their tune on LGBTQ+ issues for the better, and they were often criticized for doing so. Because, of course, in this hyper-partisan, puritanical and deeply, pathologically cynical age, anything that smacks of flip-flopping or political expediency must in fact be a sign of some inner moral turpitude and is grounds for expulsion from the herd.

Again, this begs the question: why should we expect our elected representatives to change their positions based on our wishes if, when they do, we then reprimand them for doing the exact thing we supposedly wanted them to do? Obviously, we must continue to hold them accountable, to remind them who it is that they serve, but it also bears repeating that we definitely hurt our chances of politicians taking our needs seriously if we insist on scourging them even when they do the things that we ask them to do. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how anyone thinks that this is a winning strategy.

I suppose the takeaway from all of this is that, as few who know me will be surprised to learn, I’m a radical in philosophy but a moderate in practice. That’s because I accept the reality that, whether I like it or not (and I don’t), there are a myriad of people in this vast country whose views about these issues don’t align directly with my own. Having come to that realization some time ago, I now recognize that, if we really want progressive policies to move ahead in this country, we have got to learn how to talk to people who don’t agree with us. We must remember that, for many people, marriage is fulfilling. For many people, serving in the military is a means of financial survival or a genuine act of patriotism (or both). For many people, seeing Pride merchandise is a reminder of just how far we’ve come.

If I could go back in time to a scared 13-year-old T.J., who scoured the world of popular culture for signs of queer existence, who despaired of politicians ever openly declaring their support for LGBTQ+ (let alone seeing an openly-gay presidential candidate!), who wanted to know that it was okay to be who he was, I’d tell him to that yes, it does indeed get better.

I hope that young queer people coming of age today realize how fortunate they are, and I hope that the world continues its march toward progress and equality.

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: “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.

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.

Dear Senator Collins

Dear Senator Collins:

Like many others, I waited with baited breath all day for 3:00, wondering if maybe, just maybe, you’d come riding to our rescue with this whole Brett Kavanaugh debacle. Surely, I thought, Susan Collins, the defender of women’s rights, would find it in herself to take a principled stand against him, to tell survivors of sexual assault–particularly Dr. Ford–that they were heard, that they were believed, that their voices MATTERED.

Boy oh boy, was I wrong.

Your remarks were disingenuous, condescending, and a devastating blow for the women’s rights that you seek to champion (to say nothing of the rights of the LGBT+ community).

In your speech, you decried the influx of money from “leftist” groups against Kavanaugh. That’s pretty rich, coming from someone who belongs to a party that is in the pocket of the Koch Brothers and the Mercers. How could you stand there with a straight face and make it sound as if it were the Democrats who were the slaves to big money, rather than your own GOP, which has slashed taxes for the wealthy again and again?

In your speech, you decried abortion advocacy organizations as alarmist (indeed, hysterical). That’s pretty hurtful and damaging, coming from a senator who has spoken so often about her support for women’s rights, particularly the issue of reproductive freedom. How dare you dismiss them in such a callous fashion, acting as if their well-founded concerns were worth nothing more than a condescending dismissal?

In your speech, you decried the rush to judgment about the truth of Dr. Ford’s allegations, even as you said you believed that she had been assaulted. How can you say that you believe her testimony, and that you take the testimony of other sexual assault survivors seriously, if you are also going to simultaneously dismiss them as being mistaken? You can’t have it both ways, Senator, at least, not and sound like an intellectually and morally honest person and leader.

I truly did expect more from you, Senator Collins. Though I am not one of your constituents, I still saw you as one of those rare creatures in today’s world: a moderate in every sense of the word, someone with whom I could disagree on issues of policy but who I still respected. After that speech today, I am dismayed and disgusted, my respect for you in tatters.

Unfortunately, what you did today was reveal your true self: as a partisan who favours the party line over principle. With your speech today, you have told survivors of sexual assault, in tones that no one could miss, to not even bother coming forward with their testimony. Why should they? They now know that not even their powerful women representatives in the legislature will step up to bat for them. The power of a man in politics will always overshadow, and ultimately overwhelm, that of his accuser.

But they will come forward. They will come forward in November, and in 2020, and beyond. There is a wave coming, and nothing is going to stop it.

I guess, ultimately, I’m disappointed in you, Senator Collins. I truly hope that things change in the days and weeks ahead, that the Democrats win in November, that women become a power in the House, the Senate, and all over the country. And I hope that you see the error of your ways.

We’ll be seeing you in 2020.

 

Mourn on the Fourth of July: The End of America and A Frail Hope for the Future

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was going to publish a blog post entitled, self-indulgently, “Confessions of a Reluctant Patriot.” It was during the last summer Olympics, and I felt so positive and full of hope, buoyed by the possibility that we might, at last, be on the right track as a country. Sure, there were still some things that needed to be done, but it seemed as if there was still a lot of hope, that we could make a better world if we just tried had enough.

Whatever remained of that feeling has been well and truly obliterated.

It’s been buried beneath the screams of children forcibly separated by their borders, by the tectonic shifts in global policy that have left America alienated from traditional democracies and allied with dangerous autocrats, by the systematic unraveling of pretty much every progressive policy gain gained in the last 20 or 30 years, from labor rights to civil rights for people of color to abortion rights to LGBT+ rights. The announcement last week that Anthony Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court–which will almost certainly usher in a terrible new era of judicial reversals–just put the final nail in the coffin of my optimism.

And the worst part? WE’RE NOT EVEN HALFWAY THROUGH THIS ADMINISTRATION.

I’m afraid, folks.

I’m afraid that the backlash we’ve all been feeling these past two years is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. But honestly? The thing I feel even more than fear is despair, and to me that’s even more unsettling. It suggests that there is no real hope for a brighter future, that human history writ large is not one march toward a  progressively better state of being, that instead a relentless cycle of ever-greater defeat.

And it’s not just that the Republicans have proven themselves completely unwilling and incapable of anything remotely resembling human compassion or empathy, it’s that the Left continues to devour itself. Sure, there is a lot of blame to be handed out to party leadership, but it’s important to remember that they have the thankless (and possibly impossible) task of trying to corral a very unruly party. And it seems that nothing they do is able to please everyone, a symptom, I suppose, of a democratic society riven by such insurmountable differences that it’s hard to imagine a way forward. And for those on the Left, who have grown tired of waiting for the revolution, it does seem at times as if the leadership is ineffective at best and obstructionist at worst.

Obviously, as someone who is radical in philosophy, I sympathize with the frustrations. But we have also reached such a crisis point in our country that we have two choices: we can either contribute to the implosion of the Democratic Party and hand the keys to the kingdom to the GOP, or we can find common ground with those of more moderate persuasion, seize back control of local government, and hopefully begin to claw our way back from the edge of absolute annihilation.

Because make no mistake. The GOP has made it abundantly clear that they are willing and able to capitulate to all of the darker strains of the American psyche that we have struggled for so long to banish. The retirement of Kennedy means that Trump, and his lackeys in the Senate, will be able to nominate a justice who would continue the assault on the most vulnerable members of our society. And let me tell you, their voters will LOVE them for it. The remaking of SCOTUS has been one of the Republicans’ most reliable means of getting out the vote, and when they can show that they’ve actually managed to make good on at least this one campaign promise, they’ll be able to turn their voters out in even greater numbers.

This is going to require A LOT of work, however. It’s going to require getting off our asses and going to vote in every election (which, of course, is going to be easier for some than for others). It’s going to require radicals being willing to accept that not everyone is as radical as they are, just as it’s going to require moderates to recognize when radicals sometimes have their finger on the pulse of the electorate and actually have ideas that are good for everyone.

In other words, it’s time to rediscover the essence of what it means to be a Democrat. Don’t try to burn it all down and start from some third party. Bruised and battered as it may be, the Democratic Party still has the infrastructure we need, and the established politicians know how to write policy. We need to accept that maybe, just maybe, a total burn-it-all-down mentality is more destructive than it is helpful, and that the cost for such a mentality is often disproportionately born by those who are already disenfranchised.

This is going to take a little something from everyone, and we have to recognize that those of us who are radical/progressive/liberal share more in common with one another than with those on the far right. We have to learn how to make the most out of those alliances, to build a future that’s brighter for everyone rather than just the privileged few. We have to learn to build coalitions, to craft policy, to combine the best of the idealist and realist branches of the progressive movement. Only then will we be able to move forward into a better world.

So, while I mourn for an America that seems to have passed forever into the history books, I stubbornly hold on to the possibility for what the future holds. It’s not too late for all of us, if we’re willing to put in the work to make it so. The arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice, but only when we do everything in our power to help it. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Happy Birthday, America.