We have only ourselves to blame. All the signs were out there, but we chose to ignore them. We wanted the cheap laugh and the easy sneer, but we were also darned compassionate. Except not right then. Especially with people who, quite frankly, didn’t deserve it.
Not only were we bigoted dopes, we lost an opportunity to forge an abiding political alliance.
I say “we,” I mean the people who are likely to be reading this blog. I’ve met my readers; I know who you are. Politically liberal, culturally curious, physically attractive. Probably white; probably over 50; most living in or with ties to the San Francisco Bay Area; likes long walks on the beach and trips to Paris. If you’re not like that, please use the comments section and tell me different.
So anyway, we’re the ones who fucked up. Don’t blame the Clintons; don’t blame the DNC; don’t blame Obama. We saw it happening, and we sneered. We felt superior.
And the people who were experiencing the pain, experiencing the poverty, experiencing the ignorance — they think the liberal elites are mocking them, and they’re right. They think they’ve been lied to by both political parties, and they’re right. They think their values are just talking points in someone else’s self-serving narratives, and they are right.
I am talking about the poor white people of this country, primarily in the South but also in many parts of rural America, including small-town California. We know they’re there, but we prefer not to get involved. They’re bigots. They’re racists. Their TV preachers are all con men; their family circumstances are squalid. It’s all country music and Jesus and belligerent cretins. So we stereotype; we move on.
But they are American human beings. Racism is a product of ignorance, and ignorance is a product of poverty. It’s easier to sell snake oil to people who don’t understand medicine. It’s easier to sell senseless political strategies to people who never had a civics class.
We’re all afraid, but poor whites more than most. Everything has turned to dust for them in the last 50 years; the causes are unclear, but the pain is real. They’re afraid, and they have a right to be — the culture has passed on and left them adrift. Fear makes people stupid. Have someone gin up the Muslim menace, and people will buy it. Illegal immigrants flooding in to take jobs away from Americans; sure, that’ll work.
It’s OK to hate the elites; they really don’t care about you. And from the echoing halls of the media and the internet, no word in refutation comes forth. How about a snake-handling joke? How about Mike Huckabee’s Christian crusade on behalf a useless diabetes medicine? And those people believed it! Fools.
No one said, gosh, these poor folks swimming in a pool of misinformation. Maybe we could figure out a way to do something about that. Poor people tend the watch a lot of television, so maybe a big TV push could be made. Not hectoring Ivy League commentators, but people who get it, who understand the fear.
Black people were in an even worse situation, of course. Poor rural blacks had all the popular problems — addiction, random violence, ignorance, poverty — plus the poisonous legacy of racism. But at least we understood that part. Perhaps we donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center (which is good because the fear-mongering right wing groups hate it) and maybe we volunteered or marched or something in support of poor blacks.
Not that it helped much, but, hey, we’re liberals. We’re used to that.
I think, just now, that it’s black people who should be talking to black people. When they need help, they’ll call. But in the meantime, how about doing something else for oppressed and manipulated minorities? How about if white people talked to other white people? That’s not racist; that’s just sensible problem solving.
The people supporting Donald Trump feel they have no choice. The pieties of Cruz and Bush and Christie made them scoff. Scoffing is a sane reaction. And the GOP establishment has, some way, somehow, convinced them that Democrats don’t share their values. The word “values” has been used as a cudgel against liberals. What are the values? Home, church, family, loyalty, patience. We got it all but church; maybe we can reach an understanding. Although it’ll be tough; the GOP is the party that somehow convinced poor whites to vote for the people who want to empower the very large entities that made their lives so terrible.
Why? Because they are intellectual victims of racism. They have been taught just one thing since childhood, and they have resisted calls to tolerance because the calls have been issued by the media, by the school district, by the politicians — the same people that bitter experience has proven, time and again, to be liars and frauds. So the bad information comes from reliable sources: the guy who will always pull your car out of a ditch (no charge; God bless) also believes that climate change is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese.
But the obstacle of ignorance, as large and stubborn as it is, is not insurmountable. There are ways to counter the fear of gay marriage, but none of those ways involves the heaping of scorn. A lot of communities, even smaller ones, have out gay and lesbian citizens now. They are already redefining the issue just by being there, selling auto parts or buying them. Other residents know that the gay folks are not the devil; they just distrust government meddling. And they are right to distrust government, because it’s now set up as an elaborate con game.
There are ways to talk about women’s rights, too. There are dreadful patriarchal jerks out there, it’s true, but there are also men who are concerned about the women in their lives. They don’t want their loved ones to be bullied into accepting inadequate information on STDs, on early cancer detection, on family planning. Start there; start with common ground. There’s fertile soil out there, but no one has thought to plant the seeds.
White rural voters have always been susceptible to populist messages; who’s more populist than Bernie Sanders? He wants to get rid of fat cats too. He wants free health care. What’s wrong with that? Because Obama! Bernie and Hillary both swear allegiance to the idea of equality, and what’s the matter with that?
Because equality is what got poor whites into this mess in the first place. All those lofty democratic ideals, and nothing in it for them. You can trust the people you know, and that’s pretty much all you can trust. You want people who will tell the truth and get on with it.
Donald Trump doesn’t always tell the truth, but he pisses off the fat cats, and what’s better than that? Sure, it’s all theater, but is it any more theater than Obama in 2008? Yeah, it’s crass and base and ugly, but it does say the things that isolated people have long been thinking. Is it the Muslims? Is it the Mexicans? Is it the Jews? They just don’t recognize America any more, and they want to know who’s to blame.
We have villains a-plenty; let’s give them one or two. Let’s see if, somehow, the natural political alliance between poor blacks and poor whites can be nurtured. And maybe we could all promise just to be a little less snarky. Think of it as spiritual exercise.
And remember to love your neighbor. There’s considerable theological weight behind that injunction.
Thanks for asking. I was just thinking about that.
I started blogging because I had nothing else to do. I know other guys who retired. One became a carpenter for charity and learned Italian, another ran marathons and audited classes at UC Berkeley. I know a guy who collects art and invests in young women tennis players. And I know there are boaters out there, and woodworkers, bird rescuers, docents.
I don’t do anything like that. I used to be on various non-profit boards, which was fun except for the fund-raising, which was seriously not fun and at which I was never any good. Beyond that: My hobbies are reading, travel and television. My skills in many areas are laughable; I’m the guy from whom people snatch wrenches or corkscrews or paring knives. “Easier if I do it myself,” they say.
“Easier for me, too,” I think but do not say.
And because it was important for me to “do something,” to “stay active,” to “not sink into an inky pool of reality television, spy novels and breakfast cereal” — no one actually said that last thing, although you could tell that’s what they were thinking.
OK, I’m a blogger. Now what?
The first thing I had to do was learn blogging tools. I asked around (thank you, Nancy Friedman, Susan McCarthy, ((plus Susan McCarthy)), and Kristen Yawitz) and decided to learn WordPress, because someone said it was easy.
It was amusing to teach myself the tools. My pal Scott Underwood suggested Michelle Mizera to do stuff (including Mailchimp, a maddening program) that had too steep a learning curve. I got to play with links and photographs, trying to tell jokes and send coded messages and just play with any reader who wanted to take the time. (I have amused myself in this piece by using double quotation marks for quotations inside of quotations, and that’s not remotely OK. Except, hey, Andrea Behr ain’t nowhere round here. I can make up my own punctuation. Seriously, how cool is that?)
Pretty early on, it became obvious that Tracy should participate. I’d be collaborating with her for the first time since the late 70s. It’s sort of complicated to work with one’s spouse (because, duh), but we have talked a lot about our professions. So it could be great, although it also could go horribly wrong.
The blogging idea made me feel all tingly and useful. I could maybe think of new ways to do the blogging thing, although probably every blogging act in the conceptual universe has been tried already. On the other hand: I made my living writing in English, something that has been tried many many times before. And yet I persist in thinking I can do something new with it. If you can’t invent stuff, then it’s pretty much over.
Also, blogging is passe. The buzz passes from platform to platform, and now Instagram and Snapchat are being replaced by other sites whose names I don’t know. I just cannot care about that anymore. I will never catch up. I have a Fats Domino brain in a Beyonce world.
So then I put the blog up. The response has been lovely. Thank you, people.
There are several bits of received wisdom about retirement. One of them, referenced above, is, “You have to have a plan to do something,” which is true. But the other is, “I’m busier now than I ever was when I was working.” How can that be? I have no idea. I had hoped for long lazy afternoons on the window seat, staring at hummingbirds feasting on flowers and reading all of the far-too-many magazines we receive. Maybe we’d go to Fiji. I like Fiji.
Not a chance. Retirement is filled with stuff I really should have done five years ago. It’s filled with interesting new financial dilemmas. And it’s filled with stuff I really did want to do, like cultivating friends (generally with organic fertilizer and a wee sprinkling of Roundup), sudden trips (hello, Death Valley), and fooling around with my wife, although not in an inappropriate way (we’ve been married 35 years; nothing is inappropriate by now).
And people in retirement say, “I wonder why I didn’t do this 10 years ago,” and now I’ll say it. I loved my job, but I’m loving my non-job better. No deadlines!
But also, no deadlines. I have worked to a deadline continuously since 1966. I needed deadlines; I organized my life around deadlines. I messed around until the very last minute and then wrote like mad; now there was no last minute. I never made any promises the blog would appear every Tuesday and Friday, or every Tuesday, or every year. What would I do? Would I fuck off completely?
And what about Jon Carroll, the brand not the man? I did not know how much of my identity was tied up in being a semi-famous newspaper columnist. I did like the perks, from free theater tickets to people seeing me in public places and saying nice things. I did like being admired, because who doesn’t?
I’d been through this once before, being powerful and semi-famous and then not. I realized that a lot of “friends” would drop away; I was always surprised by which ones did, but I was prepared for the eventuality. And it happened. It’s OK. I already have the calluses. And I’m grateful to everyone who seemed to like the rather messy person I am beneath the public identity.
But could I write without me? I didn’t know. I have no other writing partner.
It’s still all up in the air. I have no idea in which direction I’ll take this. It may very well be a direction I don’t know exists. Maybe Jon Carroll Prose will be a movie, only we’ll change the name to “Hero!” or “The Dark Adventure.” Or perhaps Jon Carroll Prose will be a series of youth-oriented mini-musicals performed in areas of urban blight. Or it could go to Mars. That would be fun, except the dying in soundless space part.
Tracy and I are the beginning of our collaboration. Been fine so far — we even got to play journalists, both going off on a story, prepared to evoke and explain, so cute. And I get to figure out how to repurpose her great series of photos of West Oakland (part of a five-year-so-far project she’s doing) to my own fiendish needs.
As to being me, I dunno. Might be a good thing to reinvent myself. I used to do that almost every year, but it’s been a while. I miss being on the press lists, although a few are hanging in there. Perhaps they’ll get a mention in the prestigious Jon Carroll Prose blog, read by discerning readers of the play I want to see.
I have no idea what might happen next. I still could rule the world.
And it’s all amazing fun. That’s my message today. Are you perhaps stuck in a job you hate and not getting any younger and wondering why your neck keeps tightening up all the time and your digestion, well, let’s not go there? Or even, I dunno, a relationship? Been known to happen.
If you can make the numbers work (and you could just make Mom pay rent because God knows she has enough money —because she gives all those “gifts” to that guy Joey because he’s her “protege” or some crap), get outa Dodge. Pack up the burros and hit the dusty trail. Vamoose. Scram. Beat it. Vanish. Vanish.
Send us a message from Capetown or Cape Girardeau. There’s stuff out there to do.