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The Untied State of America.
“Well, that’s because it’s not a liberal shithole!”
That phrase graced my ears this weekend as I stepped into a packed car rental shuttle at the St. Louis airport. Off to Columbia, Mo. to visit my mother for the holiday, I crossed paths with a, let’s say, gentleman on his way to Kentucky to meet up with a pack of bikers — or that’s at least what I overheard him tell the guy across from him in the “Let’s go Brandon'' t-shirt. Brandon had come to St. Louis by way of Florida, which biker had learned after striking up a conversation after complimenting Brandon’s shirt. As you can probably picture, neither were wearing masks, despite a sign reading “masks are required for all guests” plastered on the door. Masklessness was part of the bravado.
I know this interaction shouldn’t surprise anyone these days — I’m sure you have overheard your own conversations, seen similar t-shirts. But for the last couple of weeks I’ve been hyperaware of the right-wing aggression engulfing us. Just a few weeks back I was cycling a few miles north of home on an empty two-lane road when I felt and heard the rumble of an engine come startling close. He moved into the shoulder, where I was cycling well out of his (or anyone else’s) way, and I felt his pickup’s mirror woosh past my head. Only as it accelerated past me did I hear the driver cussing me out through his window. Startled and outraged, I let one of my fingers tell him how I felt about him nearly ending my life. Instantly, he hit the brakes and began to reverse. Rolling down the window, he hurled expletives at me. Of course, he yelled the phrase every other racist, angry white dude has fired my way, “Go back to your fucking country.” Then, as quickly as he’d stopped, he sped off.
I was lucky he didn’t have a gun — or if he did, he didn’t use it. He probably would have gotten off for “self-defense,” anyway. For the rest of the ride, I was hypervigilant for white pickups. I will probably always be.
Polls show that political polarization has increased dramatically over the past five years — particularly movement of the right further rightward. But what’s not captured in polling is how much more public and aggressive the far right have become. In the past, people certainly held opinions like biker and Brandon — there were just fewer of them and they usually kept them to themselves.
There are several explanations why we’re hearing more from them now. Much of our public conversation has moved online, where algorithms drive our discussions. Because we’re constantly fed information that affirms our prior beliefs, the algorithms trick us into thinking that those beliefs are more ubiquitous than they really are. They also reward engagement, which as Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen made clear, means conflict. Social media trains us to maximize conflict in public spaces, rather than what nearly all of our “irl” experiences have, which is to minimize it.
This is also what right-wing leaders want. After all, conflict gets press and press builds base. Donald Trump rose to the presidency on his ability to “say the quiet parts out loud.” Since, he’s trained every other Republican politician who craves power to turn up the volume on their worst instincts. Indeed, Republican congressman Paul Gosar recently tweeted an anime video in which he murders Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Only two Republicans voted with Democrats to censure him. One of those who voted against censure is the Speaker-apparent if Republicans take back the House.
As AOC told Punchbowl, Republicans “are essentially using a national platform to legitimize threats of violence on lower levels, and on the local levels, to intimidate people from participating in our democracy. I believe this is part of a concerted strategy…. What we do here, our response, helps inform as a precedent for actions on the local levels.”
Biker, Brandon, and white pickup all hear the message loud and clear. This isn’t just about normalizing, but emboldening speech that intentionally demeans, dehumanizes, and sanctions violence upon others because they don’t look like you or agree with your politics. But here’s the irony: it actually has nothing to do with political differences. Instead, it’s about the culture behind the politics: zero-sum white identitarian grievance.
Many of us are looking forward to the upcoming holiday. But for some, there’s also a profound dread. This is the first real Thanksgiving in two years, loading it with so much more pressure to be everything we missed out on last year and are looking forward to this year. And COVID cases are rising, bringing with them the anxiety of potential risk, even if no one gets infected.
But Thanksgiving has always brought us face to face with people whom we love but with whom we may profoundly disagree. More aggressive, public displays of rage are liable to spillover onto many Thanksgiving tables this year. That cousin or sibling or nephew that’s always been a little out there has been told that being out there is a sign of patriotism. It’s good to own the libs, after all.
Implicit in that logic is that there is some kind of us-or-them struggle for America … for the empty road, for the rental car shuttle, for the family dinner table. To them, it’s destroy or be destroyed. In that way, the family dinner table is a helpful metaphor for our country right now. One group believes that if the table includes anyone who doesn’t look, think, or act like them, then they have to be eliminated or you’re welcome to flip the entire table over it.
That makes our response so much harder — we actually believe that however inequitable the dinner table may be, however awful some of the folks sitting at it behave, that the table ought to be preserved. Indeed, it’s why we work so hard to get so many more voices represented around it. While it may be easy to respond to that hateful brother-in-law in kind, that’s exactly what he wants. Soon enough the only thing you’ll agree on is that if he doesn’t flip the table, you will. Rather, our work is in pushing back on the hate while insisting that all ought to have a seat, believing that while racism, misogyny, homophobia, and hate have no seat here, people themselves are redeemable. It’s not us vs. them. It has to be all of us against hate.
But if that doesn’t work, make sure they eat enough turkey; at least it’ll put them to sleep. Happy holiday, friends.
(Note: The Incision will be away the rest of this week as we take time to snooze and watch the Lions lose. We’ll see you again next Tuesday. Happy Thanksgiving!)