Forgiveness Isn’t Mine to Give

November 16, 2016

For many liberals, this has been the year of wrestling with the white working-class middle-aged man. From “Hillbilly Elegy” to “Strangers in Their Own Land” and a mounting Everest of think-pieces from the New York Times, Mother Jones, The Atlantic (and on and on) following the surprise election of Donnie Drumpf, suddenly educated upper middle class whites are wondering what they’ve misread in a huge swath of the country. Further complicating the waters are the 53% of white women who also helped usher Donnie into the White House. Certainly the rust belt and coal country are desperate, scared, angry and feeling marginalized. That’s been building for years–seeking to understand why and what can actually be done to better things there (and not just false promises like those they gambled on in this election) is long overdue (more on that later).

It’s been barely a week since the election and most of the things I’ve heard since–after initial shock, sadness and anger from one side (still lingering) and joyful celebration from the other (already waning to some degree) have been urges from most to “come together” “show empathy” and “be one country”: that is, from most white folks who are not from at-risk or marginalized communities. For every “get over it” or “look forward” I hear from white folks I hear “How can we?” from black, Muslim, LGBT, and Latino voices. People are rightfully scared and the recent elevation of Steve Bannon, alt-right mouthpiece and agitator, has done nothing to give them reason to not be afraid.

#ThisIsNotNormal: As John Oliver stressed on his last show of the year, this is not normal and we should not acclimate to it so if you have to , put a post-it up on your bathroom mirror so you don’t blank out and accept Trump’s America if you’re of a privileged class that can. We have just elevated the least-experienced and most ill-suited candidate in modern American history to the office of President. A man who has failed at everything he has ever done (marriage, business, humanity) and who has callously stoked hate against every non-white community in the country on the campaign trail and who is filling his cabinet with dreadful people. A reality TV personality who bragged of sexual assault and smiled as his daughter was called a “piece of ass” by Howard Stern. This is not normal.

While those who voted for Drumpf and many who didn’t but who want to let bygones by bygones urge us to let it go as just a “political” difference there are many who simply can’t yet–at least not until they find out what Drumpf really has planned for stop and frisk and an increasingly militarized police force, what he has planned for the wall and deportation, his proposed database of Muslims, if he will really repeal environmental protection laws, if he will seek to use the Supreme Court to repeal Roe v. Wade and eliminate health care access for millions of poor women and children, if Mike Pence will have any way of legitimizing “gay conversion” therapy, if Drumpf will be able to quell the violence and bullying done in his name, if he can call out the KKK and neo-nazi groups celebrating in his name…

See, when Bush (W.) won his second race I was an under-grad college student and I got pretty bummed. But I didn’t feel the pain in my bones and the shock to my system that made me seriously question the future of our country that I have now and I can only imagine what some other people are feeling. No, I was bummed but able to chat politely with Republican friends and teachers and talk about how we felt, the issues themselves, the perceived direction of our country. What some on the right are failing to acknowledge at the local level is just how different things are this time around. Things that are about to happen may seriously (and negatively) impact the very existence and livelihood of this country and the world as a whole. Maybe I’m naive– I’m sure my more liberal friends would say so in this regard–but I actually like Hillary Clinton as a person. I think she is a good person and would have made a good President. I may not have agreed with her on everything and I would have had serious concerns on some of her foreign policy positions in particular but my hope was that with a Democratic House and Senate, particularly with folks like Sanders and Warren taking on greater leadership roles we would have been able to hold her to issues and advance on Obama’s progress, curbing some of the negative possibilities. I think we could have certainly made great strides on climate change, secured social policy issues for a generation (and thus indefinitely) and so much more. Some of my most politically liberal friends think this laughable as they promote #DemExit and the like now, partly welcoming a Trump presidency if only because it will shock us all awake. But the cost I fear may be far too large.

I believe in the bedrocks of democracy–of liberalism–of progressivism. I believe in empathy checked by responsibility and strength, what George Lakoff describes as the nexus of liberal thought (in “The Political Mind”): empathy to feel the pain and share the concerns of others, responsibility to feel the need to act to address those concerns and the strength to do so. And I most certainly do not think it would be fair to accuse me of “living in a bubble” as seems to be the heart of most “empathy to the working class” pieces I read lately (you can take a pretty spot on quiz to see if you live in a left/urban/secular bubble here)–no, I’ve lived more than 75% of my life in working class (usually rural) areas, I’ve worked many service sector and labor intensive jobs in my life, my Facebook feed is regularly filled with arguments from both sides and much more. I know there are a lot of reasons below the surface affecting how we behave and act politically (I highly recommend “Our Political Nature”) from birth order to parenting style to early childhood experiences and education but I also know we have the choice to learn, to grow and to celebrate truth. I was punched in the face more than once from 12-16 years of age as I ran my mouth at bullies slurring the n word and guffawing, at racism every time I encountered it as it always made me angry to the bone. I know it when I see it “cleaned up” in Drumpf and I won’t be silent now either. You are free to have your opinion and I may even like many people who are guilty of unconscious and casual racism even though I disagree with them. But your desperation does not excuse you allowing these forces into legitimate power, blessing those opinions by elevating them far beyond workplace or popular culture. Data shows quite a few wealthy and upper middle-class voters embraced Trumpism. Though desperate rust belt and coal belt men and the women who wanted them to excel again may have tipped one of the scales that ushered Donnie in, they were not the only bloc. But empathize with them I can to that extent that I agree poverty sucks, back-breaking labor sucks and feeling like the world is leaving you behind can indeed suck. It shouldn’t make you cling to empty promises when the evidence to the contrary is clear and easily accessible though. The fact is liberal policies can and have been able to address those very real needs but too often the white working class in forgotten industries actively work against themselves. When you’re told climate change and advancing technology will end your field for 40 years and you actively avoid it instead of helping to be at the forefront of what comes next, when you fight against stimulus packages that can elevate your community, when you decry unions for “right to work” policies instead, when you oppose a raise in the minimum wage and universal health care access to all, when you keep voting in tea-party representatives who could care less about you instead of those who can work to get progressive policies through then you are digging your own hole.

All this to say–when you say “we voted different we can still be friends”–sure. Yeah. But that’s a lot easier if we’re both white and middle class. Your choices have an impact. The very minute the results started rolling in Trump supporters flipped the table to assign themselves victim status. They decried being labelled as racist, sexist or xenophobic. They did everything they could to instantly be the “winners” who would have supported the other candidate had things been reversed, they suddenly became the biggest fans ever of the electoral college despite previous opinions, they decried protestors as “sore losers” and they held themselves as martyrs unfairly labelled prejudiced. I mean, didn’t Drumpf win areas in the rust belt Obama also won? Can’t be racism can it (ignoring the fact that maybe many of Obama’s supporters were too disgusted to turn out or that voting one time for one black man like having one black friend doesn’t preclude one from loving and benefiting from institutional racism)? No, not everyone who voted Drumpf was racist–they did make a decision that was racist however, like it or not. The nationalism, racism, Islamophobia, etc. were all part of the Donnie package and white folks decided those -isms weren’t deal breakers. They decided a man who plays on hate and fear deserved a shot at the White House despite having what may be the highest record of lying on the campaign trail ever recorded by fact checkers, despite the warnings from every expert in every field, despite the rift their decision was bound to cause for generations to come. So when you ask me or any other white liberal to get over it maybe we can. We can just ignore the subjects we don’t want to talk about if rational reasoned debate is out of the question (which it clearly is due to the repudiation of the “media” and “fact checking” and “liberal education” by the Drumpf package) but I can’t offer you forgiveness for your decision as I am not one most wronged by your choice. Don’t want to be seen as racist? Then apologize to those who feel like second class citizens due to your choice, who are scared for their future and their children right now. Forgiveness can only be given by one directly wronged. I may “feel” wronged–I feel bad that expertise, education, knowledge and basic liberal principles of democracy are being jettisoned and ridiculed, that debate using legitimate journalism and research as sources will become increasingly difficult and I especially worry that climate change will wreak irreversible damage in my lifetime–but I have not been shouted at to “go back” to any country, I have not been harassed or threatened due to religious belief, sexual orientation or anything of the sort. But there are millions in our country who have, will or fear they may be and it is they who you if you are a Trump voter owe your apology to. Tell them you are not a racist or xenophobe but that you desperately believed Drumpf’s impossible promises so much (or hated Hillary so much) that you overlooked all of the vitriol and cast your vote his way any way.

Seriously–how much leeway do we give each other for bad choices? It’s a free country and I respect your choice to do anything so long as it does not negatively affect me or others. We can agree not to hate each other while still holding each other accountable for bad choices. I am sure many people would consider me a hypocrite or an asshole in many ways. But I knew what was at stake in this election and did what I could to prevent it. We’ll see how history views all of this in time but there are clear parallels in our past that provide a pretty clear indication.

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