I hate competing, even in when I’m good at things, for a reason. I’d sooner let someone take the stage than take the stage myself. If you hand me the microphone, I’m handing it off as quickly as possible. My goal as a teacher was for my kids to not need me. I’ve mastered the Irish goodbye, and I often dream about fading off into the mists. That’s my secret dream. But most of all, I dream of empowering other people to be their best selves. I want everyone to be free and full of love. The goal is to build up the people I am around, it is my secret and most evil plot.
I’ve tried to make this clear to everyone over the years, but the message hasn’t sunk in apparently.
So allow me to explain what happens when we tear each other down instead of building each other up:
HAVE YOU READ THE NEWS LATELY?!
Welcome to an America that is brutal and cruel, and this started long before Trump so I won’t be blaming him because his election was a symptom of a trend that has been going on for some time. Hilary supporters weren’t good at building their, a-hem, colleagues up either. And the Sanderistas? Were we kind to our opponents either?
Every November, I fall into a deep depression now. This is when I lost my grandmother, who was the most significant relationship I had with an adult woman. I’ve mentioned this before, but my grandmother was a conservative. We used to sit around the kitchen table, her chain smoking, while I sipped whiskey, and we passed a weed pipe around. In this state, we would discuss the world’s problems. Our goal was always common solutions but my grandmother was not one to sugar coat. She was quick, always the first to lend hard-earned wisdom, but compassionate and always the first to listen. She worried about me going to the “liberal Bay Area” but was comforted that it was Stanford and not Berkeley, “at least,” she said, “the Hoover institution is there.” She had a general distrust of the government born of years of oppression at its hands. By the time college rolled around, and to be clear I was not biologically related to this women in any regard (I have many “grandmothers” for various and obvious reasons), I only went home when she was there because she also happened to be my fiercest protector. She had a biting wit and a look that would stop you in her tracks. I once walked out of my room in a tank top and she looked at me and said, “kids these days don’t know how to appropriately dress.” I covered up immediately. For her, modesty was empowerment and ultimately I would adopt that attitude.
There was once space for women like her, single moms who raised their kids and held traditional values, in the American feminist movement, but by the time I came of age, she had stopped identifying with a movement she felt left her behind. She loathed the Slut Walks and warned me against them, and even though she died before my graduation day, I refused to participate in Wacky Walk to honor her memory because she had once told me that such an accomplishment deserved dignity. I started out college saying “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am” and she was proud of this too. It took several quarters to break the habit.
Over the summers during my teen years, she handed me books. She told me I should read Rush Limbaugh even if I didn’t agree, because then I could argue against him better. She bought me Virginia Wolf and discussed Emily Bronte with me, and also bought me my first perfume. Ann Coulter was handed off as quickly as Virginia Wolf, and we’d sit at the kitchen table to discuss my reading. I hardly ever remember her commenting on my appearance other than to tell me to “respect myself” and be modest, but she always asked what I wanted to read. The fact that she “hated the feminists” by the time I went to college, where most people become one is a tragedy and failure of a movement she helped to build. If you want me to dishonor her memory, you’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hands, because that woman is the strength that guides me when I have to be strong enough to carry my burdens, which are significant to put it mildly.
This November things got especially rough for me, because I got the confirmation that I have long been waiting for: my real dad is the man I thought he was and it wasn’t the person I had been told he was. I also found out he was dead.
He died in prison on a conviction for a drug that rich white kids now sell in fancy shops.
He killed himself.
My cousin killed himself right before I went off to Stanford, I went to grief counseling at Stanford only to be told that this outcome “was expected for someone with his background.” I guess they’d say the same thing about my dad, too.
The man I remember is the same man who handed me my first switchblade and taught me how to use it. In the brief moments he watched over me, he taught me how to fight and play chess. He gave me my first comic books, X-Men. He was brilliant, powerful and charismatic. He spent all his time with me, which was rare between the stints in jail and various other things that prevented him from seeing me, trying to make sure I was strong enough to take on a world he knew only too well was cold and unfeeling. He’s the strongest man I’ve ever known and he didn’t make it.
Now, this man was what you might have called a conservative. He loved his guns, he always told me that the only way to keep the government in check was to remain armed. He hated political correctness and was deeply embedded in the hardcore punk scene. He imbued a deep sense of personal responsibility and strength in me that I have leaned back in on my entire life. He gave me anti-feminist lectures while telling me to take the boys on at their own game. He taught me to fight without regard for how big the opponent was.
The leftists I know would hate him with a passion. He was a deplorable if ever there was one. I guess you could say that I come from a long line of those.
But all of my memories of him, of my grandmother, of those people you would have hated, are good. They are what I pull from when the other memories that come back are too dark to bear.
There are leftist heroes in my story too. The socialist, atheist teacher that always passed on feminist literature. The anti-racist clergy I encountered in my neighborhood. The card carrying Communist teacher who gave me my first Engels, in high school.
I’ll be perfectly honest, I don’t care what politics they held. There are bonds that are deeper than political leanings or ideology. Bonds formed from blood, sweat and tears. My bond to this country and the people that have loved me are like that. Nothing is going to change that, and you aren’t going to convince me to hate anyone who has been loyal to me.
I try to see the good in everyone and to avoid making groupist assumptions. This inclination is born of suffering. It’s hard to hate one group in particular when people from all groups have oppressed you at some point. It’s hard to compete when you need other people to survive and as someone that lacked the normal familial support, I have needed that more than most. It is a privilege to not need communal support from people you disagree with. If you can afford to replace family with paid help, you are luckier than most of us. You can silence your maid, but you can’t tell the neighbor you borrow sugar from to stop watching Fox News.
So I’m writing this to tell you that this charade is nonsense. You know the ultimate social construct: political parties? You’ve asked my fellow country-men to hurt each other on the basis of politics and ideologies. Ideologies are only useful to the extent that they help us make the world better, the minute they make things worse we should stop and walk away.
Life has become so hostile and strange in this country and I know it is some kind of cultural shift because I used to have sane conversations with everyone all the time and now, while I’m in mourning, I’ve been avoiding discussion because I can’t handle the hostility. Talking intellectually and arguing politely used to be one of the ways I coped with my pain.
The days of those kitchen table conversations are long gone, but this has been a choice. It’s been something we’ve all bought into. At any moment we can put down our weapons and invite people over to dinner to talk. We don’t have to participate in a culture that only the monsters benefit from.
In a culture designed to tear everyone down and to pit us against one another, the wildest, most rebellious act is to love unconditionally and to help each other out. The best rebellion is love. In a world where they tell you to sever ties, it is open rebellion to talk to the people they tell you not to talk to.
As someone who has been oppressed their entire life, my natural inclination is to not trust the powers-that-be. My first question is usually, “how do these people benefit from this?”
How do the powerful benefit from an America that doesn’t solve their problems around the kitchen table anymore?
How do the powerful benefit from an America where we don’t look for common ground, like my conservative grandmother and I used to, for solving our problems?
How do the powerful benefit when we think we have to be at each other’s throats constantly?
Who benefits from talk of war?
Who stands to gain from hate?
It is NEVER the people who rely on their community to survive. We are seeing a further degradation of community in America that is literally killing us. Take the guns if you must, but the declining mortality rate of America’s poor isn’t coming from the guns.
Suicide is killing us.
Drugs are killing us.
Lack of healthcare is killing us.
Bad working conditions are killing us.
All of these problems used to be taken care of by families and communal institutions. They attack the faithful when that used to be the first line of defense for the poor. Our schools are destroyed, disjointed, when those used to be what kept kids like me alive. They tell us to fight among ourselves while no one can afford to live in our major cities.
We’ve let them tell us Ivy Tower lies while our own people drown.
And the truth is, the ugliest truth of all, is that we keep letting them do it. We allow them to peddle their hate and distract us from what matters most.
Rebel against their hate.
Love like our lives depend on it.
Because indeed, they do.