The Party of Stasis
In a few days, I and several of my colleagues will be meeting with our Congressman for the first time since the election. I believe this will be our 17th meeting with him over the past four years, though to be honest I’ve lost count. That’s just to say that I’ve met him enough times now to know him and his positions well, and how these meetings go. My Congressman is a centrist through and through, not out of practicality, as he likes to think, but out of ideology. This has led to a lot of frustration on my and my colleagues’ part, and in the aftermath of the election it’s making me extremely worried.
Last month, Senator Joe Manchin said in an interview that “Democrats have to be better at defending what they stand for.” I don’t agree with Senator Manchin on much of anything but I do sort of agree with that, though I’d go a bit further: Democrats don’t need to just defend what they stand for, they need to define what they stand for. Right now it’s not clear that the Democratic Party actually stands for anything, and I think that’s why they have so much trouble with so many constituencies.
That is, Democrats talk a lot about healthcare and working families and diversity and climate and stuff but the policies they as a party actually work toward are mostly small tweaks to the existing system. The fundamental ideology of the centrist Dem is that the system is mostly fine as is. I think this has a lot to do with why Democrats struggle so much in so many parts of the country and why there’s so much in-party fighting. They struggle because the system as-is doesn’t work for a lot of people, and they don’t actually present an alternative. Moreover, they don’t really want to present an alternative.
But people whose lives are in danger from racist cops, mass incarceration, and the by-products of segregation are not going to be helped by new police training standards. People whose communities’ economies have been tanked by dwindling natural resources and corporate greed are not going to be helped much by things like wonky tax credits and minor tweaks. People who are being threatened by climate change are not going to be saved by things like tax credits for electric cars or streamlined permitting procedures for new hydro plants. The system as it is just doesn’t work for a lot of people, especially not the people who are the actual core constituencies of the Democratic Party. It’s hard to turn out a vote from those people when what your party demonstrates is a commitment to the status quo.
Whatever else we can say about the Republican Party, they are actually committed to changing things. They’re committed to changing things for the worse, of course, to making things more racist and sexist, to taking from the poor and giving to the rich. But it’s something.
Centrist Dems all over the country have been screaming that they lost (or almost lost) because Republicans are tying them to stuff they don’t actually support from the progressive wing of the party and from activists. But if it were clear what they actually stood for, you couldn’t do that. That is, if somebody lies about you and a lot of people find that lie plausible, I think it’s worth taking some time to understand what it is about your character and behavior that is leading people to find that lie plausible.
This is fundamentally what electoral politics is about. You need to define what it is that you stand for. You need to make it clear. You need to demonstrate why your way is going to help your constituents, both in your messaging and in your actual governance. If you say one thing and then do another, people aren’t going to trust you. And they shouldn’t. Right now the Democrats only real redeeming virtue is that they aren’t the Republicans. “Same” is, at the end of the day, better than “worse.” But that’s not ultimately sustainable.
Really, what both parties are doing right now is looking backwards. Trump explicitly calls back to a pre-Civil-Rights-era America in his campaign speeches, and we rightly denounce him for it. But it seems to me that a lot of the Democratic Party messaging is calling back to the Clinton ‘90s or the Obama years—Biden did that a lot during his campaign. They’re making an appeal to some imagined past when everything was better and more decent. But were we ever decent? Maybe our political rhetoric was less obscene, but Obama still deported more people than any President before him, climate change was already underway and accelerating, and billionaires were still looting public instutitions—they were just quieter about it and most Americans were comfortable enough to look the other way.
I know that when I sit down for that meeting next week, my Congressman is going to talk about the need to avoid alienating Republican and moderate voters, about the need for bipartisanship, about not being too extreme. But we are past the point where incremental changes can solve the problems we face—if, indeed, there ever was a point where incrementalism was sufficient. My fear is that if big changes aren’t made in the near future, the kinds of change that meaningfully affect people’s actual lives, the backlash in 2024 will be more than we can handle, and certainly more than what centrists like my Congressman are expecting.
Things aren’t hopeless. Even somebody as milquetoast as Chuck Schumer has acknowledged that we need more. I just hope we have time to get there.
#MatteredToMe - December 11, 2020
It’s Friday, so here are some things that mattered to me recently:
Helena Fitzgerald wrote about small rooms, about repetition, about time, about how our stories aren’t what we think they are. It’s about the pandemic, of course, but it is mostly about longing, and mostly about unfulfilled longing.
I was catching up on past episodes of LeVar Burton Reads this week, and listened to Rebecca Roanhorse’s story “Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life.” The story itself was great, a Western that centers on a Black lesbian couple. But also, Burton’s monologue at the end, in which he talked about race and policing and the importance of sitting in our discomfort as a path to growth. It was personal and deeply moving.
Episode 80 of Ross Sutherland’s experimental fiction podcast Imaginary Advice starts off with a discussion of his recent series The Golden House, which was a form of alternate reality game. He talks about the way ARGs play off a certain form of paranoia, and talks through the responsibility of making something like that. Then in the second part he showcased a collaboration between himself and Emmy the Great, which involved writing two pieces of fiction with the exact same soundtrack. I loved how both segments got me to thinking about my own creative process.
This week on Anand Giridharadas’s newsletter The.Ink, he posted an interview with grassroots organizer Vincent Emanuele. They talked at length about the ways the Democratic Party is failing to reach the voters they need to, prioritizing fundraising over engagement with the people that make up their base, and why that’s dangerous for the future. But, importantly, they also talked about the alternative and how to build real community and make real change.
I was so happy to see Rachel Zucker’s podcast Commonplace return this week, and extra happy to see that she was talking with David Naimon of Between the Covers. These are two of my favorite podcasters, and a lot of the insecurities and frustrations and shame that Rachel described were things that felt very familiar to me.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. Try to remember that it's okay to ask for help when you need it—something I've been working on, too.
Thank you, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - December 4, 2020
It’s Friday, so here are some things that mattered to me recently:
The Allusionist did an episode this week about the destruction and revival of indigenous Australian languages. I thought it was particularly interesting to hear the discussion of family words and how English words get adapted.
The BBC podcast Short Cuts released an episode called “The Interpreter” last month that included a segment called “A Birthday Card.” It’s an elegiac and beautiful piece about family after a divorce, tender in both the writing and the delivery. I thought it was amazing.
The latest issue of Don’t Take Pictures magazine included a feature on Fabienne Rivory’s constructed landscapes, which combine photography, collage, and painting in a way I haven’t seen before, and which is very beautiful.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I’m trying to remember to take care of my own needs, too. I hope that you’re able to do that, too.
Thanks, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - November 27, 2020
- Lyz Lenz wrote about our individual and collective failure of empathy during the pandemic. It's not a feel-good piece. It does not contain easy answers or comfort. But I think the discomfort it elicits is an important and useful one.
- Brandon Taylor wrote about fall, about nostalgia and about experiencing a season or a life mainly in reference to something else. What I thought was impressive is how it manages to be both nostalgic and a critique of nostalgia.
- I finally got around to playing the game Night in the Woods. I'd heard that it was very good and very affecting, very fun and often funny, and all that is true. I wasn't prepared, though, for how well it captures the poignancy of homecoming when you're young and a little lost, or how complex the friendships and family relationships would be. I thought it was really well done, and very moving.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I'm thinking a lot about change lately, change on both a global and a personal scale. I'm trying to remember that there's loss in change, but there's gain, too. I hope you're well.
Thank you, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - November 20, 2020
- Nicole Chung wrote about loss during the pandemic, about losing the comfort of in-person rituals, and about finding new ways to honor one's grief.
- Alexander Chee wrote about the black jeans that are getting him through. I think this, too, is about separation and connection across time and distance, about having something you can literally hold onto.
- Hannah Cohen wrote about her younger days as a fanfiction writer. I think it is in part about nostalgia, about community, about honing her craft. Also, though, it is about carving out a space for oneself, about making a new kind of future.
- Finally, I spent a lot of yesterday singing along with a song from a 10-year-old Sesame Street episode. It's a nostalgic song for me because it reminds me of my son as a toddler, but it's also just a catchy and warm-hearted song about togetherness that always makes me feel a little bit better.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me. I know it's hard not to be with people, and more and more so as time goes on. I hope you're able to find some connection across the distance soon, if that's what you want.
Thank you, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - November 13, 2020: After
- Jeopardy was a staple of my young life, so losing Alex Trebek this week was hard. I saw Parul Sehgal's recent review of his memoir going around, and it was such a loving tribute to the man, a balm to my sadness on the day I read it.
- I’ve long been a fan of Helena Fitzgerald’s griefbacon newsletter, so I was very happy to see her start it back up again after a long hiatus. This week she wrote about election nights and living through historical moments, the large and small details, and how we tell these stories.
- Lyz Lenz wrote “Dispatch from a Red State” for her newsletter this week, about living in a space that may not be safe for you, about claiming that space anyway. I'm struggling with staying and fighting, too, and this meant a lot to me.
- Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote about why choosing a path of moderation and incrementalism would be dangerous for the Biden administration. I agree, and I think she lays out her reasoning very well, and the articles she linked were also useful.
- Finally, Ada Limón's poem “It Begins With Trees” was just lovely. I wish I had something more insightful to say about it—it deserves more. I've been reading it over and over and sighing and smiling.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. My emotions have been oscillating wildly this week, but I think I'm trending toward resolve. In any case, I hope you can find a moment of peace soon.
Thank you, and take care.
A Kind of Optimism
A couple of days ago I wrote a post about the fact that so many people voted to re-elect the President, what that means for us going forward, how the work is not done yet. And all of that is true. By the latest count, almost 70 million Americans voted for Trump, and they did that having seen hundreds of thousands of people die of COVID while the President undermined doctors and scientists, having seen the President egg on white supremacists, having seen his Administration separate families and put children in cages, having seen him do his damnedest to subvert and destroy American democracy.
What I’m choosing to think about this morning is that almost 74 million Americans voted for Biden. And they did that having seen Biden and the Democratic Party call explicitly for listening to scientists. They did that having seen Biden and many prominent Democrats admitting the reality of systemic racism, acknowledging that Black Lives Matter. They did that having seen Biden talk about the existential crisis of climate change.
We may not be able to say that every one of the 74 million people who voted for Biden supports defunding the police or BLM. But we can say that none of them were so turned off by the idea of racial justice that it prevented them from voting for a Democrat. And that, to me, shows a glimmer of hope for our future.
What I see in Republican voters is a strong current of “I don’t want this to be true, therefore it is not true.” And, yes, I understand that one can’t talk about large groups in monolithic terms. Nevertheless, movements are a result of patterns that are observable, and its useful to take note of those patterns. Again and again, what I’ve seen from conservatives is a refusal to engage with ideas that, if true, would require them to experience discomfort. Despite all sorts of available research, I’ve seen people deny the existence of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry; deny the reality of climate change; deny the need to take measures to control the virus. And there is a logic to this refusal: if these problems are real then not only do we have to make big and potentially difficult changes to the way we live, but we must also reckon with the ways that we, ourselves, have been complicit in the problems. Nobody wants to feel shame, and in that way it is understandable if not excusable that so many people would respond well to the message that they have nothing about which to feel shame.
Over the past four years and especially the past five months, Americans have been talking about bigotry more than in any other period of my lifetime. These conversations have been happening in the media, from our politicians, and in our homes and between friends and family. And we know that this national discussion has provoked a conservative backlash, one that has even become violent in its denial. We know this without question—Republican politicians have made opposition to BLM, gay rights, and feminism centerpieces of their messaging. It is dismaying that nearly 70 million Americans voted for a man who rode that backlash to the White House and doubled down on it at every turn.
But if we must reckon with the fact that so many Americans rejected the needs of marginalized communities, we must also be buoyed by the fact that so many more Americans heard these same conversations and didn’t turn away. This doesn’t mean that we are done talking about bigotry in America, but it means that we can and must continue talking about it, and we can do so with the knowledge that at least 74 million Americans watched this conversation unfold and then voted for Joe Biden. I choose to see this as a demonstration that although we are not done with bigotry, we can at least see the path ahead of us and feel hope that we can move in the right direction.
That path is shown to us most clearly in states like Arizona, where Native and Latinx organizers have been hard at work. It is shown to us in states like Michigan and Georgia, where it wasn’t the white moderates who swung those states but Black organizers who built strong enough networks to overcome voter suppression the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations. It is shown to us in states like Texas, that may not have flipped yet but where grassroots organizers, especially in Latinx communities, have pushed a former conservative stronghold into a competitive battleground. As I write this, my social media feeds are full of liberals singing the praises of Stacey Abrams, and rightly so. And what Abrams has shown us is that it is possible to build a base of power without compromising our ideals, without abandoning Black and brown people—that when people come together in power, we can win.
The road ahead of us is still long and difficult. We know that we will have little opportunity to rest—indeed, organizers are already gearing up for the Senate run-offs in Georgia. But I am letting myself be optimistic about what’s coming. We can’t stop pushing, but I think what we’re seeing right now is that when we push together, we can move something even as big as America.
It is Friday today, and normally I’d be delivering you a list of things to read or watch. As you might imagine, I haven’t been able to concentrate on much besides the election this week.
Still, as I’m always saying, the articles and poems and podcasts I share in my weekly round-ups are just a portion of what has mattered to me. I am deeply grateful to the grassroots activists who have worked so hard to get us this far, especially my colleagues in the activist community here in San Diego—it has mattered to me a great deal to get to work with them.
And, in case you didn’t know, you matter to me. Thank you so much for spending your time with me.
#MatteredToMe - October 30, 2020: Reconsidering
- Sarah Keller wrote about hunting and finding their way to a new understanding of queerness and rural-ness and self. What I appreciate about this piece is how it allows for a kind of synthesis of values, rather than a simpler rejection or separation. I grew up with hunters in my life, too, and reading this essay gives me the opportunity to re-examine how I think about rurality.
- Matthew Salesses has written a lot this year about desire as a way of understanding Asian American-ness, and it is always illuminating—if at times challenging for me. In this piece he talks about Asian American masculinity and how its construction is related to the model minority myth. It's very good.
- I listened to David Naimon's conversation with Natalie Diaz this week, in which they discussed the limitations of language, the extractive nature of empathy and certain kinds of knowledge, and more. Many of these ideas push directly against things I have held as values for a long time, so it's not the easiest thing for me to be receptive to. But I've been thinking about it a lot.
- Shing Yin Khor's latest comic for Catapult is about Route 66, the violence that lies beneath nostalgia, and holding both love and anger at the same time.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I know you are tired right now. I am, too. I see all of you who are still trying, still pushing, still fighting through that exhaustion. You matter to me, too.
Thank you, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - October 9, 2020: Connecting
- Hanif Abdurraqib wrote about You've Got Mail, about the excitement of falling in love. It's nostalgic and, I thought, very romantic. It made me happy.
- I read Jenny Erpenbeck's 2018 Puterbaugh keynote last weekend, which is about borders and disparity, how capitalism and nationalism create a willful ignorance of those from whom we are separated. It's quite potent, I thought.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I hope that you get a chance to rest soon. I know there is much to be done still, but we all need down time, too.
Thank you, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - October 2, 2020: Past and Future
- I absolutely loved this new season of the Lost Notes podcast, reflections on the year 1980 and what it meant to music. Hanif Abdurraqib is my favorite music writer, because he never just tells you what the music is like. Rather, he always tells you what the music meant to him, and why, and how. These episodes contained both elegy and triumph, pain and defiance, and they were such a wonder to listen to.
- I signed up for Sarah McCarry’s newsletter future recuperation after reading her latest, “setting sails.” It’s about working on a tall ship and the anxiety of living through this time, what it feels like to be watching what’s happening in your home country from the outside. I’ve never had the experience of being on a sailing ship, being constitutionally not well-suited to boats or their motion, but nevertheless a lot of what she wrote about felt so familiar to me, and I appreciated getting to read it.
- Finally, this 2019 conversation between Eve Ewing and Mariame Kaba, which is about how organizing is fundamentally about relationships, about interdependence, about creating conditions where a future can happen. I’m still not as good at being an organizer as I am at being an activist, and not as good at being an activist as I’d like. But I’m grateful to get to read and learn from people like Mariame Kaba.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I’m anxious about the future and I don’t know what will happen. But that’s always been true. I hope whatever comes brings us closer to healing and justice.
Thank you, and take care.