cancel culture

For the (Cancel) Culture

Long before the coronavirus pandemic hit, 2019 and the beginning of 2020 were already beginning to shape an era that might one day be known as “the canceled years.” One might argue that cancel culture started before that, and I would agree if I wasn’t about to argue that cancel culture doesn’t exist. 

Like many of the other things we call “culture” here in the US of A, cancel culture is a made up idea to make you (you, someone with privilege) think your life is getting harder. Simply put, if there is such a culture (definition: the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group) created by the action of canceling some people or some things, we can skip novelty and just call it what it is: American culture. 

When you read the words “cancel culture” here, some images may have come to mind. They might be figures who went down in the early aughts of our current cancel cycle like Louis C.K. or Matt Lauer. You might have imagined classic TV shows like Dukes of Hazzard suddenly revising or hiding their problematic themes. Whether someone was accused of actual crime like sexual assault, or what I would consider a moral crime like saying the N-word, the accused allegedly get no defense and are swiftly canceled

The initial problem with “cancel culture” is clear to those who do the alleged canceling. Because as we have seen over and over again, it is very difficult to actually “cancel” a person in the way the cancellers want. When they say “Cancel Michael Jackson,” they obviously don’t mean kill him, because he’s already dead. They do mean stop listening to his music, stop financially supporting his estate, stop calling yourself a fan. This goes for most of the celebrities who’ve been the subject of cancellation lately: the goal is not to physically end their life, the goal is to take whatever power they have because they have somehow abused it. 

This is why cancel culture cannot actually exist in the America as we know it. To cancel, by definition, means “decide or announce that (a planned event) will not take place.” Alternatively, it can mean “(of a factor or circumstance) neutralize or negate the force or effect of (another).”

Two words ring important in those definitions: “decide” and “force.” In both uses of the verb cancel, there is power in play. The power is the thing that decides or the thing that loses its force. If you are the thing with the power, you have to either be matched or negated in order for you to even be neutralized, much less “canceled.” Thus in a society run largely by rich white men, there are very few rich white men who will ever see themselves actually canceled. If the people of Twitter had actual power to dictate and adjudicate moral and/or legal crimes, cancel culture might exist. 

But by and large, they don’t.

Think of all the falls from grace you’ve witnessed in your lifetime. I mean think of all the celebrities and public figures who within your lifetime went from beloved, revered, and/or famous to despised, condemned, and/or infamous. Paula Deen comes to my mind. In the sense that I somewhat remember the post-9/11 embrace of George W. Bush, in contrast to the rejection of post-financial crisis Bush. And then of course, Bill Cosby and every man who “went down” in the #MeToo movement. 

All those people did something or were accused of doing something harmful that gave reason for the public to want to see them “canceled.” But people who also come to mind include Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Mo’Nique. All for different reasons, these women had their careers permanently damaged. Yet when America did in fact “cancel” them, it wasn’t a culture. Janet Jackson was a harlot aiming to corrupt your children. Britney Spears was an outdated caricature of a mental patient. Mo’Nique was a traitor to her race. But no, we didn’t call that cancel culture, did we? 

Why? Because those were women. In some cases they were Black women. They had less or far less power than those who wanted them canceled. So it was justified and normal that we built entire TV channels dedicated to picking apart these women and men, too, who struggle with things like addiction. Or in Janet Jackson’s case, simply fall scapegoat to the nearest white man’s tomfoolery. In what compassionate world do we laugh and make jokes about people who struggle with mental illness just because they were once on the Disney Channel? I’m guilty of this too, for sure, having grown up watching the E! Network.

When we unknowingly canceled people back then, though, no one was up in arms about the suffocating oppression of “wokeness” raining down on them. Because back then we weren’t really canceling people for crimes. We were canceling people often for things totally out of their own control. But when we started “canceling” or at least attempting to cancel figures with power, suddenly we have a culture of oversensitivity? 

America was built on canceling. Columbus came in and canceled the native population. The founders canceled the British colonization. The Union canceled the confederacy (read it again). And maybe that’s when the tides really started turning. The formerly enslaved decided they wanted to cancel their chains, but the slave owners (with the power to do so) resisted by simply canceling their subscription to the Union. But THAT wasn’t cancel culture either?

Now that we the people looking for a better world want to cancel things such as racism, sexual and gender-based violence, inequality, hunger, homelessness, etc. NOW we live in “cancel culture?” I really truly hope so. Because that means we the people are finally getting the power to do so. 

But if that’s not the case and those with power refuse to give up those systems of oppression, then no. Cancel culture simply cannot exist. 

violence police brutality

When Violence Hits You in the Face

Some of you may know that last December I fell victim to violence one evening I got punched in the face. On an otherwise normal rainy Monday night, I walked from my office towards the train station, a total distance of roughly 2 blocks. This evening I had items to drop in the mailbox which required me to cross to the side of the street opposite my train entrance. I stopped just before the corner as the light changed, and rearranged the letters to avoid getting them wet. I felt a hand reach under my knee-length coat and give my ass a little brush.

Two names flashed in my head: Tara, Baylie—two close girlfriends who live in the city whom if they ran onto me on the street might greet in such a way. I looked up, already almost smiling, looking around to see a familiar face. In the span of just seconds, confusion turned excitement turned confusion turned to fear. I locked eyes with a scruffy-looking man standing a few yards behind me, staring. I charged and started swinging my umbrella, hitting him several times in the head. I stepped back and watched him approach me and bring his fist to my face.

For whatever reason, the blow to my face was some kind of moment of clarity that also meant nothing. In the way I imagine life flashes before your eyes when you’re dying, the world slowed down for me in the brief moment that a stranger’s knuckles pressed to my cheekbone. I had told a friend earlier that day I was so bored, caught in a rut, and dying for excitement in my life. As I got punched in the face, my first thought was, “Finally.”

In the moments that followed, I looked around, panicked, confused, and ultimately waiting for someone to tell me what to do. Bystanders saw what happened—it was Midtown Manhattan at rush hour. It was almost too crowded for him to have been able to bring his arm back to hit me. People rushed around me and some watched, and I looked at some in the face and no one said anything. That I could hear—truth be told, I had headphones in for this entire ordeal and thus did not hear much besides Fall Out Boy while this thing unfolded. But no one came to my side, stopped to ask if I was okay, tried to stop the guy who did it. I continued southbound, he turned east. I dropped my letters in the mailbox then went to a coffee shop to wipe up the blood and get some ice on my nose. The barista was unbothered.

I went home, called my mom, and began to process this event. Everyone asked the same question: did you call the police?

For several reasons, calling the police barely even occurred to me as I stood in the rain with a bloody nose. It was rush hour. I was scared and wanted to leave the situation. No one stuck around to play witness. The perpetrator was long gone and would be further long gone by the time the cops came because again—rush hour in Midtown. And I just could not imagine standing there in the pouring rain or sitting in Taco Bell with a bloody nose waiting to tell the cops some guy they would never find just hit me because I hit him because I THINK he touched my ass.

But after further deliberation and as the attack settled into my bones, I started to think about justice. This man committed a violent attack on me. I acknowledge that that sounds really blown out of proportion, but at the heart of the event, that’s what it was. I knew that by definition this was a sexual assault, though I recognize and thank God it was “not that bad” on the scale of sexual assaults. The punch itself hurt more, and still, was not that bad—no broken bones. But still, yes, I recognize this was a random act of violence. But I also recognize that I responded with violence, and to this day I hate that about myself and about that night. At the moment it felt like the right thing to do like I had to defend myself. But the reality is, I still don’t know for sure I got the right guy, and it didn’t make anything better. I didn’t feel better about the assault. My nose didn’t hurt any less. The cops didn’t pull DNA from my umbrella. I responded to senseless violence with senseless violence.

So I just gave it away, but I did end up going to cops after a few days of deliberation. And as soon as the words left my mouth in the police station I started to regret it. For starters, I knew I did not want to send this person to prison. Even if I thought they would catch him, which I knew they wouldn’t, I could not morally send a person to prison as a response to that crime. Yes, something bad happened to me. That person did something bad to me. But I know that sending him through our so-called criminal “justice” system would likely make him worse off than he already was.

The one reason I felt compelled to report was of course to keep other people safe. If he was going around doing this to other women, yes of course I would be full of regret and wish he was put away somewhere. But the reality is, it’s not my job to punish that man for his sins. And I am smart enough to know horrible things happen in prisons, and horrible things happen to people in prisons and after they leave. I could not wish any of those things on a person that committed such a relatively small offense against me.

Further, the experience of reporting to the NYPD was laughable. For starters, I think they do only care about what happened to you if they pull up to the scene and decide for themselves. As soon as the words “a few nights ago” left my mouth the first and only question was “Why are you telling us now?” And it wasn’t just me. As I sat in the precinct waiting for officers to get their paperwork together to transport me to another station, a man came in to report his phone was stolen an hour ago. “Why are you telling us now? Why didn’t you call an hour ago?”

People are not exactly trained in emergencies. Or rather, we are trained in real emergencies—we know what to do if our building catches on fire or if someone starts bleeding from their eyeballs. But in these ambiguous emergencies—especially in a city like New York—there are not a lot of day-to-day incidents I would really call an emergency. So no, we don’t automatically think “call the cops” even those of us with the privilege to grow up without fearing police. Sometimes it’s just a matter of “Am I in danger enough to need to call someone?” And the answer is no. As for me, why did I wait days? Well, I had to have a moral dilemma about it, and those things take time. And frankly, I didn’t know any less information on Thursday than I did on Tuesday so again, it didn’t really matter to me.

Back to the precinct, after I told two officers what happened and their eyes widened realizing I was, in fact, a “Special Victim,” I sat in the lobby for two hours awaiting police transport to SVU. It’s not actually called SVU in real life, but it is a team of detectives who investigate these vicious felonies. And their office is way downtown, and no, I was not allowed to escort myself there.

At one point when one officer didn’t know why I was sitting there, they announced across the entire precinct that I was a “special victim” and my stomach wretched at the thought of a woman surviving a rape or worse sexual crime sitting here having cops shout about it to anyone in earshot. Sensitivity does not exist here.

When I finally got taken downtown, learning on the way just how poorly these people in uniforms know how to even navigate this city they’re supposed to protect, my meeting went quickly. A detective took my statement, and introduced me to a virtual lineup.

When the attack happened, I saw the man’s face for probably 5 seconds in total, and each second his fist blocked my line of vision more and more. Needless to say, I didn’t get a great look at him. Another reason I didn’t call the cops when it happened: he was Black. Not only could I not identify him, I was not about to tell the cops to add another “unidentified Black male” to their hit list. Yes his Blackness and my inability to identify him much further from memory were facts, but I’m not stupid. I know how cops abuse those two facts and ruin lives.

The detective pushed me hard to remember any identifying factors even down to the color of his hat. I did my best. He plugged all the things into their database and presented me with a stack of matching profiles. He emphasized that the perpetrator very well might not be pictured, and that this was more for me to find similar features or the off chance that he was in the stack. The features I recalled were generic: Black, average height, average build, a little gaunt, grayish stubble. I think he was wearing a beanie. I clicked through dozens of mugshots of middle-aged Black men. None made my nose quiver so I assume his picture was not in the stack. Still the detectives did surprise me with their efforts, and they called me back a few days later to meet with a sketch artist.

The sketch artist was by far my favorite cop, if I had to name one. But in his office, again I was presented with a stack of pictures. This time it was just their collection of mugshots—Polaroids from what looked like the last several decades. The point was for me to find features that looked similar to my perp’s so I could show the sketch artists and he could come up with a composite sketch. All the detectives acknowledged the slim chances we would ever find this guy, but they certainly make it look like you are the guest star in this week’s Law & Order, and they will, in fact, find this guy. I know this is probably not everyone’s experience. And I’m not saying that to say it was a positive experience for me. I’m saying the whole time I was shocked that they did put in this much effort, and also I wish they didn’t.

I’ve never been called back to the police station to identify the guy, so I’m sure they didn’t find him, and again, I’m okay with that. What would it solve? I’ve thought about what I would want to happen—I do believe in justice and that this person committed an injustice against me. But what punishment would be appropriate? This is clearly a person that needs some kind of reforming. Judging by his appearance, I did assume he was struggling with homelessness—why? Is there mental illness at play? Has he himself been the victim of abuse? A victim of violence? He didn’t attack me in order to hurt my career, he didn’t take my money, he didn’t even intend to really physically hurt me in the first place, I don’t think. But something happened in his life or in his mind to make him think it was ok or he was entitled to touch me, and sending him to prison was not going to change that.

All of this to say, I hate violence. I hate to see it, and can personally attest that despite what it looks like in comedies, getting punched in the face is really not fun. But this interpersonal violence is really just a symptom of the systems of violence producing more and more violent actors. The cycle has to stop somewhere, and it stops with a victor. By that I mean, the night of my incident, I stopped the cycle of violence. He started by touching me, I continued by hitting him, and then stopped it by walking away after his final punch. He was the victor that night. But I restarted it when I went to the police. Because the police is an institution that by definition perpetuates the cycle of violence—both interpersonally in the single acts of police brutality we’ve all seen too many times, and systemically through their contribution to the prison industrial complex. By introducing the police into my relationship with this perpetrator, I guaranteed that the cycle of violence would continue should they ever identify him. Yes, I am hoping and confident they won’t.

Why do I support rioting? Because the powers that be have proven time and time again they will not stop the cycles of violence they perpetuate. If there are so many good cops, why haven’t they stepped up to stop the cycles of violence they witness in their communities? If it’s only a few bad apples, why do we keep finding them? Black people have been the victim of so many systemic cycles of violence for far too long. There are two options: we roll over and continue to be the victim or we fight back and try to stop the cycle of violence. Right now, that might mean doing a little violence—if you can even call it that. Burning a building, robbing a store is simply not the same as shooting a person—even if the bullets are rubber. Stealing from companies that routinely rob people of labor, wages, and ideas is simply not the same as macing and beating people.

To people who only support the police use of force for people committing crimes, I beg—what does that solve? Sure, a person blinded by pepper spray might have trouble getting away with a free pair of sneakers, but who benefits from that? The sneaker makers? Then why do they have insurance? And how much of the profit from that pair of sneakers is going to the person who stitched on the logo? It just never fails to amaze me how “good” cops are at stopping crime when it’s theft or vandalism or loitering, but never when it’s mass murders or sexual assaults. “Well Kamaron, how can they stop a crime they can’t predict?”

Exactly. Crime is predictable. We have the data, we have the research. We know what lowers crime rates and what raises crime rates. The police and the powers of white supremacy are ignoring it because it weakens their power over Black people and people of color. Call me a radical, call me paranoid, but this is the fact. Communities where people are engaged and supported see far less crime—and it’s not because some police force came in and rounded up all the criminals. It’s because some teachers, some mentors, some leaders got together and said okay these people are struggling how do we help them before they find poor coping mechanisms such as…violence?

Enough.

It’s a Trap

They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. They do not warn you just how exhausting that whole exercise can be. It has taken me days to try to put together some words about what I’m feeling right now. I’ve started and stopped several different pieces, started conversations and abandoned them citing a lack of energy. 

Is this the week that America snapped? The timeline of events has been flashing through my head over and over again in mixed up disarray. Did that video just come out? Was it an old video or was that the other one? Wait and they killed her just last week? And didn’t we just do this?

It feels like a trap. Because the murder of George Floyd was nothing new. Having it on video was nothing new. We had the verbatim script from Eric Garner—the t-shirts were already printed. Yet now? During a global pandemic which was only receding because we were staying inside we have been dragged out of our homes to try to tell the world yet again Black lives—our lives—matter?

Do not read this as me saying that people should not be protesting. I stand behind the movement although I am not with them physically. I am saying it feels like some greater force orchestrated this whole sinister thing: make a pandemic, make it disproportionately affect Black people, then do something so heinous on camera and spread it faster than the virus to make Black people so mad they leave the safety of their homes, then spray them with chemicals that can make them more susceptible to the virus. Yes I know, the master composers here are Racism™   and probably Murphy’s law but I also want to imagine a Joker-esque madman behind the curtain.

When I first read about the Trojan horse I felt like, “That’s crazy. Why would the Trojans just welcome this random giant horse into their city?” The video of Floyd’s murder hit my timeline and for a brief moment I felt like “That’s crazy. Why would Black people just welcome this random giant horse into their city?” I am praying that we do not see this pandemic completely explode following these protests. I know people are taking precautions. But when we’ve seen so many of these unjust murders happen when we weren’t in a pandemic, there’s that cautious part of me that begs why now—yes why did they have to kill George now? Of course—why did they have to kill him at all? But why is he the tipping point this time? Why is this the video that made so many people in my timeline, so many CEOs, so many PR agents say, “You know what? I think Black Lives might Matter!” 

Something had to give. Racism, theoretically, is not eternally sustainable given the rate of intermixing. And something tells me that all the Februaries in the world were not going to change enough hearts to rid the world of the plague that is racism. We’ve hit another boiling point, and I do hope somehow it’s the last one and at some point we all come out of this singing Kumbaya.

The point of a revolution is for the ideas to go mainstream, right? We want to totally replace the “old way” with a new way. So I am celebrating the huge mass of social media posts I’ve seen from just about everyone in my networks. People I thought would never utter the words “Black Lives Matter” had tributes to Ahmaud Arbery in their stories. These were not racists in my head, just not people who had ever spoken out against racism to my knowledge. And there is the part of me that dismisses these posts. They’re disingenuous. They’re performative. They’re for the benefit of the poster, not the cause. But I do appreciate the turnout of awareness regardless of my skepticism. Everybody has to start somewhere.

But like my social media followers, the brands got on board very quickly too. Suddenly places I’d shopped were sending me emails about what they’re doing for social justice. Again, I’m baffled at the speed at which this moment caught on. I mean—the speed and the slowness, right? Because it has taken centuries for Black Lives Matter to go mainstream but it also only took a week? 

I’m old enough to remember 6 years ago when the rest of the country watched Ferguson on the news as if it was somewhere we were bombing in the Middle East. This time everyone watched Minneapolis and said “I want in!” It’s incredible to see this movement go mainstream. And I am praying that we see positive change come because of it. But I am also fuming.

The adults—and particularly the white adults—in the room of America should be so ashamed of themselves. We don’t have a single excuse to be uneducated to the issues affecting us. Racism affects everyone. How has it taken so many people this long to figure that out? Did they think Obama fixed everything? Did you think we were kidding every time we pointed out symptoms of the problem?

Yes we’re marching for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and every other Black person killed or harmed by state violence, but we’re also still marching because #OscarsSoWhite. We’re also still marching for equal pay. We’re also still marching to make you stop wearing blackface. We’re also still marching for reparations. We’re marching for all those things you said “weren’t a big deal” while also marching for this the thing that has made you realize it’s a big deal. 

I’m trying to channel all of my anger where it belongs: at the structures that are upholding white supremacy, not the people who are at least pretending to fight it. There are a lot of moving parts to a revolution and it is far from my job to be taking attendance and temperature checks at the door. 

When This is All Over I’ll Be Angry Then

A couple of weeks ago (lol) I started to wonder when our “quarantine” behavior just becomes our normal behavior. From the moment Americans started social distancing and staying at home, the major messages I started to see from the Positive Vibes Only™ section of the internet included: “Be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over missed workouts or extra snacks. This is a pandemic you’re trying to survive—forget all the nonsense of looking Instagram-perfect.” All great messages.

But at the same time, we’re in the middle of a global crisis, one that will only end if people do what they’re supposed to do. So when people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, it’s difficult not to judge them, at least for me. Still, it’s a pandemic—most of us did not know what it was like to live with any kind of restrictions like the ones with which we’ve been living. How could I expect an entire population to just change their lives in a snap? Well, I did it, so…

I’m trying not to be angry now, in the name of survival. Spending most of your time between four walls with no one but your reflection shockingly does not leave a lot of space for bad energy. But it does give me plenty of time to see and think about everything happening all around me.

As with my other posts addressing this crisis, I have to acknowledge my privilege. I have the privilege of having a job, a home, and food to eat. My job was largely unaffected by the crisis, and the crisis, in fact, has been somewhat good for our business. Therefore, while I have been uncomfortable, upset, and annoyed with the whole pandemic, I have always acknowledged the privileges I have had throughout. In the grand scheme of things, COVID-19 has been a minor inconvenience to me.

That being said, for those of us not financially or physically affected by the pandemic, we are allowed to gripe. It’s hard. It’s new and different and scary, frankly, because we acknowledge that today we have the privilege of health as well. But that could change with the next trip to the grocery store. For me it did change with an afternoon run that broke my ankle and took the privilege of total ability out of my reach for the time being. It’s fine. I’m fine. This is fine.

We can gripe, but for the love of God can we calm down? I’m saying “we” to be nice when I really am pointing a finger at some of the behavior I have seen during these uncertain times.

Thankfully, I do not know anyone personally who has been protesting in the streets for businesses to reopen. But I sure do know some people who have been really loud about what I—as a fellow privileged person—would consider minor inconveniences. I know folks who complain about having to stay inside, yet they are also outside and at places or visiting friends or having driveway parties or what have you.

People I know have lost a little business, and that sucks I won’t take away from that. But some of those same people also still have a business and know they will have a business when this is over.

You know I love to think about history and imagine what it would be like to have lived through some of the crazy eras of time. Sometimes I struggle to think about being a person in history who would have had to do something. Like if I were an 18-year-old boy during the Vietnam War—would I have tried to dodge the draft? Would I have known the war was an imperialistic disaster? It’s likely I would have had to act.

This blip in history is not even really asking most of us to act, yet here some of you are acting out like you want to be the next Donkey of the Year. I can’t believe if we make it to 2080 I’ll be telling my grandkids about how I survived because I decided I could do my nails at home.

“Were you brave grandma?”
“Well kids, it was hard. But by the grace of God, we had Instacart.”

Seriously. It’s been said that this disease has been “The Great Equalizer” and then that was quickly rebuked by the fact that we told everyone to “go home” when hundreds of thousands of people don’t have such a thing. Not only has this exposed the wealthy for their gross gluttony, it has also exposed the way they cannot handle minor inconveniences.

Controversial philosopher Kylie Jenner once theorized that 2016 was the year of “realizing things.” As it turns out we have not stopped realizing things since 2016. Things have happened that have appeared unfamiliar, but more or less nothing new has occurred. They have felt new because they have happened with new lenses available that have exposed sometimes hidden meanings.

What I’m saying is wealth inequality is nothing new. But when you have millions of people unsure about how they’re going to pay rent, while you have other people complaining about the cell reception at their beach house, it’s very easy to realize that wealth inequality exists. Racism is nothing new, but when a novel virus starts infecting Black and brown communities at disproportionately higher rates, it becomes pretty easy to realize that racism exists.

Likewise—selfish, greedy, unsympathetic, and ignorant people have always existed. But when scientists beg them to stay home for a few weeks for their own benefit and the benefit of others, I quickly realized how many of those people I know.

It is true that our governments have failed us. It is also true that a lot of the people griping about the restrictions put those governments in place.

When I started writing this George Floyd was still alive. Black Americans and some others were still mourning Breonna Taylor or raging over Chris Cooper while thanking God he’s still alive. Yet when the videos of Floyd’s horrific murder began flooding my timelines, it occurred to me that people all around me were realizing that we aren’t kidding when we say they are killing us in the broad daylight.

I’ve found in recent years I’ve become much more sensitive to graphic violence. I recognize this as a positive thing because it reminds me that I am still soft and human despite years of desensitizing. But at the same time I’ve become more sensitive than I ever was before social media. Scary movies though unrealistic have become more difficult to watch—though I also acknowledge scary movies have gotten a lot darker thematically. I digress.

Seeing George Floyd’s murder on video, and seeing the still image of the cop’s knee into his neck made my skin boil. But further, seeing the outpouring of people I know clicking retweet or like or share so so fast on these images. Did you even process it? Something has happened that is good—at least in my circles, fewer people are denying the truth of such a video or the relevance of such an image. But something horrible has also happened that has made a lot of those people very comfortable to continue dispersing those images carelessly.

Further, it occurred to me that suddenly a lot of people recognize racism when they see a white man kill a Black man on video. However, those same people could not recognize it weeks ago when they learned COVID-19 has infected Black people at a higher rate than white men. Racism wasn’t a problem if it meant we could “return to normal” and go back to not tipping enough at restaurants that employ so many Black and brown folks.

I’ve written incessantly about the Civil War and how bloody it was and how such mass mourning reshaped America. Across four years of fighting, over 600,000 people died in the Civil War. In just around 4 months, over 100,000 Americans have perished from this disease. But if we don’t mourn them, nothing will change.

The Quarantine Diaries

You have my full permission to begin reading this by first stepping outside and screaming at the top of your lungs for a few seconds.

Welcome back. I have to be completely honest, and I don’t know if this makes me “that guy” for anybody, but ever since I was a kid I have always had a feeling deep in my spirit that I would be here on earth for the end of the world. Growing up in church whenever they talked about Jesus returning, I just kind of felt like I’m definitely going to be there when that happens. I imagine other people think about what retirement will look like or what dying will feel like. I have always had some kind of rapture while I’m still living.

I don’t bring up the end of the world because I think this pandemic is the end of the world. I bring it up because this is as close to the end of the world as I have ever felt. I’m young—I barely remember 9/11, I never experienced a situation like the draft or nuclear bomb drills. I imagine they felt kind of like this—unpredictable, chaotic, and confusing.

Full disclosure: I might be considered one of the pesky “spring breakers” who refused to give up her vacation as the pandemic unfolded. Yes I spent a week in Cancún right before the US started shutting down. I pray I am not carrying the disease and did not spread it to anyone down there or en route—yes, I took extra precautions to help that. But the night before I left as my friend’s parents begged me not to go, I thought you know, if the world is ending I wanna be on the beach.

By the time I returned to New York it was highly encouraged that I work from home, restaurants and bars were closing or going take-out only. Within a couple of days the gyms and everything else went too. I went to the grocery store and settled in to social distance.

Prior to my trip I was getting sick to my stomach and having trouble sleeping. The reports of what would become the current pandemic absolutely terrified me. The uncertainty of it all nauseated me. I have to shut my eyes and pretend I believe things are going to be normal again soon.

What surprised me is how quickly my body has adapted to the new normal. When I go outside and see flowers blooming, I have felt shock, like “Oh. It’s spring? And the world is still spinning out here?” Part of it comes with the homesickness. After a year of living in the city, I kind of forgot what nature sounds like—at least what it sounds like in the suburbs when you hear birds chirping and cicadas singing in the summer. I miss my family. They’re gonna read this and say “Why don’t you come home?” But it’s not safe. 

We humans are pretty good at adapting. We kick and scream and gnash our teeth about it but those of us in these super-infected areas have introduced an entirely different way of life in a couple of weeks. It’s not perfect. In fact, it’s very broken, but companies like mine that could move remote barely missed a beat. That’s why it’s so strange to me when I go out it feels like a zombie or apocalyptic movie. Things look and appear normal—not necessarily devastated by a huge disaster—but then you see a sign that’s like “Always carry your zombie repellant” and you’re like oh right that exists in this universe. I walk around the block and things are normal. Then I see the closed TJ Maxx and people in masks and I remember oh right this is my reality.

When I visited Italy last October, my friend and I had trouble appreciating the magnificence of the Vatican because the crowds were so overwhelming. It felt like I visited the inside of other people’s mouths for 2 hours. Seeing the pictures of Italy’s deserted streets and the ones right here in New York make me long for that sea of bodies (okay never that many people in such a tiny space again). It is one of those “be careful what you wish for” moments but of course, no one would have wished for this. 

I am blessed. I am eternally grateful that so far I have been relatively unaffected by this pandemic. My family is safe, I am safe, we have our jobs and our homes. We will probably get through this.

But wow this sucks.

all that money

What are you going to do with all that money?

There’s been a lot of chatter about billionaires lately. Which itself is very funny to me because when I was a kid I couldn’t conceptualize what a billion dollars even is, and if I thought someone had that much money his face was on a Monopoly box. Now they’re this sketchy group of nerds that half the country is trying to take down a notch while the other half tears their clothes and gnashes their teeth at the thought. I’m not going to get too political here, but I have one question—what are you going to do with all that money?

It’s the question they ask lottery winners or Jeopardy champions on TV, and if you’re like me you probably have an idea of how you’d answer. That’s because if I were to be presented with a large sum of money, currently I would be saying “Well X amount will be going to my student loan servicers. Y amount will be going to my good friends at the credit card company, and with the $20 I have left I’ll probably get dinner.” That’s where I’m at, and that’s where millions of Americans are at.

But that’s just for a dollar amount that I can clearly allocate. $50,000 would be a life-changing amount of money to me today, but I can deduct line items from it and in a couple of days have completely depleted it. A billion dollars? I can imagine where I would get started, but after a week of house shopping and vacation planning I’d kind of be like okay now what? So when I see people like Bezos and Gates and all the others in the billionaires club with tens of billions of dollars to their name, I get itchy.

The point of money is to spend it, right? Because we designed our global society on this transfer of paper money for goods and services vital to life itself. Everything beyond what you need to survive is excess. And a little excess isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of excess would not be that bad of a thing in my opinion, except when there are people who have nothing. It’s because of the state of wealth inequality and the sheer amount of poverty in the world that I really am wondering okay what are you going to do with all the money?

Bill Gates said in an interview last week, 

“Maybe I’m just too biased to think that if you create a company that’s super valuable, that at least some part of that you should be able to have — a little bit for consumption, and the balance to do philanthropic things.”

I think that’s one of the major points of contention over billionaires—people think “Bill Gates changed all of our lives with Microsoft, so he deserves all that money.” To that I say sure, credit where credit is due—but at what point is historical recognition, the eternal gratitude of humanity, and the sheer power of knowing you’re one of the brains behind modern technology not enough to compensate for your work? At a certain point the money that people like Gates accumulate becomes more than they could even spend on their own interests so why do they want to keep so much of it? They don’t carry their money around like a trophy. They’re not putting their literal cash on display for all to see. What is it for?

Money is not impressive. What do you get for being the richest person in the world? A pat on the back. Your name at the top of a list on a website or in a book? You will still be subject to the human condition. You can afford to have a better life than most people, and to these ultra-rich, I say go for it. You may have earned that at least! But the thing is—after you do all that, you still have so much left over.

I can understand one of these people saying “Well I don’t trust the government to appropriately use my billions,” as a reason to not want the tax. Because it’s a fact that governments can be corrupt and misuse tax dollars. But I also haven’t heard any of these guys offer up a better suggestion. Sure, Bill Gates does a lot of philanthropy. He even started a major initiative to encourage more wealthy folks to do the same, but it’s not enough. If you can change the world once with a computer, I don’t see why you can’t do it again with your money. 

There was this little period one time when I was a teenager where in the course of maybe two weeks my mom gave me $20 on two separate occasions, and both times I lost it. While I’ve rarely been in the position to be able to just “throw away” $20, much less $40, but losing this money was not detrimental. And to ration with my misfortune (or irresponsibility) I just reason that someone who needed it will find it. I was blessed to have the $20 in the first place, now hopefully someone will find it and maybe that will allow them to eat for the first time in a day. When you have enough for yourself, why can’t you take the gamble to see what someone else can do with your excess? Spread the wealth.

I’m Not Going to Stop Talking About The Civil War Until I See Another One

One of the greatest things my college education gave me was an obsession with the American Civil War. Prior to taking college-level American history (and specifically, classes focused on detangling the myths of American history at large), my knowledge and understanding of the war that shaped the country was laughable. I knew the North fought the South sort of about slavery (at the time I wasn’t sure if slavery was the real cause) and won, freeing enslaved people and solidifying the unity of all the states. Now I’m basically to the point where I’d say Civil War history should be prioritized over most other subjects within US history education. And I’ve decided that I’m not going to stop talking about the Civil War until I see another one.

The war itself was a mess. Not speaking to strategy or specific battles, but overall it was a messy ordeal. Historians talk about the war as being all-encompassing because of the massive number of casualties. Entire male populations from some areas were essentially wiped out in the war effort—on both sides. To this day, it remains the deadliest war in our history and yet, almost immediately after the fact, people started to forget why this happened.

You would think if a country paid such a hefty price for something that it would then do everything in its power to prevent such a thing from happening again. America did not.

A Miseducation

From what I can tell, there are a few key factors people seem to misunderstand when it comes to the Civil War. They can mostly be chalked up to the education people are getting about the war, which from my point of view is at best irregular across the country, and at worst, false.

The Cause

First, the war was about slavery. The Civil War was about slavery. Period. Not state’s rights. Not economic reasons. Just American slavery.

Yes, up until the war the legality of slavery was a state’s right to decide. However, as new states were being admitted into the union without the right to allow slavery, those that would become Confederate states began to secede. Why do people think the war was about anything else? I think that’s broadly the fault of education. I remember learning in middle school that the war was moreso about the economic differences between the regions, with slavery as a factor, but not really coming to the conclusion that slavery was the cause until high school and college.

And that was in New Jersey. In some places in the South, I’ve heard from peers that their textbooks referred to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression” which is plainly false as the Confederacy ultimately fired the first shots. Regardless of what you’ve been taught, this debate prevails, and it undermines the rest of what is important about the war. It makes it difficult to actually grapple with the lessons we desperately needed to take away from the war.

The Characterization

The war was simultaneously divisive and unifying.

This is a bit of a personal thesis I’ve come to through my studies. Obviously, the war was the division of the so-called United States. And the end of the war, as many scholars acknowledge, marked the true beginning of the United States. You may have heard the adage that before the war, people referred to the states in the plural form—“The United States are…”—where after the war it was referred to in the singular—“The United States is…”

My view would say that this change was less a before and after, and more a brackish throughout. While the war drew a clear line between us and them, it also brought us all together in a gruesome fashion. Because of the sheer deadliness of the war, it’s understandable that an immense hunger for peace and reconciliation followed. 

Without even thinking about the aftermath of war in today’s terms of PTSD and such, you can imagine how hollow it must have felt to live in this nation and see so much of the population wiped out in bloody battles in your own backyard. We still have buildings scarred with bullet holes from the war. Imagine living up the street from where there’s thousands of men buried in shallow graves. 

Yet, this grief period should not have overshadowed the fact that we needed to make critical repairs to a broken system. Generally speaking, it’s a little weird to think we crafted this beautiful Constitution and after half the country threw it in the trash, we thought they’d take it out and respect it again with a couple of amendments. While we were unified in our grief we remained divided by our ideologies. Yes many slaveowners were no longer practicing slavery, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t wishing they could. 

Surely the tension between these overwhelming feelings of unity and division was not easily navigated. So in response, the Union focused more or less on the unity, which was a critical mistake.

The Reckoning

The value of the Union victory was more or less lost as early as the Reconstruction era.

If I had fought in the war as a Union soldier, I would have marched through the South for years afterward chastising them for their atrocities. True, probably not a better alternative, but the Union effort for Reconstruction was a joke. The technicalities were by no means had easy answers—especially when Lincoln gets taken out of the equation—but the answers the Union came up with were tragic.

Broadly speaking, the Confederacy got off easy. Yes, the crime of slavery was totally American—not limited to the South, and not the fault of one person or region. And as people of the time felt, the Civil War was a punishment that the entire nation received for that crime. But it wasn’t enough because it failed to address the crime of dehumanization which was the real crime of slavery. 

The practice of slavery itself, I think is one we have not collectively been able to understand. We think about it in a kind of practical sense, understanding it was a commonly accepted practice globally since the beginning of time that we eventually ended.

But we fail to recognize what it means to keep another human as property for any purpose. We fail to recognize that the institution of slavery relies on the idea that some humans are not equal. And because in ending slavery we only did that—end slavery—we failed to teach basic humanity when it was most critical. A person can go from slaveowner to not slaveowner overnight. A person will not go from thinking an entire race is inferior, or even just different overnight—especially when they are not told to do so.

It’s because of this missing understanding that Reconstruction ultimately failed. Reconstruction focused on moving forward and rectifying the physical losses—cities, populations, economies—when it desperately needed to focus on the moral losses that allowed the war to happen—equality, compassion, humanity. Because of this oversight, the South was able to rebuild itself in its own image maintaining racial subjugation.

From this period we get a lot of the memory we have about the Civil War painted in the beautifully tragic colors. It’s the reason we have all those now-contested Confederate monuments—the South was peddling stories about sacrifice and bravery to paint the war as this great honorable fight not about anything but Americanness. A number of the ways we celebrate American patriotism today comes from the Civil War period as Southerners fought to commemorate the war not as a time when they lost, but a time when we all won.

Seeing the war as a collective movement not only undermines the whole slavery problem but also falsely characterizes the South as graceful losers. Not to say they fought tooth and nail to the end—they didn’t. Confederate soldiers were literally deserting the war long before Appomattox, and obviously, the war ended with Lee’s surrender. But beyond that, viewing the war as this disagreement that ended in agreement is false. The South, defeated, went home and started planning for how to find other ways to keep their (white) power. And the North patted themselves on the back for winning and just went home. 

A Reeducation

To unlearn these narratives, you have to understand the truth that invalidates them. Of course, that means more than just getting the facts straight—you also need to understand why the facts matter.

Defining Inequality

The mischaracterization of the cause of the war undermines the entire history of race relations in the United States. It is fair to see the Civil War as a turning point and thus to see history in two parts: pre-war and post-war. But if you take out the slavery cause you throw those parts into disarray because it leaves you asking what did the war change?

As mentioned, we collectively still struggle to understand exactly what the practice of slavery meant. I think it’s one of those things that gets taught to you almost every year (probably in February) you are in school to the point that it has lost its meaning. Maybe I’m projecting too much of my own experience, but my feelings about slavery until college were very basic—it was a bad thing that happened. What I now urge others to understand is that it was a bad system that existed and still has huge ramifications today.

It’s a common debate now as lawmakers discuss reparations to bring up the fact that slavery existed not too long ago. And while, yes that it meaningful, that fact pales in comparison to the fact that we’re still using the same ideas to create new systems that are more or less other forms of slavery. 

The entire basis of slavery rests on the idea that there is a human on the planet who is unequal to any other human. And while we said in our Declaration of Independence—that foundation for the nation—that all men are equal, we still collectively refuse to believe it. And because of that, we failed to establish comprehensive civil rights immediately after the Civil War, and thus had to do it all over again a hundred years later. 

Hindsight

When I think about the unity that was supposed to come following the Civil War, I often compare it to the Black Lives Matter movement. Almost immediately after organizers and protesters started shouting “Black Lives Matter,” people came out of the woodworks to assert that in fact, “All Lives Matter.” This did not and still does not go over well, as many of you know.

Reconstruction worked similarly in that if we pretend that the Union was in fact fighting to end slavery, they were the ones saying “Black Lives Matter.” The Confederacy started the war with “Black lives matter to my plantation,” and ended with “All Lives Matter” in the sense that they wanted everyone to forget about that little slip-up of slavery, and recognize the fact that we’re all here now and we should just move on. 

They, along with the current “all lives matter” troupe would be correct if they themselves took that view from the beginning. Black Lives Matter needed to be said in 2015 and henceforth because black Americans understood that their lives were not being seen as something that mattered in the eyes of police and many other institutions. Had the colonizers, the slave owners, and everyone who continues to uphold institutions founded on inequality said all lives matter BEFORE they were putting people in cages, chains, and whipping posts, then yes it would still be fine to say all lives matter in 2019.

The fact of the matter is, some person at some point in history decided that another person was not the same as them. Thus all of civilization has been able to get away with that idea and use at their discretion. Racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance—every form of discrimination is based on the idea that there are two humans on the planet that are somehow unequal, and thus one of them is deserving of less.

The Civil War was an opportunity to see this problem and its effects and actually do something about it. We failed.

Shoulda Coulda Woulda

Do I think the Union could have eradicated racism in America in the aftermath of the Civil War? Not necessarily. There will always be bad apples. There will always be outliers. But it’s the cycle of “progress” that we keep repeating that makes me wish they at least gave it a shot.

I feel very helpless at working towards national moral agreement now because we’re too big. We may have been too big then, but especially now: how would you go about trying to teach every person in this country that everybody is equal? How do you unteach generations of ingrained ideology when it’s so widespread? I don’t know.

But I do know that we had a much better shot in 1865 than we do in 2019. There were around 3 generations where we could have at least tried to prevent the passing on of this disease that is inequality, but the North decided to go the amicable route and let the South continue to undermine black Americans. 

We are here in Trump’s America at this time of tangible tension because we failed to nip the Confederacy in the bud. By failing to set up actual protections for formerly enslaved citizens and black citizens broadly, the South was able to continue subjugating black Americans through bureaucratic institutions which at best looked like sharecropping and at worst looked like lynch laws. 

What Do I Want

I don’t want to see another literal civil war. Practically speaking, they managed to kill and wound over a million Americans with the time-intensive and shoddy weapons they had back then, it would just be total and instant obliteration with today’s cache.

In reality, though the last few years have felt eerily war-like. The phrase “in today’s political climate” instantly triggers feelings of tension, divisiveness, and disagreement for many along with feelings of fear, helplessness, and anger all similar to those of the Civil War era. If we just referenced certain events of the past few years differently you could almost imagine them sequenced in a future textbook: The Battle of Ferguson, The March on Charlottesville, The Charleston and El Paso Massacres, to name a few. We may not all be wearing matching uniforms, but there are conflicts happening all around us trying to prove a point.

My point is the arguments have all been made. Every moment that we spend still debating the significance of the Civil War is another moment that proves we have not learned from it at all. We assert broadly that history repeats itself but we ignore the caveat that this only happens if we fail to learn from it. The first step is getting on the same page about what that history actually is and what it means.

If You Always Do What You Always Did…

My mom will be pleased to read that some of the things she has said to—or in some cases drilled into—me have stuck with me into adulthood. This she has said both to me and to her own mother on countless occasions: “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” 

A quick google search found that quote attributed to author Tony Robbins, along with Albert Einstein and Henry Ford. I’m not sure where my mom first heard it (and no, I didn’t bother to ask), but it clearly stuck with her as she passed it on to me. I would be inclined to believe it came from an innovator like Einstein or Ford because it expresses the idea that if you keep doing the same thing, you’re going to keep seeing the same result. 

Sure there are more details involved, but you can imagine Henry Ford standing in the factory saying, “Ah murderation (or some other old-timey exclamation)! If we keep building one car at a time, we’ll just keep making one car at a time and it will take lifetimes to see all of America driving automobiles!” or something to that effect. And thus, the assembly line was born. 

My mom has so far not heeded this advice when I’ve come to her in shambles because I haven’t been able to revolutionize an industry. But she does present it when I come to her and say, “I have x problem and it’s not getting fixed because y.” The y is usually some person with routine patterns that need to change or some job that needs to change or some habit I’ve created that I need to change. In essence, she cuts right to the point. No nonsense, no frills. If you can change it, you have to—if you want the result to be different.

Why in the world could I possibly be writing this when we’ve just had two mass shootings in 24 hours? I can’t possibly put two and two together.

But it’s bigger than that. I know we are not the same country we were when Columbine happened. Or Virginia Tech. Or Sandy Hook. Things have changed, albeit on a microscopic level, but things have changed and I won’t pretend people aren’t doing anything to change the routine of gun-related tragedies. But we have to understand that on a macro scale, the effort to end gun violence has remained mostly the same. You don’t need to be a policy expert to see that. Why? Because we’re getting the same result. Either we’re not changing the right things or maybe we just aren’t changing anything.

Take it outside of gun violence, and I keep begging the question: why are we as a country doing the same thing year after year, election after election and expecting different results?

When I was in my last semester of college, I had a painting professor give us a prompt to think about and eventually paint about. He gave us with no context this quote: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I didn’t google it at the time—I’m not sure if we were explicitly prohibited or if I was just lazy—but I now know where it comes from and that alone will give a lot of folks all the context they need. But the class discussion illuminated for me the meaning that whoever is in charge is not going to be taken down by the same means that they were put in power. The actual reference is a book by civil rights activist, Audre Lorde.

If defeating Trumpism™—or however you choose to define the chaos everyone is seeing in this country—is the goal, then the strategy we tried to use to beat it in 2016 is obviously not going to work. Yet here we are trying it again. Maybe if we just vote harder this time…

I don’t mean to sound so pessimistic about the future and the work that some leaders are doing to combat hatred as well as the other issues like climate change, healthcare, and immigration. But I find it truly mind-blowing that we have really just gotten so comfortable with the idea that the America where people aren’t in constant anger if not fear and sadness will reappear (or, for many many people, appear for the very first time) if we just keep doing the same routines. 

I will put it in writing: I would love to see a revolution in this country. As a historian, yes I think it was something of a remarkable bureaucratic feat to create this nation at the time of its foundation. To be able to fight against the strongest military in the world and with no legal right and a noose on the line to say “We want this freedom and we’re not going to stop until we get it,” is really bold. 

There is no difference between what the founders did 243 years ago and what a group of determined individuals who band together, go against the grain, and refuse to quit can do today. We take the American Revolution for granted because we think that should have been the only one. 

Yes, that common phrase people say Jefferson said about every generation needing a revolution, is mostly fake. But he did say, “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” He’s actually talking about Shay’s Rebellion—a relatively small uprising over, go figure, taxes—which turned out to be a major catalyst for the writing of a small document known today as the Constitution.

I’m going to try not to go down a historical rabbit hole here, but this example kind of nuances the thesis of “always doing what you always did.” The rebellion mirrored the Revolution in that these farmers felt they were being taxed unfairly, and they took physical action to get a say. The major change here was that they were farmers and not wealthy men leading the charge, and they were thus swiftly defeated. So to that end, it proves the point that doing the same thing won’t work. But they did see a changed result in that their protest made the people in charge realize the Articles of Confederation weren’t going to work.

From this example, we understand that a revolution in the traditional sense that Americans understand it probably won’t work. But we need to understand that the revolutions that work focus on the technical definition of a revolution: a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it. 

There is no revolution so long as we’re using the same systems that built whatever it is that needs to be changed. There will be no real revolution until we change the entire way we think about how our government works.