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Friday, May 24, 2019

Coda: Tennessee



1aa concluding musical section that is formally distinct from the main structure

ba concluding part of a literary or dramatic work

2something that serves to round out, conclude, or summarize and usually has its own interest--Merriam-Webster Dictionary

T. and I left our house on the 19th of May 2017. According to our original plan, we should have been on our way back from the eastern United States two years later. We were going to travel to New Orleans and work our way through the Deep South, up to Washington, D.C., and ultimately Chicago. Among other things, we would follow a trail of African-American history and visit sites of the civil rights movement.

We didn’t manage it, at least not on this trip. But just before 19 May I did squeeze in one more place, where I was born and spent the first seventeen years of my life. First I had to negotiate Manchester airport, which was mostly fine. The guy at security pointed to the latest addition to my daypack—the flag of the first country we traveled to, Wales. “That’s mine!” he said. On the other side of security, prominently placed, was a water bottle refilling station. I was glad to see it. This was the first time I’d been able to refill my bottle after security in a U.K. airport. Think of the thousands of plastic bottles people don’t have to buy now.

The backpacks are always a talking point. I was glad to have plenty of time to make my connection in Atlanta, where the agent who printed my boarding pass wanted to talk about the relative merits of my Osprey bag or the 40; “I was thinking of buying one!” And an agent in Tri-Cities said she had the same bag as mine, and had carried it on no problem. So had I on the way out.
Tennessee state flag--not to be confused with the other one. The three stars represent East, Middle, and West Tennessee. 

On the plane I had time to watch The Hate U Give, a movie I’d wanted to see since we were in Toronto. The story of an African-American girl who witnesses a police shooting, it did an excellent job of showing the character, appropriately called Starr, and the pressures she is under from all sides. I found it surprising and moving, and it also set me up to observe my home state. I went to East Tennessee to visit my parents, of course, but I’ve been traveling long enough also to want to look at it through new eyes.

Whenever I mention Tennessee to someone who has never been there, I get one of two responses: “Memphis?” (the largest city) or “Jack Daniels!” These are the Tennessean things people have heard of, but they have no connection to my experience. Carter County, outside the Elizabethton City Limits, is dry (for that matter, so is Moore County, where Jack Daniels is distilled). Tennessee whiskey was as foreign to me as England; I don’t honestly remember seeing a drink of alcohol in my home state the whole time I was growing up. As for Memphis, the state of Tennessee is so long from east to west that I felt more connected to Cleveland, Ohio, where my parents and their accent came from.

One of the cool things I did on this visit was go on a road trip with my mom. We went to Knoxville for the day, and in both directions, stopped at a rest area. On the way down, a bunch of women in the restroom had pulled the “closed” grate down in front of them and were screaming for us to take their picture. “This is the beginning of our girls’ weekend!” one explained. It was Wednesday!

We were going to Knoxville because my maternal grandmother, who is 94, lives there. She is in residential care and can’t really see, but there are glimpses of the old Mam-ma, chiefly when she smiles, or plays her keyboard! After tapping out “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?,” she asked, “Who sang that?”
Mom guessed Patti Page (who did make the song famous), but Mam-ma’s roommate kept saying “Doris Day” loudly from the next cubicle. And she wasn’t wrong. This was Mom’s cue to ask if roommate minded us singing and playing guitar, which we always used to do for Mam-ma and Pap Pap. Often, we did it for ourselves too.

On the way out of Knoxville we stopped by the downtown public library. Twenty years ago I made my living there, and there are still a few colleagues from my day, so it was fun to say hi to them. One asked what I’d been up to and after I had (briefly) summarized our travels, I said, “I guess this is the climax. East Tennessee, I mean.”

“Oh,” she said, “I thought you meant the library!”

The rest area along the freeway also had a historical sign about the nearby Greeneville Convention. This was one of multiple attempts by East Tennessee, after Tennessee had joined other states in seceding from the U.S.A., to secede from the rest of the state. In other words, East Tennesseeans were by and large unhappy being part of the Confederate States of America, and wished to remain part of the Union. The East Tennessee Convention failed because of political dominance by the rest of the state, and because of occupation by the Confederate Army.  

It is therefore doubly ironic to see the Confederate battle flag around East Tennessee, as one sometimes does. It’s ironic first because East Tennessee was Unionist, and second, because the Confederate flag is usually flown by the same people who wrap themselves in the American flag. That one flag represents a country defeated by the other seems lost on the flag-fliers. But I understand where they are coming from, because I once had a Stars and Bars myself, hanging on my bedroom wall.

Such an admission, I guess, will preclude me ever having a career in politics (though nothing seems to be disqualifying anymore). It’s appalling now—as appalling as homosexuality was in that time and place, including to me. I got the idea from my beloved fifth-grade teacher, who said that generations of Southern children had played with a Rebel flag in their treehouse. She made it sound as innocuous as a pirate flag, and for white children, I suppose it was.

Not until I was an adult did I think about, or try to imagine, what it might have been like to be a black child in the place where I grew up. I knew black students, and I don’t remember hearing any abuse directed towards them; but I did hear racist terms. Not by any means from all white students, but certainly from kids who knew better. I remember one who was my friend, and another who later turned out, like me, to be gay. I wish I could say that I spoke out against the n word. In high school, I was concentrating so hard on denying my sexuality, even to myself, that I guess I wasn’t paying attention. But one oppression does not excuse another.

I mention this now because another of the things I got to do on my trip back “home” was see some girls with whom I went to high school. There were people at this impromptu gathering whom I had not seen since I graduated, and one of them was in my first grade class. Seeing them brought home a truth: The place has changed, and so have the people who lived there. And the change I observed was for the better.

I could not have imagined going to my tenth or even twentieth high school reunion. As soon as I got to Chicago and turned eighteen, I came out as a lesbian, and that was not a self I could imagine taking back to my high school. Let alone a partner.
I had the Apple-achian!
Getting together with this unprecedented group of acquaintances opened my eyes. For one thing, we were in Erwin, a nearby town that has long had a reputation of being more racist than its neighbours. (When I still lived at home, a young woman from Erwin told me that she grew up in a county where black people dare not be found when the sun went down. Lynchings were recent history.)

One of the girls remarked that when she was on our high school basketball team, the star was a girl we all remembered, one of the few black students. “As soon as we crossed into Unicoi County,” she recalled, “the bus would get egged.” The fact that we were talking about this was a step forward from what it had been like in high school. But so was the fact that I was there, everyone knowing I have a female partner and, as far as I could tell, no one minding at all. “How is your—wife?” one of the women gamely asked. Another chimed in, “I didn’t even know you were gay!”

I cannot convey in this short space how inconceivable it would have been, for me in high school, to come back to my hometown and have the kind of normal conversations I have now. And that gives me hope. So does seeing a person of colour on a billboard (the first I ever remember seeing along that particular highway), and a Spanish-speaking Baptist congregation, and the presence of Mexican-American residents, not just migrant workers picking strawberries. The place I grew up is still different from other parts of the country, but it’s also different from how it used to be. And after all, today’s white-supremacist-in-chief is from Queens.
The Christian flag flying, for once, above the U.S. flag. The latter was at half-mast because of yet another school shooting.
Some things are different, while others stay the same. A car wash advertised “He is Risen!,” sort of like the Jesus is Lord minibuses in Tanzania. On the other hand, what used to be an unassuming veterinary clinic now sells New Age soap and other products. And the Blue Circle Deli is now called “Poor Trav’s” instead of Poor Jim’s.

Another friend, with whom I closed the bar (downtown Erwin not being especially exciting), was Sheila. I hadn’t seen Sheila since we spent a summer together in Chicago more than twenty years ago, but she’s part of the inspiration for our travels in Southeast Asia. Sheila grew up in Thailand and Penang and was always up for Thai food, and talking about the country, especially the area around Chiang Mai. When we were there, I often thought about Sheila and her observations of everyday life, not just tourist things.

There is one thing that draws a lot of outsiders to visit East Tennessee, at this time of year in particular: the Appalachian Trail. Every year, more and more people attempt to “through-hike” the entire trail, north from Georgia to Maine. On our day hikes, Mom and Dad and I encountered many of them, as well as others who were just hiking sections. It’s pronounced AppalATCHian around here, by the way. Like hatch, not like H.
White blazes mark the Appalachian Trail.
In all, we hiked on five different days—close to what we were doing in the national parks last summer. Considering all the health problems and pain Dad had several years ago, this was a wonderful development. Indeed, hiking in adjacent North Carolina was what Mom wanted to do for Mother’s Day! She also asked for Carolina BBQ on the way back. Boy, did we miss T.

When I am “home” on a Sunday, which is not often, I like to visit church with my parents. It was not our church for most of my growing up and I never joined it, but I still know a lot of people there. And just like outside the church, there have been changes. One change was the renovation of the building to make it more accessible, in more ways than one.

A few minutes before the service started, an old friend, who was celebrating Communion that morning, asked if I would be the fourth person serving at the table. I agreed without having time to think about it; I’ve done this many times at Holy Trinity in Toronto. I’ve participated in Communion services that vary from going up to the altar rail and kneeling to receive from the priest, to passing the elements from person to person—and that’s just within one denomination! But as I finished, someone thanked me and said what I had done was important.

I remembered then what a big deal it was when I first saw a woman serving Communion. I wondered then if an openly gay person had ever served at this church before. Or if that was why I’d been asked. It’s just as well I hadn’t had a chance to ponder any of this beforehand, because the same person was now offering the prayers of the people: “for our president Donald; our governor Bill; our senators Lamar and Marsha.” Powerful people named familiarly. I could not have gotten a clearer message about praying for leaders, which we are supposed to do even if we are not happy with them. Perhaps especially then. 

God can do what we cannot do by ourselves; if we don’t believe that, why are we in church?

Several years ago Dad retired as a professor at Milligan College. Growing up around the campus, I knew a lot of people he worked with—the overlap with the church was and is very close. So when a luncheon for retired faculty happened to coincide with my visit, I was looking forward to going. I’d planned to wear my sandals, but it was cool enough I wished I'd brought that pair of Converse (the one time I hadn't packed them!) I did catch up with lots of folks I remembered, including our old friends whom some blog readers will remember, Roy and Joy Lawson.
The Lawsons stopped being permanent residents of anywhere a year before we did, and they're still going. We may be younger, but we can't keep up with them!

There was also a professor nicknamed “Rabbi,” for his knowledge of Hebrew and other Semitic languages. Years ago Dr. Gwaltney and I had a professor in common: he learned Arabic from Norman Golb, who taught me Judaic civilization at Chicago. Norman Golb is gone now, but I got to tell “Rabbi” Gwaltney that, as I was about to finish the Books of Chronicles, I would be concluding my long-term project of reading the entire Hebrew Bible. “It’s only taken me 22 years,” I said.

“I hope you haven’t been reading Chronicles for 22 years!” (No, but it feels like it.)

At the end of my trip, perhaps because of Mom, I found my bags stuffed so full that I had to check the larger backpack. When I asked to do this at the airport, the agent was taken aback by what the British airline wanted to charge. “Meet me at the gate,” she said—this is a small airport and she was it. Not only did she gate check my bag for free, but she checked it all the way through to Manchester! As easy as it is to complain, people are nice, including at airlines.

On the flight back to England I was sitting next to a lovely Welsh couple (booked the aisle seat; totally worth it). They’d been on a whirlwind trip from Nashville to Memphis, Natchez, and New Orleans, and now back to Atlanta. I told them they’d seen about as much of the South as I have!

But in the Atlanta airport, where I’d had several hours, I came across one of the free displays, quite by accident. This one was on loan from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. King is associated with places in Alabama, which T. and I had planned to visit, but he was born in Atlanta, Georgia. There were pictures of his childhood, items that had belonged to him, and this original program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963).

One of the greatest speeches ever delivered, King’s “I Have a Dream,” is listed as simply, “Remarks.”

So, a coda to a coda. It seems I caught a glimpse of civil rights' promised land after all.

“Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see…”
—Reginald Heber
Save the Humans.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The things I carry

So, after nearly two years living out of our backpacks, I’ve finally got the packing thing down. Just in time to move back into the house! I’ve been converted, though, and plan to continue packing this same way for every future trip, short or long. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Ball cap, Alaska (when I was missing my hat) It clips onto my daypack so didn't add to luggage.
1. No matter what size bag I start with, I always manage to fill it.

Years ago it was a big wheeled suitcase; now it’s a backpack, and at a push, it is carry-on sized. According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, nail clippers, tweezers, disposable razors, and even sewing kits are all permitted in carry-on luggage! Disposable razors are terrible for the environment, but if you want to shave…

Or a train
So start with a bag that meets carry-on requirements, and you will manage with less. It doesn’t have to be a backpack. If you’re more comfortable with a roller bag, go for it! But it should not be too large, or heavy, to go in the overhead bin on a plane.

We needed something durable that would be surprisingly comfortable and leave our hands free. Osprey backpacks met all our requirements and were well worth the expense. (They also come with a lifetime guarantee—and no, I’m not affiliated with any of these products.)

Many bags, some very expensive, are sold with lots of features and organization designed to let you carry everything in one bag. I am not a fan of this approach, for the simple reason that no plane has room for everybody to put this size of bag in the overhead bin. In fact, smaller regional or propeller planes routinely check bags at the gate, and you often have to put your bag under a bus, etc. too. For this reason, I recommend:

2. Always travel with two bags.

Merino wool (shirt, New Zealand) means you can
wear fewer items more often and in heat or cold.
The smaller bag should be what airlines call a “personal item,” i.e., it should fit under the airplane seat in front of you. Bear in mind that if you actually put it there, it will cut into your foot room—so the smaller, the better! The type of bag is up to you (handbag, laptop bag, or a packing cube you can pull out of your main bag); the important thing is what’s in there. Anything you need with you at all times, whether that’s valuables (passport, credit cards, etc.) or things you need in transit—entertainment, medication, sleep mask, whatever. If you’re flying, a change of clothes. 

The reason for the smaller bag is not to pack more stuff! There are two reasons: A) Even if you plan to carry your main bag onto a plane, if there is no room on board, you can still check it at the gate (for free). And B) You need something to carry things around in at your destination, without lugging your main bag. I always carry a small backpack (daypack) but many people prefer a purse- or messenger-style bag.
Buffs (mine from Uluru)--one of the most versatile items you can take on your travels.
Having the things you need already packed in this day bag means you don’t have to scramble in a line at the gate, and when you get to wherever you’re going, you can lock your main bag up at the place you are staying.

3. Since I always fill my bag no matter the size, I follow the one-in, one-out rule.
  1. Handmade Ecuadorian shirt--thanks, Ines!

    Two of my best purchases--pajamas from Chiang Mai
    (top) and a market in Kuala Lumpur (bottoms)
    I picked up quite a few things along the way, but because the amount of “stuff” in my bag had to remain constant, they had to replace something old.
    Replacement shorts bought in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France

    T-shirt from Llama Path, Cuzco, Peru

    4. Some travel-specific items are a waste of money—but not all.

    Definitely worth buying were: a microfibre travel towel, a universal adaptor (for plugs in various sockets around the world), a portable hard drive, and the backpacks themselves. 
    Our bags could travel anywhere--on our laps on buses in Africa,
    or on boats in Asia.
    These were travel-specific expenses that paid for themselves many times over. There is no substitute for the light, quick-drying towel, and it’s hard to find at your destination—few items meet these criteria. The adaptor was also essential, and much less bulky than carrying different ones for different types of outlets. We found portable hard drives (along with an online backup such as Google Photos) essential for all the hundreds of photos we took, as our laptop wouldn’t store them all and the peace of mind was priceless. It’s not much use having everything in digital form if you can lose it all in one place.
    Rash guards from Hanauma Bay, Hawaii; travel towel (on mangrove), and khanga from Tanzania (like a sarong)

    Handy, but you needn’t go out and buy them: a sewing kit (I already had one); travel-sized liquid container; packing cubes; an RFID-safe money belt; and “travel” underwear/sports bras. T. used the sewing kit mainly, to sew flags onto my daypack from each country.
    Sewing on board the slow boat, Mekong River, Laos
    These were  my souvenirs and, because they went on the outside of the bag, didn’t take up any space inside.
    Travel-sized liquid containers are handy for meeting carry-on requirements, but you could just squirt your favourite shampoo into a hotel container, or buy a solid bar. 

    New Aran sweater from Ireland--better fit in a compression bag!
    You could also use plastic bags instead of buying packing cubes, especially if your gear needs waterproofing. But we found the cubes really useful for separating our clothes, etc., and for pulling things out of the backpacks without unpacking everything. Compression bags are useful if you need to take clothes for multiple climates--e.g., compress your winter jacket, sweater, etc. and only unpack when you get to cold weather.

    New T-shirt, Wyoming
    I used a money belt for my “other” passport, cards, and cash, mainly on transit days. When out and about, I mostly locked this up wherever we were staying. The Ex Officio was pricey for underwear, but I found it worth it for its wicking properties and the ability to dry it quickly after washing it out. For a short trip, or if you’re not doing any hiking, don’t bother.

    If you are doing specific activities, some items are probably worth taking. For hiking, I found I needed trekking poles,

    a water reservoir
    (e.g., Camelbak) and a few clothespins or binder clips to hang socks up to dry. We also found a couple of carabiners (“carbonaras,” as T. calls them) useful for clipping things to backpacks. Most travelers could make do with a reusable water bottle—which I strongly recommend. I also wish I had thought to buy purifying tablets at the beginning of our travels. In places where the tap water is not safe, boiling water or using these tablets means you don’t have to buy plastic bottles, saving both money and pollution.

    Insulated water bottle (from Bernie in California)
    & water bottle holder from Aguas Calientes market, Peru
    Travel-specific items that I could have left behind: a “Point It” guide, full of pictures that you can point to when you don’t speak the language, to communicate with people in another country. I already had one that Eurail sent me years ago and had read that they were useful, so I threw it in. I ended up never using it. This surprised me, but between English, a few words of the local language, and nonverbal communication, we always managed. If something like this is available on your phone, I guess it doesn’t take up any space, though.

    Sweatshirt + down jacket = layers for glaciers!
    Travel laundry soap was also a waste—heavy liquid and it got all over everything. If you’re using a washing machine, you’ll need to find regular detergent when you get there (preferably powder). And if you’re washing things out in a sink, just use shampoo. Most hotels provide this free.

    I did occasionally use a universal plug stopper. Lots of sinks don’t have plugs and this is very small and light, so it was worth the few dollars I paid.

    I took a small portable USB charger, but it probably wasn’t worth it. Most places you can charge things and the few times I did try to use it, it was likely to be out of charge itself! I charged it up specifically for my mountain climb, when I’d have no other opportunity to charge a camera, but the only real use I got out of it was that when I lost the cord for my old phone, I found that the charger’s cable happened to fit it. 

    Toiletries bag (and long-sleeved shirt from flea market), Sydney.
    T-shirt from Mauritius.
    Finally, I’ve kept my passport in a holder for years, but I don’t think a cover for your passport is necessary. More useful is just to keep it in a Ziploc bag, as not one, but two passports of mine have been water damaged over the years. In fact, take a bunch of Ziploc bags with you, as they’re incredibly useful and surprisingly hard to find on the road.

    5. And last but not least, everyone, including me, has a luxury (or two) that’s worth the weight of carrying. You just have to know what it is.

    A distinctive luggage tag is a good idea, and doesn't
    take up any room in the bag.
    Lots of travel sites advise you to ditch the camera because your phone can do the same thing, or not take any books because an e-reader/tablet is so much lighter, etc. But everyone has their luxury item(s) that make them feel at home, whether for a short or long trip.

    Wind/waterproof jacket from Vancouver.
    Plus warm hat (toque) and balaclava!
    My phone doesn’t have any “apps”—it’s just an old BlackBerry that no one would ever steal. I borrowed T’s Kindle from time to time, to read a book I couldn’t find in print form, but it just doesn’t do it for me. I prefer a physical paper book. Apart from a guidebook, which could be downloaded or, in some cases, just the chapters I needed cut out to save weight and space. I needed a book to read and so there were always two books in my bag. Something heavy that you use every day is worth more than something light that you would never miss.
    Real winter boots, on the other hand, had to be mailed back.
    T’s luxury was a proper camera that took up space, weighed a lot, and really made her stand out. So what? She never had any problems in 20 months, and took so many really great pictures. For some serious photographers, a camera bag is a good choice for their smaller “personal item” bag.

    T. and photographer friends, on a 4x4 to visit elephants, Thailand
    What about you? What are your packing challenges? Stuff you never end up using, or wish you’d taken? What luxury would you not travel without?

Monday, April 29, 2019

The dystopia we should fear

I drafted this piece last year, but didn't publish it. I hoped it would become out of date before the next election cycle. Because it isn't, I am publishing it now.

Timothy Egan wrote a provocative piece called “What if Steve Bannon Is Right?” In it, he quoted the parting words of the much-reviled presidential adviser: “I want [the Democrats] to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Now no Democrat, or person who wants the Democrats to win, wants to think that Steve Bannon is right about anything. He’s certainly not right about race! But no matter how far I go in the world, it’s impossible to get away from the U.S.A. and what happened in the 2016 election. And I do think it was about “the economy, stupid.”

Like many people characterized as liberals and progressives, I have been guilty of sound bites implying that the election, and its aftermath, was about one thing. Racism, misogyny, evangelicals. And I don’t want to make that mistake again. Nor do I want to ignore other countries; it’s just that Canada, for example, is more liberal (in the classical sense) than most other countries right now, though not if the provincial government of Ontario has anything to say about it.

But I do think that if those who resist Tweeter and his agenda want to defeat it at the polls, they (we) need to be political about it, and that means thinking about what really works. It has become common to assume that everything he says is wrong, and that is a dangerous assumption. During the campaign Tweeter occasionally said something true that no rival candidate had said, and it worked wonders for him. 

Unless you watched the Republican primary debates you probably don’t remember this, but there was a moment when Tweeter ridiculed Jeb Bush—who was once thought most likely to become the Republican candidate—for the George W. Bush “war on terror.” This was politically unthinkable. Never speak ill of another Republican, was the Reagan rule. (Of course Tweeter wasn’t a “real” Republican, like Bernie Sanders wasn’t a “real” Democrat. So what? In 2016 that didn't matter.)

But Tweeter saying the unspeakable resonated with people, because in this case, it was true. George W. Bush started the pointless war in Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan, and most pertinently, was president on September 11, 2001. Even Tweeter wouldn’t try blaming Obama for September 11.  

The moment Tweeter ridiculed Jeb Bush’s claim that “my brother kept us safe” was the moment we should have known that Bush, another neoliberal, would not after all be running against Clinton for the presidency. And the moment the G.O.P. failed to nominate a neoliberal was the moment the election was theirs. 

It’s confusing because of the way Americans use the term liberal, but neoliberalism is the economic ideology dominant since the Carter administration. It would not have been possible for Hillary Clinton to distance herself from neoliberalism, given that Bill Clinton and every other president, Democratic or Republican, espoused it. Benjamin Studebaker wrote in January 2016: “[I]f this is the year when the voting public decides that it’s done with neoliberalism, the party that nominates a neoliberal candidate will likely lose.”

I have heard some Democrats still attacking Senator Sanders almost as if he were as bad as Tweeter. Blaming him and his “progressives” for everything. On the contrary, Sanders was, or should have been, Democrats’ canary in the coal mine.

If pointing out how outrageously Tweeter treats veterans and military families worked, the Khan family story would have sunk him. If pointing out misogyny worked, the p*ssy grabber scandal would have.

Nothing did. He won the election not by getting more votes but by winning the upper Midwest. States like Michigan, where Bernie Sanders “shocked” everybody by winning the Democratic primary.

The voting public in the states that counted did decide in 2016 that they were done with economic stagnation. They voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary and when that didn’t work, they voted Tweeter into the Oval Office.

Now lest I be misunderstood, I am not repeating the “white working class” theory. As has been widely reported, a larger proportion of well-off white Americans voted for Tweeter than white working people. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes provocatively that white identity is what propelled Tweeter to victory. I don’t dispute that this is true; I am questioning whether it is helpful.

The fact is that calling Tweeter racist didn’t work. And calling his supporters racist certainly isn’t working now. It should be impossible for a racist to win the presidency, but clearly it isn’t; race-baiting has worked many times before (Willie Horton, anyone?) I am as discouraged at anyone else if Coates is right, but the voters he is talking about do not hear the same things that we hear as racist dog whistling.

When they hear “Make America Great Again,” they do not think of the 1950s as a dystopia. Make no mistake—for many Americans, black and gay for instance, it was. But that is not the dystopia that Tweeter supporters imagine. They are thinking of the dystopia whereby San Francisco software developers live on hills so that “homeless” do not crawl in front of their self-driving cars.

I heard from such people on my travels as well. It was shocking. The have-have not gap is getting wider in many parts of the world, and that is what drives economic fear and insecurity.

I do not mean to suggest that racism is not a problem, or that we shouldn’t protest it, or talk about it. But to quote my friend Scott King, if we fight the next election on “gay sex, ‘lazy’ Puerto Ricans, and kneeling football players,” we are on Tweeter’s ground. He and Bannon and the rest of the white supremacists want us to lose. 

Hillary Clinton has often been characterized as more careful than honest, but when she made her “deplorables” comment the opposite was the case. It was politically unwise for her to make that statement; that doesn’t make it untrue. But Clinton didn’t lose in states like Tennessee, where Republicans would have won no matter who or what they nominated. She lost in states like Michigan. 

In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show how deepening economic inequality drives all kinds of problems in societies. Even the appalling level of gun violence in the U.S. is linked to its high levels of inequality, although we tend to speak of the gun issue as though it were about philosophical differences around the Second Amendment. The fact is, when economically insecure voters in Michigan voted for the non-neoliberal (i.e., against Hillary Clinton), they were fearing the dystopia of greater and greater economic inequality. That was the only common area between the egalitarian Sanders and the nationalist Tweeter. Sanders, and I would have thought most Democrats, want healthcare for all Americans; Tweeter wants to take away what Affordable Care they have. 

And the dystopia they fear is more likely to come true than the one we fear.

We should all fear it. None of us should desire a world in which fewer and fewer people have meaningful work. Even those who design “apps” for a living have to live with the rest of us. It is entirely possible that there will be fewer and fewer jobs for people and more and more wealth concentrated at the top of the economic food chain. 

Tweeter won because he said the right things about domestic air conditioning plants and September 11 and China. The fact that he hasn’t done anything about factory jobs, and the fact that no president probably could, does not change the fact that that’s why he won the electoral votes he needed.

About the only thing I agree with his supporters about is that China is a rival to the U.S. This should be bleedingly obvious, but president after president before him had told us China was a strategic partner. Traveling across Africa makes it abundantly clear that China, not the U.S., is invested in the continent. The U.S. stopped being interested in investing in Africa when no longer engaged in a proxy Cold War. Now, I don’t think there’s a country in Africa where the Chinese aren’t building roads and railroad lines. They may not be doing it to the standards we’d wish, but they are there! As far as Africans are concerned, China is not the superpower of the future; it is the world’s superpower. 

And does anyone seriously believe that North Korea’s nutcase, Kim, could point nuclear missiles at the U.S.A if China didn’t want him to? Again, that doesn’t mean Tweeter is doing anything about China, and it certainly doesn’t excuse his lack of diplomacy, which risks the lives of millions if not billions of people. He and Kim are both sociopaths who couldn’t care less about any human being besides themselves. But that doesn’t make everything he says about China false. 

Egan's piece reiterates that "racial resentment was the strongest predictor of whether a voter would flip from supporting a thoughtful, intelligent Democrat to a boorish, mentally unstable Republican." It's real, and Tweeter said and continues to say demonstrably racist things--and that wasn't enough to defeat him. “As long as Democrats fail to understand this," Bannon said, "they will continue to lose."

It sucks. Racism should be enough to sink a candidate in America, and it still isn't. But unless the Democrats, and opposition parties in countries with similar problems, make a serious effort to avert the threat of economic dystopia, they will continue to lose. And deserve to.