The front door to the hospital is the gateway to an alternative reality. The glass doors slide open silently, you step across the threshold, and it is suddenly okay to make your dinner out of a grilled cheese sandwich – the kind you got as a child, white bread and american cheese, not the kind they make in gourmet food trucks with brie and pears and bacon – and onion rings.
The woman who is supposed to guide me to my father’s room is having an extended conversation with a nurse about her pregnancy and if you can predict the sex of the child by how a woman is carrying the pregnancy. I’ve been driving for two hours, so I decide to find the bathroom. While I’m washing my hands, my stepmother texts me the room. When I exit the bathroom, they are still talking about the nurse’s pregnancy.
This hospital has a sign out front claiming that it is in the top 100 best hospitals in the country. It isn’t as nice as the hospital mom died in. Dad’s room is tiny. It has one of those ubiquitous hospital chairs in it, the kind designed for helpless family members to occupy in the interminable hours between visits from the Doctor, who maybe this time will tell you what’s really going on or what to expect. You can sleep in a chair like this, if you must. But this chair that is expected to serve as home-away-from-home, a bulwark against the exhaustion, has to be re-arranged every time dad has to go to the bathroom.
Which is frequently.
He talks for six hours straight. He’s stuck in one of those experiments where some disproportionate scientist inserts a probe into a frog’s brain to see which nerve makes that first toe twitch. Except now we’re poking at emotional abscesses in his brain to pinpoint exactly which of those pustules will erupt in which form of pain and paranoia. There is one for my mother, one for his sense of failure, one for his grandiose understanding of himself. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are mentioned frequently. He grins maniacally when they bring him his dinner and he announces that he’s getting the Trump treatment. There are algorithms, and numbers, and codes. He had a mission, but he couldn’t keep his goddamn mouth shut, so he blew it.
It isn’t her fault and it isn’t your fault, I’ll just have to reset. We’ll go back 7 minutes and all it will cost is putting her in a box and making her suffer. But this is the last time. Because I’m the real God, the absolute final God, and I had to go back and find the first Pope.
He hits me. Twice. And this is when I realize it is an alternate reality, one in which your father can punch you in the arm as hard as he is physically able, and you don’t take it personally. I mean, you keep your arm out of punching distance after that, let’s be honest. But in this reality, when your father calls you fat and ugly to your face, a shithead and a dumbfuck… you just sort of agree.
He is nothing but id and these soft spots in his emotional landscape. Failure comes up again and again. “I’m a failure,” he tells me. “Me, me, me, me, me, me…” until I wonder if he’s going to find another word. I think I might be a trigger. After all, I was the one who forced him to tell my mother that he’d been cheating on her. Well, forced… I told him either he could tell her or I could tell her and he really didn’t want me to be the one to do it. At the time, he told my mom that I’d arranged the whole thing because I like being at the center of the drama. I know he’s never really forgiven me.
I’d give my left nut to be able to go back in time and cheat on your mother.
He doesn’t have to go back in time – that’s what he did. I don’t tell him that his nuts are safe. He’s too likely to pull up his hospital gown and show them to me. He grabs two nurses by the breast, and that’s not even the worst of it.
One of his nurses is black. And then he does it.
I’ve heard the word before. Of course I can. There are loads of ways to say it. My elderly uncles, twenty years ago, casually. Just one word among many. In songs defiantly, or affectionately. From my friend who is allowed to use it when she talks about her ex husband because she’s black. I’ve never heard it spat with the contempt, the vicious intent behind it, at least not until my father hurls it at his nurse.
Ice Cube, while on Bill Mahr’s show last week called it a tool, a knife. I believed him in the way you believe someone with expertise you don’t have. The mechanic tells you that your fuel gasket is leaking and you believe him. I believe Ice Cube differently today than I did last week. Now I know why it is entirely fair when a black woman says she can’t trust white people. This reason is different from her reason, but it is a reason nevertheless.
My imperfect father wouldn’t be called “woke” in his sane life, but he’s probably better than most. My life is populated with black friends, they’ve been in his house, eaten at his table, and he’s never given a hint of harboring racial animosity.
And yet. Lurking in my father’s id, right next door to the groping of unwilling nurses, is the knife.
There’s nothing comparable. I can’t comfort myself by thinking that a black man in the same position might holler cracker with the same vitriol. It isn’t the same. In a white man’s mouth, the word is a threat. Even for my diminished, elderly father, delirious out of his mind, it is a threat of rape, of lynching, of dismemberment and pain. In a hospital setting, he’d be cold-clocked and on his ass before the threat was followed through, but does it matter?
The nursing staff assures me that it’s alright. They hear this kind of thing all the time. But how does frequency make it more alright? This malignancy is unmistakably there in my father’s id, and this woman has had to bear it time and time again, if not from him than from other white people.
Is it in my id? If my frontal lobe shuts down and all I’m left with is the raging need to maim anyone who crosses me with whatever weapons I have near, is this knife close enough in my psyche to be the thing I reach for? And why would you ever trust a white person again, knowing that there’s a reasonable chance that, somewhere lurking in their mind is a knife that they keep just for you?
On the drive home, I talk to a friend who is a psychiatric nurse. He suspects we’re dealing with delirium. It is a symptom more than a disease, it pops up around urinary tract infections, sepsis, unpredictable shifts in medication. All three factors are present and accounted for in my father right now.
Today, he is back to algorithms, logarithms, and this mission for the Pope that only he can see through.
It seems that a break is required from the blog site here and there. Or maybe I just ran out of things to say. I’m on twitter compulsively, like it is a novel and I’m about to find out what happens next. Here, not so much.
Maybe it is the commentary… I’m just scared and sad. For all of us. What else is there to say?
Perhaps it is time to turn my attention to other topics. Not because I’m not concerned or paying attention or wishing desperately that we could all just be reasonable and handle what must be handled honestly, cleanly, and without violence.
Our institutions matter. Our Constitution matters.
No, our system of Government isn’t perfect. But point me to a better one. Okay, maybe we could vote differently, or set up representation in a way that made more sense. Nevertheless, the Constitution is there to protect everyone, in recognition of a democracy peopled by the feisty, the iconoclasts, the oddballs, the convicted.
So its understanding of who constitutes everyone has rightly expanded, the truth remains: America was colonized by rabble-rousers, risk-takers, greedy mofo’s who didn’t like rules, and petty empire-builders. To paraphrase: England didn’t send us its best. England sent criminals and dissidents, those who refused to bend to the status quo, hardliners, greedy bastards, outcasts, and the occasional rapist. And for that motley crew to peacefully co-exist, we all had to agree to some baseline propositions. Namely, you do you, and I’ll do me, and instead of killing each other over a dispute, we’re going to build this system of laws and courts that ultimately allows society to function in a way that enables capitalism.
And so it went with three branches of government, equal in power, checking and balancing itself out. Disagreeing parties grappling over power in proscribed ways to ensure that, when the tables turned, the disadvantaged could trust the advantaged to respect the institutions. All of it based in a common understanding of reality: we are always going to disagree. There will always be tension between chaos and order. A pluralistic society is a nightmare to maintain peacefully, and yet we do it because we like the outcome of all of this more-or-less peaceful coexistence. We aren’t tolerant because we are good, we are tolerant because we need others to give us the same courtesy we are extending by minding our own damn business.
We don’t have to like how others use their freedom. Football players can protest any way they see fit. Barbie pundits can complain about how said protest is carried out. The pundit is allowed to look stupid defending her right to criticize how someone else is executing their right to free speech by claiming her right to free speech. The protest goes on indifferent to opinion, because the opinion is breath and vibration and is gone, while the law remains.
We can wish to convert the whole country to a single belief system and to justify laws based on those beliefs. But we can’t, and we should be grateful. Because my inability to force everyone to be strictly rational about everything means that the local Christian Scientists couldn’t deny my mother medical care in the face of cancer. And I’ll happily bow to the Constitution limiting my right to enforce my belief system on others because it equally denies the Christian Scientists the ability to dictate my life according to their beliefs.
We can want a Supreme Court that rules according to our religious beliefs. (How is a Christian wanting a Supreme Court to uphold religiously-motivated laws any different than a Muslim wanting a legal system that enforces Sharia law?) But the risk to the system as a whole to throw a temper tantrum about the rules not breaking your way this time ignores the fact that the system means the rules will break to your preference in another way, at some other time… It is shortsighted and jeopardizes the one thing that makes a pluralistic society work: the agreement to play one game according to one set of rules. We aren’t going to get a monolithic society, so chucking the ground rules is beyond dangerous. You might as well replace the foundation of your house with wonder-bread.
There will be consequences. This backlash ultimately won’t be partisan, it won’t skip the Fox News crowd… What we are dealing with here isn’t the second coming of the Third Reich, it is the redux of the French Revolution. The peasants are rising, some initially called by seductive falsehoods (it is all someone else’s fault), but eventually the entire political spectrum will feel this truth: there are more of us than there are of them.
We can disagree about substance. That’s what we do in America. But we used to play by impartial ground rules set up in the Constitution, fleshed out in the Bill of Rights, and strengthened by decorum, norms, and 200 years of legislation. Not out of the goodness of our hearts, but in the recognition that anything I can do to you, you can do to me when the balance of power shifts.
The power will shift. If the GOP is smart, it will start reigning itself in, re-asserting the rules for itself that it wishes the Dems to abide by, and valuing the rules of the game to the same degree they seem determined to win the game.
American Democracy is the game. If one side wins, the game ends. Don’t forget: Game over isn’t a good outcome. For anyone.
This is bound to be unpopular, and I’ll start by admitting that I don’t have any answers.
Deportation. The past few weeks have been ugly when it comes to the question of immigrants, visa holders, and brown folk trying to move forward with any plans that involve the United States of America. Racial profiling is the obvious means for seeking out immigrants. You might miss some Aryan specimens here illegally, but the bulk of the people leaving home these days aren’t escaping a famine in Ireland. The trouble is in Somalia or Syria or el Salvador. And most of the people from Somalia or Syria, or el Salvador aren’t blond and blue-eyed.
As a country, we’ve proven that we can’t be trusted to make good decisions based on the color of someone’s skin. I’m not for it.
And yet. Deportations aren’t new. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were deporting people under Obama, and as far as I know, the process hasn’t changed that much. Nogales, Mexico sees a lot of the deported and what happens when ICE pushes someone across the border isn’t pretty. Nogales is full of people seeking to exploit the vulnerable, and the recently-deported are vulnerable. Women and children delivered to human traffickers, men with no options and plenty of reason to embark in some dubious scam to get quick money to finance a return home, whether north or south of the border. The story doesn’t end well. It didn’t end well under Obama either.
Yet few showed up at the airports, even fewer took to the streets. For the deported, there can’t be that much difference in the experience of deportation from one President to the other. But what has changed?
Style. Obama did it without openly demonizing brown people. He did it quietly, with no fanfare. One wonders if he had glorified his deportations more, had more aggressive rhetoric, insisted that we use ACA instead of Obamacare to refer to a law that helped millions… would those disaffected bubble-dwellers in rural white enclaves have loved him better? (If you can spend a whole day and only interact with people who look like you, go to your church, and watch the same TV shows as you, you are living in a bubble.)
But I digress.
Drones. Raids. Civilians killed. ISIS. Guantanamo. Poverty. Hunger. Water. DAPL. Lobbyists. Wall Street.
Obama put a measured, careful face on all of the above. And I’m not categorically attacking or defending that list. Life is muddy and complicated. Global politics don’t have much to offer purists or ideologues. Reality intrudes.
The left complains that Obama didn’t do enough on one hand, and too much on the other. He already expanded Presidential power in a way that is terrifying if you don’t trust the President.
Just ask Fox news.
If you agree with the man in the oval office, the Presidential powers aren’t expansive enough.
Just ask Fox news.
Here is the problem. The rational among us need to take ownership of our tribalism and quit with the positioning that these things are only okay if we are doing them. The standard must be that we aren’t going to do what we would be outraged if our opponents did. Power grab in North Carolina. Gerrymandering. Muzzling free speech. We must not carry on with positions that depend on style, not substance.
Don’t get me wrong. 45 is terrifying in both style and substance. And style does matter. How you shake hands with a foreign leader matters. Decorum matters. Appearing to take things seriously matters.
But it isn’t more important than substance. In substance, we must believe what we believe, even when those principles deliver results we aren’t fond of. This goes across the board. If private e-mail servers are disqualifying for one side, then disqualify everyone who uses one. If botched military action justifies years and years of expensive hearings, then every botched military action should be treated the same. If connections to Wall Street are distasteful, then anyone who has connections to Wall Street should be held to the same standard.
Across the board, just don’t let style blind you to substance. The left liked Obama’s style, and he spent 8 years relatively untroubled by backlash from the left. Progressives don’t like Trump’s style, and the protests follow. Trump’s die-hard voters love his style, and are blinded to the ways that he is covering for Republicans seeking to destroy every program that makes life better for a white man with no college degree.
Watch the substance.
We didn’t used to need someone to tell us what needed to be done. We looked around. A neighbor needed a new barn, we showed up to raise that barn. We didn’t wait for permission, we didn’t look to a county permit regulator to say it was all okay. Those houses and barns built 200 years ago with no reference to the 20-volume building code are still standing, too. Why are we waiting for permission to do some good in our communities?
America is not exceptional. Or at least the positive expected consequences of the qualities one might point out as exceptional are not a given. Yes, our founding fathers demonstrated a remarkable capacity to learn from the mistakes of others. They looked at the upheavals that brought the western world to that point and decided that this country needn’t go through the French Revolution to learn the lesson of the French Revolution, that we could just take the principals of the Magna Carta without having to reinvent it all from scratch. And in the broad strokes of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they did pretty good for white men. Of course they made their own mistakes: slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, exclusion of women from the list of people with rights, but working with what they had and the history they had to work with, they came up with a pretty flexible, flawed system that has both allowed and stymied improvement in our understanding of freedom, liberty, and the right to pursue happiness.
This is probably going to be a long one: brace yourself.
Seventh-Day Adventism, the religious system of my formative years, is a little oddball. Perhaps not quite as oddball as Mennonites, who are unmistakable even to an untrained eye. Not quite as thorny as the Jehovah’s Witnesses – Sevens aren’t expected to cut off apostate family members – not quite as far out of the mainstream as the Mormons – Sevens don’t wear special underwear, don’t have a history of polygamy, and can claim a conviction in the equality of all humans that goes back to our founder in the 1840’s – Sevens are nevertheless kind of oddball.
The Church’s interpretation of the Bible is strictly literal. Their distinctive observation of the Jewish Sabbath is tied directly to the fact that God never changed the day of worship in the Bible. That change came by decree from… was it Justinian? No, Constantine. The change from Saturday to Sunday made Christianity more palatable to the heathen sun-worshipers, but it didn’t come from God, therefore the Sevens worship on the seventh day. (Hence: Seventh-Day Adventists. The Adventist part comes from the belief that God’s return is eminent.)
Actually, the Adventist part is particularly relevant. Sevens emerged after the Millerite movement of the early 1840’s. William Miller believed that he had a secret mathematical formula that allowed him to calculate the day of Christ’s return. October 22, 1844 came and went without the promised return of Jesus. To the Millerites, this was known as the Great Disappointment, and the true believers spent a very hungry winter, having forgone planting and other preparation to feed themselves after October 22.
Sevens emerged from the wreckage of the Millerites. They kept the conviction (and hope) of the imminent return of Christ. They also developed a deep distaste for prediction. The Bible says no man knows the day nor the hour, and the Sevens are behind that 100%.
So in their obsession with the Apocalypse as described in Revelation, the Sevens share a great deal with their Evangelical brethren, but this deep humility about not having any sway or ability to predict the end of the world saves them from some of the worst excesses of Evangelical Nihilism.
Let me explain.
Revelation predicts the end of the world, the violent demise earthly affairs that takes place right before God comes back. Wars, rumors of wars, famine, pestilence, world government, persecution of Christians, earthquakes, Jerusalem will once more be the sole domain of the Jews… etc. etc. etc.
For the fundamentalist believer, absolute faith in Christianity leads to a profound nihilism. All hope is pointed towards the afterlife. The apocalypse isn’t something to be avoided, it is something to be embraced, forced even. By the simple state of faith, nothing earthly matters or counts. The means to achieve the ends don’t have to matter, because accepting the martyrdom of Jesus absolves all sins: past, present, and future.
Now, were this consistent, we would see it played out in Evangelicals pushing for an Atheist government. Instead, you see them interpreting the legal protection of people they don’t agree with as evidence that they are being persecuted. If there were consistency, there would be great support of the UN, for world government is one of those things that is part of the promise of Revelation and the UN is seen as the beginning of that world government.
Instead, we see Evangelicals picking and choosing which part of the Apocalypse they wish to bring on. Evangelical support of Zionists and Israel having complete control over Jerusalem? That isn’t because they support Jewish people in general, that support has a specific end: Jewish domination of Jerusalem is an event that the Bible says will take place right before God comes back, therefore the Evangelicals are for it.
A new world war? Bring it on. All the better if it is framed in terms of Christians against everyone else, because that is another bit of Revelation fulfilled, indicating God’s return.
All the elements prophesied in Revelation are no longer understood as prophecy, but conditions to be met. And if nothing matters, because the whole point of being here on earth is to arrive at the point where you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior as quickly as possible and then get to heaven immediately thereafter, then there isn’t much to live for once you’ve been saved. Meanwhile, the Nihilist Christian is picking and choosing which parts they pay attention to, ignoring those bits that remind them that all of this is up to God and not dependent on man’s will, breezing right past all the warnings of false prophets…
Nihilism. The belief that nothing matters. Christian nihilism: the belief that nothing on earth matters because Christ. Not much of a distinction for those of us who think the drive to create the conditions for God’s return is a fool’s errand. A big distinction for those who believe that God’s forgiveness is theirs, no matter the hubris, no matter the casual cruelty, no matter the willful disregard for the example of Jesus they disregard in the life they live.
Incidentally, I believe the Islamic fundamentalists are infected with the same nihilism, to the same degree, and that from this perspective the fundamentalists of both persuasions are actually working quite well together for a single shared goal: bringing their version of the end of the world to fruition.
So. If you want to know why the GOP is so dismissive of climate change, it isn’t because they believe the outliers of the scientific community. It is because there is an unholy alliance between the Conservatives who are primarily concerned with small government, big business, and narrow interpretation of the Constitution, to hell with the little people; and the Evangelicals. The two exist symbiotically: the capitalist Conservatives don’t really care that much about the social issue one way or another, and the Christian fundamentalists don’t care about the capitalist issues, so they use each other to maintain power. It is entirely possible that the Conservatives, being smaller in number (if wealthier) are being consumed by the Christian fundamentalists. This election would certainly point in that direction.
Anyway, if climate change meets one of the *conditions* of Revelation – remember, they have stopped interpreting prophecy as prophetic and are treating it as a list of conditions to meet – by bringing about famine, pestilence, and other natural horrors, then feel free to open up the oil reserves and just light the wells on fire. The Conservatives make money; they’re fine with it. The Evangelicals get one step closer to the Apocalypse.
If you want to know why the threat of nuclear war as the natural end of a Tantrump doesn’t scare the GOP’s Evangelical base… it is because World War III is a condition to be met. Fracking causing earthquakes? Another condition to be met. Legal restrictions on Christians being discriminatory assholes? One more on the checklist of conditions. Because *that* is what being persecuted for your identity looks like, not the hundreds of Trans folks who get tormented brutally and murdered every year.
Somewhere in there, you also have a deep corruption of the message of the New Testament. Christianity has been bent into nearly unrecognizable contortions to align it with Capitalist values. God’s blessings come with dollar signs these days. Megachurches encourage donations under the logic that tithing to God makes God return abundance to you. (If only they took this understanding and applied it to taxation.) Kindness is no longer a pre-requisite. Withholding judgement of others based on the humility associated with knowing one’s self to be imperfect, also not really in play. Stone-throwing is a new kind of specialty. Hospitality, turning the other cheek, gentleness, meekness… All have been abandoned in favor of larger homes, smaller tax bills, SUVs, and the gospel of the 401k.
Internal consistency doesn’t apply here.
I suspect that, particularly in those areas where the Evangelical Nihilists live in communities where they rarely encounter anyone of color, there is also this underlying feeling that whiteness is a defining feature of being heaven-bound. That to be white is already a credit to your name on the rolls in heaven, just like being white gives you the benefit of the doubt when engaging with the police. The rapture movies of my adolescent time in Bible study didn’t feature too many people of color, that’s for damn sure.
In short… Those of us who experience the world with skepticism and a demand for some sort of intellectual consistency find ourselves baffled by the recent turn of events. When the GOP told us they were ethical, we took them at their word. Whey they said they valued Christianity, and honesty, and rule of law, and the Constitution, and high standards for conduct, we believed them.
And then DJT showed up. He disrespected women, his base loved it. He broke the rules, his base loved it. He bullied people, his base roared its approval. He lied, they cheered. He cuddled up with Russia, they praised Putin as some kind of defender of white Christianity. He stood proudly ignorant of the Constitution, they waved their flags. He promised them the wholesale cruelty to refugees, and they voted for him. He proved his Biblical illiteracy, they laughed it off.
And we are running around pointing out the disconnect between their old words and their new actions, the example of Christ and their current behavior, and expecting reason to work.
Logic doesn’t work here. It won’t work. This isn’t right vs. left, Conservative vs. Progressive. This is Nihilism vs. Good Faith. Hubris vs. Humility.
Because the false prophets are in charge and have been for a while. Nihilism rules the day. There is no moral compass left. No objective standards, only tribal markers. Fundamentalists of all stripes are pursuing a single goal – annihilation – and are happy to feed off of each other in their pursuit. Israel will wipe out Palestine, and God won’t come. We will have nuclear winter, and God won’t come. We will frack California off the continent, and God won’t come. ISIS will get its holy war, the martyrs will stack to the moon, and God won’t come. And still they will persist.
And if any of their belief systems hold up, eventually they will show up at Judgement, and God will want to know what made them think they could force the hand of the Divine. God will ask how they treated the poor and the indigent, how they treated Jesus when he showed up as Travyon Martin, or Matt Shephard, or Fatemeh Reshad. God will want to know how any of us could function as the instrument of terror, and pain, and cruelty, and not also understand ourselves to be on the side of Satan. Is the word of God not clear enough on this point, no matter the religion, that those who claim God and mean it are called to be vehicles of light and kindness in the world?
I don’t have a good answer for how to deal with this madness. I just think more people need to talk about what it is we are dealing with.