I have been sitting here for a week trying to figure out how best to explain the American clusterfuck to people overseas. It's not easy. There's a lot of context. It's the kind of thing that doesn't make any sense unless you're in it at the time.

The hard fact is, people here are dying. Not of anything so easily romanticized as bombs on barricades, but of things that no citizen of any industrialized nation has any business dying of in 2016: Diabetes, anaphylactic allergies, asthma attacks, endocarditis pursuant to chronic dental abscess, stress-induced suicides, malnutrition. There is a huge economic underclass here who used to work making things, like in factories. They were, to some extent, indispensable; you have to have actual humans with actual hands to put together cars and televisions and shoes, and you always need a certain number of hands to fill your orders. But everything is now made overseas, where it's cheaper, and the "working class" who survive from paycheck to paycheck has rotated around to be the service and informational industries, where there's no limit to what your boss can demand that you know, and no amount of knowledge makes you necessary. The people who run things are very rich, and everybody else is very scared.

The US is a representative democracy. We rely on elected representatives to advocate for our interests in government. Increasingly, these people have made their advocacy contingent on ideology. This is most often spoken of explicitly in the context of the Religious Right running the hardline conservative movement, but there is also a hardline liberal movement that demands an equal amount of perfection. If they find out that you, as a fallible human being, have ever done anything that they don't like, they declare you "problematic", argue endlessly about your actions, and refuse to deal with you. Both sides often declare that only a total boycott -- social, intellectual, economic -- is the only correct and moral way to respond to disagreement.

When the issue of same-sex marriage came up while Barack Obama was in the Senate, he came down in favor of civil unions. When it arose again while he was President, he opted for full marriage. When asked about this, he said, "I've thought about it, and my opinion has evolved." This was huge news in all quarters, because it was the first time in decades that an American politician had admitted, openly, to changing his mind. It's not that they don't; a popular tactic in both serious editorials and political comedy is to put together a number of media clips of politicians saying totally opposite things to different people at different times. It's that everyone pretends that the opinion they have now is the same opinion they've always had, even if that is provably false. The perception is that if their views are not eternal and unchanging, they're clearly spineless, unpredictable, easily-bought, or all three.

When you come right down to it, a significant plurality, if not a majority, of the people in the US don't really care if some lady gets an abortion or wears a scarf around her head, or where transpeople pee. I know what the news says, but I also did sociology in school, and I know that one of the quickest ways to get someone to choose a side is to walk up to them in front of all of their friends, hand them a survey, and start asking them questions about it. People will spontaneously develop opinions on all kinds of random shit in the hopes of making you just happy enough to take your clipboard back and go away. Once they're received affirmation that other people think that way -- whether that's true or not -- then they tend to double down on opinion they've stated aloud, even if they secretly don't really feel that way anymore. It's not necessarily an opinion for its own sake, but a mantra that marks you as One Of Us, and having an Us to be One Of is important to a lot of people.

What they actually care about is being able to buy groceries and feed their kids, being able to get medicine when they're sick, and being able to walk around without fear of random violence. And none of that is getting fixed. We've had a years-long fight over what bathroom transgender people are allowed to use, and it's incredibly, frustratingly stupid. It should have been settled in five minutes by someone with a gavel going, "It's a public restroom, no one of any gender should be scrutinizing your junk this closely, if they do you need to call the cops." But right now the federal government is full of people who don't understand that "the hill I die on" is supposed to be a single hill that is of paramount personal importance, not just the random dirt pile you happen to be standing on when someone gets in a lucky shot.

We have gotten so persistently sidetracked by these arguments that we had to get a comedian to embarrass the government into paying for the healthcare of 9/11 First Responders. Twice. The bill was floated over and over again, but everyone who got their hands on it amended it to hell and back in an effort to get their way on something completely unrelated. Every proposal was folded, spindled, mutilated, and adulterated to the point where it had to be completely scrapped, until Jon Stewart went on basic cable and pointed all of this out. One of the few things that we all agree on is that the emergency workers who ran into the toxic dust clouds of the collapsing towers to save as many lives as they could are genuine heroes, and even if you're a complete sociopath, you know that having 300 million Americans think you don't care about these people is a shortcut straight to the end of your political career.

A lot of the people who voted for Trump did not actually like him as a Presidential candidate, or, indeed, as a human being. They liked him as a metaphorical hand grenade they could throw at our failing government. If they had been given the option to vote for an actual, literal hand grenade to lob into the middle of a Congressional session, they may well have done that instead. The opposing party made the mistake of fielding a candidate who is part of a political dynasty and has been in government all of her adult life, probably assuming that almost all American women would reflexively vote for someone who had a vagina. Their other option was Bernie Sanders, who was equally hand-grenade-y, and whom the press liked to describe as "socialist". If the race had been crazy Jewish grandpa vs drunk racist uncle, we'd probably all be saying "Mazel tov, Mr President" right now.

The interaction between the people and the government here is straight out of a book on abusive relationships. The people in it lie and contradict themselves constantly, and when this is pointed out, they deflect and deny and gaslight like mad. Any request for what you need is sidetracked into a vicious argument into something that almost but not quite totally unrelated. They assert a right to keep track of everything you do at all times, but demands for accountability vanish, ignored, into the void. They are more interested in not changing than they are in making anything work.

There are a lot of concrete steps you can take to get out of a relationship like that. They don't always work. You may not like dealing with your drunk racist uncle at holiday dinners -- or, indeed, at all -- but when you have exhausted all reasonable options, and the crazy ex still won't leave you alone, you start wondering if maybe sending drunk racist uncle over to his house with a shotgun would fix the problem. I wouldn't, and didn't, but apparently a lot of people would.

As for myself: I am in what is probably one of the safest regions of the country right now. Boston is incredibly upset, but the way New Englanders deal with devastating tragedy is by reaffirming, as hard as they can, that they still live in civilization. We get very doggedly polite and considerate. It's disquieting for people who don't live here, I think. It's a strangely dispassionate kind of conscientiousness. It's not that people are being nice because they have, or even want, a personal connection with you; it's that you are a human being in their immediate environs, and they want to assert that they for one still believe they are living in a fucking society, and this is how you make society work.

On a logistical level, Massachusetts is a comparatively wealthy state, with a large and stretchable safety net. We are generous with things that are difficult to get in other states, like medical care and food stamps. I've had to apply for both, and if you're in dire enough need, they will seriously just hand you shit and make you an appointment to fill out the paperwork later. The place isn't perfect, but the people here by and large do have something to lose, and they don't want to lose it. It is much easier to be nice to other people when you are not yourself destitute and desperate.

Even the protestors are polite. Admittedly, if Trump sold tea, it would all be at the bottom of Boston Harbor right now, but traditionally mobs of angry Bostonians gather to shout and wave signs, not to punch each other and set fires. The police don't give them any reason to be otherwise. They would absolutely arrest people if violence broke out, but absent that, their response is to march along with them on the outside of the crowd, wearing neon safety vests and stopping traffic at the cross streets for the protest to pass. You can see it for yourself if you look up the news coverage of the post-election protest on Boston Common, or the #blacklivesmatter protests from a while ago.

I am just doing what I can. I don't go to protests or rallies; I don't deal well with huge crowds even when they're happy, and nobody needs to deal with me having a total meltdown in the middle of an angry mob. I did spend my weekend being Magical Fairy Drugmother and handing out gray-market anxiolytics to a lot of my friends, because a lot of my friends are queer and terrified. Being as we live in Little Canuckistan, we all technically have access to medical care, but getting an appointment to talk to your doctor in three months does not help you sleep now. I have first-hand experience in how fast humans disintegrate when they are physically unable to calm down.

It's probably selfish to be glad that my queer/Muslim/PoC friends will still talk to me. My feelings here are kind of insignificant in comparison to what they're going through. Still, the only thing I can really personally do right now is not be an asshole, and it's nice to know I seem to be succeeding.


  1. One of the more reassuring things to come out of this whole mess is just how many people seem to be responding by upping their levels of compassion. I don't know how long it will last, but at least for the moment pretty much every single one of my social circles is full of people clearing their schedules to start volunteering, or sharing tips on how to get involved, or just looking out for each other. I suspect it's that same thing you highlighted: an almost desperate need to prove that, dammit, society as we know it (or as we wish it to be) has not ended. Or spite. I know there is definitely an element of spite, as in, 'you have demonstrably proved that you consider me acceptable collateral damage, so fuck you, I am going to *thrive*' There's a fair bit of that going around too.

    A lot of me wants to be very upset about everything, but I can't be mad at people who've been screwed over time and again and just want out. I don't know how effective of a weapon they've managed to find (though I suspect not very) but I can't fault them for wanting one. I just wish it hadn't had to be this particular one.

    1. I can't speak for elsewhere, but the Greater Boston Area has responded to the news as if it is a great tragedy. I went into Cambridge Wednesday night, and the last time I was on a train that quiet was a few days after the Marathon bombing, as we passed through the closed station at Copley Square.

      I really doubt Trump will be able to do much. A lot of what he vowed is illegal, because the Constitution says so; impractical, because it would require the cooperation of people who have strongly implied they would not piss on him if he were on fire; or just nonsense, both logistically and grammatically. I explained to a Moroccan coworker last night about the ACLU, and that legally what's probably going to happen is four solid years of lawsuits, which will take another two decades to sort out.

      I feel very sorry for Melania Trump. As far as I can tell, she is a perfectly ordinary person who happened to be pretty enough to be a trophy wife, and she is now in way over her head.

    2. If I had to guess, I'd say that Boulder is either much the same or filled with righteously angry people. I don't see much of it, because I work nights and tend to be a hermit when I'm not at work. My primary socializing spaces are online, which shapes how people react to things publicly. At least where I hang out, we all seem to have processed the immediate tragedy and moved on to the aftershocks at this point. It's a lot of, 'well, this is what the world has come to, here's how we survive from here.'

      I've been of the same opinion re: his effectiveness since the beginning. Unfortunately most of the social damage has already been done, and was the moment we as a country took him seriously as a candidate. I don't really know how to go about repairing that other than just taking care of each other and trying to explain to people on the other side of the aisle why exactly all of my friends have gone into mourning. (Like you, I'm relatively sheltered from a lot of it by dint of being a white woman who currently passes for straight at a glance.)

      Re: Melania Trump, did you ever read the story published in the New Yorker called 'The Arrangements?' I know it's fictional and all, but it stuck with me. If you told me she didn't actually want this at all but didn't really get a say in the matter I'd believe you in a heartbeat.


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