(Photo of Me at the Wendy Davis Capitol Protests, Summer 2013. My son calls my stance “Cuff Pose.”)
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve leaned so far left as to be nearly horizontal. Now, without changing ideologically, I seem suddenly to be a centrist as the political pendulum keeps swinging really hard in both directions. Like a cartoon character who, though remaining on a fixed point, appears to have stepped forward because everyone else in line took a step backwards.
The more polarized politics become, the more fed up I become with radicals of all stripes. I’m tired of being told what I must think, how I must think it, and that failure to engage in lockstep ideology somehow makes me an asshole. I’m sick of having to triple-think every thought I have and every word I say lest I unintentionally offend someone and, consequently, get shouted down or canceled. The New Hard Left is at least as guilty of this “our way or the highway” bullshit as the Old Hard Right. To wit:
When I mention that I’m currently listening to the podcast The Witch Trials of JK Rowling, I suspect reactions to fall roughly into one of three camps. Some of you will condemn me for giving any time and attention to “that transphobic cunt.” Some of you will applaud me for being “brave” enough to “examine the facts” of what you perceive to be a massive medical money machine all too eager to “mutilate and medicate” kids who are succumbing to “online contagion” re: gender identity. And probably some of you won’t even know what the fuck I’m talking about.
I once asked an English friend to help me understand what Brexit was all about. This friend, an Oxford-educated astrophysicist with the biggest brain I have ever encountered, boiled it down into a bite-sized reply. Logic and practicality had little to do with it. “You pick your team. You stick with your team.”
This analysis reminded me of Henry’s soccer playing days. Every weekend, rain or shine, blazing heat or bitter cold, I’d drag my ass out to cheer on him and his mates. I also cheered on their opponents. These were children and I was an adult and if I saw a player execute an amazing move, I didn’t care what color his jersey was, I clapped. Until the particular day when I got a heavy dose of the stink eye from another parent on “our team.” The look said a lot. My critic was letting me know that we must never, ever, ever root for any cause other than our own. What was I—a fucking traitor?
As I listen to the JKR podcast, which I find really interesting, I recognize that I had been engaged in Brexit thinking regarding her ever since she started tweeting about trans politics. I’d heard about her remarks. I did not bother to look up the actual quotes, research their context, or come up with an informed opinion. As a liberal, I readily bought the transphobic labeling of her and thought something like, “oh, another nut job.”
Then, a friend, another staunch liberal, invited me to look and listen more closely to the trans debate. I initially recoiled at her request and wondered if my otherwise level-headed companion had succumbed to conspiracy theories. It made me really uncomfortable, this Venn Diagram overlap between some of her ideas and ideas I associated with “the other team.”
I have a dog in this hunt. Transphobia has impacted me, personally, as I have watched a member of my own family be cast out, and have to deal with the fallout of being exiled, which in turn echoes my own exiling as a young person. I did not want to entertain any notion at all that would in any way, real or perceived, hurt my already hurting family member. All of this was enough for me to pick a side—anti-Rowling—and stick with it.
Then, suddenly, the multi-headed debate over trans rights and trans children exploded all over the mainstream news. The New York Times is taking a ton of heat for its coverage, which is spawning a meta moment in which other news outlets are reporting about the reporting. The last piece I heard, on NPR, cites that NYT editors are defending their coverage, pointing out that reporters are attempting to dissect a real-time event, and their job is to raise questions.
I read NYT more than I should, having been raised a news junkie and also because I’m a journalist. Any umbrage I take with their coverage has more to do with clickbait in both directions (Look! A documentary about a trans man giving birth! Look, an opinion piece conferring sainthood upon JK Rowling!) vs looking at more everyday experiences of people trying to live their lives.
Though hailed by many as the paper of note, humans comprise the NYT staff and humans are prone to error. I fuck up, therefore I am and all that. So no, I don’t believe everything I read there. And I acknowledge that what might seem true now might one day be revealed to be not only false but utter travesty.
To give but one example, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that paper gave lots of positive coverage to Bruno Bettelheim, substantiating that sick man’s claims that autism was caused by what he termed “refrigerator mothers.” Bettelheim ran a barbarian “school” for “disturbed” children and if you want a burst of adrenaline outrage, I invite you to drop down the Bettelheim rabbit hole for an hour. In his heyday though, lots of people jumped on board with him, surely in part due to his authoritarian stance. These days I can’t imagine anyone—so-called liberal or so-called conservative—claiming to admire him.
So there you go—over time we learn together. At least in best case scenarios. Because only time and data will reveal certain truths. I’m grateful my business partner recently reminded me that I am not bound to pick a side on every issue that comes down the pike. As a former radical with diminishing stamina, and as someone old enough to finally understand that the more things change the more they do stay the same, I’m biding my time taking in all the information I can on sundry current events, observing as it all unfolds, bearing in mind my personal, singular goal (not always achieved) is to practice compassion as often as possible toward as many sentient beings as possible.
I have joked forever about what I hold to be a truth: every single child that comes into this world is brainwashed by the adults assigned to it. I was brainwashed to be overtly racist, overtly homophobic, overtly sexist, and perpetually paranoid. I have spent decades trying to undo these things. I hope I’ve done an okay job of it, but I also feel like the residual stench of all those disgusting biases will remain upon me despite my best efforts and even if I try to convince myself otherwise.
To give an example of my racism. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I started reading books about anti-racism. I wanted to deepen my self-awareness in the hopes of doing better. I hope I am doing better. But I catch myself in moments of deep confusion. Recently I was talking to a friend who works at an HBU, telling her about a program I know of that is a wonderful opportunity for college students and also a program that is badly in need of equity. Then, I immediately worried I sounded like another white guilt sufferer pushing to “fill quotas,” which was not at all my point. But what if that’s how my words came across? So I added that I hoped I’d presented my ideas in a non-racist way, but if not, I would appreciate being corrected. And then—at this point in the five-minute conversation I felt a bit of an internal meltdown—I worried: What if my attempt to vocalize my awareness of my bias simply displayed even worse bias?
I still don’t know if I fucked up in that conversation, but I’m leaning toward probably I did.
In 2015 when a piñata shop in East Austin was bought and demolished by a young white tech bro, I organized a protest. That shop was not too far from my home at the time and I, too, was a minority (woman) business owner. Of course I was outraged. But when word got out that a white lady was organizing an event, I got hammered by an East Side organization—whose name I will not mention because fuck them—who came after me in a way that wasn’t just like terrorism. It was terrorism. They bullied the shit out of me until I canceled the event, then they turned around and scheduled their own event and, I still don’t understand this, named the main point of contact a white woman who lived on the West Coast.
In the end, because neighbors of the shop beseeched me to follow through, I did wind up hosting a much tinier protest. Somewhere in all of that, I agreed to sit down with a representative of the terrorists—before I understood what they were doing to me. A twentysomething guy who purported to be a non-racist environmentalist smugly got in my face. He did not see the irony of the fact that as we talked, he—Mr. Environmentalist— blew smoke in the air, little puffs from a cigarette he extracted from a package that uses the image of an Indigenous person for marketing purposes.
All he knew was he had his team and as far as he was concerned, I was not on that team, I would never be invited to be on the team, and that as a white person my job was to stay out of it. Eight years later, nearly to the day, I stand by my original feelings of outrage and my original belief that I had enough in common with the owners of that shop to vocalize my opposition to its destruction.
My greatest disdain for all the radicalization is that any chance we have of learning through experience is exponentially narrowing. We are encouraged to dismiss ideas without debate or contemplation, stay within the confines of our algorithmically-generated echo chambers and never, ever stray. Without conversation—meaningful conversation that involves disagreement and debate without dismissal—we’re doomed.
I have been corresponding of late with a couple of guys who voted for Trump and who would again vote for Trump. If I did not know these men personally, I would automatically toss them into the file marked Fucking Idiots. But I do know both of them, I know them both to be good people at their core, and so I have allowed them to explain to me their positions, which I still do not agree with nor do I ever imagine myself agreeing with. Their patience in explaining themselves sans hysteria or down-talking me is a much needed reminder that if I am allowed to engage in a belief system in which they are wrong, they certainly are entitled to see my beliefs as wrong.
Living in a rural community for nearly eight years now has also, surely, affected what I’ll term my growing tolerance for un-likeminded neighbors. The example I turn to most frequently is my friendship with my plumber, who lives down the street, who has come over at all hours to fix plumbing disasters, including last Christmas when my yard was looking like the fountains at The Bellagio, pipes bursting everywhere. I insisted I could just cut off the water until the next day, that he should have his holiday. He insisted I needed water and showed up after dark in 15-degree weather to make it possible for me to take a long hot bath that very evening.
We don’t talk politics a whole bunch, except to recognize that we are, in fact, quite different. One time, by way of acknowledging our differences, he said, “Spock,” (this is how Southern people say my name) “you know I’m a middle-aged white man out in the country.” I laughed and said yep, I knew, and I knew what he was getting at. Only later did I notice that I was wearing one of my many anti-Greg-Abbott t-shirts and I laughed, because surely he noticed too, but he did not let this affect how he treated me and my failing septic system.
Because my plumber and I really couldn’t care less who the other votes for. And, in times of dire straits, I can state with authority I’d much rather have a conservative plumber by my side than a liberal art historian (unless the latter also happens to be able to fix pipes, deftly wield a chainsaw and operate other heavy equipment).
In 2017 I was taking the class then required to acquire a license to open carry a gun. Prior to moving to the country, I was 100% anti-gun. Period. Melt the fucking guns. That I would even be in the same room as a gun, let alone sign up for a class on how to handle a gun, surprised a lot of people, including me. Upon completion of the class, I posted a photo of myself with my instructor, a Napoleon-sized Black man who, I later learned, had a Mexican husband. You might think that being Black and gay and in an interracial marriage meant he was a screaming liberal.
You would be wrong.
When I posted that photo the criticism rained down on me. Unbeknownst to me, this instructor was apparently a big time right wing Twitter troll with more than a few opinions with which I vehemently disagree. Still, I defended my post about taking his class as follows: At no point during my interactions with my instructor did he make any comments at all about his politics. He taught the material. I learned the laws. I hit the target. I got my license.
Had I known about his politics prior to registering, it’s entirely likely I would have found another instructor. But that’s not what happened. As a business owner myself, I have plenty of people visit the ranch who, I’m positive, would be disgusted at some of the thoughts I think. It’s not hard for me to not share these thoughts, nor do I feel deprived in keeping my opinions to myself. When I am interacting with clients, it’s not about politics. There is, I think, a difference between self-censorship born of oppression and fear, and self-censorship deployed because not every occasion calls for political debate. I’m far more happy to talk about my cows with these guests than to discuss the increasing polarization of our society.
As an unwitting Sudden Centrist, I still recognize the need for strong stances and the importance of radical thinkers and actors throughout history. I once counted myself among them. But with the current ubiquitous radicalism making it hard to ask a question without potentially getting literally or metaphorically punched in the face, I’m thinking the most radical thing I can do right now is stand back, observe, and wait for some time to pass before committing to one cause or another.
Don’t tell me what to think and don’t accuse me of betraying “the team” for wanting to educate myself. Don’t ride my ass into the ground if I fuck up a pronoun if you know, in fact, that my mistake was actually a mistake, not a dismissal. (Aside— long before adding pronouns to one’s sign-off was a thing, I often parenthetically included a note to my signature: I’m a woman. Because the name Spike calls to mind a dude. Now if I add (she/her) to my sign-off, I do so with new confusion. Will the recipient think I am signaling (I am so sick of the word signaling) that I belong to a movement when really I’m just offering clarity about my individual self?)
There are things we can agree on, to a one. I do not know one single person in my life who is not dissatisfied with politics. Not one. I do know that at the root of every major political argument is fear and a desire for safety. I want you to honor my beliefs, I want you to honor that I get to have my beliefs even if they are different, I want to extend that honor to you and your beliefs, too. I want to feel safe. I want you to feel safe.
I think the greatest movie ever made was the original Batman, which came out in 1966. At the end of the film, the members of the United World Organization’s Security Council, who had been dehydrated into dust earlier, are rehydrated and come back to life. As they did pre-dehydration, they continued to fight with each other. However, thanks to a well-timed sneeze prior to rehydration, the dust of their individual selves co-mingled and they each now spoke different languages and acted in ways they had not before. Batman optimistically concluded that this “strange mixing of minds” might ultimately prove useful in the quest for world peace.
Beating me down with hyperbolic rhetoric—whether you identify as MAGA or More Woke Than Me— waiting to kick me in the teeth for any perceived error as I truly try to make sense of this bonkers world? This is not helping me to become a more enlightened human. I want to feel safe learning about you and your views, I want to feel safe sharing mine.
Here, too, I offer an example. In June of 2013, I was wrapping up a ten-day silent meditation retreat when I got word of Wendy Davis’s filibuster at the capitol. I had planned to return home and emerge slowly from that profound silence but I also felt compelled to protest for women’s rights. To compromise, I made a poster that said ASK ME ABOUT MY ABORTION and I stood in the center of the rotunda, silently holding it up as I was circled by chanting anti-choicers, including someone toting a huge crucifix. “My” team wore orange and “Their” team wore blue.
To my surprise—because did I really think my poster would change minds?—a woman in blue quietly approached me. She asked me about my abortion. I told her about how my husband at the time was physically and emotionally violent. I told her about the malignant ovarian tumor that was discovered post-termination, cancer that would have possibly killed me and the fetus. I told her how that abortion saved my life on every conceivable level and allowed me to stay alive and raise the child I already had.
She listened. Deeply. She looked into my eyes. She heard me. I know she did. I know she also didn’t agree with me but she didn’t get into an argument. As she left, she uttered one of the few God Bless Yous I have ever heard that did not immediately offend me. Her compassion and willingness to listen stays with me to that day.
Later that same day, I nearly took the bait of a man shouting down the pro-choicers. I started to get in his face. Then I remembered the woman from Team Blue and I took a page from her book. I asked the man to tell me his story. Turns out he had just lost a child to cancer. I think in his mind he saw those of us advocating for women’s autonomy as people trying to kill children and to him, a grieving father, that made no sense at all to actively reject what he saw as an opportunity to have a child—the very thing he had lost. We did not change each other’s minds. But I was grateful he helped me see his perspective. I hope he felt the same.
Do us both a favor—if you disagree with me and you choose to do so publicly, please do not shout me down. I’m game to hear and consider your thoughts but I will not suffer bullying. Thank you.
If you missed the news, my son’s intellectual property was stolen by Pharrell. I urge you to check out the top post at his IG @henry.m.harper. In protest he is selling posters—100% of the proceeds go to feed the hungry. I hope you’ll consider buying a poster.
The flea market went GREAT. We’re doing another on March 25th. If you want to be a vendor message me.
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Crone Poems & Other Reflections for Gen X Ladies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Similarly obsessed with this topic. Two great essays adjacent / on it in the Atlantic recently (if it paywalls you lmk and I can email? you the text. Fair use.
"The Four Americas," an essay in July / August 2021 issue of The Atlantic adapted from George Packer’s new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.
Posits that driven by the narrowing of opportunity for almost all Americans, the hollowing out of the middle class, the US has split into four different factions, each centered on a key American value, but withdrawn into a too-extreme, too-tribalized version of that value:
Packer writes "All four of the narratives I’ve described emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years. They all respond to real problems. Each offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have."
And "These divisions impoverish each narrative into a cramped and ever more extreme version of itself. All four narratives are also driven by a competition for status that generates fierce anxiety and resentment."
In particular, with regard to Smart America and Just America, he writes "Just America attracts surplus elites and channels most of their anger at the narrative to which they’re closest—Smart America.
=> The social-justice movement is a repudiation of meritocracy, a rebellion against the system handed down from parents to children."
"The parameters of acceptable expression are a lot narrower than they used to be. A written thought can be a form of violence. The loudest public voices in a controversy will prevail. Offending them can cost your career. Justice is power. These new rules are not based on liberal values; they are post-liberal."
"Just America’s origins in theory, its intolerant dogma, and its coercive tactics remind me of 1930s left-wing ideology. Liberalism as white supremacy recalls the Communist Party’s attack on social democracy as “social fascism.” Just American aesthetics are the new socialist realism.
"The dead end of Just America is a tragedy. This country has had great movements for justice in the past and badly needs one now. But in order to work, it has to throw its arms out wide. It has to tell a story in which most of us can see ourselves, and start on a path that most of us want to follow."
Love all of this!!!