January 28, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Are we at the natural end-point of whatever this experiment in representative democracy is?
A nihilistic question from a hopeful writer.
Before I took up correspondence with the writer David Matthews, I was a fan. In 2007, he wrote Ace of Spades, a memoir in which he recounted his experience growing up in Baltimore passing for white.
His father was Black. His mother was Jewish. But David inhabited that in-between space in a country that wouldn’t let him live there. It’s been a long time since I reviewed the book for the Savannah Morning News. Even so, the ache of David’s quest for identity stayed with me.
“I wanted access,” David wrote. “I wanted the benefit of the doubt. … This America smiled back at blacks, but it was more the indulgent smile of a listener who, having already heard the joke, waits patiently for the punchline. I knew there was only one thing to be in Baltimore, America, and that was white. … Life for me was not a war between black and white, or rich or poor, it was a life sentence that could be commuted only by whiteness, real or imagined.”
“That almost no one marched, died and bled in the streets to protest every day of Trump’s ‘regime’ tells me everything I need to know about how hard citizens are willing to fight for ‘democracy.’”
If memory serves, David introduced me to the “one-drop rule.” This wasn’t a rule, as such, but a way of thinking about why and how you counted as Black that was rooted in slavery and that evolved as white culture reckoned with Blackness. To wit: If you had just one drop of “Black blood,” you were Black. The white world would never let you in.
While we may not overtly talk about the “one-drop rule” anymore, we certainly feel it. My dad’s sister married a Black man. I never met him, but I knew his three sons very well. As children, my cousins and my brothers played together in our grandfather’s barn and on his tractors after having spent an agonizing hour-and-a-half keeping quiet at the gospel hall. But not once did I ever think of them as white.
At the time I reviewed David’s memoir, I thought of myself as a fairly enlightened liberal (especially in the South). But here I was realizing how far the tendrils of white supremacy can go. I saw the truth of it. I felt it. White supremacy is less personal than systemic.
Making this more painful was the logic of the “one-drop rule.” If all Black people were Black on account of having just one drop of “Black blood,” it stands to reason the opposite is true. All white people are white on account of having just one drop of “white blood.”
By that logic, my Black cousins were as white as I was. But my child’s mind never thought that. Such is the legacy of American slavery.
As I said, I’ve kept a correspondence with David. He’s now a big wheel in Hollywood. Credits to his name include story editor for “Law & Order: SVU” and season 4 of “Boardwalk Empire” as well as co-producer of F/X’s “Tyrant” and HBO’s “Vinyl.” I asked David to just let it rip.
Hoo-boy did he ever.
Imagine you had a platform high enough for everyone to see. What would you say about American politics?
Ugh, wow, weighty tomes and endless dissertations are better able to convey some of this, and I fear my nihilism won’t be helpful, but: My internal belief is that we’re at the natural end-point of whatever this experiment in representative democracy is. It’s effectively over.
The unprocessed legacy of a nation built on slavery, coupled with free-market capitalism, has led us past the point of meaningful progress.
The unprocessed “first sin” (I’m excepting what was done to the Native Americans, though we could also count that as the inciting incident to what we would eventually become) of the African slave trade, which built this nation’s wealth is still with us. It’s become internalized.
There’s a straight line from the Civil War to gerrymandering. The root cause is the same: the maintenance of white supremacy at all costs.
Add free-market capitalism to this internalized, deep fissure in the American psyche and it’s hard for me to imagine how we’d end up anywhere different than the place we’ve found ourselves in.
I would (reductively, unhelpfully) posit that we have no identity freed from the notion of individual success (that’s the lure and the poison of free-market capitalism) and fear of “the other.”
I think any real progress would come from a widespread acknowledgment that more overtly socialist programs (you know the kind I mean) is the only bulwark against a widening economic divide.
But that’s where my nihilism kicks in.
The romantic toxicity of the American dream is built on the premise that anyone can “make it” in America (in our modern context, that is almost universally, implicitly understood to be financial freedom).
This selfishness (critical to free-market capitalism) leads to an “I got mine, you get yours” collective subconscious, which is why and how being poor in the US is viewed as a badge of shame, or lack of ambition, rather than a necessary structural piece of capitalism.
It’s an insoluble paradox.
Now that six or seven global corporations effectively control the economy, the notion that somehow we’ll all collectively rattle their cages until they “share the wealth” seems puerile, delusional to me.
“As bad as some folks think things are in the US, we’re many years away from real change. It’ll take bread lines, mass starvation and a climate catastrophe to energize a movement large enough to actually change our value systems.”
That almost no one marched, died and bled in the streets to protest every day of Trump’s “regime” tells me everything I need to know about how hard citizens are willing to fight for their “democracy.”
Belarus can turn out hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy street protesters while we just watched another ventricle of our democracy die this week, the vast majority of us from our couches.
We did have the pink hat thing a few years back, if you think that counts. (I don’t.) This suggests to me that real, meaningful political change is only gonna come from abject privation or hardship.
As bad as some folks think things are in the US, we’re many years away from that kind of change. It’ll take bread lines, mass starvation and a climate catastrophe to energize a movement large enough to actually change our value systems.
Because the demographic truth is: very few of us actually understand that unless you dismantle capitalism as we’ve come to know it since the industrial revolution, we’re only rearranging the deck chairs.
All right, what gives you hope? Art?
I mean, yeah: music/literature/film/tv. Those are the only reasons I’m not swinging from a chandelier. And young people give me hope. They’ll figure this out, because they have to.
And I’m not hopeless at all.
I think we’re living through the end of something – the American experiment – but maybe something waaaay better will replace it!
(We’ll all be dead by then, but nobody living under Caesar ever thought their lives would be markedly different, either, lol.)
I’m theoretically excited about how real socialism grafted onto a way more humane capitalism could work. Imagine a world where public school teachers and social workers were indices of success? Or where the defense budget was swapped for the education budget?
I also think the notion of “returning” to a more civilized, lass partisan political landscape is facile.
To have regressed this far into tribalism, while simultaneously having access to more information, tells me we’re past the point of facts actually mattering. These MAGA imbeciles are literally willing to drink urine rather than trust the past 100 years of epidemiological science.
Identity is beyond the reach of reality.
The left may be a thin-skinned bunch of reactionaries, but at least we’re usually on the side of empathy over identity.
Last question: Joe Manchin. Thoughts?
Piece of shit.
He’s more interested in triangulating the votes of a thin sliver of MAGA-adjacent Democrats (who are not the future) than progress.
Which brings us back to white supremacy.
He’s voting to maintain something that has been proven to disenfranchise Americans white America never wanted at the table.
His and Kyrsten Sinema’s votes would have ensured voting rights would put an end to Republican viability in the 21st century (or at least force them to pivot to stances that aren’t overtly cruel, racist and misogynist). But again – identity trumped nobility.
And for the record: I really dig Biden, because I don’t expect a 79-year-old career politician to deliver us from 400 years of bullshit.
His being sane, and not a fascist, makes him a top 10 president.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.