Life as I know it: Dispatches from the culture wars

I couldn’t sleep this morning so I woke up when the sun was still rising, its dim light sneaking through the slats of my blinds. I watched the video of the arrest of George Floyd on Monday evening in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I watched white police officers surround him, pin him down and I saw one officer press a knee against a black man’s neck. His last words were that he couldn’t breathe. I saw his mother on MSNBC last night, wearing a T-shirt that said “Can’t Breathe,” anger and tears clouding her face over the death of her son. (Can we just acknowledge, for one moment, one moment of prayer, politics aside, that a mother has lost her son?) That same morning, a black man in Central Park, New York City, who was bird watching, asked a white woman to leash her dog, and the white woman practically strangled her dog and threatened the black man that she’d report him to police, and tell them that her alleged assailant was black. The headlines said she apologized. As if that was the lead. 

This week, there are protests. Last week, there were white men marching on state capitals with no masks and assault weapons, wanting a hair cut and a latte after one month of hardship, and no one was arrested. No one died. Keyboard warriors rage at each other on social media. The endless cycle of the identity politics idealists and the OK Boomers and the Karens. Yelling at each other from across a crowded room, never meeting each other’s eyes. Wanting to speak to a manager, but there is no manager. We are all gig economy workers, now. We are our own bosses. The corporations that laid us off run endless commercials on TV telling us how much they care about us in this pandemic. The world that was left to us. Just stop buying lattes and you can buy a house, they say. Those were the old days. But maybe in our bridled resentment we have lost something precious. The memory of our elders. The long arc of history. 

President Trump, using typical schoolyard bully tactics, threatened to shut down Twitter for fact-checking his claim that vote-by-mail is fraudulent. (It isn’t; I live in Oregon, and I have voted by mail all my life.) He promised an executive order on social media today. Free speech does not mean freedom from consequences. You have the right to say the sky is pink, and I have the right to say that you are a liar. I will defend to the death your right to say the sky is pink, but I will still call you a liar. 

He still refuses to wear a mask, supposedly wanting to maintain the facade of normalcy. 

He still, also, refuses to acknowledge the death toll from CORVID-19. He does not know how to mourn. In this is a president’s traditional role – to mourn the dead. But he sees grief as weakness. When the Challenger space shuttle crashed and seven astronauts were killed, Ronald Reagan said in these words written by Peggy Noonan, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” I saw that on MSNBC last night; I was too young to remember it. We will never hear that from this president. Poetry can bring people together, no matter their politics, no matter their story. Poetry speaks to the universal human experience. Poetry is empathy. But that was only seven dead. A tragedy, in the way that all losses of life are tragedies, but only seven. 

We crossed a new threshold yesterday. More than 100,000 dead. Let us take a moment, then, to acknowledge all the mothers who have lost their sons, all the sons who have lost their mothers, all the sisters who have lost their brothers. Politics aside. People are dead. I grieve their losses. Every day I take a moment, or the grief will threaten to overwhelm me, to rob me of my breath. I can no longer breathe. Breathing is something I do by rote, by memorization, by habit. I need air, until grief steals it from me and crushes my chest. 

We live in a world where a black man had the audacity to be chosen by the people for the highest office in our country and we have the audacity to say he was divisive for it. “You’re the racist,” people scream at each other until the term has lost all meaning. The content of one’s character. We are all racists. It’s what we do with the information, how we change because of this information, that counts. You can acknowledge racism, and systematic oppression, and still acknowledge that everybody has suffered; we can acknowledge different kinds of pain. But we live in a world where we all want to wear the mantle of the victim, we want to claim that identity as our own. But we can’t all live in a world of victims mashed together. 

I am a white woman with the privilege of middle-class white cisgender women who grew up in a middle-class suburb full of white people and when I see a black man on the street in a strange neighborhood I flinch. I hate myself for this reaction. I want equality. I want what Dr. Martin Luther King wanted. I don’t want this part of me, this primal part of me that is buried in my blanched bones. But I acknowledge it. We must acknowledge it. 

When I was a reporter for seven years, objectivity was my power. I cared about the people on my beat and I needed to care about them in order to tell their stories with respect and empathy. But they were also still sources. A reporter needs to be able to see both sides. In this way journalism can create change, and in this way journalism is a kind of activism, even as it contains no opinions, no biases, just the facts. In the ideal world, this is journalism. This is often not the case in the real world, because we are humans, with biases and stories of our own and thoughts and feelings about the world. But it is the theory, and no matter what you think about journalists and fake news and the de-humanized media, all journalists strive for this ideal because it is a cornerstone of the profession. It is why people become journalists. To become a voice for the voiceless. To speak for those who cannot tell their stories. 

But because of journalism sometimes I feel I cannot take a side. Not taking a side is also taking a side. But sometimes I feel I will always stand apart from real friendship, always see people from the outside, never truly trusting anybody. Everyone has a story. Because of this, I can see both sides. I can see the pain of both sides. I can see that every person has a family and they have desires and ambitions and goals and they want things. Everyone wants things. Everyone has dreams. I believe that everybody wants fairness. But they have different standards of fairness. 

I am on a side, though. I am on the side of justice and truth. I am on the side of facts. I do not want to live in this world where we live between worlds. Where we see opinions as facts. Where we politicize science and public health. We live in two different realities and we can watch the same video and invent two completely different narratives to explain it. I don’t want to live in that world. But it is the world that we made. A world of endless division. Where we don’t see the woman who lives alone with her cat and loves that cat more than she loves anything else in the world but she wonders about “young people these days” and their endless whining. Why can’t they live and let live? We don’t see her cat. It is a Siamese, with white fur and lake-blue eyes. We just see her judgment. The woman doesn’t see our golden retriever and how much we care for it. She sees a whiny little entitled brat on the internet, calling her a troll. 

I think of that movie, The Interpreter. Silvia Broome, played by Nicole Kidman, is a translator born in Africa, from a made-up land called Matobo. She is white. She tells her bosses that she accidentally overheard a plot against an African head of state. Federal agent Tobin Keller, played by Sean Penn, is assigned to protect her, but he has his suspicions of her innocence. “We’re standing at opposite sides of the river,” she says to him. “You have to give me a reason to get to the other side,” he says. There is one scene in the movie where Keller finally starts to believe in Broome. They play an endless cat-and-mouse game of sexual tension. In this moment he is telling her he loves her, even though he doesn’t say it, and they will never sleep together and never kiss. Then she tells a story. 

“Everyone who loses somebody wants revenge on someone, on God if they can’t find anyone else. But in Africa, in Matobo, the Ku believe that the only way to end grief is to save a life. If someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial. There’s an all-night party beside a river. At dawn, the killer is put in a boat. He’s taken out on the water and he’s dropped. He’s bound so that he can’t swim. The family of the dead then has to make a choice. They can let him drown or they can swim out and save him. The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they’ll have justice but spend the rest of their lives in mourning. But if they save him, if they admit that life isn’t always just… that very act can take away their sorrow.”

I wonder if we will always stand on opposite sides of the river. 

The sun is up now. It is going to be a hot one, and I can see my vegetable garden outside my window. The zucchini plant is growing flowers. They are bright yellow, and look like the Planet of the Apes. Soon I will have more zucchini than I can eat. My yard previously sat tangled in blackberry roots, not tended. Now it is growing food. 


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