This one is from the fine Canadian writer, Stephen Marche:
You feel your whiteness properly at the American border. Most of the time being white is an absence of problems. The police don’t bother you so you don’t notice the police not bothering you. You get the job so you don’t notice not getting it. Your children are not confused with criminals. I live in downtown Toronto, in one of the most liberal neighborhoods in one of the most open cities in the world, where multiculturalism is the dominant civic value and the inert virtue of tolerance is the most prominent inheritance of the British empire, so if you squint you can pretend the ancient categories are dissipating into a haze of enlightenment and intermarriage.
Not at the border.
My son’s Guyanese-Canadian teacher and the Muslim Milton scholar I went to high school with and the Sikh writer I squabble about Harold Innis with and my Ishmaeli accountant, we can all be good little Torontonians of the middle class, deflecting the differences we have been trained to respect. But in a car in the carbon monoxide-infused queue waiting to enter Detroit, their beings diverge drastically from mine.
I am white. They are not. They are vulnerable. I am not.
Here’s the thing: I like the guards at the American border. They’re always friendly with me, decent, even enjoyable company. At the booth in between the never-was of Windsor and the has-been of Detroit, the officer I happened to draw had a gruff belly and the mysterious air of intentional inscrutability, like a troll under a bridge in a fairytale.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“Why would anyone ever choose to go to Burlington, Iowa?” he asked philosophically.
“I’m going to see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.” Then, because it did seem to require an explanation: “They’re giving rallies within a couple of days of each other.”
“Why would anyone ever choose to go see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?”
I didn’t argue, because it was the border, but I could have said that the police chief of Birmingham estimated that 30,000 people showed up in Alabama to see Donald Trump in August and that in Dallas, he had filled the American Airlines Center, and that his counterpart, Bernie Sanders, has generated equally unprecedented numbers – vastly more than Barack Obama drew at comparable moments in the 2008 campaign.
“I’m curious,” I said instead.
At this point he asked me to roll down my window. But it was all fine. Like I said, I’m white.
I drove through the outskirts of the ruins of Detroit, across the I-94, one of the ugliest highways in the United States, the old familiar lightness fluttered to my heart. I love America. America is not my mother. Canada is my mother. But America is an unbelievably gorgeous, surprisingly sweet rich lady who lives next door and appears to be falling apart. I cannot help myself from loving it.
For people who love to dwell in contradictions, the US is the greatest country in the world: the land of the free built on slavery, the country of law and order where everyone is entitled to a gun, a place of unimpeded progress where they cling to backwardness out of sheer stubbornness. And into this glorious morass, a new contradiction has recently announced itself: the white people, the privileged Americans, the ones who had the least to fear from the powers that be, the ones with the surest paths to brighter futures, the ones who are by every metric one of the most fortunate groups in the history of the world, were starting to dying off in shocking numbers.
The Case and Deaton report, Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century, describes an increased death rate for middle-aged American whites “comparable to lives lost in the US Aids epidemic”. This spike in mortality is unique to white Americans – not to be found among other ethnic groups in the United States or any other white population in the developed world, a mysterious plague of despair.
In one way, it was easy to account for all this white American death – “drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis”, according to the report. It was not so easy to account for the accounting. Why were middle-aged white Americans drinking and drugging and shooting themselves to death? The explanations on offer were pre-prepared, fully plugged into confirmation bias: it was the economy or it was demography or it was godlessness or it was religion or it was the breakdown of the family or it was the persistence of antique values or it was the lack of social programs or it was the dependence on social programs.
Case and Deaton call it “an epidemic of pain”. Fine. What does that mean?
On the I-94, you do find yourself asking: what the fuck is wrong with these people? I mean, aside from the rapid decline of the middle class obviously. And the rise of precarious work and the fact that the basic way of life requires so much sedation that nearly a quarter of all Americans are on psychiatric drugs, and somewhere between 26.4 and 36 million Americans abuse opioids every day. Oh yes, and the mass shootings. There was more than one mass shooting a day. And the white terrorists targeting black churches again. And the regularly released videos showing the police assassinating black people. And the police in question never being indicted, let alone being sent to jail.
And you know what Americans were worried about while all this shit was raining down on them? While all this insanity was wounding their beloved country? You know what their number one worry was, according to poll after poll after poll?
Muslims. Muslims, if you can believe it.
‘The American dream is dead but I’m going to make it stronger!’My body is white and it is male. It is six foot tall and weighs 190lb. It is 39 years old and it has had to start running. It has had to start counting calories. There is a tingle in the joint of my right thigh, so I try not to think about my body. The tingling comes and goes. I know my body is going to kill me.
“A man who fears suffering already suffer what he fears,” as Montaigne said. That’s one of the reasons why men die so much younger than women – six years younger on average in America.
Ninety-two percent of men say they wait at least a few days to see if they feel better before they go to a doctor, but I know what they mean by a few days. They mean a few more days than makes sense. It is hard to have a male and white body and to conceive of its weakness. In the same breath, my body cannot bring itself to believe it is the personification of power, though it evidently is in any rational accountancy of social status. It feels like a mere body. It feels mortal.
I’ve never been to a place as white as Iowa. That’s the honest truth. Whenever I go to America it’s New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Florida. In Burlington, at Jerry’s Main Lunch, the signature dish is “the hot mess, eggs and bacon cooked right into the hash browns. The sugar shakers all have white crackers in them, to prevent clumping – a classic bit of commonsense American know-how. The hot mess is delicious. Why don’t they make these everywhere? Why isn’t there a chain of Jerry’s Main Lunches serving hot messes all across the midwest?
The answer is in the rest of the town: everything that’s going to leave has already left Burlington. The beautiful brick buildings downtown are mostly vacant. The most interesting street is the road out of town.
The Memorial Arena, on the banks of the Mississippi, filled up early. Trump wasn’t speaking until 6pm but by 4.45 the parking situation was grim. Outside the building, the hawkers who follow Trump on the road, event to event, sold T-shirts and buttons, three for $10. “We shall overcomb.” “Cats for Trump, the time is Meow.” “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
Inside, every seat had been taken and the floor filled quickly with a standing room only crowd. Burlington is 10% black. The rally was 99.99% white.
The people who attend political rallies in America are a specific genre of humanity, like the people who stand outside in lines for nightclubs. They know where they’re supposed to go and how they’re supposed to behave when they get there. They have gear.
An elderly lady sat beside me wearing a sequined stars-and-stripes-hat she clearly takes out for just these occasions. “Y’all from Illinois?” she asked. I’m not but I can pass. She goes to all the rallies, she explained. She’s been a Republican her whole life, an active Republican, an Iowa Republican. For 30 years, she’s been in crowds like this one. She plans to go, one time in her life, to the national convention. Like going to see the Stones. When the organizers passed around hand signs reading “The Silent Majority”, she grabbed a dozen so she could pass them around to others.
Cheerful helpful women were half the crowd. Angry and absurd men were the other. They wore T-shirts with whole paragraphs written on them: “I am a United States Military Veteran. I once took a SOLEMN OATH to defend the CONSTITUTION against ALL enemies, foreign and Domestic. Be advised No one has ever relieved me of my duties under this Oath!”
There were cars in the parking lot slathered with bumper stickers. “We the people are 100% FED UP!” “So if guns kills people, I guess pencils miss spell words [sic], cars drive drunk and spoons make people fat.” “I’m straight, conservative, Christian, and I own a gun. Is there anything else I can do to piss you off?” A picture of Obama with “Does this ass make my car look big?” The Republican style for 2016 is angry aphoristic humor. Behind comedy, absurd rage: America is the greatest country in the world but America is falling apart, government is the problem which is why government must solve it.
This was a Trump production so naturally there was a VIP section. A door guarded by bald, unsmiling men, the bouncers who stand forever as the bored sentinels of indifferent celebrity. A swinging door at the side of the stage received and dispensed the best-looking people, the ones with the buffed neutrality of political professionals, the women whose faces have been tautened to a perma pout, the men who get their hair cut before every event.
The woman beside me – Stars ’n’ Stripes Hat – was wearing a pewter elephant pendant. A young girl in a bright orange dress passed out of the VIP entrance wearing an elephant pendant encrusted with diamonds. Elephant pendants were a theme, I noticed, and elephant brooches and elephant rings and elephant T-shirts. They came in all different price points and in all different styles: round elephants reminiscent of French cartoons from the 1960s, and strange pseudo-sexual shimmies, and with 1920s straw boater hats leading parades. There was one kind of elephant you couldn’t find. An elephant that actually looked like an elephant. A realistic elephant might serve as a memento to the hundred elephants killed for their ivory every day. A naturalistic elephant would be inherently environmentalist. The elephants must all be fabulous.
Like any good show, there was a warm-up act. In fact, there are two – three if you count the recitation
of the pledge of allegiance. The first was Tana Goertz, an Iowa woman who had been runner-up on the third season of The Apprentice. “What a good-looking crowd,” she pandered. She vouched for Trump as a woman (“He loves women!”) and as someone who had returned to Iowa (“How could you live in New York City if you didn’t love people?”). She promoted the idea which is at the core of every last thing that Trump does, that simple contact with the man brings prosperity. “When you’re in the Trump train you’re going places!” She walked off to polite Iowan applause. The crowd would probably, all things considered, rather have listened to the Elton John music playing on the speakers instead, but at least she made the effort.....
....The title of Between the World and Me comes from a Richard Wright poem called White Man, Listen! and it was never going to get much whiter or more male than me in the Motel 8 sipping bourbon and beer, on my iPhone, with the Jays and Royals highlights flickering in the background and the thud of the satellite dish factory in the background.
The urgency of the book, the vitality of the historical imagination at play, rose like waves into crests of anger tumbling over their own force. It was all of a piece. And it all made very ferocious sense. Between the World and Me is one of those books that possess the powerful inevitability of a natural phenomenon – as if it accrued out of the ether that surrounds us, a crystalline formation of the outrage that defines the moment. To criticize is beside the point. It’s just there.
To me, the key passage in Between the World and Me, comes after Coates has been on television explaining to the host the desperate consequences of yet another police assassination of a black boy.
Right then, reading that passage, I knew that white people were going to love this book. What white people crave – more, they require it, they require it to live – is an alibi from their whiteness, an escape from the injustice of their existence. There are various alibis available depending on how much stupidity you can tolerate. You can say to yourself or to others that black people are stupid and lazy; you can say that you don’t see color; you can call your uncle a racist so everybody knows you’re not; you can share the latest critique of brutality on Twitter with the word THIS; and now you can tell a friend that she really has to read Between the World and Me.I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.
Because that Dream of Whiteness, the dream of treehouses and cub scouts that tastes like peppermint and smells like strawberry shortcake, is a perfect alibi. Who lives that dream? Somebody else may live it but not me, not anyone I know, no one I could see in Burlington. That’s a dream that belongs to somebody else. Always to somebody else.
It certainly didn’t belong to the Winegard factory workers who were drifting to their cars at the end of their shift. The whiteness of my existence was my iPhone and the fumes of bourbon and beer, and the game from last night and the tingling in my thigh. The tingling in my thigh was my body – the reality I can’t look at because I’m too afraid of my mortality.
To me, the best question ever asked about race in America has always been the one that James Baldwin asked, when an interviewer wanted to know if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of America. “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place,” he said. “If you invented him, you, the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.” The obsession of intellectuals over the question of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr active or passive resistance – was moot; the pressing matter was why white people were blowing up churches filled with children." [Read the entire article here]
*Pic from slate.com