Dear Fellow Liberals,
We need to harden the fuck up.
We lost this election, in part, because we’re soft. Because we forgot that politics, like life, has always been a brass-knuckles affair, in which victory goes not to the most sensitive or even-handed or inclusive, but to whoever is tougher. Whoever is most willing to get their hands dirty, or even bloody. Whoever is able to see the world as it is, rather than as they would have it be.
While we were all busy policing each other’s pronouns and having long, mutually respectful debates about who is allowed to wear a sombrero and under what circumstances, we lost the White House to Donald Fucking Trump and his legion of cracker-ass shitheads.
There is correlation here, as I hope to demonstrate.
I understand these cracker-ass shitheads. I grew up with them in a dying Maine mill town in the 1980s. I still know some of them, and until recently considered them friends. I am a poor rural white person who happens to have a facility with words, which means I now run in (and largely sympathize with, politically speaking) the crowd of liberal coastal elites who those guys I grew up with loathe so much. I straddle both worlds, part cowboy and part Indian, and as such I am unusually, if not uniquely, qualified to speak to the stances and states of mind of both groups. So believe me when I tell you: those guys I grew up with? Right now, they’re laughing at us.
And not for the reason you think. They’re not laughing because their candidate won the election, though certainly they’re happy about that fact and consider it a resounding validation of their worldview. No, they’re laughing at us because they think we’re a bunch of hypersensitive babies ill-equipped for life in a harshly indifferent world. And guess what? About this, if nothing else, they’re right.
Case in point: a couple of days ago, someone had the idea that white people who align themselves with the struggles and interests of minorities could express that solidarity by wearing safety pins. A daffy notion, not to mention completely meaningless, but fine. Since then, a bunch of other people have complained that wearing safety pins does nothing to help those who are about to have the business end of a Trump presidency shoved up their asses, and further that these safety pins, far from symbolizing solidarity with oppressed groups, could only ever symbolize the wearer’s white privilege.
During that same time, Donald Trump has appointed to his transition team an Orwellian cast of creeps, bigots, and far-right conspiracy nuts, among whom the least frightening figure is Newt Gingrich. Make no mistake: these men plan to do things to us that will hurt a lot more than being called a mean name. And all the while, here we are squabbling about the symbolic value of safety pins.
It’s one thing to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic; quite another to argue about how those chairs should be rearranged, while instead we should be breaking down the door to the bridge before the asshole at the wheel steers us all into an iceberg.
We’ve completely and utterly lost the plot, folks. The world’s on fire, and we’re still carrying on with our petty progressive business as though progressivism as we practice it hasn’t just received the sharpest and most damning rebuke imaginable. We’re still parsing every word until it ceases to have meaning, seeking offense and outrage under every rock, shouting down the people with whom we should be aligned because we’ve come to value the opioid rush of sanctimony over actually, you know, getting something done. We’ve contorted ourselves into a position of utter ineffectuality. That’s why those guys back in my hometown are laughing at us. And that’s why Trump is measuring (undoubtedly tacky) drapes in the West Wing.
Those whose knees are about to jerk, please try to understand: I share all of your values. I am an ally in the meaningful sense—not in in the flaccid, empty way we wield the term these days. I understand that words matter–probably better than you do, considering that words are how I make my living. I am a straight, cisgendered white man who has your best interests at heart. I have physically defended women from other straight, cisgendered white men who meant them harm. If I were walking down the street and someone called someone else a faggot within my earshot, things would get very real for the offending party with a speed and intensity that they almost certainly would not anticipate. And yet, here I am, with a deep understanding of the cracker-ass shitheads who have delivered us unto Trump, and I am imploring you to understand that words are not the hill upon which we want to die. That in fact our obsession with words, and our insistence that they are the fight that matters above all others is, in part, what’s gotten us into this mess.
There is almost nothing in contemporary life that can’t be better understood when viewed through the prism of history. In this instance, the lesson we all could make use of comes from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and specifically the tenure of Lyndon Johnson in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.
LBJ was not, by anyone’s standards, a nice guy. Were he president today, he would probably run afoul of the progressive language police a dozen times a week. He was brutish, crooked, and vengeful, not above using actual physical intimidation to coerce people into voting his way.
You know what else he was? The guy who shoved the Civil Rights Act down the throat of the Southern Bloc opposition in the Senate. Boom.
My point is this: toughness, even coarseness, in the service of that which is good, should not be discouraged or neutered. We need our attack dogs now more than ever. We need, I would submit, to BE attack dogs, each and every one of us. To see the world with clear eyes, endeavor fiercely to change it for the better, and above all refuse to retreat to “safe spaces.” Going to a safe space is no longer an option, if it ever were. Put your head in the sand and it leaves your ass in the air, where anyone can come by and take a whack at it if they want.
Last night I was thinking about all this as I sat at a bar in Manhattan where, according to legend, Ernest Hemingway broke a shillelagh over John O’Hara’s head. Of course in recent years, Papa has fallen out of favor with PC evangelists–too traditionally masculine, too rough, too violent. But it occurred to me, as an anti-Trump rally rumbled by outside, that there was never a time when we so desperately needed to harness a little bit of that Hemingway spirit as right now.
The question, ultimately, is this: what sort of victory do you value more? The kind where you paper over a problem with polite language (as if that’s tantamount to actually solving the problem) and end up with a large swath of the electorate that resents the shit out of you for telling them how to talk? Or the kind where you get to apply your values to law and public policy, thereby making real if incremental progress toward actually improving people’s lives?
Put another way: do you want to be sentimental, or strategic?
If the former is more important to us, then by all means, let’s keep condemning people for saying “tomboy” instead of “gender non-conforming female child,” and let’s then keep pretending, with each successive election cycle, that we don’t understand why we continue to lose even though we’re so clearly on the side of right.
If, however, the latter is more important to us, then let’s harden the fuck up, grab the shillelagh, and get to work.
With great sincerity and affection,