Fear and Loathing in the Heart of America

Imagine you’re at the bar, hanging out with a couple of people you know, and getting to know a new acquaintance you’ve just met earlier tonight. The two of you share a wide swath of interests, but come from different backgrounds, so you’ve been alternating between mutual geek-outs and challenging (and sometimes contentious) discussions as the night has worn on and both of you have become rather drunk. You’ve both expressed in sidebars that you find the arguing stimulating and enjoyable, and have exchanged information with the intention of hanging out in the future.

As you wind up again, digging into another controversial topic (rather clumsily, at this point, because it’s late and you’re both drunk), a young woman interrupts your conversation, accusing you of being racist, and then proceeds to shout down with petty insults your attempts to first get your head around the accusation, and then to attempt to explain a nuanced point that has context tracing back hours, while feeling understandably defensive.

Your significant other, who has been talking to some other people, hears what’s happening, comes over, and speaks up in your defense, but is immediately dismissed as a “brainwashed” accessory. Things escalate into incomprehensible drama. At some point, the young woman’s smaller friend, also female, steps in, steps up to your face, and grabs you by the throat; gently, but calculatedly. You restrain yourself from breaking her arm, but step to her in turn. Your two companions pull you back, and the moment ends.

This is a real thing that happened to my husband and me this past weekend, in my little podunk hometown in Minnesota. While I admit they got my goat, in that moment, the incident by itself would have been easily dismissed and forgotten, even just a year ago.

But in these crazy times, it’s left me deeply shaken.

My Facebook feed is filling with an increasing memetic consensus around punching, killing, and/or eradicating Nazis. It started out as mostly people who were already affiliated with groups like Antifa and the IWW, but now it’s spreading to friends I see as fairly moderate. As I said in a status update yesterday, yeah, I get that there’s a cathartic release involved. This current environment in which Nazis and white supremacists and race realists feel emboldened to demonstrate so publicly horrifies me as much as any reasonable, justice-minded person. But exerting violence against them, except when directly provoked on an individual level, isn’t productive. It won’t help. It’ll only make it worse.

I know I’ve told this story a hundred times, but I won’t stop repeating it until this insanity stops. Last winter, my friend was hunted down by Antifa and punched in the face because they had been led to believe he was a Nazi. Before they caught him, they detained a random guy on the street for half an hour because they thought he was their quarry. They didn’t let the guy go until he showed them ID to prove he wasn’t the “Nazi” they sought.


So, back to the weekend altercation detailed above.
What if it had happened in a college town? Or in Minneapolis, in one of our regular hangouts? What if the bar had been full of progressive-minded folks? How much of a push would it really take for a mob to crop up and beat the shit out of us, or worse?

Imagine a small, cute, college-aged woman shouting into a crowded bar on the West Bank, “HEY! THIS GUY IS A FUCKING NAZI!”

Do you think they’d listen to our protests? Honestly?

What would you do, if you’d had no awareness of us up to this point? Would you believe her? Would you gather your faculties and try to get your drunken mind around our attempts to defend ourselves?

Would you stand up for us?

Or would you punch us?

Would you hang back and watch, and skulk away after the violence began, convincing yourself that if we aren’t Nazis, we must at least be assholes, to have this happening to us. And isn’t that enough justification, really?

After all, in these times, we owe it to ourselves and each other to be very, very careful how we’re perceived by strangers.

They were asking for it. They were loud, in public. He took up space. He spoke declaratively.

Beat him down.

Make him the scapegoat for all your self-righteous anger, because he looks like the thing you hate.

This is why I’m so adamantly against the violent rhetoric. Those women decided before they even engaged with us that we were less than human. Even though our actual views on the issues of the day probably differ very little. My personal politics fall pretty far to the left. But I don’t want to see any single political view given free reins to dictate how our nation is run. When we have a robust culture of open debate, the extremes hold the center in tension, and we are able to govern ourselves in a way that moves toward maximizing freedom and justice. Obviously, we have a lot more work to do in that regard – there are many specific and workable ideas out there waiting to be tried. But this continued polarization and increased dismissal or outright demonization of those like myself who advocate for the importance of maintaining the middle ground – not for fence-sitting, but for examining ideas and challenging ourselves and refining our positions and getting into each other’s shoes to at least intellectually understand why opposing beliefs exist, even when we abhor them – is contrary to everything this country claims to be about.

I’ve always been a stranger; an outsider. I distrust groups of humans. Especially when they start forming rigid consensus views. When the people with the rigid consensus views start to advocate violence, things get scary. What makes it even scarier is when those people come from my own “side”. Where do I go, now? A more reactionary person might turn to the Alt-Right. But it’s not my style to trade one rigid ideology based on tenets I mostly agree with for one I despise to its core, just for some safety in numbers.

So here I sit. More alienated by the day.

Even though I hate how anxiety has become currency in this upside-down world we live in, I have to admit, I’m fucking scared right now.

Scared for my country, primarily. But also scared for my safety; for my freedom to live as I please. My chronic underlying fear of being misunderstood is now warping into legitimate fear for my life.

My hope is wearing thin.

RIP, USA. It’s been real.

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