The wheels are coming off of 2020. In a way, this was inevitable – there was no way we were going to make it through this four years without having to face a crisis or disaster, and with a decompensating racist egomaniacal cable TV addict at the helm, there was no way it was going to go well. We’ve watched one death after another without consequence, and wonder why people riot. We’ve watched the mechanisms of pandemic prevention and preparedness be dismantled, and wonder why a hundred thousand people are dead with the numbers still climbing. We wonder how things could go so off the rails even as we blithely observe the replacement of the rule of law with the impunity of privilege.
The very definition of privilege – and most especially white privilege – is freedom from consequence. It’s the animating principle of the 21st century Republican Party: freedom from consequences for white people, escalating proportionally with wealth. Thus the persistent belief at 1600 Pennsylvania that the bloviating fool occupying the Oval Office is an absolute monarch, entitled to deference and praise in all things and whose word is law. Thus the apparent belief in Minnesota that criminal consequences for police misconduct are not required. Thus the belief that two Georgia suburbanites can act as judge, jury and executioner on nothing more than their own belief and recognizance, and get away with it until the video emerges. Thus Trayvon Martin. Thus Sandra Bland. Thus and thus and thus and thus, until we lose track of the names.
There is something very wrong with this country. There has been, for years and decades and centuries. The anomaly was the roughly fifty year interval in which it was felt to some degree that wealth, or whiteness, or a Y chromosome, were not inherent and insuperable barriers around the course of life – that opportunity and accountability should be distributed in equal measure. It never completely happened, obviously, but we were trying, dammit – not as fast or thorough as we should have, but we were trying. There was a belief that the effort had to be made. And we got a little way with it. The wealthy had tax rates concordant with their wealth. Black people weren’t made to drink out of separate water fountains and sit in the back of the bus. Women could get a credit card in their own names, not their husbands’. We plucked the low-hanging fruit and thought we were done.
And then we quit. Because one political party selected the South as its base and model, thought that the reification of white privilege was a better anchor for its future basis than free trade or individual liberty or any of the other things that the GOP used to be known for. And the tribalism of the South became the sole animating spirit of the party, as every other consideration was slowly stripped away. To borrow Will Satelan’s turn of phrase, the GOP is a failed state. Trump is its warlord. And the country is being governed on that basis, with predictable results. It makes you wonder about the future.
I’m still trying to teach myself to program. I’ve had three or four attempts at starting to learn Python, through all sorts of media – streaming class, in-person class, workbook, online tutorial – and it just won’t take. Now I’m making an effort with Swift, hoping that the rumors are true about how Apple plans to make it not only the development language of choice but the scripting language of record in macOS 10.16 and beyond.
And yet, it’s something I have to do. I don’t want to do it. There’s no itch to scratch, no particular joy in figuring it out or achieving competence. I am told that achieving mastery is one avenue to a sense of fulfillment…but then, it would have to be something I enjoyed. I used to enjoy the piano, but then twelve years of lessons took the fun out of it and probably prevented me ever achieving any sense of mastery. If I could have been in a band that lasted more than one gig, or learned to play some proper jazz or blues or stride piano…but that wasn’t on offer in my world. Trombone was ultimately more satisfying than piano – not that I achieved anything approaching mastery, I was never as good a trombone player as a pianist at my peak, but then the trombone got me college course credit, a tiny stipend and mandatory access to basketball games.
I suppose in a similar fashion, the programming is meant to be a means to an end – but only to add to my skill set. I’m not going to become a developer at age 48, not when there exist entire subcontinents churning out more talented coders with lower wage requirements. “Learn to code” is the eternal slogan of those who believe the one thing they know is the only thing worth knowing, but they tend to overlook the importance of the other things. The network engineers, the documentation writers, the support staff that resolve the trouble tickets – this is a place that buries all of them in the handwaving behind The Coder. Irony of ironies, a twenty-two year career in Information Technology turns out to be the kind of thing that isn’t really considered important in Silly Con Valley.
I don’t like my job. This is not a secret. I don’t particularly care for where I live these days either, although it remains to be seen whether the economic downturn will burst the bubble and dry up the venture capital sugar tit that has kept unicorns afloat for years without the hassle and inconvenience of a business plan. When all the hustlers and chancers have to go back to Brooklyn and Austin and Wall Street, maybe we’ll be left with an actual technology industry in the most beautiful part of America again. But given that a 40 year old in the Valley is a senior citizen and a 50 year old is the walking dead, and in light of the changing attitude toward remote work and the growing realization that maybe Silly Con Valley doesn’t have to be physically tied to the Peninsula, it does force one to contemplate whether it might be possible to go elsewhere, find a more humane scale of life, and open the possibility of cheaper living to the point that actual retirement is back on the cards.
Birmingham, Nashville, New Orleans, Chattanooga, Mobile…there exists a modern urban substrate where I grew up, where my friends went, in places where I never would have considered looking ten or fifteen or twenty-five years ago. Sure, I might have to give up on transit outside New Orleans, but so many of the other things – bike share, quality broadband, craft beer, old architecture, affordable downtown living – are there, along with cozy minor league sports and decent barbecue and what is ostensibly my culture and heritage.
They’re all still in Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, the South. And that culture and heritage is one that takes more off the table than it puts on it in the 21st century. I grew up there, I marinaded in it, I was diminished by it. Atticus Finch vs George Wallace. Benoit Blanc vs Joe Exotic. I didn’t even get the non-rhotic drawl that still has some frission of cool, I got the hard-R that got used way too often for way too long by way too many. If you get my drift.
We craft a mythology around the South because the reality is too uncomfortable to live with. The land of my upbringing is a prisoner of its demography, and containing the white Southern Boomer will be slower and more difficult than anywhere else in America, because the lag time on attitudes and opinions means that mine is the generation that has to die out before the South can move forward. Everything that propels our political nightmare today will last longest and die latest in the place where I was born and raised, and going back means having to find even more of the belonging I never really found the first time around.
I could have been part of that if I’d stayed. The Bitter Southerner, Lee Baines and the Glory Fires, Jason Isbell and Good People Brewing and a biracial uprising of youth and modernity and an unwillingness to be drowned in the bullshit of moonlight and magnolias any longer. But I left. I didn’t have it in me in 1997 to stick around and stick it out. I didn’t have my blue dot. What I had was an opportunity to start fresh somewhere else, and I took it, and I have paid for it, and I don’t regret it at all. It saved my life. But it did rather leave me with the expat’s dilemma. I am here, in a place where – given my age and station – I am a poor cultural fit all around. But I’m a poor cultural fit where I came from, and the racism and humidity are far more pronounced and frequent there. Birmingham is still in Alabama. Austin is still in Texas. Nashville is still in Tennessee.
My fear – the one that makes me toss and turn even when my shoulder pain can be brought under control – is that for all that California is, it’s still in America. And there’s nowhere left to run. The events of the weekend have proven that – the 1963 Birmingham police are everywhere now, the cops have become the biggest gang with the baddest weapons, and the scenes you’d expect to see in Birmingham are in Minneapolis and Cincinnati and Atlanta and New York City. It’s the natural progression: when all terrorists are Magneto, and then all criminals are terrorists, and then all suspects are criminals, and you decide that all cops are troops, you get exactly what we have in 2020. Even if there were somewhere to run, there are far too many people who can’t run.
So what comes next?