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E Tu Mama?

February 2, 2017

Off and on, since August, I have been writing a letter to my mom . The letter started out with a somewhat quotidian description of the amazing public library of the town I live in, into an essay about community, interspersed with tellings of my life with Jamie, and about my means of keep-earning (working for a non-profit and doing lots of common labor/odd jobs), trying in as natural an unassuming way as possible to share my experiences of a good life.  What I call a good life anyway

In between we talked on the phone a few times, and I even received a very short visit from her in the early fall. Aside from asking those motherly questions to make sure I’m okay, her phone etiquette is a little strange there’s always been a sense of guardedness about her, a difficulty talking much about herself, and usually a point at which she seems in a hurry to get off the phone.  This never hurt my feelings as I hate talking through a mechanically manipulated medium that forces me to change the delivery of my voice in uncomfortable or unnatural ways.

As with everything involving letters to loved ones, there’s been very little assurance that they’re being read, or that the comments in them have been considered, and an occasional question of how willing am I to keep these correspondences up.  For my entire adult life we’ve had a good relationship.  Even though she doesn’t understand a lot of what I write and do, she accepts it and me.  Even though I am, more or less, cis, hetero, white and male, this acceptance still means a lot to me in a hyper-masculine capitalist culture that by and large values very little of what I have and do.

A day after the 2016 election happened –it “happened”, that’s a cautiously nauseous way to say it– She revealed to me on the phone, at my asking, that she voted for Trump.  This in addition to having already been down with an bronchial-type infection for the past week.   I was saddened–and terrified at the idea, which intensified during the conversation as she explained her vote.  Particularly her rationalizing away my reasons why Trump is so much worse than Clinton.  For example I told her that Trump intended to do nothing about climate change and let the fossil fuel companies go wild, she turned it around, into the responsibility of drivers. “Well people need to drive their cars a lot less.”  In hindsight, thinking about the distress of the moment it’s inconceivable that I would have slapped my face firmly with my palm.  I proceeded in the conversation,  reaching for what I typically consider to be lower fruit, addressing Trump’s behavior towards women, sighting the pussy grabbing comment.  “But, Josh, that was just on his show when he was acting.”  I can only assume that she is referring to the reality show he starred in “Celebrity Apprentice”.

To be sure, for those of us who have loved ones who voted for Trump, and have a sensitivity to the goings on in the land (and in the world) impacted by the government that represents us as a nation state, it’s not be easy to deal with.    Perfectly good people who act ethically in their private, domestic and working lives are perfectly content to give executive power to a person who consistently lies to them, and deliberately uses appeals to sexism, to racial, religious, and other prejudices to get their support  (Thinking about certain folks in Kenosha, Wisconsin confronted by Bernie here. ).  These good people are content to vote for a man with an easily observable display of all the symptoms of Malignant Narcissism.  How can we talk to them about this?  Is it worth it?  Are we really being true to ourselves if we ignore the topic when with them?

From a purely electoral-political point of view, we should not try, and don’t have to convince those who are firmly in the grip of a right wing world view.  By all accounts of the studies of public opinion in this country, they are a minority, albeit sometimes registering at around 45%, depending on the issues.  All we have to do is organize electorally, not leaving out any precinct, and promote a bold and pragmatic agenda articulated in the language of our values.  It is happening.  Despite the clear overthrow of constitutional government that is going on right now, in spite of Trump Administration’s recent inhumane executive orders, its potential threat of igniting a global war and, along with the right wing billionaire-friendly intention to end vital environmental protections and the social safety net that we all rely on, this is the most hopeful period for real positive social change in my 39 years on this planet, as a citizen of the United States.

But I’m writing about our personal lives not about politics in the narrow sense of what is sometimes called, “taking our country back”.  My wanting to convince my mother of how deeply bad the decision to vote for Trump was cannot be extricated from the feelings that underline my values and my need to know that my mother shares at least a modicum of those values.   This desire to attenuate the alienation of worrying that she doesn’t.  In other words, in trying to communicate to my mother, my relationship to my mother is more fundamental then any political information we could exchange.

Most of us have been through similar experiences, have felt these painful sensations, with friends and family who didn’t understand, mistook our words or actions for something base or shallow,  with those who showed they were only pretending to listen to us, before ex-lovers who revealed themselves to be pathologically controlling, defensive and afraid of appearing vulnerable (outside of sex), or too hooked on drugs to really give the minimum concentration we feel our being together requires.  And we’ve felt our insides turn listening to loved ones dismissing reports of police brutality (and military occupations of foreign countries) showing a general heartless ignorance towards people victimized on the basis of being poor, non white, gay, trans, etc.

My mother is not a doctrinaire right-winger.  She is someone who really doesn’t do much critical thinking for herself.  For 12 years she’s been married to Stewart, a man who falls into that all-too-dismissed-but-maybe-hard-to-ignore demographic of an angry white conservative male, who listened regularly to Rush Limbaugh in his commercial truck; is a crypto-but-not-doctrinaire racist.  Eight years prior to their marriage, she was married to a liberal, from an upper middle class background.  Back then she  quietly voted for Gore and Kerry, but only minimally disliked Bush, i.e. she and Garry both seem to believe a lot of Bush and Cheney’s lies that got us into the war, at least for its first few months, which seemed to follow the pattern of attitudes of the community where they lived in Lexington, MO.    After Garry and I clashed on the Israel-Palestine issue, which shook him (a cultural jew brought up being acutely aware of existing antisemitism in the world) my mother forbade us to talk politics and I generally complied.

Prior to her marriage to Gary, and back when she was with my father, I had very little awareness or basic understanding of politics.  As with most blue collar families in the U.S.  we weren’t that political.  (We didn’t have many books in the house either, but that’s a story for another time.)  But they generally voted for Democrats (perhaps, it’s more accurate to say against Republicans).  While not very aware then of the content (outside of my instinctive revulsion towards what I later learned was the Christian Right, which manifested perfectly in the rhetoric of Dan Quayle during the 1988 election), I do remember mom asking dad the kind of closed questions that told her how to vote.  My older sister has a much better memory for my dad’s more liberal political attitudes.  We both agreed that mom was always quiet, unsure about most issues, never questioned much authority and was usually preoccupied with the high stress of her domestic and work life.  Both of her parents had mental problems, she grew up in poverty, sometimes not knowing where she and her siblings would wake up the next day, She married my dad (also from a poor family but at least his dad had a union job) and bore my sister at the age of 16.  Why am I writing this?  I can’t pretend that I haven’t in the past used these things as an excuse for her civic failure. Whether or not it’s a valid excuse is beside the point.  But trying to recognize common ground with her isn’t.  Being able to identify the agents and her own agency in her own personal history seems necessary for going forward.

My sister’s point of view on this is key, because her reaction to our mother’s decision on November the 8th, 2016 was different from, and in way much clearer than mine.   A chat with her on That There Online Social Network (#AgainstProductPlacement), showed to me just how much our individual emotions had to be addressed before even knowing what to do, what “we”could do with the fact that a radical authoritarian rightwing movement had ascended and would likely fuck up our republic in irreparable ways.

I also know that my bias against the bipartisan neoliberal establishment, which candidate Hillary Clinton all too well represented, was gratified to some degree by my mom’s vote.  That is, the revelation of my mom’s vote for Donald Trump reenforced my interpretation of the electorate, particularly the rural white low-to-middle income folks who did not graduate college.  Clinton and her connection to Wall St and other corporate interests were all the sudden a liability.  She lost to a candidate who somehow placated working/middle class folks by connecting to a manufactured view of his “anti-establishment” credentials, by peddling a full blast stream of negative stories (mostly false gossip) about Clinton, (as well as demagoguery of almost every kind).   Most major polls showed that many Trump voters were favorable to Bernie Sanders, who across the country drew bigger crowds than either general election candidate; that had Sanders won the primary  –I won’t get into the shenanigans of the Democratic National Committee– he would have beaten Trump in the general election, even above the margins Clinton would have won if not for the voter suppression that in the end DID tilt the election to Trump.   As a result of these two choices, Clinton and Trump, forty six million eligible voters did not vote. Forty six didn’t feel their votes were earned.  The economic rebound from the 2007-09 recession was superficial.  The country has still been on a general decline.  In the last 8 years, wages are still stagnating for working people, while the rich, mostly of sinecure wealth get richer.  I still stand by that interpretation: corporatist centrism represented by Obama, Clinton and a feckless national Democratic party that continued to refuse the taking up strong economic positions, that were and are still badly needed, empowered radical rightwing antigovernment sociopaths to amp up its populist message to voters.  But as my sister, Amee reminded me, making too much of a stink about it was not productive, and could be reasonably seen as dismissive of the millions of voters who genuinely felt well represented by Clinton.  Sorta likewise, after Amee found out she chatted me up, I attempted to hip her to a sensitivity about the the white mostly rural working-middle classes. Understandably she had much to vent.   In hindsight, much of what I wrote was well meaning but misplaced:

Me: “Amee, I don’t think you realize how bullying it sounds to accuse someone of being brainwashed. I understand your anger–I actually felt it myself and was a afraid I’d lose it with her. She does not have access to the kinds of experiences we know that make women issues important.  She’s genuinely pissed at Washington, and fears Clinton’s corruption worse than Trump’s.”

Amee: Yes-she does, SHE IS A WOMAN.  Also I am not going to bully her. I am just severing our relationship. Stewart is a huge fucking problem. She has never seen him speak? Done done

Me: Her experience of her life goes way beyond her gender.

Amee: Yes- I know. Don’t talk to me like a child- perhaps mom has an empathy defecit.

Me: I’m sorry I didn’t mean it that way, by I don’t think you understand fully how much we need to unite with rural whites. There are genuine sufferings that people in rural white areas live. I believe empathy deficit is a systemic.

Me: Which [maybe] is to say, you can’t blame every individual.

Amee: I can blame, she grew up on welfare!  She had been poor. She has been abused.  She has been paid less than men.  She so goddamned worried about our health insurance- we can fucking kiss that goodbye.

This last counter from Amee in particular shook me to the core.   It also brought me back to an insight that I have for years been trying to write about in my fiction and poetry.  The connection between lack of self esteem, and one’s disregard for the self, the abuses one endures yet at same time the pride they manage to take and how it manifests in their politics.  None of the  literary models I looked to quite captured the experience that I knew of such things. (Steinbeck maybe came the closest, but his prose style generally annoys me). In some way it’s too close to my nose.  As I just wrote, I was shaken, and there was no epiphany.  I didn’t all the sudden think completely differently or come to a sense of calm.  In fact, it took me three weeks to dig in and find my feelings of having been betrayed, after talking to Amee, my partner Jamie –her mom’s aversion to Clinton was more horridly decisive– and a couple other friends expressed theirs.  It is betrayal.  I feel betrayed most everyone I love, everyone I respect, who voted for Trump.  But more hurtful, I feel betrayed by my mother.  My own mother chose to not think about or wonder about the implications of a Trump victory, she ignored the level of mainstreaming bigotry, misogyny, unprecedented assholery that was clear for  the world to see throughout the campaign.  She accepted the inevitable unjust and unnecessary pain that millions of our fellow earthlings would daily experience at the hands of a brutal “law and order- heavy regime, under the influence of anarchic and ultimately nihilist libertarian ideology that has already been wrecking this country for the last 35 years.   My mother chose to accept the empowerment of racist bullies because she was afraid.  What was she afraid of?  That’s the question that my love for my mom wants to ask my mom.

It’s the same old Beach Boys line, in the bridge about building bridges: “how can I say it in a way that won’t make them defensive.”

But my desire to build a sense of global, class-based and completely intersectional solidarity among all my loved ones wants to ask her what she was afraid of that made her vote so.  Ultimately, and I admit also a desire to avoid spending time defending Clinton, I assume there is a much deeper fear that has always persisted inside of her.  Is it wrong to say that my love for my mom wants to educate her?  Because I know that my love for my mom needs to first figure out what she really thinks and feels, and that I must ask unassuming questions.  I hope my love for my mom is pitiless.  For example, I know she’s afraid of feeling stupid, which is why she doesn’t try to read my volumes of poetry (at least half of which are difficult, anti narrative and/or grammatically correct but narratively incoherent sound poems).   I will not protect her from those feeling, either being afraid or feeling stupid.   My love for pretty much everybody, including my desire to reach a bigger, even specific literary audience, wants also to document my own trail of ignorance, my own intellectual and emotional and social failures, my own ability to change my mind upon receiving new information from texts and experience, to show my own vulnerability and display the strength that I derive from it.   I do this because I know it can and has empowered loved ones.  I’m wary of the possibility that it may not empower her.  I wonder if my personal history of dissing self-esteem movement culture in general probably informs this.

And of course, duh,  we are not these fixed essentialist monads, yes we are numerous, have many identities and always until death in a state of becoming.   Is it the case, that our connections to the first people who loved us are what make that fact so difficult to live with?

The letter to my mom is now 7 pages, and I have serialized it, by mentioning each date I resumed writing, sometimes including important events, like the wedding of my friends, whom she’s never met, like my uncle (her former in-law) who lost his house in the flood at Denham Springs, Louisiana,  and the brief vacation Jamie and I took. As if to give an extra literary primer, a show of maximum (if interrupted) effort.

I decided to talk about the emotional information that needs to be understood before going over the facts of why she should actively resist the radical fascist regime in power.  I decided to ask her unassumingly, absent of polemics, about her vote, including what specific things she feared from Clinton.  I start to worry that maybe these questions are about as meaningful to her as what she had for dinner last night.  Then I am reminded of the fear of judgement I’ve always observed in her.  I suppose fear of judgement is an awesome motivator too.  What’s her version of my what I had for dinner last night?

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