If there’s one thing I think everyone agrees on, it’s that talking about race in America right now is hard. It’s uncomfortable. Part of the difficulty has to do with the way we talk, especially when we’re all separated by a pandemic. So much of our communication is done now on social media, where brief statements, pictures, and memes replace the long-form conversations that we should be having.
Obviously, I’m not good at social media. I rarely engage with it. I haven’t taken the time to learn how to communicate through it effectively. Still, I don’t want to say nothing in the middle of this massive moment in the history of social justice. So I’m going to pretend it’s the early aughts and use my personal website to post several essays, columns, and book reviews that I’ve written about race over the years. I’ll post one or two of these a week for the next couple of months. Here’s the first.
This essay was originally published on Morpheus in November 2017. I think it’s as relevant today as it was then. It’s long, but I also think it’s engaging and some people might find comfort in it. I hope you enjoy it.
The Totalitarian Playbook
An exhibit called the Topography of Terror stands in front of a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. It’s longer than a soccer field and it details, step-by-step, the rise of the Third Reich. In June, 2017, I traveled around Germany with my father and uncle. Berlin was our last stop before returning to Bremen, the city where my uncle lives. It was blistering hot out. There’s no real shade at the Topography of Terror. We baked in the sun and took our time with the exhibit, reading all the text, checking out the pictures, watching people around us doing the same.
Afterward, we grabbed lunch and talked about what we’d just seen. My dad said, “I can’t imagine how a guy like Hitler gets so much power.”
I pointed out that the Topography of Terror details exactly how Hitler did. It’s an old totalitarian playbook. First, you marginalize dissent by attacking the free press, intellectuals, and academics. Second, you find a scapegoat—typically a religious minority—and craft a narrative that details that scapegoat’s plans to destroy your society. Third, you redefine what a real member of your nation is. You usually do this on racial or ethnic terms. Then, you take what’s left of the populace, the ones who don’t question you, the ones who hold the same religious beliefs as you, the ones who look enough like you so you feel pure, and you start picking fights and building walls.
I said this to my father and uncle because, among other things, they’re Trump supporters. To his credit, my father had the decency to keep his Trump support to himself during the trip. My uncle did not. When faced with the opportunity to educate me—who he saw as a real life liberal university professor from California—he went for it. He baited me a lot on politics. I mostly wouldn’t take the bait. I’ve had decades of experience of political disagreements with my family. What all those conversations have in common is that everyone leaves believing the same thing they started the conversation believing. All of us, everyone, not just my family, develop complex patterns for seeing the world. We hang all of our beliefs on an ideological framework, whether we articulate that ideology or not. The only way to genuinely alter someone’s beliefs is to alter the framework they use to hold those beliefs. That’s a tough thing to do, and not a project I wanted to undergo on my trip around Germany.
Still, our political differences were heavy in Berlin. The whole time I walked through the Topography of Terror, I couldn’t ignore that Hitler’s not the only one to use the totalitarian playbook. Tyrants did it before him and after him. Right now, I live in a country where the president is trying it out. The Third Reich used the term lügenpresse, which literally means “lying press.” Trump supporters used this term until a more dynamic phrase meaning the same thing, “fake news,” caught on. The first budget cuts Trump attempted were to the federal funding for intellectuals. He went after the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. He went after funding for climate research. He attacked the very cornerstones of institutions that produce our scientific and cultural knowledge. In particular, Trump and the American right have been attacking universities and academics. Entire think tanks have been built and supported just to demonize academics (e.g. Turning Point, Texas Public Policy Foundation, which are just two of many). Republican governors and legislators in Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and Utah have crafted bills to attack academics. All of this has happened subtly and been mostly overlooked in news cycles that tend to chase after the more spectacular and outrageous stories.
The second and third parts of the playbook are more obvious. Instead of the Jews, our current administration is banning Muslims, acting as if all 1.8 billion Muslims in the world are terrorists, ignoring that, if all 1.8 billion Muslims were terrorists, they would’ve won by now. And, while we don’t have a myth about an Aryan race (not much of one, anyway), we do have a myth of Making America Great Again, which means characterizing Latinos as rapists and murderers, kicking out immigrants, jailing African Americans, using a twitter war with Kim Jong-Un to reintroduce the myth of the Yellow Peril, and basically defining “a great America” as a white America.
I want to be clear that, by pointing out these similarities, I’m not saying Trump is the next Hitler. He’s not. He’s a buffoon, a lousy president, and an even worse human being, but he’s not Hitler. Still, he’s following the totalitarian playbook. When I was in Berlin with two of his supporters who just walked through an exhibit that details the playbook, and they didn’t make the connection, things got heavy.
In October, 2017, I did a reading at the Avenue 50 Gallery in Highland Park to celebrate the 100th issue of Razorcake. I co-founded the magazine with Todd Taylor back in 2001. One hundred issues of a punk rock ‘zine in the twenty-first century is no small landmark. I worked day-to-day on the magazine, doing close to half the work to create, publish, and distribute the first twenty issues. I can’t take much credit for the eighty issues that followed. Even so, I got to be one of the readers at the celebration.
Chris Terry opened things up by reading passages from his essay “One Punk’s Guide to Rap Music.” He told a story about hanging out in a parking lot, waiting for his dad to come out of the store, blasting A Tribe Called Quest on the car radio. His dad got back to the car and turned down the music quickly. This was right around the time of the beating of Rodney King. Racial tensions were high. Chris describes his dad as “the only black man in sight.” Recognizing this, Chris had to confront the dangers inherent in his biracial identity.
The next reader was Donna Ramone. As you may have guessed, Ramone is not her real last name. She introduced her reading by saying that she wished she could read fun stuff about gross Oreo cookies, but, as a Muslim woman in America in 2017, she felt like she had to use every platform she had to speak out. Her story was about being targeted and harassed at an airport, and about how that target and harassment was indicative of an overall trend she, her family, and the Muslim community faced increasingly. Amazingly, Donna made the reading funny.
Up next was me: a white guy. I read a story about skateboarding. Talk about white privilege.
The final reader of the night was an eleven year-old poet, a member of the Puro Pinche Poets collective. She performed in front of a crowd of rough-looking, heavily-tattooed punk rockers in their twenties, thirties, and forties. She read a bilingual poem that ended with a condemnation of Trump. It was amazing and touching. I couldn’t imagine doing what she did when I was eleven. But when I was eleven, I didn’t have to deal with the problems she has to deal with. Unlike this poet, my dad wasn’t swept up in an ICE raid. The totalitarian playbook never separated my family across two borders.
When I was in my late twenties, I worked construction. I daydreamed a lot about a novel I would write. It would be about a construction worker who decides that, if he’s still working the same job at age thirty, he’ll kill himself. As that birthday approaches, he decides to enter into a life of crime instead, figuring a cop or another criminal would polish him off and he’d have some fun on the way out. I never wrote the novel. Instead, I asked myself two hard questions. First, why was I thinking so much about a main character just like myself committing suicide when he reached the age I was about to reach? Second, instead of a life of crime, why didn’t I find a better way to get out of construction?
So I made a plan. It started with scraping together enough money to allow me to change my life. Though I was already working 7:00-4:00 in my regular construction job, I took on a side gig renovating a dentist’s office. I worked there evenings from 5:00-11:00 for the length of the job, which was about three months. It was exhausting, but I figured that I’d be a few grand ahead of the game at the end. While it mostly worked out, I did run into one real snag.
Every night when I finished, I had to drive past the police station to get home. I would have all of my tools in the back of my truck. I knew going into this and I learned again the hard way that, if you’re driving a truck full of tools and the sun has set, a cop will pull you over. Not every time you drive that truck at night. Just every time a cop sees you driving that truck at night. Over the course of that three months, I got pulled over six or seven times. I wasn’t violating any traffic rules prior to any of those traffic stops. Once, I got a ticket for not wearing my seat belt even though I was wearing my seat belt. Once, I got a ticket for listening to headphones while driving though I wasn’t wearing headphones while driving. Every time, I was asked if I’d been drinking. I hadn’t. Twice, I performed field sobriety tests. I passed.
I thought about these traffic stops when I read an open letter that Derrick Estrada wrote for the website Morpheus in 2017 (which, sadly, is no longer available on that website). On the one hand, I know the anger, the suffocating disgust that comes from being hassled and bullied so much by cops. On different occasions, I’ve had cops punch me, crack me with a nightstick, jab a gun barrel into my sternum, and slam my head against the hood of his car while I was handcuffed. In all of those cases, the cops were in the wrong, acting because they saw me as poor white trash, an easy target. So when I read that piece from Derrick, I knew somewhat where he was coming from.
But there’s one big difference. Derrick’s black and I’m white. Derrick will always be more vulnerable in a traffic stop than I ever was.
And also this: I’m not poor any more. My plan worked. I scraped together money and moved to California and started a punk rock magazine and published some books and got a doctorate and got a job at a university and even got tenure at said university. Now, I have gray hair and all the signifiers of a middle class white guy. I drive a Prius or an old BMW motorcycle. Cops never pull me over, even when I drive past them going eighty. If I talk to a cop these days, he usually calls me sir. He never sees the poor white trash, the easy target, that he would’ve seen when I was driving a truck full of tools at night.
Derrick may accomplish all I have. Full disclosure, I know Derrick and I fully expect him to be more successful in life than I’ve been. But even when Derrick gets gray and cops have to call him sir, they’ll still see the black. He’ll still be an easy target.
Lately, these three memories have been grouped in my mind. I’ve been thinking that, though I’m not a Muslim, Donna’s problems are my problems. Though no one sees me as black, Chris’s problems and Derrick’s problems are my problems. Though the new ICE gestapo isn’t going after my family, the Puro Pinche Poet’s problem is my problem. I don’t mean this in a Je Suis Charlie kind of way. I’m not going through the same shit that Donna, Chris, Derrick, and the poet are going through. Donna, Chris, Derrick, and the poet aren’t going through the same shit as each other. All of our problems are individual, but all of our problems are connected.
In some ways, this connection is literal. Chris, Donna, and the Puro Pinche Poets all write for Razorcake, the magazine I’ve poured so much of my heart and soul into. In no small way, my hope for the future of the world is tied to the continued existence of Razorcake. And Razorcake is dependent on arts grants to survive. When the arts are no longer funded, Razorcake no longer exists. When the voices of African Americans, Muslims, and Chicanos are attacked, Razorcake—a ‘zine that provides a platform for those voices—gets attacked, too. Also, the university where I work services mostly working class students: white kids who know what it’s like to be called “trash,” Dreamers, first-generation kids who will have to raise their younger siblings because their parents are being ripped from their family in ICE raids, black kids who’ll have to drive home through white neighborhoods where cops will see them as an easy target, Muslim kids who are just holding on, trying to weather this storm of religious ignorance and intolerance. When academics like me are attacked, the one institution that gives these kids a chance is attacked. When these groups are marginalized, the job that I’ve dedicated my life to, the one that services these groups, is marginalized.
In their 2004 book Multitude, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri outlined their hope for a revolution. It began, they theorized, with a multitude of people recognizing that a single, networked power structure is leading to massive injustice and global devastation. Later, the Occupy movement gave us the term “the one percent” to understand what this power structure is. For the multitude to be successful, they have to join to fight against this power, but they have to maintain their singularities to do it.
So, for example, I can read Derrick’s piece and recognize that I need to help the Black Lives Matter movement. I need to help them because institutional violence against African Americans and particularly African American men is out of control. I need to maintain that singularity. But I also need to work with Black Lives Matter because if black lives don’t matter, then brown lives don’t matter and Muslim lives don’t matter and white trash lives don’t matter. And when I see a Muslim ban that keeps Donna’s overseas family from being able to come the her wedding (if she decides to get married), I need to fight against that because a Muslim ban is seriously fucked up. But also because a Muslim ban is part of the same totalitarian playbook that marginalizes academics like me and defunds arts programs like Razorcake and supports institutional violence against Derrick and Chris and lets ICE kidnap a Puro Pinche Poet’s dad and put him on the other side of a border from his family and tries to build a wall between an eleven-year-old poet and her father.