The Dangers of Political Complacency

I remember a time, as a young man, that I was utterly uninterested in politics. It felt far removed from my everyday life, a game of backstabbing and machinations that highbrows played in courts and halls; it was difficult to see how one president or another could really make all that much of a difference. I grew up in England in the era of Tony Blair and the Labour Party, and the things that were discussed then – even whether or not to go to war in Iraq – seemed of little consequence. Sure, people fought, people died, but everyday life carried on, as it always did, and I actually never voted in England, because it felt like there was no point.

Even when Bush Jr. was elected in 2000, and Al Gore seemed like an ideal candidate to align with my own personal beliefs about topics such as climate change, it didn’t feel like a moral degradation of society. It just felt more like the ‘other guy’ won, and that despite the then-presumed emphasis on business, tax cuts for the rich and oil, it never seemed as though the communities I lived in would really be affected all that much. And arguably, the Bush administration responded to the 9/11 attacks – despite the rapid-fire counterstrikes that seemed almost entirely unjustifiable at the time – better than Gore might ever have been able to.

When Obama was finally elected in 2008, it felt like there was a subtle shift in morality in the country, and when I returned to the United States in 2010, things felt, well … progressive. We had a black president, an intelligent, well-spoken and charismatic president, someone who seemed to have his finger on the pulse of my generation, and who actually seemed to stand for positivity, tolerance, and civility. I voted in 2012, but again, it felt a little pointless – a reinforcement of what it seemed like society at large was ready for.

When Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, I don’t recall anyone really thinking forward to the subsequent election that would obviously follow in 2016; no one really wondered if someone might come along and undo the progress that had seemingly been made over the previous four years. I remember laughing, like most people, when an incompetent, bumbling oaf threw his hat in the ring for the Republican candidacy – surely it was just a joke, an attempt to find a candidate that was as unlikely as possible.

Even when Donald Trump secured the nomination, things didn’t necessarily feel wrong – not yet. Bizarre, yes; unfathomable, certainly; but there wasn’t too much hint at the potential danger that was to come. It wasn’t until he started campaigning hard as the Republican candidate that red flags started showing: the vacuous, borderline-hateful rhetoric, the casual sexism and misogyny, the outright racism and mockery that came across as childish, petulant and crass were all deeply unsettling warning signs.

That was the first time when it truly felt like being politically active mattered; that a thing I could do, a choice I could make, could actually make a difference to the country I lived in – because it was becoming rapidly clear that Donald Trump himself was capable of making a difference – to great harm. There were people in the world who thought like him, who felt like him, and who not only believed his words, but saw them as validation of their own prejudices that, for years, they’d been told were wrong.

I get it – no one likes to feel like they’re wrong. No one wants to be told the way they perceive the world is harmful. There’s a comfort in nostalgia for the past, and Trump brought with him the idea that grown adults could act like children and get away with it. That there was nothing wrong with the old games of Cowboys and Indians, that calling someone names because they hurt your feelings was okay, or that it was totally normal to dislike people who were different from you. He made people feel like their own feelings and perceptions of the world were valid, and that what we were told as children was, in fact, not wrong.

But somewhere along the line, a line was crossed. It began when people with true social power – police, judges, politicians and lawmakers – began to believe they could act on these childish emotions without consequence, because the man they voted for – the man with the highest authority in the country – could do the same. It isn’t a question that more ‘bad’ things happened under Trump’s administration than under Obama’s; don’t forget, Brock Turner got away with rape six months before Trump was elected, and the massacre at Sandy Hook happened only just after Obama’s second term began. In both of these cases, there was raging debate about who was to blame and how it could have been prevented, but when a world leader comes along and says things like “there are fine people on both sides”, it does incredible damage to the moral fabric of society.

Instead of denouncing horrible people as the villains they are – for there will always be villains amongst us – Trump at best failed to speak up at all, and at worst defended these people through words and through actions. When George Floyd was murdered by police in broad daylight, he didn’t condemn his killers, but made it seem as though Floyd’s death was of his own making – that the police were justified in their actions.

And those same people who initially saw Trump’s words as an excuse to erase progress and fall back into old, hurtful ways now took his words as an opportunity to speak up – and speak loud – that they were being oppressed for not being able to “tell it how it is”, or for voicing controversial opinions on race, gender, and so many other things.

And somehow, throughout all of this, there remained an enormous number of people who continued to feel the way I used to – that life for them carried on as it always did, that the squabbles and race riots didn’t apply to them, and so it really didn’t matter – it wasn’t that big of a deal. In an ideal world, a Republican candidate should be able to align with a large portion of the country based on the merits of their beliefs and policies, and I think that a lot of those who voted for a second term for Trump did so out of the notion that even if he might be a deplorable person, he represents the party that they most identify with.

The people who rioted in the Capitol last week represent a tiny minority of right-leaning conservatives – I don’t believe that most Republican voters would laud them for their actions. They are the far-right, unjustifiable in their beliefs, and deplorable in their behaviors. The problem – what any sane-minded politician would recognize – is that whilst there will always be these people in our society, they must be allowed to act out their hate-fueled rhetoric. These kind of people are the worst kinds of cowards, and they would not have acted with such violence had they not believed they had the encouragement, and indeed the approval, of the man they believed represented them.

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump does not represent anyone but his own self-interest. He is a power-hungry man-child who most likely believes, deep in his heart, that he is owed all the fame and money in the world. He doesn’t care at all about the people he governs, and his words following the DC riots show this perfectly: had it not been for the danger of impeachment and presidential protection being removed, he would certainly not have condemned the rioters – even as weakly as he did.

But the complacency of the Republican Party is was allowed last week’s riot to take place. The belief of millions of conservative voters – who have every right to be conservative – that it just doesn’t matter that much – is what led to the insane far-right to summon the courage to march on Capitol Hill and break down the doors to the Capitol Building, beating a police officer to death in the process.

Complacency is what allowed Hitler to rise to power; it’s what allowed Trump to nearly secure a second term. And if it continues, it will only lead to further discord and unease between political parties in the United States. I’m not exaggerating when I say that as I walk in public today, I look at the people around me and wonder quietly – is that person capable of the kind of violence we saw last week? Could this person serving me coffee, or getting their phone fixed at my work, be a rabid far-right conspiracy-theorist? I’m not exaggerating when I say that I actually feel a deep, unsettling fear simply stepping outside my front door, because Trump has allowed a very small number of people to believe that they can act without consequence. And although those people are few and far between, they are very, very dangerous.

So please – come the next election, whether you lean Democrat or Republican, whether you are conservative or liberal – please consider your candidate with more care and caution than in 2016 and 2020. Please ask yourself if this person might enable dangerous, violent people. If the answer is even “maybe” – then you’re voting for the wrong person.

Politics today is no longer about the candidate representing the party you most align with. It’s sadly become about the candidate that can do the least harm to the country. If that means that, as a life-long Republican you find yourself having to vote Democrat, so be it. The alternative is what we’ve just witnessed in Washington D.C., and what we’ve seen seeing for the past four years.

That complacency is extremely dangerous. And the United States can’t afford it again, because next time the person you vote for might not simply be a self-serving, bumbling buffoon: they might be a cold, calculating power-seeking dictator in the making. The United States, the shining example of democracy for the world, is not impervious. Without even trying, we came this close to losing what we claim makes us so great; imagine what would happen if someone tried to undermine the country’s democracy with intent.

Voting absolutely matters. And it absolutely matters who you vote for: not Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Green Party, but rather between a seasoned politician who knows how to govern, or an egotistical, self-serving megalomaniac with no concern for human life. This cannot – cannot – happen again.

If it does, it could be the end of the United States as we know it.

The Toxicity of Revenge Culture

Every time something tragic happens – particularly when it’s heightened by racial tension, like the murder of George Floyd – it seems the worst of humanity comes out of the woodwork. Alongside news of protests, police brutality and burning buildings are countless streams of people – usually white – caught on camera being aggressively racist, inciting or causing violence, and all-round being essentially despicable pieces of human garbage.

It isn’t clear whether this seems to happen more during times of public outrage because racists are fighting what they see as a threat to their way of life, or if it’s just that the rest of us pay more attention at these times, but from calling cops on non-threatening black men to assualting young girls trying to stand up for Black Lives Matter, there has been no end to the instances of hate directed at the people who are trying desperately to fight for their freedom and equality.

The good news, of course, is that in today’s society of smart phones and everywhere-cameras, it’s become increasingly difficult to act like a bigot in public without being caught. And in the instances where these outrageous performances are recorded and uploaded to the internet, they often go viral – a swift dose of karma to the perpetrators.

And karma feels good. It’s undeniably satisfying to see a racist cut down to size; it feels good to watch as someone unbearably proud of their whiteness is ripped apart on social media.

The problem is that this isn’t an answer to racism. It isn’t an answer to intolerance, or bigotry, because the people who were initially the agressors become victims of hate themselves, and even if it feels like they deserve it, many of these people’s lives are destroyed by their acts of intolerance. What happens then is that these people, who clearly believe in their own superiority, don’t learn not to be a bigot; they learn to hide it. They don’t learn to change; they learn instead that they were right all along, and that the people they hated deserve that hate.

Nearly every one of these stories I’ve seen of people abusing others from a delusional position of authority has ended with them losing their jobs, their homes, and at times even their families. Corporate sponsors cut ties, employers fire them, and they’re left with no means to live – and worse, the stain of being branded forever a racist indelible on their reputation.

Now, I’m not advocating that these people ‘deserve’ better; I don’t believe in judging others without knowing them, and an individual act of racism does not a racist make – just like being wrong once doesn’t make you wrong all the time. But what happens is that the internet allows people, from the relative safety of their online anonymity, to pass judgement nonetheless on people they’ve never met and know nothing about.

But what I do believe is that the answer to racism doesn’t lie in avenging the victims, or in destroying the establishment. By taking everything away from someone who made a racist remark or acted out against another person because of their inherently misplaced beliefs, we’re only reinforcing the notion that the ‘others’ are indeed bad people, and that they’ll be punished for speaking out. It fosters a false victim mentality, and breeds a culture that actually causes racism to fester and grow. Rather than looking to themselves to ask why this happened, these people will simply blame the oppressed for oppressing them.

No – the answer to racism lies in education. I believe strongly in the inherent goodness of humanity – the idea that people are good at heart (at least to some degree), and their upbringing and education is what shapes their personalities. As you navigate life, growing older day by day, it’s likely that you’ll end up choosing paths that fit in line with your taught beliefs naturally, which only reinforces those notions and ideas that, for many of us, remain subconscious all our lives. It’s easy to teach a four-year-old to play nice with others; it’s much harder to change the outlook of a forty-year-old.

And some people, of course, are taught so poorly in their childhood, and live a life that so strongly reinforces their negative beliefs, that they quickly become irredeemable. This happens in all walks of life, of course, but since we live in a society that has always favored white men over all others, it allows for those immutable personalities to rise to power more easily than those with more open minds, which allows them to make the rules and define the society we live in to their own liking … leaving room to grow for the systemic racism and misogyny that has rotted the heart of this country for centuries.

But these people – these truly ‘bad apples’ – are generally few and far between. Most people, I think, have the capacity to relearn their world-view in the face of new information, so long as it’s presented in a way that doesn’t uproot everything they’ve ever known. People fear change, and will cling desperately to unfamiliarity. By wreaking revenge on people who are outwardly racist, we’re only causing further damage to the idea of peaceful equality. You can’t build yourself up by tearing others down.

So what I suggest is this: next time you see a story on Facebook or Twitter about a racist being put in their place, ask yourself – am I really so different? Have I never laughed at a racist joke, or worried more about passing through a black neighborhood than a white one? Anyone can say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and whilst many of the acts making the rounds truly are deplorable, who are we to decide their fate? Getting someone fired for poor behavior when they aren’t even working is akin to vigilante justice, which is a dangerous thing to throw around.

I’ve heard it said that racism isn’t black people’s problem – it’s white people’s. In that context, I think it’s as important to listen to the racists as it is to listen to the oppressed. If we actually give everyone a forum to speak intelligently – rather than forcing people into acts of aggression because they feel their voices are unheard – I think there would be a much better opportunity to help those people with racial biases to actually understand themselves better, gain insight, and perhaps – just perhaps – grow and change.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that we shouldn’t celebrate vengence on those who would oppress others. That doesn’t make anyone a better person. Instead, we should focus on celebrating those people who are willing and able to change. Celebrate those who can learn to love, not those who have only learned to hate.

Who have you seen grow or change in the past few months? Who can you celebrate?

Imagine dying from traumatic asphyxiation. No, actually imagine it.

Cause of death: Cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.

Hennepin County Medical Examiner Press Release Report on the death of George Floyd

I want you to do an exercise with me. Trust me, it’ll be fun.

First, find your carotid artery. It should be easy – it’s where your gym teacher used to tell you to check your pulse after running around the track five times (you know, on the side of your neck just below your chin). Make sure you can feel your heartbeat. What you’re actually feeling is the carotid sinus, just before the artery branches to supply blood separately to the brain and the face.

Now, press gently into this nodule. You should feel your heartbeat a little stronger; you might feel a little uncomfortable. You’re starting to restrict blood flow to the brain and face now.

Try pressing a little harder; see how deep you’re willing to press into this artery before you can’t take it anymore. You might start to feel a pain in your chin as you affect nerves; you might start to feel a little light-headed, even.

Personally, I couldn’t take it for more than a few seconds.

Now imagine not a finger, but a knee, in that same spot. Imagine not a gentle pressure, but the weight of an adult male pressing into that artery. Try, if you can, imagining that this pressure is sustained for eight minutes. Imagine, if you can, the panic you might feel, the desperation, the utter despair as you realize that something is deeply, terribly wrong inside your body, as your sight narrows to a tunnel and eventually fades out, and yet you can still hear the people screaming around you to let you go.

There were two independent autopsies performed on the corpse of George Floyd; one by the county medical examiner, and one privately commissioned by his family. The above quote is the lighter of the two findings; the independent report found he “sustained pressure on the right side of Floyd’s carotid artery impeded blood flow to the brain, and weight on his back impeded his ability to breathe.” It also found he died at the scene, and not in the ER as the official report suggests.

With all that has happened since the death of George Floyd, the protests, the riots, the sustained militaristic police brutality and the despair that is sweeping the country, the one thing I haven’t to any great extent is a sense of compassion, of understanding, of the last eight minutes of George Floyd’s life.

You see, it’s easy to understand a dead person. They’re a corpse, a body, a bunch of dead flesh. They’re a thing. It’s also easy to understand a living person – we interact with them, they can speak, talk, love and laugh and cry.

But the in-between is glossed over. Nobody likes to think about the process of death, what it must feel like, what thoughts go through your head as you fade from the world. It’s a difficult thing to imagine, of course, because most people who pass through that experience don’t come back to tell us about it.

George Floyd didn’t come back. He died on the streets of Minneapolis in handcuffs with another man on his back, a knee in his neck. I wonder what he was thinking as he died. I wonder if he thought about his family, and whether he would ever see them again. I wonder if he thought to himself, I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe I’m dying.

But there’s one thing I don’t wonder about. I don’t wonder whether he saw himself dying with his face pressed into the pavement and his chest and throat crushed. I don’t wonder if he was at peace with his death. I don’t wonder if he would rather have died as an old man, in his bed, surrounded by his family and loved ones.

Please – I know it’s difficult, but try to imagine what his death must have felt like. Not to the bystanders – not to the living left. To him. He was a person, a human, a living life that was violently and slowly extinguished, and I can’t stop thinking about what his last moments in this world must have felt like.

No one deserves to die like that. No one should be treated so cruelly by another human being. But most of all, no black person should have to fear that this could happen to them for no other reason than because they are black. No black person should have these thoughts running through their heads simply because of the color of their skin.

George Floyd’s death is tragic, yes; but it is also a cruel, horrific, unimaginably painful way to die, and the person who caused his death might have been better served putting a bullet in his head. And the people responsible are far more than Derek Chauvin who killed him. They are the people who allowed this country to get to the point where such a thing could happen at all. They the leaders, the people in power who continuously turn a blind eye and tell us that they deserved to die, that they had it coming, that they shouldn’t have resisted … you know the story.

Not only did George Floyd not deserve to die, he most certainly did not deserve to die so horrifically. Please – celebrate his life, remember his death, and do anything and everything you can to ensure no black person ever suffers so cruel a death again.