Hope, Heartbreak, Hope: Our Struggles with Pregnancy Loss and Infertility

*** This post was co-written by Luke Allen and Alex McCauslin. We’re a married couple. This is not the type of content Luke usually writes about on this blog and it’s an anxiety inducing thing for both of us to put into the public. But we think it’s important***

pregnant stock image


Where We Are

We’re expecting our first kid. If this is news to you, don’t feel too left out. We haven’t shouted it from the mountaintops of Facebook and Instagram. Before you ask, the due date is November 26th and we don’t know the sex– it’ll surprise us delivery day.

We’re excited and nervous. We’re doing what we can to get ready. Hopefully we’ll be good parents. Hopefully our child will be able to experience all the joy and beauty and meaning in the world that we have– and more. Much of that will come from family and friends. Much of that will come from the love of lots of you reading this. Thanks in advance.

Neither of us ever felt that having kids was necessary to lead a fulfilled life. We’ve found great joy  in our relationships, with each other and with all the people we love. We’ve found meaning in our work to make the world a little bit better for everyone, in some tiny way. We’ve found beauty in community and nature. Having a kid means sharing all of this with someone and, we imagine, learning about and experiencing life from a whole new perspective. Surely it will transform our little world in ways we can’t comprehend right now. Like we said: exciting and scary.


Where We’ve Been

However, the main point of this post is not to talk about what’s ahead, but to talk about the road here. It’s been a challenging couple of years for us, and a big part of the challenge is something that, for some reason, seems to be taboo in polite company: struggles with fertility and pregnancy loss. We want to share our story partly because it feels cathartic for us to tell and partly because we desperately want to help break down the taboo. For us, the hush-hush nature of infertility contributed to a terrible sense of isolation during an incredibly difficult time.

We started trying to get pregnant in summer of 2016, right around our second anniversary. Luke expected to get pregnant relatively easily and was mostly nervous about becoming a dad. Alex suspected (read: worried obsessively) we might struggle.  Turns out, Alex was right.


A Diagnosis

After six disappointing cycles with no sign of a second line on a pregnancy test, Alex went to her OB/GYN. She believed she had endometriosis (given her family history) and that this condition might be contributing to our lack of success. In looking through Alex’s file, the doctor discovered something much more alarming. A 2014 X-ray revealed a large, undiagnosed cyst on one of Alex’s ovaries. Could this be the culprit?

Despite a painful recovery, surgery to remove the cyst was successful and revealing. The tennis ball sized cyst was benign (yay!), but Alex did, indeed, have endometriosis (boo!), most of which the doctors were able to remove along with the cyst (double yay!). Alex had already done massive amounts of research on endometriosis and knew that many women fell pregnant easily within six months of this type of procedure. Success rates after this period declined to <3% chance of pregnancy each cycle, very small compared to the average, healthy young couple’s 30% chance, so the clock was ticking.

Sure enough, we finally had our first positive pregnancy test in spring of 2017. We were overjoyed and relieved. Within hours of receiving the news, Luke had made a comprehensive list of things we’d need to do before our baby arrived on January 1, 2018. We went to the doctor and had the pregnancy confirmed. But all was not potential nursery paint palettes and freshly minted copies of ‘What to Expect’;  Alex’s pregnancy symptoms were mild, her hormone levels low, and her anxiety very, very high– so high, in fact, that her OB recommended prenatal anxiety therapy. In her intake session, Alex confessed her Worst Case Scenario: miscarrying while leading worship and preaching.



Within ten days of this confession, as Alex finished preparing her Mother’s Day sermon at 8am on Sunday morning, she started spotting. A nightmare come true, mitigated mildly by a weepy cuddle in our bed, the encouraging texts of a friend, and the warm smile of her own mother, who’d come to hear her daughter preach.

Alex did not miscarry that morning. The spotting continued into the week, but things began to look up. Her hormone levels continued to rise and an ultrasound confirmed that the seven week old embryo had a strong and regular heartbeat. We saw it flicker and flash in black and white. We even took home a picture and texted our hope to our parents.

Sadly, only four days after we witnessed that miracle of new life, the miscarriage began in earnest.  

It’s tough to describe what going through a miscarriage is like– after all, they’re different every time, and for every couple– but losing a desired pregnancy universally sucks. For Alex, it was physically painful, with labor-like contractions and lots of blood. For both of us, it involved grieving for the past and the future at the same time, grieving for someone we loved but didn’t know. We were also grieving a sense of hope: there was a constant worry about whether we would even be able to get pregnant again, especially given Alex’s endometriosis.

When we got back from the hospital, Alex’s parents came over to bring us dinner and Luke went for a long run in the rain. We each called the handful of people we had told about the pregnancy. Everyone was supportive; some of them cried with us. Alex miscarried on a Saturday and on Sunday we went to Mass at Luke’s parish. The priest laid his hands on us and prayed for our loss and our continuing desire to one day be parents. For us, receiving such a blessing under the bright yellow, domed ceilings and crucifixes of St. Charles Borromeo eased us into an acceptance of our own experience of blood and pain, life and death, anxiety and hope. Even Alex- remember she’s a pastor– was a little surprised at how powerfully comforted we were by such a simple religious service and ritual.

Over the next few weeks we would both periodically break down in tears, often thinking about the little heartbeats we had seen, always worried about whether we’d experience something like that again.


Infertility In Earnest

After a while, we started to feel like it wouldn’t happen. We were doing everything we could to get pregnant again. Timing our sex down to the hour and taking the right vitamins. Alex went on a special fertility diet: no processed food, no sugar, everything organic. Luke did his best to do the same, cutting out the mountain dew and cutting back the beer. We did this for six more months with no luck.

With the encouragement of Alex’ OB and therapist, we started going to fertility specialists at U of M. After extensive, painful and humiliating testing and the eventual double diagnosis of ‘unexplained infertility’ and ‘infertility related to endometriosis’, they laid out two options for us: Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) and In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Though our doctor strongly advised the latter, Blue Cross Blue Shield made the decision for us. They would only cover IUIs (The rant about the need for comprehensive single-payer health care in the US goes here). So that’s what we did. After a frustrating couple of months sorting out the medication and monitoring, our first cycle with the IUI we were cautiously optimistic, and so when Alex got her period it was particularly devastating.

The worst part about infertility for us was that monthly cycle: hope, anxiety, grief. The anxiety led Alex to obsess: Was she pregnant or wasn’t she? Was her moodiness a sign of pregnancy or just PMS? Was that twinge an embryo implanting or her endometriosis acting up?  The answer was always only two weeks and a pregnancy test away. (She peed on a lot of sticks.) The disappointment and frustration each month when her period came nearly always brought both of us to tears, especially as time wore on.

Eventually, it got hard for us to be around pregnant people or babies. It made us sad and jealous. Alex began to avoid baby showers and her pregnancy and baby-loaded Facebook feed. Seeing a pregnant woman often caused a physical ache in her chest.   

Still, this desire to pull away made us angry at ourselves, too: why couldn’t we just be happy for them? We loved our (seemingly) more fertile friends and family and genuinely wanted them not to experience this same type of struggle we were going through, but the emotional labor of expressing our happiness for them when we felt so sad often felt too much to bear.

While we were waiting for the results of our second IUI, Luke’s cousin called to say his wife was pregnant. We were legitimately happy for them, but there was an ugly part of each of us that felt it was unfair. Fertility problems can turn you into a version of yourself you don’t like.

If the second IUI didn’t work, our plan was to try one more cycle of IUI and then start the adoption process. After years of trying to get pregnant, we were one month away from admitting we weren’t meant for it. And that would have been fine, but it would have been different. Not worse different– let us be clear: we’ve always felt adopting that is a noble thing to do, more noble than having your own kid, and we know it can be meaningful in every way that raising your own biological child is– but different. It would have required some reckoning and a lot more grieving. It probably also would have required a lot more money than people like us have, but somehow we would have made it work.

However, days after receiving this call, we got tiniest hint of a positive on a pregnancy test. Only someone who’s struggled to conceive will understand, but there’s a big difference between a ‘very faint line’ and a ‘strong positive’ on an at home pregnancy test. By the next morning, the line had disappeared altogether, signalling a much dreaded chemical pregnancy (when the pregnancy ends even before your expected period). Emotionally exhausted, we cried over breakfast with Luke’s mom who was in town and supportive as ever.


A Change in the Storyline

Still, Alex’s period didn’t start and hope (or a pregnancy test obsession?) prevailed. Alex took another test. And then a blood test to confirm. Turns out she was pregnant again.

And this one stuck. It’s increasingly likely that in late November we will be bringing home a healthy baby. Every night before we go to bed we pray a prayer of gratitude for this. And then we ask God to keep it that way. Please understand, the struggle, the anxiety, the ‘this could all go wrong again’ feeling– it hasn’t left us. It may be here to stay. From the stories of others as well as our own unfolding experience, we know that pregnancy after loss and pregnancy after infertility is often as anxiety fraught as it is relieved and happy. That to-do list that Luke made after our first positive pregnancy test in the spring of 2017? This time, we didn’t pull it out until after we’d gotten the results of of mid-pregnancy ultrasound.

Of course, we’re overjoyed. Friends, family, church members sharing that joy with us has been a wonderful experience. When you’re expecting, people are so generous to you. It’s a beautiful thing.

But the tough times are still with us. We’ll always remember the anxiety of waiting to take a pregnancy test. We’ll always remember the crushing feeling when Alex got her period, month after month after month. We still have the ultrasound photo from before the miscarriage, and we’ll never forget that first little heartbeat we saw, that life cut short.

We empathize deeply with other people who are going through what we went through. We recognize that our struggle was not as long or as grief-filled as a lot of people’s. We have friends that have been trying to get pregnant for five plus years. We have friends who have had two, three, six miscarriages. We’re so grateful for those friends’ openness and honesty; it made us feel so much less alone. We know there are other people that are struggling with infertility and pregnancy loss as well who haven’t shared that struggle with us. We hope you know that you’re not alone.


For Friends and Family: What Helped (and What Didn’t)

Fertility struggles are a weird, depressing, exhausting, stressful thing to go through. The longer they go on, the worse it gets. And they’re so, so common. However, throughout ours we heard from friends, family, and co-workers that they had no idea how to best support us.

Everyone is different and has different needs, but we want to say a few things based on our own experience. We hope that people reading this can take it into their relationships with other couples who are struggling.

Don’t tell a couple struggling with infertility to ‘just relax and it will happen.’ First, they’ve already heard that advice a dozen times. And whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, many couples (like us) struggle because of physiological conditions that no amount of ‘relaxing’ will help. Perhaps most importantly, being told to ‘relax’ in the midst of this crippling cycle of hope, anxiety, and grief felt to us like being tied to an anvil and told to fly.  

In fact, don’t give advice unless asked. It’s more than just a little annoying. One unexpected emotion we wrestled with constantly was personal inadequacy. Becoming pregnant was supposed to be easy and because we struggled with something that others stumbled into, even though we knew better, we often felt like we must be doing something wrong or we must be broken. The well-meaning advice of family and friends often played into this, sounding to our ears more like judgment than support.

Hope is tender and we related to it very differently. Luke was often hungry for it. He would have loved to hear a story like ours. A couple who’d struggled for years with a baby finally on the way? Perhaps, things weren’t so bad. He ate up encouragements like, ‘it still might happen,’ and, ‘you know you’re still young,’ and ‘lots of people get pregnant after they’ve adopted.’

On the other hand, Alex guarded hers ferociously. She would have back-buttoned from this piece ages ago. Investing in the little hope she had was risky enough and the encouraging words of others often felt loaded with expectation. If it didn’t work out, she’d be disappointing herself and everyone else.

How can you know whether someone is encouraged by your hope?

Listen. The people we let into our little circle of care during this time were invaluable to us not because of anything they said but because they stuck around. They listened to the sometimes clinical and sometimes gory details of all we were going to with curiosity and affection. They asked us how things were going. Some even gave us supportive gifts– a grief candle, a fertility necklace, a cool hat, a card (or six), flowers, magical Mother Mary relic rock dust, a sachet of fertility herbs. And they cried with us.

A special note about parents. In the arena of fertility and child-rearing (as in many spheres of life), parents and in-laws can be a source of immense stress and heartache. We were so lucky to be steadfastly supported by all four of ours. We know that they have yearned for this first grandchild as much (maybe more?) than we have. And yet, they never made our struggle about them or made us feel like if things didn’t work out and we couldn’t become parents they’d love us or support us any less. That meant the world to us. If you are a parent of someone struggling with fertility, your unconditional love and support of them, no matter the outcome of their struggle, is incredibly important to communicate. We are so blessed that our parents did so, unprompted.

More broadly, what we needed, what people struggling with fertility and miscarriage need, are the same things anyone going through a tough time needs: a community that supports them, and friends and family to be there for them and love them unconditionally. Sometimes all we needed was someone to say “man, that sounds like it sucks”. And we were lucky, because we had these things in spades, at the church, in our social groups, with our closest friends and with our families. But we know lots of people don’t. We all gotta do our part to try and change that at least a little.

The last two years have been tough for us. And even though our story is changing and our family is finally growing, we hope to make it a little less lonely for anyone stuck in the struggle. Our ears and inboxes are open. We might even have a little left over magical Mother Mary relic rock powder to pass along.   

Congratulations Liberals: We Have Ourselves to Blame for President Trump

Image result for donald trump miners

Like most of you reading this, I didn’t get much sleep Tuesday night, the night Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. I lay talking to my wife for a long time. And then I lay silently awake, too anxious to sleep, for even longer. After a couple of fitful hours, I got out of bed and started calling people. My first call was to my friend Anthony, who happens to be Mexican. I told him I love him, I’m sorry. He told me not to worry: “I ain’t goin anywhere carnal.” I worked my way through a short list. My mom, my friend Omari in Detroit, my Dad, my brother Andy, who relies on Obamacare, my friend Alex, who worked on a down-ticket Democratic campaign in the UP. I told all of them I loved them. They were all as shell shocked as me. Then, I walked downstairs where my wife was scrambling some eggs, held her, and for the first time wept. Hard.

Part of my grief had to do with feeling betrayed. Anyone who knows me knows I ride hard for rural people. I defiantly call myself a redneck. And I love rural culture, and my rural friends and family. I think the rural working class has been screwed over by both parties for a long time, and I think we need to fix that. But it still was difficult to see my fellow rednecks turn out in record numbers for Trump, delivering the country to someone I see as dangerous, hateful, and scary. I sort of saw it coming, but it still broke my heart.

I’m not the only one grieving. Very few of us on the left truly expected this to happen. And for all the fear and sadness I feel, I can only imagine what it must be like to be black, or especially to be Latino or Muslim or LGBT right now. It’s ok to be sad and confused. And it’s natural to grieve. But at some point, we’re all going to have to stop grieving and get to work. And for that work to be effective, we should be honest about how we got to this point.

The Democratic party is as out of touch with reality, and with ordinary Americans, as either political party has been in my lifetime. Probably longer. The people in charge of this party live in such a bubble that they actively cleared the primary field for Hillary Clinton, who, despite whether you think it’s fair or not, was the weakest candidate in the modern history of American politics. The fact that she lost to Trump boggles the mind. The fact that the power brokers in the party not only allowed it to happen, but actively stifled her competition, rigged the system to cram her down our throats, and then tried to frame her as inevitable, is infuriating to the rational brain. Some of us have been saying that people were hungry for a change from the same old corporate insider politics. We were brushed aside. Some of us said from the beginning that Bernie Sanders was actually more electable than Hillary, precisely because of his appeal to the working class areas that ended up delivering the election to Trump. “Experts” and party insiders gaslighted us, told us we were crazy. If there is any silver lining to this election, it’s that those experts and insiders can all kick rocks forever. Some of us have been warning about the Democrats abandoning rural people, or poor whites, or running on a message devoid of economic policy, for a long time now. It’s hard for me not to climb to the top of the tallest building in some rich liberal bubble like Ann Arbor and scream ‘I TOLD YOU SOOOOO’ at the top of my lungs. But this is too serious. There’s no pride in being right. Just a sick sense of all my worst fears being realized.

The strategic idiocy of these people is hard to overstate. They bet the farm on winning over college educated white Republicans, sacrificing working class whites to do so. But every political scientist knows higher educated people are demonstrably more partisan than those without college degree. We should have seen it coming. Working class Dems crossed over to vote Trump, and highly educated Republicans didn’t cross over. So Hillary lost, and because of her campaigns idiocy, so did every down ticket Dem in a working class area. The Democrats have been prematurely congratulating themselves about the changing demographics of America for years now. But most swing areas are disproportionately high in working class whites. And they’re still the largest demographic group in the country. If you lose them at the same rate as you gain Latino’s, or college educated single women, that makes it a net loss. The Democrats gave up on vast geographic regions that were blue just four years ago. If they keep dismissing them, the Midwest could have the same political geography as the South real soon. And that’s not good for anyone, especially minorities.

“I agree. I never trusted the Party anyway!” the activist liberal, or wealthy liberal, or millennial in a college town reading this says. Nope. You don’t get off that easy either. The Democratic party has taken its cues from the grassroots left (search your feelings liberal, you know it to be true), which is dominated by intellectual, philosophical, identity politics to an extent that doomed them in this election. A movement can’t be built on simply calling anyone who disagrees with you racist. Or sexist, or “problematic,” whatever that means. A party can’t survive their only message being “vote for us because you’re black, or a woman, or Latino, or gay.” Look at the returns. Latino’s went for Trump at a higher rate than Mitt Romney. Same with African Americans. Same with women. It’s almost as if they actually care about their quality of life, their economic prospects, too. Like they want to vote for someone on the basis of an economic message (and by message, I mean something that actually gets said, not hidden on a website), not the color of their skin. Imagine that.

The Democratic party stopped actively caring about rural people a long time ago, around the year 2000 if I had to reckon. But only in the last 5 years or has the left become so incredibly condescending to them. If you’re an urban or suburban liberal reading this, ask yourself this question, and be honest. You think rural Americans are stupid don’t you. You think they’re backward, uneducated, racist, sexist. And you think you aren’t. You think you know what’s best for them better than they do. If you’re really honest with yourself, you think you’re better than them. One article I read earlier this week said that if rural Americans simply “traveled more” we wouldn’t be in this mess. Maybe the author can pay for their tickets then. I’m sure they’d love a vacation if they could afford it.  Your heroes like SNL and John Oliver get rich making fun of them for being poor, inbred, banjo-playing meth dealers. Rural people are the last group of poor people it’s ok to demean. It’s encouraged. You snobs have been mocking my people, blaming them for every one of society’s ills (which, if they truly all do live in trailers and have sex with their sisters, I wonder how they have the power to perpetuate these ills?) for years now. People can only take being talked down to and marginalized (and they are marginalized- drive through downtown Bear Lake, or Thompsonville, and tell me otherwise) for so long. They sure told you to go fuck yourself this time, didn’t they? And now we have President-elect Donald Trump.

But aren’t these people racist? The white working class voted in record numbers for Trump, who is certainly a bigot. Doesn’t that make them bigots too? If only it were that simple, my naïve, aggrieved, liberal friend. The same rural, white, Midwestern working class that delivered the election to Trump delivered the presidency to Barack Hussein Obama. Twice. Look at the maps. Huge swaths of the rural Midwest that were blue in 2008 and 2012 were red this time. So please tell me again how their vote is exclusively about race. No, the fact is these people voted for Trump despite his racism, not because of it. It breaks my heart, and we have huge issues with racism in this country. Trump has enabled the most evil racists to act out their inner evil, and we should all be appalled by that. But to simply blame this loss on Americas racism is a heinous form of denial from the left.

The good news is the left can rebuild and come back stronger, but it’s going to take some drastic changes. We must build a coalition that includes the white working class rather than marginalizing them. That means listening to them when they say they feel left behind, or left out, or frightened. It doesn’t mean someone with more money, hope, and status lecturing them about their white privilege. This election is a massive failure of the way we educate people about oppression too. Our systemic racism trainings are targeted to wealthy white suburban liberals eager to feel guilty. If a working class white person who actually feels oppressed sneaks in we get real tense and uncomfortable. He might accidentally say something in a not perfectly PC way! It means building a platform of class solidarity, of economic populism, that can cross “identity” and cultural lines. It means fighting, hard, for policies that will benefit both poor rural whites and poor urban minorities, something that progressives have done in the past. It means, that when someone says they are hurting, even if their white, even if they have a backwoods accents, we take their word for it, the same way that we would if they were from Detroit or Chicago. This will be painful, especially for the “woke” liberals who get off on “call out culture”, but if we want our movement to triumph, it must grow, and it must grow in precisely the rural and working class areas that it failed in this election cycle.

I’ve been saying this for years, but people a lot more influential than me are coming to this realization this week. Already there have been pieces written saying the same thing. But there will be, and has already been, a resistance to it as well. There are many who will say it is impossible to build a coalition that includes both working class whites and minorities, and LGBT folks, and single women. There are those that say welcoming rural voices to a movement will inevitably silence urban ones. There are those who will say that it’s impossible to build a platform that helps rural whites without harming vulnerable minority groups. To them I say: horse shit. It might be hard, and painful, but it is also painfully possible. The economic policies that will benefit my redneck friends will also benefit my black friends in Detroit. And if you don’t believe that working class whites and blacks can work together, live together, and love each other, then you should come take a walk in my neighborhood on the east side of Ypsilanti.

We only need to go back a few months to see the potential strength of this coalition. Bernie Sanders came this close to winning the Democratic nomination on a wave of support from millennials of all races and rural working class whites. It is true that African Americans were more hesitant to support him, but guess who else they were hesitant to support until he won the nomination? Barack Obama. And it’s also been shown through polling that young African Americans and Latinos (aka the future) did support him over Hillary by a large margin. Sanders isn’t the only example of a populist Democrat having success, just the most recent. But it was only 10 years ago that Northern Michigan was represented by almost exclusively populist Dems. We have had these peoples support before, and we can win them back.

The future of the Democratic party, and the left in America, is almost painfully obvious. The message we need to embrace is loud and clear. Now we just have to do two things in order to hear it. Pull our heads out of the sand, and shut the hell up and listen for a second.

Small Towns can Live. But Only if We Don’t Let Them Die

I spent last week in my hometown of Bear Lake, Michigan, with my wife, parents, extended family, and friends. Monday was Independence Day, and the following Friday and Saturday were “Bear Lake Days”. Because Northern Michigan is beautiful in the summer, it’s always been a tradition for all of my aunts and uncles and cousins to come up for the 4th, and because I love my hometown, I try to get back for Bear Lake Days every year if possible.

If you know me, or if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you know I’m fiercely proud of my hometown. Last week though, as I drove into town for the first time I felt ashamed. And angry.

Bear Lake has always had issues. There’s always been poverty and drugs and a lack of decent jobs. And ever since I’ve been alive there have been a couple of abandoned, blighted buildings in downtown. But in the last few years the abandoned buildings have gone from being the exception to the rule. First the Bear Lake Bar, where I spent many an evening drinking $1.25 Bud Lights with friends, went out of business. Then the “Village Variety Store” which has always been a stretch to call an “open business” closed its doors for good. Now it’s decaying to the point that they have the road on one side closed off so people don’t get hit with falling bricks. Then the bank closed, leaving a big empty building which serves the exclusive function of supporting a still functioning ATM. The café closed. Basically the only things left are an auto parts store, two “antique” shops which seem to be open sporadically at best, and a single chair barber shop which will undoubtedly close when Hugh, the elderly barber, retires or dies. That and a bunch of empty buildings in varying states of decay. You could pick up the main drag of Bear Lake and drop in on Chene or Gratiot in Detroit and it wouldn’t look a bit out of place.


Hugh’s Barber Shop


The sad thing, the infuriating thing, is that it didn’t have to be like this. When people talk about the decline of small towns they tend to fall into two camps. One group looks at small town America with rose colored glasses and denies that a decline is even happening. To these people, the blight, the drugs, the poverty, the emptying out, are just minor blips, nothing to worry about in the long term. Distressingly, many people in leadership roles in our towns, as well as at state and federal levels seem to fall into this camp. The other camp shrugs and says that the decline of small towns is inevitable (or even, in the case of certain smug urban liberals I’ve met, a good thing). These attitudes, when held up to even the tiniest bit of criticism are, of course, bullshit. It’s obvious to anyone that has driven a few miles of two lane roads anywhere in the US that there are small towns all over the country that look like Bear Lake. It should be equally obvious that a select few have avoided that fate through good planning and policy.

The majority of the buildings in downtown Bear Lake are owned by two families. One that has owned a bunch (including the variety store) forever, and let them fall into decay, and another that has recently purchased closed businesses and held on to them for what seems to be real estate speculation. In a town as small as Bear Lake, one or two families owning a few buildings each can basically determine the future of the commercial district. What these two families either don’t realize, or are two callous to care about, is that by sitting on an empty property, they not only contribute to the decay of that individual building, but to the decay of the entire community, and the loss of valuable tourist dollars to neighboring towns. They aren’t passively allowing the town to collapse, they are actively destroying it.

Variety Store

The Village Variety Store. Always an eyesore, now a collapsing danger to the public.

I’ve heard enough rumors about people wanting to move businesses into those buildings that at least some of them have to be true. In every case, they were denied by these families. Maybe the families didn’t think their offer was high enough. Maybe, as some have claimed, they nurse a grudge that is manifested in their spitefully empty storefronts. But the fact of the matter is there is no policy tool that allows the township or county to remedy this situation. If we were to develop legislation with the specific goal of reviving our small towns, specific tools for towns of under 2,000 residents to redevelop their commercial districts, rather than a cookie cutter approach that says what’s good for Detroit and Bloomfield Hills must be good for Bear Lake, then perhaps we could have that brewery or bakery, rather than a collapsing building or empty storefront. There should be a law that allows townships to seize commercial properties from the owners if they have sat empty for a certain number of years, and sell them to the best business that bids on it, the business that would provide the most benefit to the community. Then a large percentage of the sale price could be paid back to the original owners.

I realize this is a radical proposal, but we have to stop looking at the core of our towns as only individual properties. They are not. They directly impact all residents of the community. We need to understand that the public interest trumps an (already well off) private individuals desire to make a few bucks. Developing a policy like this is possible. It just takes political courage. The courage to admit that our small towns are in crisis, as well as the courage to say we’re not going to allow them to die.

On Friday night for Bear Lake days, my friend’s band was playing a gig. My wife, myself, and two friends walked over with a backpack of beer to check out the show. We walked past all the empty buildings, and I tried not to get too frustrated, but as the show started I felt content. Events like this are designed to attract tourists, but later in the evening they tend to go back to their cottages (or maybe to Frankfort, the town 20 minutes away with lots of fudge and “cute” shops). On this evening, the people trickling in were almost all locals. The band sounded great, and as they launched into a medley of 80’s covers an elderly couple went into the parking lot and started line dancing. In no time flat a handful of middle aged couples joined them. Then a whole mess of little kids. By the third song there were probably 30 people dancing a spontaneous line dance, in an empty parking lot, between an abandoned pizza place and an abandoned real estate office. Little kids flitted between them, older people watched, laughing, and a fuchsia sun set over Hugh’s barber shop.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the buildings in my hometown, or in small towns all over the country. I don’t know if small businesses will ever be allowed to thrive there, if we have the political will to stop treating these places as disposable. I worry about it a lot.

But I’m not worried about the people. We’re gonna take care of each other. We’re gonna be alright.

The New Insiders: The Progressive Movement is Strangling Itself

Rainbow donkey

Tuesday was Election Day. Though you wouldn’t know it by watching cable news, who seem to be exclusively focused on the 2016 presidential race, municipalities across the country elected mayors, states voted on ballot measures and for governors. These are all things that, in most cases, will have a bigger effect on the average American’s life than the results of the presidential election in 2016. And my party, the Democrats, got absolutely obliterated.

If you follow, like me, media from the left of the aisle; Vox, The New Republic, MSNBC, or
(yes) NPR, you’ve heard a lot of stories over the last month discussing the supposed disorder within the Republican Party, stories packed with a poorly disguised glee. These stories tend to center on two things: the chaos within the parties establishment as the tea party battles the old boys club, and the sort of statistical modeling that shows how difficult it supposedly will be in the future for the Republicans to win a national (i.e. Presidential) election. What these stories reliably fail to mention is that with the exception of Obama’s reelection, Republicans are trouncing Democrats everywhere. Yes, the leadership of the Republican Party in congress may be divided, but they control congress by a large margin and will almost certainly maintain their control. States like Kentucky and my home state of Michigan that have been reliably blue for decades are now dominated by Republicans in the legislative and executive branches. Left leaning media loves to point out the incompetence of Republican Party leadership. I say ‘incompetent like a fox’.

I was drawn to the Democratic Party at a young age out of a sense of economic populism. To me, the Democrats were the party that stood up for working people, the party that wasn’t in bed with banks and corporations. Of course, as a good progressive, I’ve always been in favor of LGBT rights, fighting racism and sexism, and defending a woman’s right to choose. But to me, the central issue was economic equity. The social issues were icing on the cake. Eventually, this passion drew me to progressive activism outside of party politics. As a community organizer, I’ve spent thousands of hours talking with ordinary, apolitical people, about political issues.  It’s pretty obvious that the average citizen, no matter what party they tend to vote for, cares about a billion times more about economic issues than social issues. But there’s a disconnect I’ve seen  as I’ve been exposed to the new generation of “insiders” in the Democratic Party.

The people in the establishment, the people working the campaigns, at the state and local level, are mostly young (under 35) and lifelong Democrats. This new generation of progressive insiders is the exact opposite of the average citizen, or me. They identify as progressive and vote exclusively for Democrats solely based on social issues.  Economic justice, corporate accountability, in these circles, is mentioned in passing if at all, and identity politics is the new hotness. For the new insiders, issues like choice and LGBT rights are the core of their political identity, and, in most cases, the totality of it

Having these people with their hands on the controls is a dangerous position for a party or a movement to be in. The danger is that as they continue to establish themselves in positions of power in the movement and party, movement will lose a core piece of its identity. The identity of standing for the poor and the working class. Democrats and progressives continue to get hammered in local and state elections, where the winners have a great deal of influence over tax policy, energy policy, and infrastructure. But no mayor is going to be able to repeal Roe v. Wade. No city commissioner or State Rep can reverse the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. For the most part, social policies that the new insiders are most passionate about are created at the federal level, and in many cases, by the courts.  But these insiders are working state and local level elections and the results speak for themselves. The lack of a coherent, passionate message on economic justice is limits the progressive base and as a result, policy battles are being won by the right at every level.

Now, you may say, what about Bernie Sanders, the fire breathing economic populist and socialist? How to account for his surge in popularity? I would say his long shot candidacy proves my point exactly. Sanders is not of the establishment, and has embraced a message centered in economic policy. But the new insiders are overwhelmingly in support of Hilary Clinton, who is in lock step with them on social issues, but on economics and foreign policy is indistinguishable from a Republican. There’s a broad base of support for someone with a Sanders-like message, but not within the establishment. And the establishment tends to have the final say.

Sanders’ rise has illustrated the distance between the new insiders and the average citizen to me in stark relief. I’m part of a cohort of 25 or so young progressives being trained to work as campaign managers and staffers. All of them will be starting out at local level races, but their opinions of the presidential race are telling. A handful of them are mid-career people like myself, but most of them are right out of college, in their early to mid-twenties. And they are, probably by a margin of 3 to 1 Clinton, not Sanders, supporters. Outside of this group, when I talk to young people about the race, they overwhelmingly support Sanders. In fact, I have only met maybe 2 or 3 Clinton supporters, and even they didn’t seem excited about it. But in the back rooms, the generation of people being groomed to have control over the most grassroots races, and thus, I fear, the progressive movement as a whole, are in favor of the establishment candidate. Their reasons typically are rooted in identity politics, for the most part not extending much beyond either “because she’s electable” or “because she’s a woman”. When talking to them about their opinions, it becomes crystal clear that economic/financial policy are low on their lists of concerns, and the lack of a real difference between a Democrat and a Republican on these policies wouldn’t keep them up at night. In a few of my more disturbing conversations, I came away with the distinct feeling that such a difference was less important than simply being on a winning team.

The more troubling effect of the new insiders rise to power is a sort of smug complacency. Their movement, their identity as a group, though they would probably deny it, is based on public outrage, both legitimate and exaggerated. Their defining characteristic is their opposition to all things “problematic”, the newly in vogue term for anything not politically correct. This opposition to the “problematic” strains of society allows them to feel righteous and holy, even in defeat, and their blinders to anything other than presidential elections allow them to feel destined for victory, even as they fail. The new insiders are so defined by their opposition to so many things, that in order to maintain their sense of self they have to operate at a huge distance from the average voter. A distance that allows them to feel righteous, but that also leads to a condescension that is a recipe for losing elections.

On Tuesday, I spent the evening at a post-election “party” for city council candidate whose campaign I had helped out on. He had to be in the top four to be elected, and he finished sixth. Needless to say, the atmosphere was not festive. Soon, the talk turned to the electorate. “Well, what are you going to do in a place like [X city]?” someone said. “It probably would have been better if [candidate] had made some crazy Christian statement”. Everyone laughed. Over the weekend, at a phone bank, another staffer on the campaign had told me that she didn’t believe that taxes should be raised on the rich, and no one seemed to bat an eye. And in the end we all felt more comfortable blaming the electorate, the citizens, for our loss than ourselves.

Interactions like this took place all over the country on Tuesday night. The new insiders are so sure of their purity on the social issues, that they feel no need to question their privilege on the economic front, or even to develop a strong position. Easier to blame the voters.

If the new insiders aren’t forced to evaluate themselves and their positions, and if they aren’t held accountable, the Democratic Party, and the progressive movement as a whole, are doomed. The attitude of righteous outrage in defeat is simply not sustainable. That’s the thing about Martyrs: they die. Democrats and progressives risk the same fate. Our movement can both develop a strong and true populist message on economics and war, start emphasizing it, and watch our base grow and our movement win, or we can enjoy our ideological purity as we watch our movement die from the bottom up.

The Real World: Media, Sports, and Male Body Image

I’m 6 foot 5. I weight 185 pounds, give or take depending on how recently gobbled a burger or gone for a run. This is what I looked like yesterday:

me no shirt

Most people would say I’m in decent shape. Some people might even call me skinny. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say, because I ran track in college. Back then I weighed about 155 pounds. I looked like this:

skin and bones

I’m healthy now. Back then I was close to being an elite athlete (not going pro elite, just a middle of the road college athlete, but elite compared to the average human). But I’ve never seen many men who looked like me on TV or a movie. Mostly they either look like this:


or like these dudes:

real world

We hear constantly about the unfair beauty standards women are subjected to by the media, and, to be sure, the expectation that a woman be rail-thin to be attractive is patently ridiculous and dangerous. It’s my opinion that it has resulted in a huge gap between what men generally find attractive (some curves/meat on the bones, not to mention a personality and brains), and what women think men find attractive (typically about 20 pounds too skinny in my experience). This is a problem. But there’s a problem with male body image in this country too.

For most of my life, I was terrified that I was too skinny. On more than one occasion in college and in high school, I had a friend pass along the message from a girl I had a crush on: “He’s cute, but he’s too skinny”. Hearing that never failed to be devastating. Because I knew it was true. And I knew it was true thanks to the media.

But a strange thing happened when I went to college. I was training to run as fast as possible, and to do that, you need to be as skinny as possible. Any excess weight, even muscle, makes a big difference in race times (try running a mile as fast as you can with an extra five or ten pounds strapped to you). So I had pressure to be extra skinny from my desire to perform well. At the same time I had pressure from society to be muscle bound and swole. It was a confusing place to be in, and it might have messed up my body image for the long haul.

I don’t think I’m the only man to feel this way, to feel too fat and to skinny at the same time. A lot of us played sports at some point, and are used to thinking of our bodies in a functional sense, where every muscle serves a specific purpose. Most of us move on from that at some point. I stopped having the time or desire to run 100 miles a week and I packed on a few pounds. This is a common story. The average dude doesn’t have the time or energy to sculpt his body. We’re just trying to stay healthy.

At the same time, I can go to the movies any weekend and see a supposedly “ordinary guy” in a scene where he is gratuitously and unnecessarily shirtless, displaying 6 pack abs and swollen pecs. And he’s supposed to be a lawyer or something. I’ve met some lawyers and the don’t look like that. Or I can turn on “reality TV” and see a bunch of shirtless “ordinary guys” who are obviously on steroids, complete with the requisite rage. Or I can open up Facebook at any time and see these bullshit, self congratulatory “fitspiration” memes, that are supposed to inspire you to work out. You know the quotes and pictures that somehow equate physical fitness with morality, as if doing 100 crunches makes you a better person. In reality I suspect these work as a self administered pat on the back for the person who posted it. The message men get from every form of media in this country is that we have two options: attractive, ripped dude with well defined muscles and a lot of money, or hopeless, Homer Simpson-esqe working class slob with a beer gut and a tendency to exasperate the saintly, slender, women in our lives. There’s no such thing as an “ordinary guy” in the media.

The body image pressure men get is vastly different from women. The pressure on women seems to me to be constant, straightforward, and explicit: skinnier is better. Pressure on us men is complicated, subtle, and nuanced. We’re not supposed to care about our bodies, but we’re supposed to be ripped. We’re certainly not supposed to be fat, but we’re not supposed to be skinny either. And when you add sports into the mix, it just gets messier. We all know that there’s something we’re supposed to look like, but we don’t know exactly what it is. Most of us just know that it’s not us.

Shortly after I graduated college and started what would prove to be a long break from any serious training, I met the woman who would become my wife. She would later admit that, while she was immediately attracted to me, she thought I was “grossly skinny”. Five years later we’re happily married, and she insists that she finds my body much more attractive than at that time. And I believe her, but the weird thing is that I feel gross to myself. I still vacillate between being paranoid about being “too skinny”, and feeling disgusted that I’ve gained weight. I still feel like I should have bulging biceps or well defined abs. And I know I never will.

The difference now is that when I start beating myself up about it, I force myself to go somewhere else mentally. I ask myself “how do I treat the people I care about?” “What have I done lately to make the world a fairer, more just place?” “Have I been friendly to the people I’ve come across lately?” Sometimes I can answer those questions positively, sometimes I can’t. But the answers never have anything to do with my abs or pecs.

That’s what I think men (and women) should remind themselves. It’s nice to be healthy. Exercise is great for us physically and mentally. But being physically fit does not make you a good person. Being out of shape does not make you a bad person. Let’s stop acting like there’s some connection between our abs and our morality. There’s not. And let’s stop being so paranoid about our bodies. I guarantee any potential romantic partner cares way less about your muscle definition than you think.

Dead Friends and Survivors Guilt

It was 10:54 AM and I was circling a block in Kaleva MI, a tiny town 10 minutes from my parents’ house that I hadn’t even driven through in 6 or 7 years. There used to be a great rope swing out there but some bureaucrats came out with a chainsaw and cut down the tree it was tied to. Now there’s just a tavern and a diner and a gas station. And a funeral home.  I was still driving because I was too scared to go in. Danny K. was in there in a casket. I hadn’t talked to him since high school, and even in high school we ran in different crowds. But in elementary school we were best friends.

Danny lived on a farm. We used to shoot things with BB guns and sling shots and sprint into electric fences and generally harm ourselves for amusement. Danny was a little crazy, in the way of a country kid with too much time on his hands. Sometimes we turned those bb guns and sling shots on each other. He pushed me to be a little more extreme than I was comfortable with and I loved it.

I parked the car and watched a stream of men walk in. Men in union jackets and jeans and sport coats that didn’t fit right. Men that, unlike me, still had calluses on their hands and functional strength. Men trying to hold it all in. I took my tie off and threw it in the back seat, sucked it up and got out of the car.

The place was full. I signed the guest book and walked back into an overflow room with a black and white feed of the service. Simon was there, the cousin of a best friend, and someone I’ve known pretty well since 8th grade. His eyes were red. There were various other old acquaintances there. One or two of them nodded at me as I walked in. Most just stared straight ahead. There were old folks too, and little kids, family and family friends. And there was a contingent from his union. Pipefitters wearing pipefitters jackets. They were taking it pretty hard.

The service was tough.  The preacher had one of those rural northern Michigan accents that sounded both southern and Canadian at the same time. He read some passages and stepped back, admitted he didn’t really know Danny, and asked others to share. People got up and struggled through a story. Some cried, some just stood silently while moments stretched on, trying to keep themselves from crying. Someone told a story about Danny coming to help them weld something at their house on his only day off from being a welder all week. People didn’t really know what to say. Hell, they probably couldn’t believe it was real.

Danny’s not the first kid from my hometown to die way too young (27), hopefully he’ll be the last, but you never know; I think there’s still one or two in Afghanistan. All across America, young men from small towns (and inner cities) are dying too young. They’re dying because of pointless wars and drug addiction and needless street violence and drunk driving and general hopelessness and no one that I’ve heard from has a good reason and no one is really even talking about it.  I had been debating whether to come to this service for a while, and I didn’t decide until the last minute. I had plenty of great reasons not to. It was on a Monday morning and I had a ton of work to do. I hadn’t spoken to Danny in years; we didn’t run in the same crowds. I didn’t know his family that well. I felt weird parachuting in from out of town and leaving right afterward.

When I told my wife about all these reasons she told me I had survivor’s guilt. It felt silly, or extreme; it’s not like Danny and I had been in a war together. But maybe she was right, at least about the guilt part. I do feel guilty. I feel guilty about leaving my small hometown to get a degree, and then take a job in a big city where I sat at a desk, talk to folks, and had health insurance for free. I even got dental. I feel guilty about the fact that my fingernails haven’t been dirty in years and the only callus I have is caused by my wedding ring and that my muscles have atrophied and I’ve added a layer of fat from sitting on my ass all day instead of actually building something or fixing something. I feel guilty about the fact that I’ve gone soft and got disconnected from my people while they are still in Bear Lake and Onekama and Kaleva and thousands of other small towns across Michigan and America struggling to make it work and hold their communities together. And mostly I feel guilty about the fact that the only thing that allowed me to move away and get a decent job and my own apartment and a wife from the suburbs was pure luck. I was lucky enough to have parents with good jobs and a little money, and I was lucky enough to be a fast runner. I don’t know if that’s survivor’s guilt, or what you call it. God knows I’m not the only one who left, most of us moved to major metro areas. But I know that’s the real reason I almost didn’t go to the funeral. I was being a coward about facing my own guilt, whatever kind of guilt it was.

I stuck around after the service to talk to Danny’s mom, and God bless her she was holding it together. She recognized me right away and was excited to see me. I told her a story about something crazy Danny and I did together as kids. She told me she knew he was someone’s angel now. I hugged her, and filed out, stopping to talk to some former teachers. There was a circle of people roughly my age standing in a circle outside smoking cigarettes. I gave Simon a hug and tried to say hi to a few guys I knew. Danny’s younger brother came up and tried to make conversation but he could barely talk. People were mostly silent and numb, so I left to go to the luncheon that followed.

Sitting in the car outside the town hall I thought about why I drove 4 hours for this funeral of someone I hadn’t seen in years. Mostly, it was because he was a very important person in my life at one time, even if that time was many years ago, and I think that it’s important to show people that you give a shit about them, whenever you can, even if it’s too late. But it was also partly because I am still grieving for the loss of my community, and I had a selfish mission to show myself that I was still connected to it. Most of all dammit, Danny was a good kid, and from what I could tell, was a good man. I was pissed he was gone.

I went in to the hall and looked around. People were trickling in and it was quiet. Some were eating, some were drinking punch. Someone tried to laugh. I stood in the corner and surveyed the scene. These were my people, or at least the people I thought of as my people. Rural, hard working, no nonsense folks that took care of each other. People with a sense of humor, impatient like they were always ready to get on with it. And they were hurting. I couldn’t take it. I pulled an Irish goodbye and ducked out without talking to anyone. I got into the car and pointed it back toward my big city, middle class, health insurance, no callus having, soft existence.

A few miles down the road, I was forced to admit to myself that, whatever selfish mission I had coming up here, whatever I had to prove to myself, I had accomplished it. I didn’t want to admit it. I was trying to think about the sub sandwich I was going to get for lunch, or the work I had to do the next day. I wasn’t trying to reconcile with my guilt. I wasn’t even trying to accomplish closure. But I was forced to. And I was forced to pull over. I was forced to by the tears beginning to spill down my face.

Goddammit Danny, 27 is way too young.

Allies vs. Victims: The Police Reform Movement is Missing a Huge Opportunity

A couple of days ago was the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson Missouri. We all remember the images that came out of that event. The chants, the crazy police response, firing gas canisters into groups of protesters. Personally, my most visceral memory is of sitting with my wife, watching the announcement that the officer who killed Michael Brown wouldn’t be tried. Not that he was found not guilty, but that he wouldn’t even be brought to trial. I mostly remember feeling a deep, visceral anger, mixed with hopelessness and frustration. I sat there shaking and screaming at the “prosecutor” on the TV screen, who sounded more like a defense attorney for the cop. I think my wife was shouting louder than me. I think we both wanted cry. Maybe we did.

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders in Ferguson, Aug. 13. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

In the year since a lot has changed, some for worse, but a lot for the better. The bad news is there have been over 1,000(!) police killings in the year since. The better news is police brutality, especially as it relates to the mistreatment of African-Americans, has become heavily scrutinized at a local and national level, like never before in my lifetime. Even more hopeful is that there is a growing movement calling for police accountability, and the prevention of deaths at the hands of cops, across the country. This movement has drawn the attention of mayors, governors, and presidential candidates, and has already won some important reforms. But there is more work to do. And the left leaning movement for police accountability is making some big mistakes.

Strategic Mistakes

Before you read this next paragraph I need to be very clear about something. There is systemic racism in this country when it comes to police behavior. African-Americans are disproportionately targeted by police, and treated with disproportionate violence by police. Statistics bear this out, and I believe it to be true. Calling attention to it is important.

THAT BEING SAID. Casting the movement against police brutality in exclusively racial terms is a huge mistake.

According to the (left-leaning) Washington Post, over the past 5 years 60% of people killed by police have been white. The other 40% has been pretty evenly split between Black and Latino. In a country where only 12.5% percent of the population is black, this is disproportionate and deserves a response. The fact remains however that well over half the people killed by police are white. And let me tell you something. They’re not upper-class suburban people, they’re poor and rural (Here’s the map of police killing’s in the last year. See for yourself).

“It’s not about Race it’s about Class” (and vice versa)

Right after Ferguson, I heard a conversation on NPR that exemplifies the liberal response over the last year. A white man called in to a panel of black intellectuals (I think it’s important to note that they were all presumably upper class) discussing the issues of police brutality etc. He was quickly dismissed and hung up on after saying something along the lines of “it’s not about race, it’s about class”. The panel mocked him gently for a moment then moved on. The first thing that popped into my head was “what a missed opportunity”.

See, when all the Ferguson stuff went down I was appalled, but in looking for the silver lining, I found something to cling to: this was a great organizing opportunity. This was the type of issue that could actually bring together rural whites and urban blacks. I know plenty of people that have been horribly mistreated by police in my hometown, all of them young white men. Some have been beat up. Luckily, no one I know has been killed yet. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, or it won’t. In the absence of a statistically significant black population, the police target the poor, and those they perceive to be dangerous: young men. This is why, perhaps more than any other, the sentiment generally captured by the phrase “Fuck Tha Police” is shared by young redneck men and young black men alike. Obviously, most cops are good people doing a tough job, and “FTP” is not a constructive sentiment. Regardless, there is a need for reform, and the last year could have been a huge opportunity to organize rural whites and urban blacks together. It would have led to important cross-cultural sharing and learning. The man that called into NPR probably didn’t have any close black friends that he could learn about systemic racism from, but I guarantee he didn’t trust cops. By hanging up on him instead of attempting to have a conversation that made the obvious clear–it’s about race and class– the panel turned a potential ally into a potential enemy. This is not good organizing for a movement that needs all the allies it can get.

Sherriff Buford Pusser, and the stick he used to turn people into vegetables for the crime of drinking alcohol

Sherriff Buford Pusser, and the stick he used to turn people into vegetables for the crime of drinking alcohol

Instead of seizing this opportunity to organize two divergent groups of people into a winning coalition however, as a movement, we have painted ourselves into a corner. Any time anyone suggests that there might be a class component to police brutality, they are either shouted down or dismissed. The people doing the dismissing and shouting down typically–and I can’t stress this enough–are not poor. They are almost always either black intellectuals, or even more often, white suburban liberals seeking to be “good allies”.

Meth Labs and Teens with Weed

Two things happened over the last couple weeks that crystallized this for me. First, I was driving up north for a visit. In a tiny town, on the side of the road were upwards of 20 police cars at one house. For the rest of my drive, I rolled around a series of WTF? themed questions in my head. When I got to my parents house I searched Google and Twitter to figure out what had happened. Finding nothing on any of the newspaper or TV station’s websites I finally found it on some “alternative up north news” blog. Someone had been running a meth lab, and the police kicked down the door and shot him. He died. Because it was out in a field, there were no witnesses. We’ll never know whether the police account is true or not. And because small town journalists with drastically limited resources typically have an easier time covering the county fair than any crime, it will never be investigated. Just a poor person dead at the hands of the police.

A few days later, scanning through Twitter, I came upon the story of Zachary Hammond. A small town, white, teenage boy, Zachary Hammond was out on a date with a girl. The girl had a bag of weed on her, so the cops shot Zachary in the back, killing him. Interestingly enough, I didn’t see any white liberals tweeting about Zachary. In fact, the tweets I saw were all from black folks affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The white “allies” were silent. This illustrated an important fact to me. The lack of attention paid to police misconduct in rural communities isn’t on the BLM movement. They are rightfully worried about their own communities. They don’t have time to worry about the classist aspects of police brutality AND draw attention to the racism. But white liberals don’t have that excuse. There’s no reason white liberals couldn’t be good allies for the BLM movement and also draw attention to the instances I’m talking about. All it takes is some courage. There’s a great opportunity to build broad support for police accountability and we’re dropping the ball.

A Movement of Our Own

Maybe it’s time we formed our own movement, in concert with BLM. Maybe working together we could win. White suburban liberals could bring a lot of resources and expertise to it, but that would require them to develop a narrative analysis based on something deeper than embarrassed clucking at their fellow white citizens, or dislocating their shoulder in an attempt to pat themselves on the back for being the “right kind of ally”. So I won’t hold out hope for that.

Us rural folks, however, know the oppression that’s happening in our allies and two-tracks. We can start talking about it openly. We can refuse to be profiled for being a townie not a vacationer. Maybe we can even build a space where it’s OK to say “what about me? what about US? What about better training and body cams for OUR police force?”. Hell, maybe someday, in the not too distant future, under a hot sun, shoulder to shoulder with our black and brown brothers and sisters, or under the watchful eye of a small-town cop with time on his hands and a grudge in his heart, or with our face mashed against his hood for talking back, we can say it in solidarity and say it loud:

Redneck Lives Matter.

The Ted Nugent Paradox

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Imagine two communities of people. They have a lot in common. They both live in areas where access to resources is severely limited (they might have to drive 45 minutes or more to get to a decent grocery store). They both have the choice to either send their kids to bad schools or really bad schools. They are both made up primarily of people who have limited education; a high school diploma at best. They could both optimistically be called “working class” but more realistically called “working poor”. Their communities have been ravaged by disinvestment and outsourcing. As a result, even for those with an education, anything resembling a middle class job is hard to come by. Nihilism is the default worldview in both communities and, not coincidentally, drug addiction and drug related crime is exploding. In both of these communities, a parent’s greatest hope is that their child will move away. Often, this hope is so strong, and the ways out so limited, that they strongly encourage their child to join the armed forces, knowing full well the chance that he could get blown up by an IED halfway across the world in some politician’s pointless Hollywood war. By any objective measure, you would say that both of these communities are “oppressed” by the “system” (this being the terminology du jour among liberal thinkers). Another way to say it would be “screwed” by “rich people”.

Trust me, this guy is not ruining America

Trust me, this guy is not ruining America

Now let’s consider the differences between these two groups: One is overwhelmingly white, the other overwhelmingly Black and Latino. One is rural, the other is urban. That’s about it.

Well that’s not it it. There are significant cultural differences (although not as vast as some may think, as we will see shortly), and more importantly, there is a HUGE difference in the way they are perceived and treated by a third group of people: suburban liberals, most of whom are white, and most of whom are middle to upper class. These suburban liberals have a hell of a lot of power in society, especially in the media. I’ve lived my entire life in one or the other of these communities, and I feel more connected to them than simply a neighbor. They are my closest friends and my family. And it drives me nuts to see them pitted against each other by people that clearly don’t understand them.

Liberal Classism

A core tenet of 2015 liberalism is the idea that “the system” is to blame for all of the worst “isms” in the world, particularly racism and sexism. “The System” is decried as evil, as something to be dismantled and railed against. I agree. There is a system put in place by the rich and powerful to maintain the status quo, which they obviously benefit from. I’m not going to get into theory behind this, but I’m with the liberals on it. However, there’s another “ism” that the system perpetuates, and its an “ism” that suburban liberals not only contribute to, but contribute to gleefully while patting themselves on the back. They even get congratulated and rewarded for their contributions to it by other suburban liberals. This “ism”; classism, is almost exclusively directed at the rural working class and working poor; i.e. rednecks, hillbillies, white trash. I.e. my friends and family. Maybe one day we’ll take classism as seriously as we take racism and sexism, but that day’s a long way off.

White liberal classism, from what I’ve seen, exists overtly in two forms. The first, and more subtle, is the “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” form, where wealthy white liberals moan and gnash their teeth over rural working class whites supporting causes that *gasp* not liberal. The chief concern is that these rednecks are voting against their self interest. The term “brainwashed” gets thrown around a lot here, as if that’s the only explanation for why rural folks wouldn’t vote for Democrats. Even assuming that the suburban liberals have an honest concern for the well being of the rednecks (which is a stretch), this attitude is incredibly condescending and patronizing. First of all, the assumption that rural areas are exclusively conservative strongholds is objectively false. There are broad swaths of this country, many of them right here in Michigan (especially the UP), where Democrats are consistently elected in rural areas. Even the areas represented by Republicans are more often than not swing districts. Take for example my hometown. Yes it is represented by a radical conservative in the state legislature, but he won by only 190 votes over a weak Democratic opponent. To say it is a purely conservative area is to dismiss the 49.9% of voters who chose the Democrat. Second of all, this attitude assumes that because people are poor, they have less of a right to care about social issues, issues like gun control or abortion. It’s OK to disagree with rural people on the issues, but please don’t treat us like we somehow have less of a right to our opinions because of our class.

The Nugent Paradox

The second, more insidious, offensive form that white liberal classism takes is what I call “The Ted Nugent Paradox.” In this instance, “problematic” behavior by poor rural whites is decried, called out, and mocked, when similar behavior by minorities in inner cities would be explained as a “product of the system”. Now I want to be clear here: I’m a Democrat, I’m in most ways a liberal, and I think that the liberals are right too blame systematic oppression for the (rare, non-representative) problematic behavior of inner city minorities. I simply think the same paradigm should be applied to oppressed rural whites.

Look out kids, hes coming to brainwash ya

Look out kids, he’s coming to brainwash ya

The Nugent Paradox gets its name from a phenomenon I’ve noticed recently that goes like this. Most white liberals my age, including me, are fans of rap music. Our fandom is not seen as “problematic” but as a sign of our tolerance and open mindedness. No one would ever ask me to account for the “problematic” lyrics of, say, Ice Cube (a rap godfather, with titles such as “A Bitch is a Bitch” in his catalog). No one would ever assume that the lyrics or philosophy of my favorite rappers represented my worldview. On the other hand, when I tell people I’m a fan of Ted Nugent’s music, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that I’m being ironic (I’m not). If I wasn’t being ironic, then I would have to explain away his sexism, racism, anti-environmentalism, etc. The courtesy I get extended for my rap fandom isn’t replicated for redneck music like Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, or Merle Haggard.

We don’t have to look far for other examples of the Nugent Paradox. Inner city riots are (rightly) explained by pointing to systematic oppression through police brutality, joblessness, poor education etc.  On the other hand, some impoverished shmuck in the swamps of Alabama with a confederate flag in his garage is (and I quote directly) “THE problem with America”. Never mind the systematic policies that have pitted his people against minorities for what little crumbs are left from the table, or the poor education he got in rural public schools (just as bad as inner city schools in most instances). Never mind the fact that no one even sees that flag off the two track he lives on. Hell, never mind the fact that while we’re debating this the banks are pillaging our economy again, and cops are killing unarmed kids, black, brown, and white again. Nope just look over there, at that piece of white trash. HE’s the problem. When it comes to poor white folks we never look at the system. We just mock them and distance ourselves. “At least we’re not racist like him”.

The Redneck Buffer

So why does this happen? Why are we so slow to realize the systematic oppression of rural people? Why is it somehow OK, even for the most progressive people, to make fun of someone for being poor, as long as he or she is white?

Here’s why: the rednecks are the buffer. They’re the buffer the rich use to protect themselves from inner city rage. As long as oppressed minorities stay angry at poor whites, their anger can’t be directed at Wall Street and the Waltons, who are the deserving recipients of it, who’ve screwed up America for all of us; black, brown, and redneck (and who are probably plenty satisfied to keep redirecting the anger toward rednecks in perpetuity). They’re the buffer for upper and middle class whites, even the liberal ones, to point at and say “they’re the problem”. In gawking at the rednecks missteps and misadventures, his general political incorrectness, the suburban liberal is able to avoid a long hard look in the mirror, one that just might end with an acknowledgment of all the ways his upper class suburban lifestyle contributes to “the system”, and to all the isms. We keep directing all the blame onto the white working class, and then ask “why are they so angry?”.

The Psychological Toll

So what happens when rural america gets the blame for everything, and it continues unchecked for generations? Well for one thing, the real problems don’t get solved. Blaming rednecks isn’t going to fix our broken economy or keep cops from killing innocent people. But it also has an effect on the psychology of rural people, particularly young ones.

A few weeks ago I was in my hometown for the fourth of July. I went out on a buddy’s pontoon boat and drank some beers with a bunch of old friends from High School. At some point the conversation rolled around to a few mutual friends who had recently moved to Chicago. One of them had moved there with no job prospects, just up and left. When my friend Josh mentioned this, we sat in silence for a couple seconds until another friend spoke up: “Well, good for him though, getting out of here and going somewhere”. We all nodded in agreement.

That’s how bad our internalized guilt is, how subconscious our shame. We’ve blamed everything on rural America for so long, that kids from my generation are ashamed to even admit where they come from. It’s so bad that kids are seen as somehow moral for simply leaving, even without a job lined up. They’re congratulated just for going somewhere (the opposite of which, obvious but unspoken, is “nowhere”).  And as for those left behind, they have to live with a vague sense of shame about their hometown, a place that is unique and beautiful and in my opinion 100 times more interesting than Chicago. And right now there’s a whole generation of people embarrassed that they even live there.

Back Again, for the Very First Time

Hey guys

So I had a blog awhile ago, where I wrote about race, class, gender, Detroit, and stuff that made me angry. It was fun for a while and I got a lot of positive feedback, but then a couple of things happened. First, I got busy with real life which reduced my free time for stewing in anger and intellectual masturbation. Second, I started to think that my blogging was pretty self righteous and probably more of a subconscious search for validation than a valuable contribution to society.

Well that all changed. Recently, I’ve found myself with the decidedly mixed blessing of having more free time on my hands. I’ve also been reading, watching, and talking about the news way too much. I realized that, just like everyone, I was getting angry at the daily BS, but equally angry at the coverage and reaction to it. It just seems like there is obvious stuff that doesn’t ever get said, by anyone. Maybe there’s a reason for it, but mostly it leaves me feeling like I’m taking crazy pills and shouting things like “CAN’T YOU PEOPLE SEE!!!” at the windshield while listening to NPR, or at the TV. This behavior is not healthy for an adult man, and it scares the dog (not to mention the Mrs, although she’s sitting across from me, and assures me that she’s a lot more amused than afraid).

So I’m feeling self righteous enough to do the modern thing and start a second blog. At least I’ll get enough practice writing to justify the self righteousness. I stole the title from this Craig Finn Song about a kid who moves from a small town to a big city and ends up scared and confused.

I grew up in Bear Lake, Michigan and then moved to Detroit. These two places have shaped who I am in pretty much every way. While I don’t think I’m any more afraid or confused than the average person (who is pretty afraid and confused I realize), I do think the “places I’m from” give me some type of unique perspective that I don’t see in the media ever.

So this blog is gonna be mostly about that. About class, race, urban/rural stuff, and the really strange way that society decides who to listen to and who to mock. I’ll probably also write about sports and music because I like those things. Thanks to anyone who reads it, and if you want to comment feel free. And remember: Don’t ever trust the company men.

Word is Blog