I hit a serious wall of brain fog around 3:30pm yesterday, so I decided to get some fresh air and walk to the pub.
(And for the record: yes, this is a thing I actually do. I go to the pub by myself to read or to write or just to BS with strangers and feel like I’m being social after being cooped up in my house all alone and writing all day. And of course, being me, my pub of choice is an Irish hipster punk rock dive bar named for a radical socialist LGBTQ-friendly IRA poet, because, duh)
At some point, I was sitting there reading this article from The Intercept on my phone when I ended up in conversation with the guy to my right over which whiskey he should order. I just overheard him talking to the bartender about voting for Trump, and given the number of election-related thinkpieces about “understanding Trump voters” I had tried to absorb during my earlier brainfog, I decided to keep the conversation going. He was a 50 year old white guy, and being that I live in the kind of progressive bastion neighborhood that would protest a god damn Whole Foods, I was curious what kind of Trump voter would end up at a pub like that.
Mostly, I just heard him out — we’re at a bar, we’re strangers, I don’t want to get into anything too serious. He wasn’t an idiot, he wasn’t poor, he wasn’t blatantly bigoted (although I’ll get to that); he’d grown in Yakima Valley before moving to Boston and had voted Gore then Obama then Romney; he used to watch all kinds of different news sources before he got sick of ’em all; and he was just “sick of The Establishment.”
I think he’s like a lot of Trump supporters, for whom the presence of the Internet has made time seem to move ever more quickly in terms of social progress and economic disappointment and the spread of (mis)information and he just felt like throwing a wrench in all of it, ’cause why the hell not?
We did talk about pussy grabbin’. He leaned into me, in the way that guys do and spoke in a drunken barroom whisper: “It’s just locker room talk, ya know? You get it, you done that.”
“Uhh I’ve heard it, and I’ve said some dumb shit,” I said. “But not quite as blatant — “
He quickly recovered. “Right. Well I’ve never said anything that bad either. But you know. It’s normal.”
“Should it be?” I asked. “It’s the norm, but is that okay?”
He hesitated for a moment, and I could tell then that this thought had never really occurred to him.
Much later in the conversation, the topic of Miley Cyrus came up, and whether or not she was hot or looked like a boy. He talked about seeing her in concert — curiously, he never explained why he saw her in concert, despite his vocal distaste for her — and how she was up there “grabbing her own pussy.” “How is that okay, and what Trump said isn’t?”
“Well, I mean, it’s her pussy. She can grab it all she wants. That’s different from someone else grabbing it without permission,” I said.
He fumbled for a comeback, talking about her being a bad role model for 14-year-old girls, and I tried to explain that even 14-year-old girls deserve to understand their sexual autonomy and then I realized that he wasn’t quite ready for this level of discourse and that talking anymore about 14-year-olds and sexuality was just going to go horribly wrong.
I did get a chance to explain to him the unfortunate media conundrum where everybody says they care about the issues, but they only actually pay attention to bullshit about emails, whether it’s important or not, and that it puts the media (both the Lamestream Media, and the “independent media,” which is what I said I worked for) in an awkward position of trying to get people to listen to the things that matter when no one actually wants to listen. He understood this, to a degree, I think.
And yes, of course, the topic of “welfare queens” also came up. This was one moment where I was proud of my on-the-fly metaphorical improv. He talked about seeing a black woman at the supermarket dressed to the nines with $300 high-heeled leather boots (“I looked up the price,” he said, mumbling some brand name I couldn’t understand). This “welfare queen” was arguing with the cashier about buying whole milk with EBT, even though EBT only covers 1% milk (or so he said; which I’m pretty sure is B.S.). This same woman, he said, got into a Mercedes-Benz in the parking lot and drove off.
I opted not to poke holes in his story about the car (if it was a Benz, do you know she was driving? Did it belong to someone else?) or the boots (they could’ve been knockoffs; or they could have been gift; or maybe she just treated herself), and instead asked him: “Do you know that you see this kind of behavior a lot with EBT? Or do you just think you see it a lot, because you only notice it when it sticks out to you?”
This is what’s known as “fundamental attribution error,” and I explained it to him in terms of bicycles, since he said that he used to be an avid cyclist. Lots of people in bike-friendly cities lament That Asshole On A Fixed Gear Bike Who Blew Through A Red Light And Wasn’t Wearing A Helmet. And sure; that guy sucks. Worse, that guy makes other cyclists look bad by association.
That Guy comprises just a tiny fraction of the 8,000+ people who commute by bicycle in Boston everyday. But unfortunately, he’s the only one that people notice, because he sticks out, because he looks bad. You don’t pay much conscious mind to a bicycle that’s riding safely through the bike lane. Hell, you don’t pay much attention to the other cars that are driving in whatever way that you perceive as “normal”; you just notice the asshole with the Jersey plates weaving in and out of traffic.
So I explained to the man that, worst case scenario, his alleged “welfare queen” was one of these rare cases that unfortunately stick out in your mind more than they should. And that seemed to get through to him anyway.
Similarly, when I explained to him why I don’t believe in voter ID laws, he was particularly struck by the fact that black people were significantly less likely to have driver’s licenses. That, coupled with the fact that half of our country didn’t even vote in this election, and I said, “Why the hell should there be one more step in having to vote, since in-person fraud basically never happens, and people aren’t voting anyway? Just let ’em freakin’ vote!” He seemed to get this, too.
At some point, we talked about refugees, too, and I think he got a little annoyed at me for repeating, “But we’ve only accepted 10,000 people from Syria so far, and there is a really serious vetting process in place…”
Anyway, my new friend still kindly paid my drinks, as a “thank you” for having a civil conversation, and as he got ready to leave, I asked him the same thing that I’ve been trying to ask of all Trump supporters: “what are you, personally, going to do to help the people who are scared feel less scared?” I told him specifically about Muna, my new BFF, who was born in this country and still scared to wear her hijab.
My bar friend rightly replied, “Every American deserves to live however they want. Hate crimes are wrong, no exception. If you commit one, you should be arrested. And that’s how you take care of it.”
A nice platitude, albeit a little simplistic, but not quite the answer I was hoping for. Still, this stuck with me the most, and not just because it was the last thing that we talked about. It made me realize something a left-right divide in government trust. Obviously the talking-point party lines are that Republicans believe in small government, Democrats believe in more government, even though this is demonstrably untrue. But it’s curious that those same voters who claim to believe in small government, who look at Hillary Clinton and even the United Nations as being conspiratorial Establishment entities, they still put a lot of faith in their existing government organizations such as police and military to do “what’s right.” Unfortunately, for a lot of persecuted or marginalized communities — a.k.a., not straight white people — that trust is absolutely unearned.
In a lot of ways, this all ties into the fact that people tend to act in their own self-interest, even though they try to project an image of altruism. But I find it fascinating that these same people will trust police departments, for example, despite a lengthy history of corruption, but not the federal government, who, well, can easily be seen as guilty of the exact same thing.
Maybe this all ties back into that Fundamental Attribution Error, confusing what we perceive as what we see, as if our eyes are our only sense worth trusting. This would explain the local government vs federal government arguments — for many people, Washington, DC is just a remote, abstract concept, but they trust their local police because they’re the status quo, and because they themselves personally have not experienced those same alleged abuses. It’s the same reason guys scoff at rape accusations and ask “Well why didn’t she go to the police?” When the answer is, quite simply, because they’re not going to do anything — which is why so many marginalized people turn to the federal government. It’s the equivalent of dealing with a shitty customer service worker and then asking to speak to a manager who, hey, might be just as lousy, but at least has some push.
This is all a long-winded way for me to fill my breakfast-eating time and say that, despite the bajillion thinkpieces out there, I still think this perceived national divide all comes down to privilege. A lot of people in this country have the privilege of thinking the cops and local government will protect them; many others do not. The ones who have that privilege are also likely the same ones who are fed up with things like “privilege” and “microaggressions” being bandied about, and for being called “racist” despite the fact that they get on well enough with the one black guy and one Pakistani guy (notice, both guys) at their office. Their privilege allows them to say to any frightened Muslim, POC, woman, or LGBTQ people, “Oh, c’mon, it’s not gonna be that bad,” despite the fact that it already is (and even if it wasn’t, you don’t get to tell people that their fear is wrong).
The ultimate takeaway here is that human conversations are good, and that stories can help get through to people. Because apparently the endorsement of the KKK wasn’t enough of a red flag that maybe what they perceive isn’t what the world actually looks like.
Also free beer.