El Paso is the first place I ever went to a Walmart Supercenter. I was on a road trip, and I needed a couple more freezer blocks for my cooler. An employee pointed me down a long aisle and said something I’d never heard in a store before: “Turn right at rifles.”
It was 11 o’clock at night, and if I had decided right then and there that something or someone deserved to be shot, Walmart was ready to help.
This was back when I was beginning to fully understand what a violent and racist country I’d been born into. A few days earlier, I’d met some folks in another part of Texas who advised me to bring two things on my drive west: plenty of water, and a gun. My face did not betray my perplexity, but I wondered what it was in their seemingly normal, white, middle-class lives that had made them so afraid.
When I was growing up, guns were for shooting deer, not people, and the lives of my rural relatives who owned rifles were not oriented around fear. Sure, there were guns not far from where they slept, but half the time they didn’t even lock the front door. Not having a Fox “News” channel or a hateful, bullying president spewing scare tactics probably helped keep the paranoia at bay.
Despite my addiction to the news in these disturbing times, I haven’t been writing much about current events because what’s happening all seems so obvious. But sometimes the obvious needs to be said and repeated, so let me say and repeat:
We have an authoritarian president who is promoting ethnic cleansing through Gestapo-like government programs, and who is inciting genocidal acts among his fearful white followers. He’s doing this so that he and his cronies can distract the populace, consolidate power, and continue to loot the country. (Sometimes looting looks like slashing taxes on the wealthiest; sometimes it looks like hiring your donors to build a pointless wall.) We have an obstructed Senate, beholden to the greed of gun companies and other corporate interests, and nauseatingly submissive to our aspiring dictator.
We live in a country that has, from the beginning, frequently confused the idea of freedom with the ability to practice greed. We live in a country that has, from the beginning, used violence and racism to fuel its growth and its radically unbalanced prosperity.
Much has been lost in the past few years, but all hope is not yet lost. Our democratic processes are compromised, in some places much more than others, but voting still matters. And the United States of 2019 still lacks a few ingredients that tend to help authoritarianism get entrenched: our military still has some independence, we have extensive ethnic diversity, and there’s no state church supporting the oppressive regime. Plenty of white Christians are guilty of collaboration right now, but at the same time, the National Cathedral, in a historic first, just called out the president. Hope can take surprising forms.
But the threads of hope are fragile. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of Americans have done nothing differently since November 2016. They may have shared links on social media and dutifully gone to the polls in the midterms, but they are otherwise going about their lives as before.
This too is a form of collaboration with a would-be dictator. To not be involved — in demonstrations, in fund-raising, in a local or national political campaign, in compassion for immigrants — is to endorse what’s happening. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. And the end we’re talking about right now is the end of our democracy and the victory of white nationalism.
So please use your time wisely. Don’t waste it arguing politics on Facebook or over Thanksgiving dinner with people who will never change. Make it normal among your friends to talk about what kinds of actual actions you’re taking to bring about change (versus just venting) to help save the country. There is no better use of your time.
And “save the country” is not too grand a term. That’s what the heinous shooter in El Paso thought he was doing. He was not, not remotely. But we still can.