With all the chaos of the last few months, I have been trying to build a longer-lasting immunity to ignorance, lies (both innocent and deliberate), moral corruption, and a lack of basic humanity. I have been trying to seek out and thoughtfully consume politically neutral information (nearly impossible) by better vetting the sources of those who force-feed us the news. This has compelled me to stop listening to nearly all the folks who dominate cable television news. While there are truly “good people on both sides,” the extremes of MSNBC and FoxNews have been so focused on the exposing or protecting, and destroying or defending, the self-promoting shiny demagogue that is President Donald Trump, that we are losing sight of all of our individual humanity. And while I am finding it much easier to pass on the Rachel Maddows, Sean Hannitys, Joe Scarboroughs, Joy Reids, and (ugh) Laura Ingrahams of the world, I refuse to fully pass on Tucker Carlson. It is not because I like him, in fact, I have never been able to hold his hateful and inflammatory rhetoric down for an entire episode. I just recognize that I need to take my (almost) nightly dose of his fear-inducing, sometimes sugar-coated poison, so that I am better prepared to deal with others who are fully poisoned and emblazoned by his particularly clouded worldview.
The Next Demagogue in Chief?
Tucker Carlson is an obvious product of the privilege that he so vehemently denies exists. He was born on first base, quickly balked to second base by the system, and sacrificed to third by his family’s inherited wealth. Third base is where the game really begins for him. From third base, he does typically earn his way home. He earns his way with his ample gifts of quick wit, a solid work ethic, a mean spirit, a trained mind, and a silver tongue. The fact that he doesn’t always score is proof to him that the system isn’t rigged in his favor. He refuses to examine the game, or allow anyone else to because he knows he will find out that he has always been playing with different rules; different rules than people of color, women, the true middle class and the poor, disabled, etc. He wants to return to the “great” America where “all men are created equal,” in words but not in practice. He derisively asks questions like, “How exactly is diversity our strength?” He denies that white supremacy, male-privilege, and white privilege exists, all while exclaiming that “immigrants are dirty” and that demographic changes in certain areas are “more change than human beings are designed to digest.” He calls Iraq “a crappy place filled with semiliterate primates.” In an interview with the American Conservative, he said of his affluent suburb in the nation’s capital, “We have wonderful neighbors, and we love it. And what’s not to love? Our neighborhood looks exactly like it did in 1955.” He constantly and smugly spews stuff like this, mixes it in with some truth, and actively tries to incite anger and fear in his audience, under the guise of being a well-educated “everyman.” What makes him dangerous is not that he panders to his audience; he is scary because he educates them. He is scary because he has 4.6 million viewers a night.
Over the last few months, we have been hearing a lot of the black@movement which is dedicated to the sharing of the experiences of students of color who attended predominantly white institutions. Though I haven’t yet participated, I have read scores of stories very much like the one I plan to share here. I have already written about being called a “nigger” by a classmate, but that wasn’t even the most hurtful moment in my freshman year. When that boy called me that hateful word I knew, even then, that his words said a lot more about him than it ever could say about me. He was a Jewish kid, who at least on the exterior was tough, but had clearly been hurt by words in our heavily Christian/Protestant environment. For four years I heard our friends make Jewish jokes that I didn’t quite understand; I laughed because it took the heat off of me, but also, at that point, I had had little proximity to Jewish people or the Jewish culture; I didn’t understand the stereotypes and the hurtful ethnic narratives. I was ignorant of the antisemitism that was, like the racism, part of the culture at Pomfret. I was also ignorant to and likely complicit in the covert and overt sexism that is part of the cultural capital of institutions that were built for males and later added females. Nonetheless, though that boy, now a good man I hope, never asked for forgiveness, I forgave him. I forgave him in our sophomore year because I passed him on the social strata. When I forgave him he became a very small part of my story and allowed me to move on to better things.
It was a lot harder for me to forgive another boy. He never called me the “n-word,” or any other directly disparaging epithet. He just always made me feel lesser. I felt that he, like Tucker Carlson, had landed on third base due to very few personal actions of his own, yet he strutted around the campus like he was always hitting triples. He was the ultimate peacock, small body with huge elaborate feathers colored with wealth, privilege, and confidence. The adults loved him because he knew how to play the game. He worked to curry favor by mastering the art of being Eddie Haskell without it being obvious. Many of the kids loved him because he was winning the game. He fooled the adults, broke rules in the dark, and did all the right things to achieve success. He was definitely smart in the very superficial way we judge intelligence in children; great memory, rapid-fire regurgitation of facts, adult-friendly charisma, and an impressive vocabulary learned by being around all the “right people.” He was not an inherently bad person, and sometimes, we even laughed and had fun with each other. Nonetheless, he was just a product of his privilege (male, white, parents’ wealth) and never quite recognized how much of it was unearned.
The story that most resonates with me, was when we returned from the Winter Vacation of our freshman year. A good female friend of all of ours, a middle-class white girl, had let us know that her parents were struggling with the tuition and that she wasn’t likely going to be able to return for her sophomore year. There were about seven or eight of us in one room in our dorm and we were sad and upset about and for our friend. She was a great student, a terrific athlete, and a great all-around person. She was the best of what Pomfret was about; the school found a way to keep her. But at that moment in the room while we were still struggling with the news, that boy, the peacock, let me and everyone in the room know that I didn’t belong. I don’t remember all the words he said, but these words stick out, “they should take the money they are giving to you, and give it to her.” He went on to say, “you bring nothing to this place, and we are going to lose this awesome girl.” Maya Angelou has a quote that reads, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The other boy who called me the n-word made me angry; anger is fleeting. This boy made me question my worth, and no one in the room had the courage to stand up and defend me. I don’t believe that anyone echoed his words or his sentiments, but no one rejected them either. I had three inches and at least 40 pounds on him, I could have crushed him, and maybe I should have. But I likely would have been suspended or kicked out of school, and that would have proved him right. I didn’t retaliate; I said nothing. I walked out and went into my room, no one followed me, no one said you belong here, no one said anything. At that early stage of my Pomfret life, I was learning to adjust to a place that felt like a foreign land. I was learning the language and cadence of the privileged. I was also learning to deal with all the access to things I had never seen before. I was not focused on classwork, I was focused on fitting in. That moment helped me better shift my focus. We all celebrated when we found out the school found more financial aid and our friend was able to return. Life went on for all of us, but I was left always believing a small part of the story he told. If I wasn’t contributing in a way that was openly celebrated by the “norm” then I didn’t belong. That wound festered into my sophomore year and eventually became an emotional scar. That scar is an important one in my life because it reminds me to try to see the value in everyone who is on the path with me, as well as those whose paths diverge from mine or are in conflict with mine. It reminds me to check my privilege. I have seen this young man at several of our reunions since high school; we have been fine. I doubt he even remembers that moment, but I always will. That boy isn’t Tucker Carlson, but was Tucker Carlson that boy? I didn’t belong in that boy’s school, and I don’t belong in Carlson’s country.
“Injustice is a chameleon, masking itself to avoid detection.” - Justin Dillon
This post will not have the smooth landing I was hoping for. I have been writing these essays as a way for us to connect. But I am also writing with the hope of finding a way for us, as a country, to move forward. This post is not about Tucker Carlson, it’s about who we want to be as Americans. As I was researching, I read that members of the GOP believe that Carlson is ready to run for and represent their party as the presidential nominee in 2024. That doesn’t feel like a course correction, it feels like those members are doubling down. To me, the 15-year-old boy at Pomfret (he may have grown), the 51-year-old Tucker Carlson, and the 74-year-old Donald Trump are all cut from a similar cloth. They may never say the n-word directly to a black person, but they say things like “you don't belong,” “shithole countries,” BLM “is coming to get you,” and “white supremacy is a hoax.” They are not only threatened by the growing racial and ethnic diversity of this country, but they are also threatened by the ideas of #MeToo, #blacklivesmatter, Muslims, Gay Pride Parades, and The Poor People Campaign. Those ideas are a threat to the system because they point out inconsistency and unfairness in the system. Demanding an equal playing field means a loss of advantage; white supremacy needs to maintain that advantage. It is a chameleon, and it's evolving. The question is, how do we stop it?
To be continued...