My wife and I, in our 50s, are driving south. The black lab has bullied me into trading places and now I’m in the back with my laptop. Our trip will move us from the hot and humid Chicago area to hot and humid south Texas, leaving behind life-changing losses that put this move into play. Jill lost her brother to pancreatic cancer, and her beloved son to heroin; I Iost my mother to covid and my congressional race to steel.
Watching the blur of billboards whiz by, what once felt profound is rendered banal. The results of my race were predictable. I ran on climate change in a region that still believes itself dependent on steel, a self-fulfilling prophecy too obvious to surprise anyone, and too ingrained in the economy to diversify easily. Gary, Indiana’s vast open lands off Lake Michigan could power the country with wind and solar, creating a black wealth class in the process. But as long as the mills burn coal, the region will keep belching outsize carbon emissions, sustaining a few, profiting fewer, and gifting everyone with airborne particulates.
The irony of moving to the nation’s largest oil producing state is not lost on me, and I’m all too aware of the industry’s well-funded campaign to spread disinformation on the carbon-climate connection. I’m also aware that until we get money out of politics, Texan politicians will protect oil in a long-standing quid pro quo. The outlook for steel is more optimistic. I have no doubt that US steel will eventually convert to renewable fuels. Mills in Europe take the Paris accord seriously, and have already begun the move to hydrogen and solar. The question isn’t if, but when, US steel mills will follow suit, and whether it will be in time.
Talking heads for steel, like oil, no longer dispute the cause of climate change so much as bend the timeline. They claim the time trajectory of a cooking planet is uncertain, and that there is still time to gradually transition away from fossil fuels. Domestic steel, like oil, will transition when their equipment reaches obsolescence and their ROI is satisfactory, a timeframe scientists warn will ravage the planet’s ability to feed itself within a generation. For today, my dreams of Northwest Indiana leading the nation’s clean energy conversion, catapulting a poor black region into world-class ecotourism, will have to wait.
Driving our furniture and rescue dogs south along I65, leaving behind pristine dune vistas and smokestacks, what saddens me isn’t loss, or change, or the inevitability of death. It isn’t the irreversibility of one bad decision that leaves everyone scrambling to make sense of it all, or the frightening acceleration of time as it grows shorter. It isn’t even the myopia that allows people to ignore climate change, unaware of the suffering our inaction is setting in motion. What fills me with existential dread with each barn, semi, and Trump flag we pass, is the growing threat to freedom in the United States, reflected in dangerous extremism and political violence marching in nearly every state.
When I’m feeling intellectually lazy- which is most of the time- it’s easy to blame the far right. Orchestrating culture wars about sexuality and race instead of doing the heavy lifting on climate is as ignorant, and dangerous, as any act I can think of. Book banning, history banning, and classroom discussion banning all tie for second, and I don’t even know how to categorize the horrors of state-forced births that are coming.
These dangerous extensions of state power emanate from the right, and to gays, the threats are tangible and immediate. We know that Texas and Florida have passed laws to force publishers to disseminate political statements with which they don’t agree, while banning books and classroom discussions, proclaiming to all that there is only one perspective worth protecting- theirs. Rising authoritarianism threatens our freedoms of speech, of marriage, of religion, of health care. Supreme Court justices who promised to honor precedent just kicked 50 years to the curb to turn women into incubators, and we’re painfully aware that Obergefell is far, far younger than 50. We know that if we don’t resist, we will see a time when we can’t; my gay community is acutely aware of the arc of German fascism in the 1930s.
Driving highway 44 deeper into the south, crossing Missouri into Oklahoma, I know the already exhausted left will have to mobilize, to register every qualified voter, and drive them to the polls as if their lives depend on the next election, because for many of us, it does. I also know that it may not be enough, as the right now openly threatens to hold power by force. Never in my lifetime did I envision a bloody coup attempt on our capital- that was the stuff of dictators ‘over there.’ Nor did I predict that misinformation would be weaponized until a large cohort of the US population clung to ‘alternative facts’ that dangerously invert reality. Willful ignorance is now sown as a political balm in many states, abetted by a right wing propaganda network, and without the fairness doctrine I don’t see that changing. But while the left is gearing up, diagnosing the root causes of our national disease, we need to take a pause, and frankly assess our own contributions to this medieval backlash.
As I observed during my race, the left spends too much time attacking its own, allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We’re terrible at messaging. Worse, too many of us try to force the narrative without allowing the full and nuanced discussions necessary to build real consensus. Forcing someone to use a certain word or adopt a certain phrase does not build consensus, it dissolves consensus and builds resentment. For one example, the anti-gay backlash marching around today’s school board meetings is led by extremists, yes, but it is tolerated by moderates. I can see how this happened, and only part of it is due to opportunistic politicians playing fear mongers on the right. The other part of the blame goes to the left, for fashioning one size fits all social policies devoid of nuance. A mom whose daughter relies on a track scholarship might not agree that her daughter should compete against a trans athlete. That does not make the mom transphobic, it makes her a stakeholder, an equal participant in a difficult conversation. Minimally, it gives her the right to speak, and to be heard with equal dignity. A child advocate in Appalachia, who sees the hopelessness of multi-generational poverty, might not agree that those children are ‘privileged’ just because they are white. That does not make the advocate a racist, that makes him a stakeholder with a diversified view. And someone from BLM should have asked black victims of crime how they felt about defunding the police, before insisting on it, because that mantra set civil rights back a generation, and it wasn’t even supported by a majority of black voters. Yes, in fact, we can support law enforcement while demanding reform.
As we finally drive across the state line into rural Texas, where desperate dogs are chained in unrelenting heat under rebel flags, I understand that the best way to dismantle extremism is to avoid engaging in it. The best way to disarm a terrorist is to understand what led him to take up arms in the first place. To get out of this mess, like this endless road trip, we will have to take the long route through complicated conversations, with unsatisfying stops and disagreeable detours along the way.
I’ll try to be the change I’m prescribing for everyone else, at least I’ll try for today. I’ll miss tweeting my two line, satisfying rebukes. I’ll still fantasize about freeing chained dogs. But, at least for today, I’ll work harder to consider opposing viewpoints, and to understand what got us to this point, instead of believing our country has come to its dead end. I owe it to James Madison and my road-weary family to at least try.