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  • Stephen Gaddis

Unalienable Rights

Happy 4th of July: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness, and the right to behave like a White Male A**hole. I am a white male and I was raised by a white male who emotionally, psychologically, and physically abused me and my mother. That means I am likely to have a lifelong relationship with fear and worry, at least that has been the case to this point. I have always been scared to fight, whether as a boy or as an All-American rugby player. There have been a few times, however, when events have overpowered my fear of fighting, even if it means I might get hurt.

Yesterday, I was watching CNN. The person I love most in the world, who is also the person who cares more about being informed than anyone I know, asked me to turn it off. She explained it is just too upsetting to watch, and then went upstairs. It is very unusual for her to remove herself from our family, especially when our kids are home. I went to check on her and she started weeping, also highly unusual.

She wept because of the ways the new Administration has whipped up support for undoing women’s rights, environmental rights, health care rights, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, etc. She was overcome by sadness for black people with tail lights that don’t work, for poor people drinking water in Flint, for women in the future who want to get an abortion, and for the Earth. She was distressed by news that certain pesticides were being approved by the EPA while knowing they cause cancer, that a government-formed “scientific” office is being established to find evidence that climate change is not real, and that a national voter fraud committee has been formed whose real interest is in voter suppression.

Of course these problems have affected countless lives before Trump was elected, but having a President who seems to have fully adopted White Male A**hole brings what had been hidden somewhat by shame out into broad daylight. He is a symbol for a certain tradition of understanding and meaning-making. What really put my wife over the edge was watching Trump speak hate on TV to a crowd of predominantly white men who were applauding and smiling, rather than being appalled. Watching them find Trump entertaining was just too much for her. The only racial group where the majority of people favor Trump is white people, by far.

When my wife or children are hurt, I’m ready to fight. I know that is selfish. I should be ready to fight for any and all vulnerable persons, and we know there are millions in our country in that position, much worse off than my family members. People who don’t have the privilege to weep so infrequently. But it’s scary to fight for what’s right.

Last year, before Trump was elected, I had a meeting in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Gloucester is a coastal town with many white working-class residents, often linked to the fishing industry. I was early for the meeting so decided to find a breakfast place to eat and do some work on my computer. I drove by a local diner and went in.

I walked inside and found three “regulars” at the counter in the diner, one waitress behind the counter, and about six booths that were empty. I nodded to the three white men at the counter and then sat by myself at a booth. The waitress brought me coffee and took my order, then went behind the counter again. I took out my laptop and put on my reading glasses.

It was quiet in the diner and the conversation at the counter was impossible not to overhear. The waitress, graciously, asked the men at the counter, “Okay, what is it about Trump that you like so much?” They put various answers forward, including, “He’s the only candidate who has the balls to go to war and understand that people have to die.” A few more had to do with how “successful” a person he’d been, and how he knows how to make money. Then one of the men said, “And, he’ll finally kill all those sand n***ers over there.”

Without thinking, I said, “Hey! You can’t say that.” The man turned and glared at me and said, “What did you say?!” I said, “You can’t say that in this public place.” He said, “Who the fuck do you think you are? We are locals who live here. Who are you? Shut the fuck up.” I said, “I’m just saying it's not okay for you to say that in a public space whether I’m local or not.”

He got up from the counter and stood over me at my booth and started to threaten me with statements like, “I’ll rip your cock off and fuck you with it, you glasses-wearing asshole.” Shaking, I just stared at him, rage growing inside me at the anticipation this could become an actual physical confrontation. I’m 6’1” and 230 pounds, and in that moment I had a fleeting awareness of the next day’s newspaper headlines “Local family therapist in jail for killing Gloucester man at local cafe.”

Of course, my size and internalized sense of privilege positioned me to think I could openly respond to what the man said without having to think. I waited for him to hit me, or to call me outside. Unless he had a weapon, I was prepared to beat the crap out of him, which is not something I say with any pride. It was simply adrenaline fueled by fear. Despite fear’s usual constraints on me, this was one of those few occasions where my rage made me very dangerous, which I am sure is true for most people. But what if I was a woman at that booth, or a black family, or a Middle-East immigrant? What kind of position would they have been in to speak up against the kind of public violence that was taking place?

Thankfully, the guy returned to his seat at the counter and continued his tirade at me from there. The waitress came over to me and silently mouthed, “I’m sorry.” I smiled and said I wasn’t upset with her. I wonder what she may have been experiencing watching this threat escalate in front of of her. He kept saying, “You think you are so cool.” Still shaking, I said, “I don’t think I’m cool, I just don't think what you said is cool.” Then, one of the other men at the counter said to his friend, “Yeah, maybe that wasn’t cool to say.” Things got quiet and I ate my meal. Suddenly, the guy said, “Sorry.” I said, “Thank you, that means a lot to me.” I got up and left.

I do not judge the man who made those horrific comments at the diner. I try to imagine what his life may have been like. I wonder if his life may have been affected by economic injustices and discourses about working-class folks. I wonder if his story is about his worth as a person if he “only” has a high school degree and “just” works on a fishing boat. I wonder how discourses may position him to think he is “less than” college graduates or white-collar workers, for example. I wonder how the institutionalization of these discourses might have real effects on him, like not making enough money to help provide for the people he loves, for instance. I’m not assuming any of these factors were at play, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out they were.

What’s upsetting is how Trump has exploited the suffering of working-class white people in a childish pissing contest between rich white businessmen and elitist academics, who have historically also been privileged white men. Rich white businessmen feel injured by the obnoxious arrogance of elite academic intellectuals, and arrogant elite white intellectuals feel envious of the material wealth of rich white businessmen. The “war" between these two privileged groups involves recruiting supporters.

Many white working-class people see Trump as their hope for having a voice. Trump uses the claim that he is “authentic” by being “politically incorrect” to demonstrate his solidarity with the white working class. He authentically demeans women, people of color, people with disabilities, Muslims, immigrants, and others to demonstrate he is just like the working-class guy sitting at the diner in Gloucester.

Trump uses the legitimate history of arrogant white liberal academics as a recruiting tool. Thus, the way I looked, with my glasses and laptop, targeted me as an elitist intellectual in the diner. My comment suggested I was being arrogant and, therefore, inauthentic because that is not the way “real” people talk or think. Before that man and I even met, we were already discursively divided as either fighting for the side of the rich white businessman or the progressive white liberal academic.

The problem is that Trump doesn’t really care about the guy at the counter, and I certainly have no interest in defending arrogant white intellectual academics. Trump is exploiting economic injustice by weaponizing “authenticity.” But his version of authenticity that reflects demeaning disrespect does not reflect some objective truth about authenticity. He uses economic injustice, and the pain it creates, with false promises in order to help grow his Trump brand. This is a similar strategy that Helping Professions have traditionally used to grow their brands. In their case, “mental illness” is weaponized, and promises to help through “expert knowledges” are used to grow and justify the institutions that benefit helping professionals.

We don’t need to stoke hateful thinking or further use minority blame to show we care about white working-class pain. But we also don’t need more arrogant academic liberal elites debating among themselves. That has historically just helped to build institutions that serve their privileged status. What we do need are more people like the waitress in the diner, who started a civil conversation that could have led to some care for the concerns of the men at the counter while also challenging the idea that the problem lies within minority groups. I wish I had followed her lead, and instead of stating, “Hey, you can’t…”, I wish I had asked a question instead. I wish, especially given my white male privilege, I had asked, “What have you experienced that has you so angry at people who live in the Middle East and have darker skin than us?” It was an opportunity missed to have a group of white people engage in the politics of problem assignment.

The white male “founders” of this country leveraged some wonderful principles and ideas, and put some thought into check-and-balance structures that might protect us from what is happening in our government now. They were also complicit in a genocide of local inhabitants and the exploitation of people stolen from another continent.

It is 241 years since the official white male authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Maybe we could re-author the founding document a bit. Might I suggest as a first draft, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, endowed by their mere existence in this world, with certain Responsibilities, that among these are a recognition that all individuals are relational productions, a care for social justice, and a commitment to become our best individual self for the good of all people.” I would be interested in what people of color, women, transgender, poor people, and others who have not had their voices equally represented might want to add, this time, as well.

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