As the turbulent Trump era draws to a close, the ties that bind this nation are frayed beyond recognition. Conservatives and progressives have locked horns in an exhausting battle for the future of our country, each side convinced that the victory of the opposition would destroy us from within.
The Republican Party warns of the rise of the “radical left” with antifa at the helm, seizing the hard-earned cash of everyday Americans and burning down the suburbs. The Democratic Party paints the GOP with the broad brushes of racism and misogyny while arrogantly touting its superior academic pedigree and command of scientific facts.
Both of these approaches betray an American zest for exaggeration and self-righteousness, but we aren’t completely to blame for this divide. From behind our computers and cell phones, 2020’s Virtual Civil War has Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube stirring us all into a frothy indignation. They feed us alarmist headlines that fuel our mutual suspicion and animosity. Social media companies understand that there’s no motivation to consume information in the middle—there’s no profit in the compromises.
To keep us scrolling, we must feel the minute-by-minute existential dread of an enemy. Big tech has mastered this and they dance on our nerves to extract our attention.
We are so much more than our tech-manufactured hate, and there is still common ground among us. The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. While non-whites and women were excluded from this historic covenant, its modern application can provide a salve for our wounds and help reweave the fabric of our nation:
Accepting diversity as the bedrock of our country is much easier than fighting to bend others to our image of society. Even ideas that disgust us deserve their day in our marketplace of free speech. We cannot take it personally because our Constitution protects it.
Accepting human diversity in all of its forms will also diffuse our fear of others. When we approach individuals on a platform of mutual recognition and respect, we can stop wasting energy on anxiety and discomfort.
We must understand that a majority of people in the United States and around the world are good and have similar desires for activity and connection. We share much more than differentiates us.
We’ve lost sight of what unites us because conflict is more lucrative. Conflict not only keeps us scrolling maniacally through our phones, but it also serves to justify the seizure of power and resources, both within this country and internationally. We cannot feel honorable about suppressing peaceful dissent at home or invading nations abroad unless we feel tension with a group of outsiders. The manufacture of conflict and the othering of strife’s victims are intentional acts by those seeking control.
We also gravitate toward simple explanations for complex phenomena. It’s easier to make assumptions based on someone’s appearance than it is to grasp a complicated and messy reality. This weakness is not difficult to exploit. It’s been used to drum up fear against immigrants, people of color, and women. And yes, it’s even been used against white men, when they’re assumed to all be a part of the same privileged tribe.
No individual should be reduced to one observable trait. We are all so much more than the way we present to others. You can’t tell someone’s story or beliefs by looking at them—you just have to ask.
Think about your own individuality. Would it be fair for someone to reduce you to your skin color or gender, or is there more to you? Just as you’d like to be received with an open heart and an open mind, extend this respectful curiosity to others, who crave connection just as you do.
We’re all destined to remain in near-total ignorance of unique individuals in our short lifetimes. There’s unity in accepting that.
Republicans are lashing out with the ruthlessness of an army defending a falling empire. They fear that a majority of Americans hold values inconsistent with theirs—and they’re right. Most of us believe in climate change, want to make college tuition-free, support increasing taxes on the wealthiest people, and want to protect women’s rights to control their own bodies.
Republicans look over a sea of nearly all white, all male faces and can feel the encroachment of a broader coalition. They’ve hitched their wagon to a racist demagogue who will never achieve majority support in this country.
Most people in the U.S. and abroad are rightly disgusted by Trump—he’s a liar, a divisive tyrant, and an accused rapist. His Reign of Error has done irreparable damage to our country’s reputation. He has started trade wars, pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accords, and withdrawn us from the World Health Organization in the midst of a global pandemic. He’s responsible for the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans due to Covid-19—a crisis that was contained in the more capable hands of Germany’s Angela Merkel, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, and China’s Xi Jinping, and so many others. We already lead the world in Covid-19 deaths—and we may double that figure by the end of the year.
Trump’s failures aside, Republicans have cheated to maintain power for decades. They purge voter rolls, reduce the number of polling locations in urban areas, and intimidate voters—and now, the GOP’s shameless voter suppression tactics are more blatant than ever.
Perhaps most alarmingly, the Republicans have threatened to overturn election results within swing states. The GOP chairman in Pennsylvania stated that he could bypass his state’s popular vote and allow the Republican-dominated legislature to choose Trump-friendly presidential electors. The GOP has floated this idea in other swing states as well. A Trump campaign legal advisor admitted this possibility: “The state legislatures will say, ‘All right, we’ve been given this constitutional power. We don’t think the results of our own state are accurate, so here’s our slate of electors that we think properly reflect the results of our state.”
In another blow to democracy, Trump has appointed campaign donor Louis DeJoy as the postmaster of the United States. DeJoy has systematically slowed down the mail by dismantling sorting machines, removing post office boxes from cities, and enacting other destructive and baseless measures. We’re in the midst of a pandemic and mailing in ballots is much safer than reporting to a polling place. These transparent efforts to thwart mail-in voting are criminal.
And even if Democrats do win the election, Trump has made it clear he won’t concede peacefully. When asked if he would step down after losing, he told the press, “Get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very…you’ll have a very peaceful…there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”
One of Trump’s top appointed officials, Michael Caputo, is now on leave for a bizarre rant where he stated, “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin.”
Corruption and lying.
Are Republicans proud of what their party represents? They are breaking the most basic rules of decency to maintain power—rules that we all learned as children about the importance of fairness, respect, justice, and truth. While the old Republican Party may have embraced these principles, they have abandoned them in their lust for power.
Republicans try to drum up fear of immigrants with narratives about “violent caravans.” The truth is that on Trump’s watch, ICE has locked up Latino children in cages and forcibly sterilized their mothers.
Republicans try to drum up fear of the Black community with images of urban riots and looting. The truth is that white supremacists present a much graver threat to the peace of the country, according to the FBI.
Most Americans are too intelligent to believe Trump’s bullshit, but we fear that even when we show up to vote, Republicans will still rob us of this election. It’s already happened once in my lifetime when tens of thousands of votes from Florida’s Black community were wrongly disqualified to hand the election to Bush. The GOP pretends to be this country’s greatest defender and yet they lie, cheat, and steal under the cover of their flags.
It’s not enough just to call them out. They will happily take the low road to maintain power in bad faith. When we win the election, we need to use every tool at our disposal to implement a liberal agenda.
Let’s add Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories as states to increase our number of Senators.
Let’s pack the Supreme Court with a progressive majority.
Let’s increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
Let’s pass the Green New Deal to create clean energy jobs and help curb carbon emissions.
Let’s ratify the ERA.
Let’s strengthen legal protections for LGBTQ+ folks.
Let’s fire racist cops and reform police departments to use community-based alternatives to brutal law enforcement.
And let’s throw Trump in jail for tax fraud, the obstruction of justice, soliciting campaign funds from foreign nationals, rape, or any of his other numerous crimes.
Democrats need to stand for something to heal this country—it’s not enough to simply be anti-Trump. We should lean into progressivism without compromise because that has always been the future of our country, what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as “the arc of the moral universe” which “bends toward justice.”
Progressivism at its finest represents justice for the climate and for the American people, regardless of our gender, whom we love, our culture, how much money we have, or the color of our skin.
Let’s stop despairing and fearing one another. Let’s seize our future from this minority group of cheaters and liars. They don’t deserve a say in our lives.
Childish Republicans love to salt their food with liberal tears. With Trump at the helm, it’s no surprise that the modern GOP drummed up support for its base in 2016 with messages like “Hillary Sucks…But not like Monica!” Growing up, I believed that taking pleasure in a decent person’s pain was something only kids and ruthless dictators did, but here we are.
Progressives do not generally snipe at one another with malice. Recently, however, the left has had a bad habit of eating their own. For example, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders represent similar values and platforms. But during the primaries, the media (and the candidates’ followers) spent too much energy igniting mutual suspicion and animosity. And the divide is even more stark between the Democrats’ moderate and liberal wings, with moderates fearing a Squad takeover and liberals fearing a GOP-light administration.
There are valid debates—don’t get me wrong—but now that our two-party system has chosen a Democratic ticket, we need to take a page from the Republican playbook: we need to compromise and unite. Division and constant infighting is only strengthening the GOP.
I get it: Kamala Harris was a punitive prosecutor and made some bad calls. While she’s a fierce debater, she also has a difficult time expressing exactly what she stands for in interviews. She wasn’t my first choice, but I am going to set my criticisms aside in service to the larger fight in November. My favorite candidates, Warren and Sanders, have urged everyone to do.
So why is the modern left obsessed with these purity tests? A friend reminded me recently that “an apostate is worse than a heretic.” We’re more likely to judge those who are nearly in our camp than those outside of it. We see this playing out in cancel culture, which stems from the zealous application of progressive values such as anti-racism, anti-misogyny, and anti-homophobia. “Canceling someone” can be justified for the worst among us, but it can also leech energy from more important fights.
We can’t continually call out Trump’s racism, lying, and corruption—much less, unite folks behind a set of progressive ideals and policies—when we’re too busy bemoaning Joe Biden for being a gaffe-prone centrist. There’s only so much gas in our tank of indignation. While we should hold our own in check, but we also need to come together in November to close this devastating chapter of American history.
As journalists such as Matt Taibbi have pointed out, the left’s Puritanical obsession with enforcing what’s “woke” is antithetical to its traditional values of open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance. Furthermore, ruining lives has become a spectator sport. The ultra-woke air grievances on Twitter and some folks such as David Shor have lost their jobs. Many of these discussions should have been more civilly resolved. Walking the new razor’s edge of progressivism has alienated people. It’s also threatening to shrink our coalition. The perfect cannot become the enemy of the good.
One major problem is that there’s no clear path to redemption once someone fucks up. It’s crucial to create space for people to admit when they’re wrong and to act like adults. When we have a coworker, friend, or family member who says something offensive, there needs to be a loving way to bring them back into the tribe without shame or recrimination.
I’m reminded of Arthur Miller’s iconic play The Crucible, an allegory of McCarthyism and the communist witch-hunt of the 1950s. In defense of his life and good name, John Proctor cries out, “We are what we always were in Salem, but now the crazy little children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law.” The keys to the kingdom are Twitter campaigns calling for people’s heads; common vengeance is the online mob.
Take Christian Cooper: the Black Harvard grad and bird-watcher, who had the cops called on him by Amy Cooper (no relation). He did not press charges and did notthink that she should lose her job. Even though I had delighted in the public destruction of her life—she is, after all, a liar and a racist who weaponized her status as a white woman—I admire Christian Cooper’s forgiveness and grace in handling this incident.
In short, there must be a better way than the endless shame and condemnation. Nobody should be remembered for the worst thing they have even done. And within our progressive coalition—as large and multivariate as it is—cancel culture plays right into the hands of Republicans. While most of us mean well, constantly throwing mud at fellow lefties for being insufficiently woke or radically out-of-touch takes the spotlight off of our real opponents.
As a general rule, the GOP respects what Reagan called the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. When they do, it’s hardly ever for egregious racism, misogyny, or destroying the environment. It’s typically for being a RINO (a Republican in Name Only), a person who does not vote with the party on a specific issue. They enforce their own unity through shaming their fellows for one sin only: that of non-compliance with the GOP’s agenda.
Although the GOP’s leadership consists of mainly white men, they have welcomed an array of interests under that red umbrella: Tea Partiers, anti-government gun enthusiasts, tax-cut junkies, QAnon conspiracy theorists, evangelical Christians, anti-mask “patriots,” and white nationalists all tend to be pro-MAGA. They are skilled at circling their wagons, playing offense, and doing what it takes to maintain power, even though they comprise a minority party.
A majority of Americans actually hold left-leaning views on all of the major issues, but we still struggle to garner the votes we need. With such a diverse array of agendas (pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-Medicare-For-All, anti-racism) and demographics (men, women, LGBTQ+, BIPOC), it’s no wonder we struggle to achieve a consensus. Also, voter suppression and gerrymandering have disproportionately affected the left, especially people of color.
To win the White House and a Senate majority, we need to lift a page from the Republican playbook and create an alliance among these diverse factions of our party. Part of the problem is that progressives do not have a simple overarching message, a list of non-negotiable values that unite us.
The closest I’ve seen to this list was detailed in Robert Reich’s exceptional book The Common Good. He describes this value system as “the norms we voluntarily abide by, and the ideals we seek to achieve.”
He elegantly summarizes a foundation for what a majority of Americans already believe. I’ve changed the formatting for emphasis:
“The good we have had in common has been a commitment to:
Respecting the rule of law, including its intent and spirit
Protecting our democratic institutions
Discovering and spreading the truth
Being open to change and tolerant of our differences
Ensuring equal political rights and equal opportunity
Participating in our civic life together
Sacrificing for that life together”
This list isn’t perfect or complete, but it’s a solid start in rebuilding the civic trust within this country. We can’t forget that a majority of Americans are good people and are on our side. And the first step to combatting wealth inequality and fear-based scourges such as racism is to reclaim the presidency and Congress. Only then can we transform the country in the image of our shared ideals. Progressivism is a big messy umbrella of interests—and we have to embrace that to win in November.
“It stings. It’s hard to breathe. And I can tell you with 100 percent honesty, I saw nothing which provoked this response. It’s nasty stuff. I’m not afraid, but I am pissed off…This is an egregious overreaction on the part of the federal officers.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, After Being Tear-Gassed in a Crowd of Protesters
Over the past couple of weeks, the world has witnessed Drumpf’s dangerous descent into domestic terrorism. In early July, he sent a viciousparamilitaryforce to Portland. They have blindfolded protesters and carried them away in unmarked vehicles, broken people’s bones, and tear-gassed a Wall of Moms. What had been a handful of remaining Black Lives Matter protesters outside of Portland’s Federal Courthouse has now swelled into the thousands. The people are standing up against this brutal occupying force.
I don’t use the term “fascism” lightly, but Trump has earned it by the expression of a few key elements:
Having a dictator or authoritarian leader
Supporting extreme nationalism (often with a racial or ethnic component)
After several excruciating years of the Trump presidency, we can safely say his administration meets all of the above criteria.
And Trump’s motives for this federal invasion are transparent: he’s trying to win reelection by instigating violence within our most progressive cities. Sending his DHS thugs in riot gear is provocative and city-dwellers are rightfully enraged. Nobody invited them to be here.
Over this past week, I’ve had several spirited debates on social media with folks who live far away from Portland. People in Texas, California, and rural Washington claim to know what’s best for my state’s largest city. Although conservatives and rural voters are usually concerned about state’s rights, many are applauding Trump’s federal overreach in the occupation of liberal cities. They shared these thoughts:
“So you mean to say, with all of the violent rioters out there, these feds rolled up and took out the peaceful protestors?”
“And why when black people are getting killed by other black people are you not protesting that?”
“Do you really believe that these protestors are all innocent and the big bad police are causing the riots! My God … All to take down Trump! Disgusting!!!!”
These misperceptions of the Black Lives Matter Movement are fed by a myopic and sensationalist media. Although Oregon Public Broadcasting has done an exceptional job covering BLM in my state, most major networks have flattened the narrative and focus on incidents of destruction. Media executives know that Americans will tune into content that’s disturbing or savage—but they are doing the public a dangerous disservice by amplifying isolated atrocities and ignoring the mission of the Movement. When FOX, CNN, and other companies only follow the smoke, graffiti, and broken windows—“if it bleeds, its leads”—Trump hopes that suburban and rural Americans will be frightened into voting for his law and order agenda.
There’s a historical precedent for Trump’s campaign tactics. In 1968, Richard Nixon ran on a law and order platform. When he accepted the GOP nomination, he stated, “As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night.” This is the image Trump is trying to sell us: a country being attacked from within by the radical Left.
This is manipulative and absurd. How are we attacking the country? Are we ravaging the nation with our anti-racism, Medicare for All, Green New Deal, and Farmers’ Markets? Are we really destroying the country by trying to make education, healthcare, and housing more affordable for all Americans?
Progressives don’t support the violence; we’re protesting against racism and police brutality—and isn’t it ironic how our movement is met with indelible proof to our point.
In an earlier era, there were Americans who stood up for the rights of property, and those who defended the rights of people; those who supported slaveowners, and abolitionists who fought for the humanity of our Black citizens.
The GOP and Trump prefer to not discuss the lethal racism of law enforcement and the death of George Floyd. They prefer not to acknowledge the dozens of peaceful protesters and journalists who have been critically injured by aggressive crowd dispersion tactics: rubber bullets, batons, tear gas, steel-toed boots, and fists. They prefer, instead, to stand up for the rights of lifeless buildings with insurance policies. They are more concerned about property than the blood of our Black citizens on the hands of police officers.
I feel for the small business owners who have to rebuild—but my heart shatters for the families of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, and Ahmaud Arbery, among so many others.
I also fear what will happen in Chicago, Albuquerque, and other progressive cities Trump plans to occupy with his goons in army fatigues. He’s flexing the military in places he knows won’t vote for him. I’d like to ask Americans in the suburbs and rural heartland: if an aggressive federal force descended on your town without permission or invitation, how would you react?
Many of us feel that this is one of the most difficult years in U.S. history—and it’s true. We are suffering from the mismanaged COVID-19 pandemic, which has now killed over 116,000 Americans, 39 times the death toll of 9/11. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, among so many other black citizens, has activated massive protests against police brutality. We have a cowardly incompetent president, and the only tie that binds the public is our unmoored rage.
To the racist institutions in this country, white anger is righteous and black anger is frightening. Large white men with assault rifles can march on Michigan’s capital to intimidate the Democratic governor without a reaction from the police; on the other side of the political spectrum, peaceful protesters for racial justice have been kicked, trampled, beaten, gassed, and shot by the police all over the country. Curfews were enacted and Trump threatened to send in the military to “dominate” his own country’s cities.
When it comes to race, we have always been at war with ourselves. The devastating legacy of slavery has fed inequality in education, housing, criminal justice, and law enforcement, not to mention the daily indignities of individual prejudice. Until a white person experiences fear while jogging, playing video games at home, or walking and eating skittles, we cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to be constantly surveilled and over-policed for our skin color.
Our collective discomfort and anger over racial injustice were long-overdue in the U.S. Although the Black Lives Matter movement felt dormant to white America in between the most egregious murders, we’ve reached a tipping point: millions of us have decided that doing no harm on the basis of skin color isn’t enough. We’ve embraced a new era of anti-racism, in which bigots are rightfully outed and fired from their jobs.
A friend of mine told me that we’re living in “cool times”—an era that feels like hell on the ground but in retrospect will be considered pivotal in making progress. As uncomfortable as we all feel right now stewing in our rage and despair, I’m inclined to agree.
In fact, while the entire Trump era has been excruciating, the backlash to his lack of character has helped bring about important changes in American society. There has been a major international protest every year since he took office: the Women’s March (2017), the March for Our Lives (2018), the School Strike for Climate (2019), and the powerful resurgence of Black Lives Matter (2020).
It started with the Women’s March in 2017, the day after Trump was inaugurated. I was in Washington DC, and people protested in cities across the world in a powerful display of anti-sexist unity. The #MeToo era followed shortly, and a cascade of hideous and powerful men lost their jobs—many of them replaced by women.
While 1992 was branded the “Year of the Woman” when a four new female senators were elected to the U.S. Congress, the Blue Wave of 2018 brought 148 women into Congress, as well as six female governors.
This represents real progress.
A year later, a young man killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A new student-led protest against gun violence was born. Nearly two million Americans marched in 900 cities across the U.S. and there were companion events across the world. The March for Our Lives became one of the largest protests in U.S. history, and it had a lasting impact on legislation: in 2018, 67 gun safety bills were signed into law across 26 states and Washington DC.
In 2019, the School Strike for Climate took shape. What had started in Sweden with an exceptional young woman, Greta Thunberg, became an international movement to take on the fossil fuels industry and protect our planet for future generations. There were large international protests in March, May, September, and November—all of them drawing millions of people into the fight to protect our world from global warming. September’s “Global Week for Our Future” event drew more than four million protesters and is hailed as the largest climate strike in world history.
And here we are now, confronting the shameful and enduring legacy of slavery in the United States. Racism in our institutions and citizens stems from our failure to confront this country’s festering wound: our nation’s wealth was built on the backs of African American slaves, and their descendants have barely shared in that prosperity.
When the black community has accrued wealth, whites slaughtered them, as they did in the Tulsa Massacre in 1921, which devastated Black Wall Street. Most Americans hadn’t heard of this genocide until the graphic novel Watchman was turned into an HBO series. Our history books tend to gloss over white violence within our borders.
But this has begun to change. Michael Brown Jr., Philando Castille, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and now George Floyd—among so many others—are household names. A majority of Americans are horrified by the ongoing brutality against our black citizens. And beneath the rage at the root of our American wound, we’re beginning to see some signs of healing.
The Minneapolis Police Department has been defunded in favor of more communal-minded actions, which address access to basic services. Charges are being filed against police officers across the country, and some have been arrested for their violent handling of protesters. Black Lives Matter murals are popping up on large avenues across the nation. Powerful businesses have stood up in solidarity with the BLM movement; Twitter, Nike, and the NFL have declared Juneteenth a company holiday. Even NFL Commissioner Gooddell has softened his stance on kneeling during the national anthem. This is a large step for a conservative white-owned institution, which denied activist Colin Kaepernick a job for taking a knee in a peaceful protest against police brutality.
In the same way the #MeToo movement cost countless assholes their jobs, racists are now being called out publicly. In May, Amy Cooper invoked her white privilege and threatened to lie to the NYPD about “an African American threatening her life.” Christian Cooper (no relation), the black man, is a Harvard-trained writer and editor who enjoys birding. His crime? Asking Amy to leash her dog in Central Park. For her racist lies, she lost her job as a VP of an investment firm.
In Eugene (where I live), local business owner Paula McGuigan has been called out for her racism and insensitivity. She posted an appalling photo of her kneeling on the neck of a man with the bizarre caption “Ready for my Minnesota trip…#asianlivesmatter.” Her business, Home Spray Foam and Insulation, was flooded with so many one-star reviews that Yelp had to flag the “unusual activity.” She issued an apology, but the damage is done: you can’t get away with this racist shit anymore.
Perhaps most importantly, white people across the country are opening their eyes—many of them for the first time—to the systemic racism that has plagued the United States since its founding.
Some white people have been calling their friends of color and asking how they can be better allies. While these efforts are made with good intentions, the reactions have been mixed. After receiving a deluge of messages from white people in his life, a friend of mine quipped that he was “seriously considering hiring a virtual assistant and asking white friends to pay for it.” I can appreciate this sentiment, especially since it’s not the black community’s job to educate us—we have to listen and do the difficult work ourselves.
As clumsy as white Americans’ efforts can be, I still believe that the majority of us want to overcome personal prejudice and dismantle racist institutions. The media tends to amplify examples to the contrary—the Charlottesville racists, the MAGAts, our goddamn ignorant POTUS—but that braindead megaphone can’t drown out the millions that protest today.
There’s no single handbook for becoming “woke.” It’s a daily decision to rethink our implicit biases. It’s a desire to throw our bodies on the gears of the system—our roads, our workplaces—and demand the overhaul of racist institutions such as law enforcement. It’s a recognition that our racism at home is interwoven with our imperialism abroad; without stoking the white American fear of immigrants, non-Christians, and people of color, our bloated military wouldn’t be able to invade the Middle East for oil or Vietnam and Venezuela to “defeat communism.” Considering citizens of these countries as less-than-human—that peculiar and twisted racism—drums up support for these bloody colonial injustices.
So how can white Americans confront their privilege and better understand how racism operates? Seeking out the experience of being the minority in a group is a valuable tool, whether it’s living abroad with an unfamiliar culture and language or volunteering in a different community. I lived in Niigata, Japan for two years, and the daily reminder that I was “the other” opened my eyes more than any book could. Growing up in a predominantly white city, I had a lot of blind spots that my Berkeley education in sociology and psychology couldn’t remedy. And I still have work to do.
When you are the only member of a visibly identifiable group—a person of color in a white community, a woman in a room full of men, a trans woman among those who were born with female bodies—you’re both hyper-surveilled and invisible. People might stare or get uncomfortable in your presence, but they also might ignore or exclude you, not knowing exactly what to make of you.
This lonely discomfort is useful and calls into question what we take for granted being in more homogenous groups. It helps build empathy for those unlike us—and a friendly curiosity of cultures unlike our own. Exposure to what was once foreign helps to allay deep-seated fears and can build mutual respect.
I acknowledge the limitations of my experience. I cannot change my 0.1 millimeters of white epidermis, but I know this: people are mostly good everywhere in the world. And when we approach unfamiliar groups without judgement and with an open heart, everyone benefits.
So let’s embrace the mass discomfort of 2020. We’re living in “cool times” and in retrospect, we’ll realize how instrumental this prickly awareness of sexism, gun violence, climate change, and racism has been for us to advance. The work is just beginning, but our rage, anxiety, and sadness are symptoms of outgrowing old ways of thinking and conducting ourselves.
“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control.”
Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
As COVID-19 ravages the United States with more than 213,000 cases, there’s another disease that’s killing us—a myth born of the romantics, Ralph Waldo Emerson, cowboy lore, and life on the frontier: I’m talking about the dark side of our individualism.
This immortal lie tells us that we’re free to believe what we want and that we can save ourselves if we just try hard enough. These unchecked assumptions have severely impaired our ability to coordinate a response to this pandemic.
While individualism is useful to promote creativity and innovation, there are several features of this quintessential American trait that have undermined our institutions, leadership, and citizen behavior during this unprecedented crisis. It has made this nation a more fertile ground for COVID-19 than more collectivist or communal countries.
How Individualism Has Failed American Institutions
I lived abroad for five years and I’ve been tracking various governments’ responses to COVID-19 with great interest. South Korea had its first confirmed case the same day as the United States: January 20, 2020. While the Trump administration called the virus a Democratic “hoax” and panicked for several weeks that it would threaten the economy during an election year, the South Korean government initiated an aggressive testing program to identify who needed to be put into isolation.
Two months later, the South Koreans have flattened the curve and life is slowly returning to normal. In the United States, COVID-19 is overwhelming hospitals in Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York City. And it’s just getting started.
Our Healthcare System
Our decentralized healthcare system is not equipped to fight for us during a pandemic. The main goal of American for-profit insurance companies and care facilities is to make money—and that objective does not align with the public interest, especially in this crisis.
Instead of having one clear-cut entity such as the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS), Americans are forced to navigate a complicated bureaucracy of “in-network” and “out-of-network” healthcare providers, arcane insurance billing practices, and sky-high co-pays with surprise costs. And millions of Americans remain uninsured, with millions more about to lose their employer-sponsored plans as the economy crashes.
This desultory system has created a lot of confusion and supply shortages. U.S. hospitals are running out of personal protective gear (PPE) and states have had to engage in eBay-style bidding wars to secure ventilators.
While some states such as Florida have gotten everything they asked for from the federal government within three days—N-95 masks, gowns, etc.—my state (Oregon) only received 10 percent of its request. The biggest difference between Florida and Oregon? Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is a Republican and Governor Kate Brown is a Democrat. It’s hard not to assume that the Trump administration is picking favorites when he’s more concerned about feeling “appreciated” than getting Americans the assistance they need.
If I wanted to get a COVID-19 test, there’s nowhere in my region to go. Public health officials in Lane County have said they’re advocating at the state and federal level for widespread testing, but they are still waiting. In theory, the cost of these tests is covered under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but early American access seems to have been limited to government officials and celebrities.
Most American healthcare providers and leaders are telling people to simply stay home and wait out the disease, except in life-threatening situations. With refrigerated trucks serving as temporary morgues in New York City, it is clear that the for-profit American healthcare system has already been overwhelmed by this pandemic. Hospitals and states should not have to compete with one another for supplies.
“If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise”
Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
The first step to fighting a pandemic is getting the correct information—and this is impossible in today’s hyper-partisan “choose-your-own-reality” media landscape.
Thirty years ago, there was an agreed-upon collective truth. Journalist Walter Cronkite Jr. was called “the most trusted man in America” and citizens believed him, regardless of their political affiliation. These days, even scientific facts—climate change, the effectiveness of vaccines, the importance of social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19—are treated as matters of opinion. By illustration, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL), taking his cues from the White House, asked his state’s citizens to stay home only yesterday (April 1)—appallingly late considering their high population of vulnerable elderly folks.
According to a recent poll, viewers of Fox News are especially likely to believe that the threat of COVID-19 is “exaggerated.” The network, afraid of being sued, has already fired host Trish Regan, who called coronavirus a politically motivated “scam” on her March 9 broadcast.
Dr. Anthony Fauci—a man who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the year I was born—has been targeted by Trump loyalists. When Americans are free to select their own scientific facts—with Republicans eager to defend the economy and the president—it’s very difficult to mount a coordinated response to COVID-19.
How Our Selfish Leaders Have Failed Us
Right now, Americans have no trustworthy central authority to guide us through this pandemic. It feels as if half the country is listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci, and half the country is listening to the president.
It is no surprise that Trump has failed his first real test as president. Instead of taking COVID-19 seriously, he dawdled and called it a Democratic “hoax.” He dragged his feet for weeks, downplaying concerns, comparing the disease to the flu, dispensing false medical advice about the usefulness of chloroquine (which killed one Arizona man), and appointing gay conversion therapy czar Mike Pence as the head of the COVID-19 task force.
To Donald Trump and congressmen like Sen. Richard Burr (NC-R), who sold millions of dollars of stock in anticipation of a crash, the health of the country was not their primary concern: they acted selfishly, saving themselves with little regard for their roles as elected officials. Leadership should be more than an exercise in ego and personal enrichment.
Finally, American values praise people who “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and by extension, often degrade people who need help—the most vulnerable among us. How many times in the past three years has the Republican Party tried to poke holes in our already-dismal social safety net by cutting food stamps, education funding, environmental protections, and Medicare? Needing help is somehow unAmerican—unless you’re a multibillion-dollar company in need of a taxpayer bailout, of course.
If individualism is serving American institutions so well, why does socialism/collectivism come around every decade or so to save our asses?
How Individualism Impairs the Behavior and Beliefs of American Citizens
Individualism can be beneficial when people choose to defy tyranny or mainstream bigotry, but there’s a dark side to assuming we are free to do and believe what we want. Consider the words of a now-infamous 21-year-old spring breaker:
“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying. You know, I’ve been waiting, we’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while, about two months, we’ve had this trip planned, two, three months, and we’re just out here having a good time. Whatever happens, happens,” said Brady Sluder in mid-March.
I lived in Japan for two years and I can’t imagine a young Japanese person saying something like this because there’s a constant awareness of how one’s own actions impact others. Many Asian nations are already in the habit of wearing masks when they’re sick to protect others from infection. In the United States, whether you’re an ignorant young man like Sluder or the Governor of Oklahoma, we do whatever the fuck we want—everyone else be damned.
To fight this pandemic, we can’t choose our facts. It’s not a simple matter of opinion to believe Fox News when it claimed that COVID-19 was an exaggerated hoax led by “panic pushers.” Those hosts dispelled dangerous misinformation and it’s downright irresponsible to believe them.
We need to heed the scientists’ advice and take other people’s wellness into consideration. Americans who are going against “shelter in place” orders may be unwitting carriers of COVID-19, putting more vulnerable folks at risk.
The Opportunity of COVID-19
This isn’t the first time in history when we’ve been forced to come together to confront a common enemy. A person can’t conquer the frontier of this disease alone—and in order to beat COVID-19, we need to outgrow the dark side of our individualism.
In a 1935 fireside chat during the Great Depression, FDR stated, “The old reliance upon the free action of individual wills appears quite inadequate. The intervention of that organized control we call ‘government’ seems necessary.” The New Deal was in full swing, pushing financial reforms, putting citizens back to work on public projects all over the country. This coordinated action helped pave the way for our economic recovery in that uncertain era.
During the COVID-19 crisis, we need centralized logistics, which take care of the collective rather than individuals.
Furthermore, this is a global threat and I see an opportunity not only for Americans to become more communally oriented but also for our country to recognize its place in the world as one nation among many.
American exceptionalism has always been a childish myth—the fact is that we’re part of a global community and we need to work with other countries on an equal footing to mount a response to this pandemic. Our arrogance and self-righteousness have no place in the world, especially right now when we need to work together.
COVID-19 does not care if you’re Brazilian or Japanese—it treats everyone the same. The first individualist thought is: how is this going to affect me? The first collectivist thought is: how can I help others and ensure this disease doesn’t spread?
Only the second approach will give us a fighting chance.
Less than 24 hours before the U.S. closed the border with Mexico, I returned from a month-long trip to Oaxaca. For two weeks, I tried in vain to bump up my flights after hearing rumors of the imminent closure of my country, but it was impossible to reach the State Department or the three airlines handling the legs of my travel.
Nobody anticipated how rapidly COVID-19 would disrupt human civilization. This highly contagious coronavirus has already killed more than 17,000 people around the world. My ability to get home in the midst of this unprecedented chaos was uncertain.
On March 18, after a turbulent flight from Puerto Escondido to Mexico City, I boarded a budget-friendly Volaris plane bound for LAX. A woman with four small children occupied the row behind me and we waited for our flight to depart. One hour passed, then two hours. We pulled out of the terminal and into a maintenance area. The plane’s babies soon grew restless—echoing the impatience of our newfound passenger community. Several episodes of Bojack Horseman later, we were told our flight was canceled and a bus pulled around to take us back to the terminal to collect our luggage. It was almost 11:00 pm.
A group of male passengers in the back shouted in Spanish, “Nobody is getting off the plane! We all paid good money to be here and we deserve to get to LA for our jobs and families!” This minor insurrection was short-lived as the majority dutifully exited to the baggage claim, passed through customs, and to the airline counter. Volaris put us up at the nearby Fiesta Inn and issued us tickets for the following afternoon.
At this point, I knew the border was likely to close soon and prepared myself to be stuck in Mexico City. Since I was out of pesos, I paid the hotel bar for two craft beers with my credit card, grabbed a bucket of ice, and went to my room. I tried to rebook my connecting flight home (which I was going to miss) and the hotel I’d already paid for in LA. Neither of these could be changed or refunded. Goodbye $370.
The following day, I put on a mask and arrived early at Mexico City International, one of the largest airports in the world. I hoped that the U.S. wouldn’t close the borders so travelers like me wouldn’t be stranded far from home during an escalating crisis. I was in for a few surprises.
After wandering around the countless “Dufry” (duty-free) Shops, I heard my name announced over the intercom. I rushed to the gate and the plane was boarding more than an hour before take-off. I was relieved I’d made it since passengers (many of them from the previous day’s canceled flight) had already queued up.
I went to the counter and discovered that I’d been selected for a random search—a policy for international flights to the U.S. Two uniformed women with gloves proceeded to take apart both my carry-on bags and pat me down thoroughly in full view of my fellow passengers. Some gawked at my Zapotec tapestry gifts and ziplock bags of shirts, dresses, and underwear splayed on the large plastic table. All of my electronics were rubbed with small cloths and run under a chemical-detection sensor. Even if the crowd couldn’t see the twisted indignant frown underneath my mask, they could sense the fury in my eyes. This embarrassing exhibition took five full minutes.
I was so angry and flushed that I was afraid I’d set off the fever-detecting gun as I boarded the plane. I revealed these fears to the agent and he re-explained the American policy of random searches, pointing the laser thermometer at my forehead. I told him in Spanish it would be more humane to conduct the searches behind a curtain. He smiled and told me to have a good flight.
I sat down in my old seat in front of the row with the woman and her four children. I’d seen at least 30 more people behind me who needed to board the plane, but the process had ceased. My stomach dropped as I saw two agents in orange vests board the plane and talk to the pilot. The attendants gathered their belongings and headed out the aircraft door. A voice came over the loudspeaker and announced that we didn’t have clearance to land in LAX and everyone needed to get off the plane.
Outcries erupted as people angrily dragged their large bags down from the overhead compartments and began to file out.
This is it, I told myself. I’m going to be stuck in Mexico for the duration of this crisis—and I’m going to make the best of it. I haven’t yet explored Mexico City and COVID-19 isn’t a huge problem in the country. I miss my friends and family, but what else can I do? All events and trips I’d been planning at home are canceled anyway. Perhaps I can find a deeply discounted AirBnB in a cute neighborhood. Roma? Condesa? Maybe Coyoacán to pay tribute to Frida Kahlo? As long as I have reliable Wifi, work will not be an issue. And there are worse places to be stuck than a world-class city…
A couple of excruciating minutes later, an attendant announced that we’d just received word from LAX: we had been cleared for departure.
As smiling passengers filed back into the plane—our hearts all beating a little faster—there were rumors we’d be detained for lengthy questioning about our disease status. Others said that the plane might have to return to Mexico mid-flight, depending on what orders came down from the Trump administration.
I had my alternative plan, but I was restless and my stomach ached after drinking a glass of non-bottled water from the attendant. Dammit. I know better than that. Had my good luck finally run out on this budget Mexican airline? Would I start throwing up and get detained as a health hazard? I knew that vomiting wasn’t a common symptom of COVID-19, but I wouldn’t be allowed on my next flight in that condition, especially if I developed a fever.
I took a few breaths and reassured myself that the anxiety surrounding getting home was more likely the culprit of my stomachache. I began to feel better, settling into my seat in front of the children. A few book chapters and “Orange is the New Black” episodes later, we landed in LAX.
Nobody knew what awaited us on the other side of those doors, whether we’d be able to get off the plane, or if we did, whether non-citizens would be sent back to Mexico City. Traveling amidst a pandemic and widespread border closures was uncharted territory for all of us.
Thankfully, we all got off the plane and headed to immigration. I flew through customs without any problems, pulling down my mask to be identified at the various checkpoints. LAX was deserted, apart from a few travelers. The majority didn’t even wear masks—including the security guards, shopkeepers, and restaurant workers—but there were a few young women donning full-body condoms: long pants, long sleeves, hats, gloves, masks. They would wipe down every surface vigorously with antibacterial cloths before sitting down. I felt slightly underprepared with my flimsy mask and realized that being on my country’s soil presented more of a COVID-19 risk than being in Mexico did.
All of the airport restaurants had only half of their tables open and staggered seatings to practice social distancing. Although I’d read about the changes from afar—the event cancellations, the “shelter in place” orders, the sudden loss of 15-20 percent of our economic activity with forced closures—this new corona-world provided a startling contrast to my life less than a week ago. Oaxaca City and Puerto Escondido were sublime—seemingly untouched by the madness of this pandemic. Stateside it feels as if I’ve landed in the wrong dimension of my old reality.
On Planet Oaxaca, my days were spent wading in warm turquoise water, watching some of the world’s best surfers. I learned about the region’s rich cultural diversity, wandering city streets and admiring the Zapotec art, exploring lush National Parks, tasting mezcal, and eating/drinking to my heart’s content at the region’s best restaurants for $10-$15.
It feels as if I’ve abandoned paradise for a disease-hobbled prison, but this is the country where most of the people I love are held captive. I’m so grateful I hit this wave just right, indulging my curiosity and senses, bringing back fresh eyes and my appreciation for what I take for granted in Oregon. I’d successfully leapfrogged the end of the gloomy season and now everything is bursting with spring color. I spent my first full day tending my indoor plants, yard, and garden, basking in the sun and crisp fragrant air.
This experience made me realize that a paradise is temporary if it can’t be shared with loved ones. Although I met some good people in Puerto and I’m grateful to speak the language, I was an island staring back at the burning shores of my home, tracking the cascading viral havoc through my electronic screens.
I’m here now, fresh off of one of the best trips of my life—tan, healthy, happy, bearing lots of gifts. Life feels on pause but it can’t shake my optimism that having the world united behind a common enemy holds incredible potential. Not only is the global community focused on the same problem, but this experience is giving individuals a renewed perspective—the time and space to consider what we hold most dear. The breakneck pace of our normal self-imposed busyness leaves little room for precious reflection or gratitude. We’ve been forced onto a different path and it won’t last forever. The best we can do is roll with it.
There are precious moments in life when a person’s raw happiness overwhelms them. Weddings, childbirth, and important ceremonies can have this effect. But we needn’t wait for these milestones to give those we love unforgettable feelings—a well-executed surprise party for the right person can inspire tears of unbridled joy. In December, I made my partner cry with sheer delight.
In his 40th trip around the sun, this was Jon’s first real birthday party in decades. As any end-of-the-year baby can attest, Jesus’ day casts a formidable shadow—especially for Jon, who was born not only a twin but also on Christmas Eve. Not even his technicolor personality can outshine billions of twinkle-lights, indulgent feasts, and presents for all.
A few months ago, I decided I wasn’t going to let this birthday pass without a celebration worthy of Jon’s big-hearted exuberance. He’s a natural-born extrovert who relishes in the company of others. I knew there would be no greater gift than an unexpected night full of the people he loves.
This was the third surprise party I’ve planned, and I’ve even had two thrown for me over the years. All five were successful in the sense that the guest of honor had no clue.
I cried on my 23rd birthday when my boyfriend and friends in Japan got me good. My student Yuri had decorated the facade of her apartment like a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. As a newbie to Niigata City, I legitimately thought it was an izakaya, complete with a cute “Open” sign and a full menu, until I saw the large table full of familiar faces and heard their cheers.
I was overcome with love for several days and couldn’t believe everyone had gone to such lengths to create something special for me. It hits in layers when you realize everything that people do in order to orchestrate that perfect moment for you.
Years later after I’d moved to San Francisco, I decided to throw a surprise party for my best friend and future bridesman Murray, who was turning 30. He was definitely surprised—but I wouldn’t say he was delighted. He took a full 45 minutes to recover from the shock of having everyone gathered for him at our friend Pat’s apartment. At one point, I thought Murray was going to throw up from astonishment. He had to step outside several times to get some air (and to text his future wife, Jamie, whom he’d just started dating).
I learned that there is a certain type of personality that responds well to a surprise party: a person who doesn’t mind being the center of attention. Although Murray eventually settled into it, we didn’t get the “unbridled joy” we were going for. Jon, on the other hand, enjoys the spotlight and was the perfect candidate for my schemings.
In addition to selecting an appropriate target, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Capitalize SURPRISE in all communications—and give all of your guests a ready-made ruse if they fuck up. Many a surprise party has been ruined by someone’s slip of the tongue, so you have to plan for it. Not only should “SURPRISE” be written in all-caps for any invitations, texts, and other messages about the event, but also ask guests to generate a ready-made ruse if they do accidentally mention the day (e.g., “Oh, I’m talking about your work/friend’s/family party.”) This ploy should be tailored to their level of intel since the target’s social or professional circles won’t totally overlap. A target might be confused, for example, if a distant acquaintance knew about a pre-planned work celebration which happens to fall close to the date of the surprise.
Plan more than a month in advance. People are busy, so if you want them to show up, plan accordingly. I started a month before the event, which is appropriate to people’s social calendars in Eugene. The bigger the city, the busier your guests—and the further in advance you need to send your invitations.
The day-of maneuver: know your target. One of the trickiest parts of planning a surprise is getting your target to be at the right location within the timeframe your guests expect. If the person is a planner, it’s best to have that time blocked out with a specific occasion close to your party’s location (dinner with neighbors, attending a play, etc).
Jon is not a planner, so I left this part up to the end. Fortunately, I had the help of his childhood friends (Phil and Jenna) who had flown in from the Bay Area for the occasion. They claimed they were here to visit an aunt and to work in Portland the following week. Over lunch, Jenna mentioned casually she was interested in seeing the movie “Knives Out.” Later, after exploring Eugene’s Holiday Market—movie seed planted—we started looking at showtimes.
I also asked Phil and Jenna (within earshot of Jon) if they’d rather go out for dinner or come over to our house later. When they intentionally stated the latter, I offered to “make everyone dinner” while they enjoyed the movie. I had bought myself a few hours to decorate our house and prepare.
Ask for help. People love to be in on a surprise party and a guest’s experience will be even more special if they contribute in some way. (You’ll notice everyone sharing their perspectives later with the target and each other.)
I had a lot of help. My friend Olivia picked up the catering; Jody and Kyle brought a keg; Kathie and Eric picked up the pies and offered to help decorate; and of course, we couldn’t have pulled this off without Phil and Jenna visiting from out of state.
Expect that things will go wrong. Like a wedding, not everything goes smoothly. For example, on the day of the party, Jon was insisting (rather aggressively) that we ride bikes to meet Phil and Jenna at their hotel. This would have made it more difficult to coordinate for the Holiday Market and movie later. (We’d loosely planned for Jon, Phil, and Jenna to arrive in a Lyft.)
Jenna reached out to Jon and mentioned she was interested in Christmas shopping and might have several bags, which made Jon back off his insistence we ride bikes.
If your target is being an asshole, keep the long game in mind. When my mom planned a surprise party for me when I was a teenager, I’d been especially nasty the week before because I thought we weren’t doing anything for my birthday. She thought about ruining (or canceling) the surprise, but I’m so happy she didn’t. Everything becomes clear to targets later, so have patience if they’re being difficult. Chances are they’re just feeling ignored because you’re busy behind the scenes.
Details, details, details. In the weeks leading up to the party, I stored decorations, beverages, snacks, and other celebratory accoutrements in our empty suitcases in the garage. I threw money at roadblocks and ordered catering since cooking for 30+ people was a tall order in a few short hours. I found that I was so prepared the day of and had asked for so much help that it took me less than 45 minutes to set up.
Enjoy the drumroll toward the moment. On the day of Jon’s party, I woke up and told myself I was as prepared as I was ever going to be. I decided to relax and relish in the unfolding day, not worrying about how much more I could have done. Being on-edge would have been suspicious and I credit Phil and Jenna for also keeping their cool.
I’ve learned that there’s a special kind of community that emerges from a well-executed surprise party. You get a front-row seat to a lightening-strike moment in a person’s life where they realize just how adored they are. Overall, the big-hearted deception takes more energy to plan than a normal party, but it’s absolutely worth it.
With irreversible climate change on the horizon, I feel guilty every day. I can’t go to the grocery store, travel, have a meal, flush a toilet, or flip on a light switch without the sense that I’m aiding and abetting the imminent destruction of our planet. Does anyone else have an Eco-Marm* living in their heads?
Shopping for food, I bring my own bags and do my best to avoid plastic. The Eco-Marm is quick to point out that excessive packaging is central to our product distribution. She decries the microplastics in our oceans and coursing through our bodies—materials forged long before I was born and will be present long after I die. She adds that my diapers from 1984 are still decomposing in some distant trash heap—and they will need another 465 years to do so. How many more diapers there will be to decompose in the coming centuries?
I turn on my car and the Eco-Marm reminds me what was done to secure the oil and gas that makes it run—the violent extractions, the endless wars in the Middle East—not to mention where the exhaust ends up and how it affects the health of people and our planet.
Food has always been a great pleasure to me, but the Eco-Marm frequently joins me for meals. She asks whether pesticides were used in growing the vegetables. She reminds me of how much misshapen (but perfectly good) produce never made it into people’s bodies because it was too ugly to sell in stores. She begs me to give up meat every time I lick the barbecue sauce from my fingers, and she scolds me for eating sushi when the global fish population has plunged to the brink of ecological collapse.
Flushing a toilet has become a mini existential crisis—and I wonder how much longer our planet can survive droughts and the wasteful consumption of fresh water.
Leaving on a light in an empty room is an indulgence, and I feel a gentle sting for any lapse in my own conservation of electricity. The Eco-Marm wags a finger at the office buildings glowing through the night, the cooling apparatuses for vast networks of electronics, and other energy-ravenous systems.
I know that overall I’m a conscientious citizen and a good steward of our planet for future generations. I also know that I owe the Eco-Marm my gratitude for her mildly irritating voice pushing me to always be environmentally aware. She’s a product of my understanding of how human systems of production and consumption have affected our planet.
In the abstract, humanity’s goal was to increase people’s quality of life. At least in material terms, we have no doubt succeeded. More people than ever have access to the bare necessities and technologies that power civilization: water treatment plants, medicine, electrical grids, communication networks, etc. The global average lifespan and years of education have increased, while extreme poverty and rates of violent death have decreased. (Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness is an eye-opening account of the widespread improvements for humankind this past century.)
As much as I was heartened to learn how much better life has gotten for our species, environmental destruction could swallow it all. With scientific predictions of devastating natural disasters and the vast displacement of millions of people, will our unchecked economic growth have been worth the chaos for our children? Is it really too late? What does “too late” even mean? Can our awareness and ingenuity—powered in part by these incredible advancements—help make us a less greedy species? Can it save us?
Nobody has the answers, but for now, the more people who embrace their own Eco-Marm—that constant voice of conservation and sustainability—the better.
*Yes, the voice of environmental justice is proudly female, which is probably why so many arrogant self-serving men like Trump have chosen to ignore it.
As children, we’re taught that with the right degrees and skills, we can advance in the workplace. It was acknowledged that people with connections and charm can rise somewhat faster, but in theory, American jobs are meritocratic—with enough discipline and training, any person can succeed.
As much as we admire this sentiment, we all soon discovered that the reality of employment is messier. People rise in the ranks for a complex web of reasons—many of them out of an individual’s control. Accomplishments play an important role, but depending on who is in power, other variables can shape an employee’s career path.
Perhaps a leader is sympathetic to the number of years a subordinate has been around the office and believes it’s their time to move up. Maybe they’re childhood buddies or sorority sisters. Other managers are susceptible to flattery or hold biases against specific groups.
In all cases, promotions aren’t blind. So how much of professional success can we actually attribute to talent and hard work?
After five years of working from where I please, I’d argue that fully remote companies are closer to pure meritocracies.
Working from home cuts out a lot of the spontaneous connections and relationships developed over cubicle walls and around the water cooler. Rather than having a perception of the entire employee—what they bring for lunch, whose pod they frequent, the family pictures they have on their screensaver, the energy they exude in the office—they are reduced to what they present in email, video conferences, and projects. Without the confounding influence of appearances, it’s easier to be known for one’s accomplishments.
Of course, this model doesn’t work for all types of businesses or industries; workplaces in agriculture, construction, retail, and R&D require in-person collaboration. But for many types of computer-bound work, telecommuting is an attractive option. It not only saves companies money on overhead costs, but it also cuts out most of the gossip and politics.
I remotely manage a team of writers and we communicate through email and texting. Written communication can be addressed when it’s convenient for me, as opposed to the immediacy of having someone come to my desk. I have better control over how I spend my day. Most importantly, since writers are turning in full articles that I edit, I’m able to evaluate their progress (and offer raises) based on the merits of their work.
My writers are a motley crew; they’re mostly women, but they have varied backgrounds and ages (25 to 60+). One woman lives in Pakistan and reached out on LinkedIn in response to my post seeking new talent. Her samples and performance on my editing test were flawless. My top-paid contractor is an older graduate-trained expert in business education who sends me lengthy, eloquent proposals for each of his topics.
The point is that I’ve been able to evaluate each of my writers on the outcome of their labor. I don’t critique their process, hours worked, friendliness, hobbies, or attractiveness—variables that play a role in traditional workplaces.
Some of my office-bound friends have been quick to point out two problems with working from home: 1) They’d never get anything done, and 2) They’d get lonely.
To the first point, I wonder how people get things done in brick-and-mortar companies with the roving buffet of distractions. Unless you have a private office, having an unbroken stretch of concentration is tough to achieve. Even with noise-canceling headphones—office-speak for “Don’t Fucking Talk to Me”—there is a flurry of activity in one’s peripheral vision. At least at a cafe, strangers are unlikely to approach.
Telecommuting was a bit of an adjustment, I admit, but this work can be treated like college: sure, you’ll spend a little time in a classroom, but you get to choose the environment where you study and write papers. Some people aren’t self-starters who thrive without structure, but like anything, this can be learned.
To the second point, it can be tough to lack a community of coworkers, but it makes me that much more eager to fill up my dance card in the after-hours making dinner for friends, enrolling in classes at the University of Oregon, or joining Spanish conversation meet-ups. Plus, unless you’re in charge, coworkers are like a family: you can’t really choose them. You’re thrust into their company, and sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. It takes more effort, but I’d rather nurture relationships that I choose rather than those of proximity, power, or convenience.
If we want our workplaces to be purer meritocracies—places where we’re evaluated strictly on our output—giving employees the freedom to labor when and where they please is helpful.