Thursday, July 27, 2023

Utah Shakespeare Festival 2023

Since 2014, my wife has attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival, usually with a friend, on a week that the kids and I are camping somewhere. We have dropped by occasionally if we are camping in the area. Back in 2016, however, we joined her for a second trip to see the fall plays. (They used to have some in summer, some in fall, with a brief overlap if you did it right. At this time, they appear to be doing just one set of plays throughout the whole period.) That 2016 trip was a lot of fun, so we returned in 2021. We were hoping to go last year, but my wife started her new job as ICU manager, and couldn’t get sufficient time off to go. This year, we made it happen again.  


Because we saw six plays in four days, I decided again to just write up all of them briefly in one post, rather than try to find time to write longer posts. These are in the order we saw them. The only play we didn’t see was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m sure it was really good, but we wanted a day to hike Kanarra Falls, and that precluded seeing an extra afternoon performance. 



Romeo and Juliet


This play was a last minute change (relatively speaking) at the Festival. Originally, they had planned to do West Side Story, but a brutal winter led to flood damage to the theater, including the necessary sound equipment. With neither the budget nor the time to replace and rewire everything in time for rehearsals - which would have to start early - it wasn’t going to work. So they grabbed the old warhorse as a replacement. 


I have, of course, seen Romeo and Juliet a lot of times (to say nothing of performing the delightful music written by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev), so the draw here was seeing what USF could bring to the work. 


All modern Shakespeare performances have cuts, as aficionados know - if nothing else, the constant recapping of the action (so those not paying attention could catch up) is unnecessary and distracting. And also, nobody has time for a four hour play. This means that one of the things that is different about the performances is where the cuts are, and how many. I have noticed that the more amateur versions - high school and college - have deeper cuts than USF prefers, for obvious reasons. 


In this case, I was pleased that the scenes with the nurse were left fairly intact. They seem to be the first cuts made these days, and I think the play loses some depth when the poor influence of the nurse is omitted. Juliet is, after all, very young (originally 12, but in this version, 15), and the nurse’s romanticism and scheming only feed Juliet’s impulsiveness. 

One of the biggest artistic decisions in any production of Romeo and Juliet is how to portray the lead characters. What motivates them? Are they young and silly, melodramatic, rebellious, or some other core emotion? 

                                                 Juliet (Naiya Vanessa McCalla) and Romeo (Ty Fanning)

In this case, Ty Fanning played Romeo as very youthful, and lacking control of his emotions. This is in contrast to Mercutio (Ryan Ruckman), who was portrayed as a grizzled war veteran with PTSD. (Which explains both his speech about Queen Mab - also often omitted - and his inability to ignore Tybalt.) I really thought Romeo was outstanding in this production. 


I wasn’t quite as sold on Juliet. And when I say that, I do not in any way wish to imply that Naiya Vanessa McCalla did a poor job. Her acting was actually excellent, and her character consistent. (And despite what an older woman complained about in the discussion afterward, she didn’t talk too fast - none of us had any difficulty understanding her.) Rather, what I am ambivalent about is that she seemed too strong for the character - more of a rebellious, headstrong woman rather than a naive girl. I’m not saying this isn’t a possible interpretation, just that I’m not entirely sold on it. 


I’ll give some call-outs to some of the other actors as well. Alex Keiper as the nurse was delightfully daft - she has a real gift for comedy. Mercutio, of course. The always imposing Paul Michael Sandberg as Montague. And Gilberto Saenz as Tybalt - an incredible amount of energy and presence - he’s a young actor to watch, as he was excellent in other roles too.

The staging was period correct - an advantage of the larger budgets that this festival has. (We attended the seminar on costuming, which was fun. So much goes into the design and execution. Lots of labor, for sure.) 


Overall, the usual excellent work that USF always brings to any play. 

Fun note: We attend the discussions of the plays, which is always fun and enlightening. Believe it or not, there were a handful of people for whom this was their first time seeing R&J live. 



Emma, the Musical


I am a Jane Austen fan, although it appears I haven’t read any of her books since I started this blog. Back in my late teens through twenties, I read her big three: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. I should probably put her back on my reading list this year or next. 

I have seen the Gwyneth Paltrow movie version of Emma, but not the more recent one. This is also my first time seeing the musical. 

 Emma (Allie Babich) and Mr. Knightly (Rhett Guter)

So, the obvious first: there is no way a two hour musical can truly capture the nuance and character development of an Austen novel. Even the gold standard, the six hour A&E Pride and Prejudice, loses a bit of the depth - that’s the problem with adapting books in general. The medium doesn’t allow for the slow pace needed for that level of depth. 


That said, I quite liked the musical version of Emma. Given the constraints, it brought out the core of the book rather well, and, with really just one exception, got the characters right. This was greatly helped by the perfect casting. 


First of all, Allie Babich as Emma captured perfectly what makes her loveable even though she isn’t a naturally likeable character. She is a busybody, arranging other people’s lives - often badly. She has a cruel streak when it comes to humor. And she is gratingly privileged as the only child of the most prominent man in her small town. But she is also human, and grows throughout the book. Babich was so vibrant and effervescent in the role that her Emma became mostly naive and thoughtless, not malicious, which her both frustrating yet sympathetic. Which is just perfect. I cannot think of how the portrayal could have been improved - it was spot on. 


Likewise, as the sometimes crusty and always blunt Mr. Knightly, Rhett Guter (who is insanely talented at acting, singing, and dancing - and magic) got the tone so perfectly that he literally felt like my own imagination of the character come to life. 


And Laura Brennan as Harriet. Oh my goodness, she was so good. That kind of “just a bit too loud and gauche” feel - and both the pathos of being snubbed at the dance, and the glory of being loved later. 


The only exception to the characterization was Robert Martin. And that is more the fault of the musical adaptation than the actor. In the book, he is smart and sophisticated, but he is more of a silent bumpkin in the musical - so not a whole lot for the actor to do. (Cameron Vargas did what he could. He got more to do in The Play That Goes Wrong - see below.) 


But the rest were so good. Melinda Parrett as the shabby Miss Bates, Heather Renner as the talented but poor Jane Fairfax, Jim Poulos as the icky Mr. Elton, Marissa Swanner as the snobbish yet tacky Mrs. Elton. Oh, and Chris Mixon as the ever so curmudgeonly Mr. Woodhouse (I don’t like change!) Gilberto Saenz played Frank Churchill, in a totally different look than his Tybalt. Again, I think he is a young actor to watch. 


All the singing and dancing was excellent. My youngest said it was her favorite…at least until she saw The Play That Goes Wrong. She is the perfect age (12) to get the humor of an Austen story.


I should mention a couple of fun things about the source material. I had not realized that Austen pioneered the particular perspective that Emma uses - third person, but from Emma’s perspective. (This meant that Emma was on stage pretty much the entire time…) Nowadays, this is everywhere - it feels like at least one of the most “normal” voices in fiction. But it was revolutionary at the time. 


Second, Austen was NOT a fan of George IV, the prince regent. When it was suggested (strongly) that she dedicate her next book to him, she did…in a pretty snarky manner. But even more amusing is that Mr. Knightly’s given name is….George. But Emma refuses to use it. “I can’t possibly call you George!” I guess when you are a famous author who just signed an unusually favorable publishing contract, you can afford to poke fun at royalty.  




Timon of Athens


This is the one that was the big draw for us this year - one we haven’t seen before. We are hoping to see all of Shakespeare’s plays live at least once. My wife is ahead of me by a bit, because she saw the Henry VI plays at USF several years ago. But both of us are getting close to the complete set. 


Timon of Athens isn’t pure Shakespeare - it was co-written with Thomas Middleton - a satirist whose dense writing is not always easy, but has been respected by literary sorts. He’s no Shakespeare, but nobody is - Middleton is considered to be in the same tier as Ben Jonson. 


Timon is a dark play, highly cynical, and bitterly satirical. It questions the basis for society - whether human bonds can ever be altruistic rather than grasping and mercenary. Written at the same time as Lear, it also shares much with Moliere’s Le Misanthrope


At the beginning of the play, Timon is a wealthy and generous man - he feasts his friends at banquets, bails them out of debtors’ prison, and spreads his wealth around. One could say he embodies one of Christ’s more puzzling admonitions: to use worldly wealth to make friends. 

But, as the more familiar character from the parable of the Prodigal Son finds out, what really happens is that those “friends” are nowhere to be found once the money runs out. 


Timon overextends himself, and his faithful steward Flavius is forced to deal with creditors calling in the debts. Sure that his generosity will be reciprocated, Timon sends word to his “friends” that he needs a bit of cash, but he is turned down. From there, everything spirals, and Timon loses it all.


Before he leaves his home, he invites the “friends” to one last banquet, where he serves them lukewarm water and rocks, while railing against them for being false flatterers, only interested in his money. 


After that, Timon heads for the wilderness, where he lives on roots and reviles all of humanity. 

Two additional characters are of particular interest. The first is the general, Alcibiades, who, like Timon, was a real person. (Shakespeare draws these characters from Plutarch, as he does the story of Julius Caesar.) Alcibiades is banished for standing up for one of his soldiers, who is accused of murder. He later returns to find Timon a shell of who he was. 


As the dramaturg for the festival noted, Alcibiades is essentially a proto-Coriolanus - Shakespeare is working on the character for the play he would soon write. In the context of the festival, the same actor (James Ryen) plays both characters. 


Second is the cynic (in the original sense), Apemantus, who serves as a foil for Timon. She (the part is played by Nell Geisslinger, and the pronouns changed accordingly) comes to Timon’s feast, and is a wet blanket, refusing even his food, because she has no interest in being corrupted by him. Later, she visits him in the wilderness, and they come oh so close to being friends. In many ways, they are now soulmates. But he insists on hating everyone. And she mocks him for only embracing the cynic lifestyle because he was forced to by poverty. And so they part foes despite it all. 


Making a dark and cynical play like this work requires care - a few scenes were cut, both for length, and because Timon’s misanthropy gets pretty misogynistic, which feels weird now, because his “friends” are all male in the original. (In this version, they are equally male and female.) Time constraints apparently led to the cut of the scene in which he is visited by prostitutes, who he advises to go and infect all of Athens with venereal disease. 


The key to the way USF did this was the incredible talents of Elijah Alexander in the title role. He was so good and so believable both as the generous aristocrat and as the misanthrope. Apemantus was also excellent, and the perfect foil. 


I’ll also mention that Timon was set in Elizabethan times, with all the costumes and an army of props to go with it. In particular, the way portable boards were hung on the characters to form the table was brilliant. 

Timon (Elijah Alexander) surrounded by his "friends."

I’m not sure Timon will ever be a favorite, but it does have some really witty satire, and, done well like this, it makes for an emotionally compelling story. 



A Raisin in the Sun


Last fall, the kids and I listened to an audio dramatization of this play, and found it compelling. I hadn’t realized how into it the kids were, until we saw it at the festival, and they remembered and anticipated a lot of plot points. My 15 year old said it was his favorite of the plays this year, because of the complex and nuanced characters. 


I won’t go into the plot much, because I wrote about it already - you can read my post here. I do want to mention that I appreciated that USF put the scenes with Mrs. Johnson back in - not only do they give comic relief - much needed in this play, given the drama - but they also develop the issue of a black family moving to a white neighborhood more fully. 


What I will mention are some of the best things about the production. First, the set - designed by Jason Lajka, who also designed the amazing sets for Emma and The Play That Goes Wrong - all of which use the same theater, and so have to be assembled and disassembled in an hour and a half - came up with a recreation of a Chicago apartment from the 1950s. It was incredibly convincing in every detail. An audience member who grew up on the Southside commented that the apartment was perfect - and the accents of the actors brought her back to her own family and neighbors. 

Lena (Monique Gaffney), Walter (Corey Jones), and Ruth (Kayland Jordan)


The acting was superb in this play, which is so important in a family drama like this. There is a lot of tension and trauma and hard feelings, so cutting through that to get to the core reality that they are a loving family at heart is key to pulling the play off. The director apparently made sure there were a lot of touches and physical engagements to offset the often harsh words. I think it worked really well. 


I also want to mention that my wife and I went to a late-night fundraiser for the actors (through a program to get agents and casting directors to Utah to see them in action.) It was a fun night, with a Disney movie theme. The absolute best part of the show, however, was when Corey Jones (who plays Walter in the play) did “Friends on the Other Side” from The Princess and the Frog in amazing full costume. Damn. Someone put this man on Broadway already. 


I was gratified to note that even the older, whiter (and often more conservative) audiences that USF tends to draw were strongly engaged in this play, with many commenting afterward that it was one of the best plays they had seen anywhere. Hansberry’s play isn’t the easiest for white audiences - and it isn’t really written for them. But I think it is a truly compelling look at the issues we are still facing in the United States. 





This is another rarely performed play, although we saw it five years ago down at Theatricum Botanicum. I discussed it at length in that post, so I will try not to duplicate it. 


The best thing about this particular production was James Ryen. Good lord, he dominated the stage the entire play. He’s a big guy, and built, and looks like the sort of badass general who has no time for politics. He was surprisingly sympathetic, coming off not as a mere arrogant boor, but as someone who never wanted the political role in the first place, who is then punished for being bad at it. He’s obviously flawed, and his flaw destroys him, but he is no villain.

Menenius Agrippa (Jasmine Bracey) and Coriolanus (James Ryen)

Also excellent was the spare set and phenomenal lighting. Occasionally you see something like this where the tech stuff adds so much to the story that you cannot imagine it without it. The setting was modern - kind of an urban with jeans and leather sort of vibe - with modern military gear. Except they all used sticks rather than firearms or swords. An interesting choice, with intricate choreography for the battles. 


I would also mention yet again that the Tribunes are fascinating in this play. They are kind of the petty local politician sorts that are just good enough at demagoguery to royally fuck things up. They can’t entirely decide what they want, and don’t like it when they get it. 


Shakespeare was a monarchist, and while that shows to a degree, nothing in Shakespeare is that simple or black and white. Everyone in this play is problematic. Autocracy doesn’t work well. Democracy doesn’t work well. And even the republican representation of the pre-Empire Rome isn’t working particularly well. Shakespeare explores the flaws in each form, rather than offer facile answers. 


To illustrate this, and the reality that everyone experiences Shakespeare differently, Coriolanus was Hitler’s favorite play. And also the favorite of Jewish Communist playwright Bertold Brecht, who fled the Nazis. For very different reasons. 


(In retrospect, Hitler perhaps embodied Coriolanus a bit too much - his hubris ended in his death and the destruction of his empire.) 


As a final thought, the plebeians were scattered throughout the audience, making it seem like we were part of “the people” throughout. It felt immersive and intimate. 



The Play That Goes Wrong


This is another play that we had seen before - at our outstanding local small theater, The Empty Space. My kids loved it the first time, and greatly enjoyed this version as well. 


Again, I won’t belabor the plot, since I have already discussed it.


There are some differences in the staging. Most obviously, USF has a FAR bigger space to work with, and a budget exponentially bigger. So, for the most notable example, the study on the second floor, which collapses, gets a real cantilever system, rather than a folding table and whatever voodoo the ES people managed to perform. 


USF also utilized the talents of a number of actors with incredible athleticism and physical comedy skills. Several were trained clowns, which really added to the humor. Jim Poulos in particular was uncanny in his ability to move his body around in a humorous manner. 


Inspector Carter (Rhett Guter), Thomas Colleymoore (Blake Henri), Perkins (Chris Mixon), 

Cecil Haversham (Jim Poulos), Florence Colleymoore (Nazlah Black) (standing) 

Charles Haversham (Jeffrey Marc Alkins) (on chaise lounge)

Apparently, this play required a significant number of extra rehearsals, just to get all of the details of the stunts down - for safety. Between people flinging themselves out of windows and the set collapsing at the end, the whole thing looks calculated to hurt someone. It doesn’t, of course, but it does require actors to be pretty athletic. 


I did also want to mention that, while the USF version was excellent in every way, seeing a professional version like this made us appreciate just how much ES managed to do in their version, without the money and space. We love USF and other pro productions, but don’t overlook the little guys either - local theater often brings it as well. 


So, those are the six we saw this year. As usual, the level of professionalism and imagination makes USF a highlight for us. The last couple times, my wife and I have also enjoyed the seminar discussions and the various presentations by actors and those behind the scenes. It is a week-long experience the way we do it. Eventually, the kids will be up and out and won’t be there with us, but we are looking forward to making this a kind of date trip in the future. 




Previous Utah Shakespeare Festival plays:


The Comedy of Errors (2014)

Charlie’s Aunt (2015)

Julius Caesar (2016)

Much Ado About Nothing (2016)

The Odd Couple (2016)

The Cocoanuts (2016)

The Comedy of Errors (2021)

The Pirates of Penzance (2021)

Pericles, Prince of Tyre (2021)

Cymbeline (2021)

Richard III (2021)

The Comedy of Terrors (2021)

Ragtime (2021)

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I can’t believe it has really been ten years since I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It stuck with me, in no small part because of the combination of a discomfiting premise, and the excellent writing chops to pull it off. 


Exit West is a very different sort of book, but it also explores the question of migration from the point of view of migrants. 


How to explain it? Well, the first half of the book seems like a rather conventional, realistic love story. Saeed and Nadia meet cute, and tentatively start a relationship. Alas, they are living in an unnamed city somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps the author’s native Lahore, Pakistan, and the country is descending into an increasingly bloody civil war. 


They are kind of the cute opposites: he is conservative by temperament, devout in an introspective but not judgmental way, and rooted to his parents. (They are retired educators, and genuinely decent everyday people.) She, on the other hand, is a rebel: she left her family, burning her bridges behind her, to live alone. In order to keep the gross men away from her, she wears a full black dress - appearing to be a fundie Muslim. But she loves sex, and freedom, and being on her own. She is not really rooted to any one place, let alone a person. 


Perhaps in a conventional novel, they would be happy together, but from the start, I think there are hints that they will eventually grow apart. 


After Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet, and the city’s infrastructure fails, Saeed and Nadia start looking for a way out. 


And this is where the book becomes akin to Magical Realism, or Science Fiction. 


Normal ways out of the country are closed, but there are rumors of “doors” - a way of simply walking out where you are to somewhere else, far away. One might call them wormholes, or perhaps view them as a metaphor for the usual ways that migrants travel - at great risk to their lives. 


The two of them take the plunge and depart through a door - his father refuses to join them - and find themselves on a journey across the globe, seeking refuge, and a place in the world. 


First, there is a refugee camp in Mykonos, then a community of migrants that has taken over vacant mansions in an alternative-world London. Finally, they end up in a shantytown near San Francisco. 


Along the way, they find that their visions for the future are different, and by the end, they part - but amiably if sadly. 


The book may not have the traditional happy romantic ending, but it is a rather hopeful book. The appearance and proliferation of the doors mean a fairly mass migration around the globe, challenging the very concept of borders (which Hamid opposes - as do many ethical thinkers), and disrupting everyone’s sense of belonging and place. 


This last one is fascinating to me, because Hamid points out near the end that ALL of us are migrants. We never end our lives in the same “place” that we started, because things change. As he puts it:


[E]veryone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.


I should also mention that throughout the book, there are little vignettes about people around the globe, connected only to the main story by being migrants of one sort or another - including the old lady referenced in the above quote, who lives her life in the same house, but finds the neighborhood change as time passes. 


Hamid’s writing is simple, but beautiful. Part of the hopefulness of the book, as well as the bittersweet ending, is the love with which he writes. Here is the opening, which grabs your attention right at the outset. 


In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something. 


This is an example of the way that a good writer can bring characters to life immediately with a simple, yet effective description. You do not need a lot of detail, necessarily - just enough to create the impression. (Of course, this is filled out as the book goes on.)


About midway through the book, when the pair decide to leave, another bit of crucial information is filled in regarding Saeed’s personality. 


Saeed desperately wanted to leave his city, in a sense he always had, but in his imagination he had thought he would leave it only temporarily, intermittently, never once and for all, and this looming potential departure was altogether different, for he doubted he would come back, and the scattering of his extended family and his circle of friends and acquaintances, forever, struck him as deeply sad, as amounting to the loss of a home, no less, of his home.


Nadia’s concerns are different - she doesn’t have the connection, but worries about being at the mercy of others, between safety and hostility toward refugees. I’m definitely more like Saeed. 


Once they find themselves in a refugee camp on Mykonos, they find that it is a lot like where they came from, before the war. 


The island was pretty safe, they were told, except when it was not, which made it like most places. Decent people vastly outnumbered dangerous ones, but it was probably best to be in the camp, near other people, after nightfall.


I grew up in neighborhoods a lot like that. Generally safe. Except when it wasn’t (and you learned to know), and probably not good to wander around too much late at night. But the vast majority of people were decent. Like most places. 


Throughout the book, there are interesting observations on a geopolitical reality: money is everything. Using a door to get to a poor country? No problem. But the ones to rich countries were well guarded. And guess which countries bear most of the burden to take in refugees? And which freak out. 


“I can understand it,” she said.” “Imagine if you lived here. And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived.”

“Millions arrived in our country,” Saeed replied. “When there were wars nearby.”

“That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.”


It really is all about the money. We have it. We don’t want to share it. And so you have cops working for Texas pushing children back into the Rio Grande rather than…I don’t know, act like decent human beings? 


I won’t get into all the details, but during their stay in London, the refugees from around the world end up squatting in abandoned mansions and penthouses, but are eventually targeted for removal. But this leaves the question: what if people just refuse to leave? What do you do? That is the precipice of genocide. Hamid is optimistic enough (and probably right more than not) that when faced with actually doing it, most people will back away. That is essentially what has happened here in California - despite some horrible anti-immigrant sentiment 30 years ago. I’ll quote the book at length, because the passage is really good. 


But a week passed. And then another. And then the natives and their forces stepped back from the brink. 

Perhaps they had decided they did not have it in them to do what would have been needed to be done, to corral and bloody and where necessary slaughter the migrants, and had determined that some other way would have to be found. Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done. Or perhaps the sheer number of places where there were now doors made it useless to fight in any one. 

And so, irrespective of the reason, decency on this occasion won out, and bravery, for courage is demanded not to attack when afraid, and the electricity and water came on again, and negotiations ensued, and word spread, and among the cherry trees on Palace Gardens Saeed and Nadia and their neighbors celebrated, they celebrated long into the night. 


So many things to unpack there. First, the sooner that the American Right realizes that you cannot close all the holes, that the “Big Fucking Wall” is an illusion and a joke, and that migrants are here, and will continue to come, the sooner we can actually work toward a constructive solution. (That’s beyond the scope of this post.) The “doors” will continue to be there and will increase - that’s literally how it works. 


Second, one of my guiding moral principles of the last 20 years has been that I want to be able to look my kids in the eye with my head held high over what I have chosen to do. Sure, I make mistakes, as we all do, but I try to make them just mistakes, not grave errors of moral judgment. I would rather be a bit too accepting of other than exclusionary. I would rather err on the side of kindness rather than “law and order.” Particularly where the vulnerable are involved. And I certainly do not want a genocide on my conscience. 


This is where Hamid’s vision for the future becomes interesting. In a moral sense, there is no justification for denying people opportunity based on the accident of where they were born. None. Thus, migration is a human right.  


So, ultimately, some form of “open” borders becomes a moral imperative. And also a simple acknowledgement of the reality that people move. They seek better lives. For themselves and their families. Trying to stop that flow is like trying to stop the tides. 


Just like we cannot stop the change of time, we cannot stop the change of place. And, for people like me, this is also an opportunity. My own life had been greatly enriched by living in a multicultural, dynamic state. (I just ate lunch from a Muslim-owned food truck - delicious!) For any of us with open minds and hearts, we too can experience the richness of diversity. It is either that, or we can become bitter xenophobes, constantly lamenting that things have changed. 


For the British in this alternate history, they decide on a variation on the Homestead Act, or “40 Acres and a Mule”: the “40 square meters and a pipe” – the chance to build a house on that land, and connection to utilities. Plus the ability to work off the cost and make a living. Nothing huge to provide, but everything to a migrant.


I want to end with a final thought on Saeed and Nadia. I was really affected by their story, because it is true to life. We don’t like to admit it, but all marriages, all relationships are temporary. I have a lot of elderly clients, and for many of them, the reason they see me is the death of a spouse. A marriage may last 60 years…but it will end someday. Everything ends. 


For Saeed and Nadia, their relationship ends after a few years, and it ends by agreement, not by death - which would have easily happened in their home city. 


But no matter how it ended, the ending did not negate the beginning or the middle. What they had for a time was beautiful and loving and precious. 


I have been feeling this way about some things in my own life. Things that ended badly still had good, and it is okay to cherish the good things despite the bad. My happy childhood wasn’t negated by the way my parents changed for the worse. The good times I had when I was part of organized religion wasn’t negated because everything went to Trump later. I need not feel guilt for that part of my past, just because things went sour. 


We are all migrants through time and change. 


And that is what I take from this book more than anything. 


Thursday, July 13, 2023

Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl


“You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.” ~ Booker T. Washington


Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I have been saying for a number of years that rural white America appears hell-bent on committing suicide. They consistently reject policies that would help them, and embrace policies that harm them. And they do this because their desire to maintain a privileged position over people of color outweighs their apparent financial and physical well-being. 


This book is all about that, detailing both the statistical realities and the psychological basis for this seemingly illogical way of being. 


Jonathan Metzl is a psychiatrist who teaches at Vanderbilt and heads their research Center for Medicine, Health, and Society. For this book, he and his team of researchers went through mountains of data looking for trends and correlations related to the specific issues he addresses. He also interviewed hundreds of people, held focus groups, and was able to put together an extensive picture of what people were saying about their lives and decisions. 


The book looks at three specific states, and three specific policy decisions. Metzl has lived in each of the three states, which is one reason he chose them - his personal experience led him to wonder why each was making policy decisions that were clearly and obviously hurting people - including the people who most supported the policies. 


First, Metzl looks at gun laws in Missouri. (He was born in Kansas City.) Until the late 1990s and early 2000s, Missouri had some of the strictest gun laws in the country, with particular restrictions on handguns. However, this changed, as guns have become increasingly a psychological crutch deeply connected with male and white identity. 


Second, Metzl examines the trajectory of Tennessee. At one time, the state attempted a significant government-subsidized healthcare system (similar to Massachusetts’ “Romney Care” although with differences.) However, by 2011, Tennessee was rejecting the Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act, leading to significantly more uninsured citizens and declining health outcomes. 


Finally, the book turns to Kansas, and the utter debacle of Governor Brownback’s policies to slash taxes on the rich, and cut infrastructure funding - particularly for the schools. This one is particularly interesting to me because of an argument I had with a relative over this. It was one of the first times I realized that those in thrall to the Right Wing Fantasy World ideology have lost any ability to deal with facts that contradict their beliefs. 


These three are enough for a book, but I would note that there are a LOT more that Metzl could have mentioned, particularly if he wrote the book in 2023. (This was 2019, with most of the research done in 2017.) 


For example: Idaho has lost several maternity wards in their hospitals, and over half of their OBGYNs intend to leave the state within a year. Why? Because of their restrictive abortion laws, which prevent doctors from giving medically appropriate care. At the same time, Idaho has disbanded their commission that investigates maternal mortality - can’t have the facts come to light. For people of childbearing age, this will certainly make them reconsider whether to move to Idaho, or stay there. 


How does this relate to race? Well, prior to about 1978, white protestants were generally in favor of Roe v. Wade (including the Southern Baptist Convention.) The Religious Right was founded on a pro-segregation platform, but the leaders knew this was not sustainable. Therefore, there was a concerted political push to make abortion the one issue to unite white protestants to always vote Republican - and feel good about it, despite the obvious racist results. 


Another example: Red states are tripping over their dicks to enact anti-LGBTQ laws….and anti “Critical Race Theory” laws, which are just a euphemism for excluding the viewpoints of people of color or any idea that systemic racism exists. However popular these are with old white bigots, younger people are, on average, horrified. 


Florida has already lost thousands of jobs from Disney as a result, and, I can tell you that my kids and their generation are going to be thinking hard about where they are willing to live. And states full of racist and anti-LGBTQ hate are not going to be on the list. 


Just like Jim Crow set the South back decades, economically, these policies are going to, in the long term, cripple white rural America. 


Oh, and Trump. Nothing like putting a grossly incompetent, morally appalling, and utterly corrupt person in the White House. None of us (who didn’t vote for him) are surprised he sold state secrets to our enemies, tried to overthrow the government, or cheated on his taxes. Of course he did. But….as my dad put it, “I don’t like Trump’s style, but at least he is finally doing something about the Hispanic problem…” That’s it in a nutshell. 


Think about other policies too: the cost of higher education and student loans, housing affordability, skyrocketing income inequality, the environment, the far higher rates of Covid deaths among Republicans because of vaccine refusals - in every case, white conservatives are killing themselves and their children’s future. And this is absolutely driven by a fear - nay, a terror - that somewhere, somehow, a person of color is getting something they “don’t deserve.” 


So, let’s jump in with some quotes. 


In the introduction, Metzl talks about his interviews, and notes something that has struck me as well, talking with members of my former religious tribe. 


At many points along the way, I became convinced that reasonable people of vastly divergent, pro-this or anti-that backgrounds might find middle ground if left to their own devices. But just as frequently, when I met with middle- and lower-income white Americans across various locales, I found support for a set of political positions that directly harmed their own health and well-being, or the health and well-being of their families. 


For example, Trevor, who essentially voted against his own healthcare coverage. 


Yet I could not help but think that Trevor’s deteriorating condition resulted also from the toxic effects of dogma. Dogma that told him that governmental assistance in any form was evil and not to be trusted, even when the assistance came in the form of federal contracts with private health insurance or pharmaceutical companies, or from expanded communal safety nets. Dogma that, as he made abundantly clear, aligned with beliefs about a racial hierarchy that overtly and implicitly aimed to keep white Americans hovering above Mexicans, welfare queens, and other nonwhite others. Dogma suggesting to Trevor that minority groups received lavish benefits from the state, even though he himself lived and died on a low-income budget with state assistance. Trevor voiced a literal willingness to die for his place in this hierarchy, rather than participate in a system that might put him on the same plane as immigrants or racial minorities.


In my law practice, I have seen this a lot. I am one of a handful of attorneys in my hometown who assist clients with qualifying for Medicaid (we call it Medi-Cal here), and I hear this from time to time: “there are benefits that only those Mexicans get, while we Americans have to starve.” 


This is bullshit on a stick, of course. If anything, undocumented immigrants are relegated to nothing more than treatment in the ER if they are actively dying - a moral scandal in my opinion, since our nation depends on them for many key sectors of our economy. But it is a perception that persists. 


Turning to the gun issue, Metzl noted that his work was made exponentially more difficult because of a federal ban on gun-related research. 


Yes. You cannot use federal funds to research guns and gun violence. The gun lobby has essentially made their industry off-limits for examination. Can you imagine if we couldn’t research, say, automobile accidents? 


Gun regulation is such a politically sensitive question in the United States that there has long been a congressional ban on funding for research on the health impact of firearms. 


This, combined with a ludicrous (and unique) blanket immunity for gun manufacturers and retailers, shows that guns have a unique place in our society - one governed not by rationality, but by a deep psychological need. 


Metzl further notes that all three of the issues he examines are inseparable from the history of race in America. Firearm ownership historically was limited to white people. Health insurance has historically been a white privilege - only those “good” jobs not available to people of color under Jim Crow - provided health insurance as a benefit. And education has and continues to be a racial battleground. 


These histories imbue debates about guns, health care systems, taxes, and schools with larger meanings about race in American and about American whiteness. The history of race in America also helps explain why these topics cut to the heart of present-day debates about what it means to provide resources, protections, and opportunities for everyone in a diverse society versus providing securities and opportunities for a select few. Debates over firearm rights in Missouri revolve around questions of “Whose lives are with protecting?”; over health care coverage in Tennessee around similar questions of “Whose lives are worth insuring?”; and over schools in Kansas around questions of “Whose lives are worth funding and educating?” 


Metzl laments the fact that in each of these three states, in the not-that-distant past, moderation won the day, and people came together to make a better society. Today’s polarization - driven almost entirely by right-wing demagoguery - has made finding common solutions near-impossible, because ideology trumps (pun intended) even one’s own well-being. 


Society mobilized to reduce risk and improve health when toxins dumped into the water, cigarettes, or faulty automobiles led to declining health. But when the pathogens were policies and ideologies, they instead laid the foundations for politics furthered at the national level by the GOP, the NRA, and the Trump administration. In these ways, stories like Trevor’s come to embody larger problems of an electorate that, in its worst moments, votes to sink the whole ship (except for a few privileged passengers who get lifeboats) even when they are on it, rather than investing in communal systems that might rise all tides. Anti-blackness, in a biological sense, then produces its own anti-whiteness. An illness of the mind, weaponized onto the body of the nation. 


I think Metzl is also correct to lay a lot of the blame on the demagogues who realized that they could attain the massive transfer of wealth upward as long as they whipped up the emotions of white people into a paroxism of racism and fear of the other. 


Yet the Tea Party, the alt-right, and the populism of Donald Trump seem to signal a marked shift in the course of American history and hasten the downfall of what remains of white conservative political traditions of compromise. In the words of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Trump then became “the first white President” as a result. The results are potentially catastrophic. I’ve come to believe, and argue in this book, that playing to white anxieties has implications beyond “whipping up the base” against immigrants, liberals, and minorities. When politics demands that people resist available health care, amass arsenals, cut funding for schools their own kids attend, or make other decisions that might feel emotionally correct but are biologically perilous, these politics are literally asking people to die for their whiteness. Living in a state or county or a nation dominated by politics of racial resentment then becomes a diagnosable, quantifiable, and increasingly mortal preexisting condition. 


As people in the states examined in this book are experiencing - and the people of Idaho (and other red states are about to experience.) Living there will literally be a risk factor for maternal mortality, chronic untreated illness, suicide, and substandard education. 


Couching politics in racial mistrust also makes it harder for white America to see how we - and I include myself as a white American here - would benefit self and country far more by emphasizing economic, legislative, and everyday cooperation rather than by chasing the false promise of supremacy. Investing in communal health care solutions, worker’s rights, better roads and bridges, research into climate change and opiate addiction, common-sense gun laws, or expanded social safety nets benefit everyone, not just the immigrant and minority populations or “liberals” that red- and purple-state white Americans have been taught to doubt or see as taking more than their fair share of entitlements. In the book’s conclusion, I argue that the way forward requires a white America that strives to collaborate rather than dominate, with a mind-set of openness and interconnectedness that we have all-too-frequently neglected.


I will mention here a truth that is often underappreciated. Here in the US, poverty is racialized - but not completely. Minorities are more likely to live in poverty than whites, statistically. But because there are more whites overall, there are also more whites living in poverty than there are minorities. What this means is that most policies that are aimed at making life worse for minorities end up hurting more whites, as “collateral damage.” This is even more so for infrastructure like schools and healthcare, where only the ultra-rich can truly replace public goods using their own money. 


In the first section of the book, Metzl starts out by recounting conversations at a support group for the survivors left behind after a suicide. These stories are harrowing and achingly sad. Suicide is a tragedy that affects nearly all of us in some way - a cousin of mine died a few years ago. 


But central to the discussion of suicide, just like that of any potentially preventable cause of death, is the question of risk. We talk a lot about depression and warning signs and other factors, but the one taboo seems to be the one Metzl focuses on: guns. 


We can talk about all the other factors, but woe to the person who points out the obvious: gun ownership greatly increases the risk of death by suicide. Guns are more lethal than other methods, and gun ownership increases the risk of a suicide attempt. Why are we not studying this?


Metzl points out that in the case of guns, risk is subject to contested politics. To admit that guns might have a downside, a negative affect, is to commit political treason if you are a right-winger. This is why I believe that to many, guns are not so much a useful tool as an idol, a god that promises them something. Metzel explores this. 


Psychiatrists like me sometimes think that men who outsource their sense of power onto external objects - and particularly onto objects shaped like guns - do so in ways that convey deeper, gendered insecurities about potency and perhaps even racial insecurities or projected guilt. Projecting such profound gender and racial insecurities onto objects might then render men subject to the maneuvers of marketers, sellers, lobbyists, politicians, and other manipulators of common sense. Of course, guns are also incredibly dangerous, but the danger they pose to people who own and carry them and to their families becomes harder to acknowledge or recognize when these objects of potential self-destruction carry such weighted connotations.


As Metzl notes in relation to Missouri:


Here, guns function as totems, symbols of belonging and of self- and community protection, revered sources of power. 


It is this deep psychological connection that makes common-sense regulation (such as license, registration, and insurance) politically impossible in this climate. Here again, the ban on research is problematic. 


Politicians and lobbyists then manipulate the knowledge vacuum surrounding risk to balkanize everyday people on matters of life, death, and mundane daily routine - matters about which, if left to their own devices, people could probably forge consensus…The forces that promote (and indeed, often gain financially from) polarization grow ever-more powerful, while hardworking people who live at various points along the oft-manufactured pro-gun-anti-gun continuum are left to fend for themselves. 


Before I move on to the next section, I want to note some key statistics which get buried in the debate. 


First, gun suicides significantly outnumber gun homicides. This is important, because the media-driven narrative is the opposite - that gun deaths are mostly “inner-city” homicides. Although not in the book, another corollary to this is that very few homicides are by strangers. So the fear narrative that drives gun culture - the black guy who breaks into your home - is actually rare. More likely is the domestic abuser who kills his wife. Or the drug deal gone bad. 


But suicides are more common than the other forms of gun deaths. 


Second, and the book explores this, the demographic that commits suicide by gun is disproportionately white males. And it isn’t even close. Not just in raw numbers, but in rates. The primary victims of guns in this country are white males. The very people who tend to view guns as totems of their masculinity and whiteness. 


Dying of whiteness. 


On to health care.


I was raised as a white evangelical, so I was inculcated with the belief (ludicrous in retrospect) that to be a Christian was to vote Republican. And yeah, I had an embarrassing Rush Limbaugh phase and all that. It took time to deconstruct, particularly after having to expend my energy to convince myself that my parents knew what they were doing when they dragged me into a cult, denied me a meaningful opportunity for a normal higher education and choice of my own career, and so on. 


I was increasingly uncomfortable with the GOP as I got into my 30s, as the rhetoric started shifting away from “give everyone a chance” to “those people are the problem.” 


I ended up breaking permanently with the GOP in 2013, during the government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act. 


Literally, the GOP wanted to shutter the government to extort a repeal of a law that, while imperfect (it is literally based on the GOP plan from Massachusetts), actually benefited a lot of people. And the GOP had ZERO plan to replace it with something better. 


As we found out during the Trump administration and the attempt to “repeal and replace” the ACA, all the GOP had was to gut Medicaid and kick millions of the most impoverished in the country out of the healthcare system. 


Leave aside the fact that this is beyond morally appalling. 


It is also a fundamentally suicidal approach to building a society. Illness and death cost us a lot, in productivity, economic production, and general well-being. And emergency rooms crammed with the uninsured is hardly the way to deal with the issue. What is needed (and is still needed) is a form of universal infrastructure for healthcare - just like literally every other first world country (and some of the third world) has. 


So why can’t we have that? Well, as Metzl examines - and this is 100% backed up by my own conversations with right wingers - a lot of white people do NOT want to share with minorities. Full stop. They are willing to pay twice as much as other countries for inferior care, put up with a labyrinthine insurance system created to deny needed care to save money, and even die of lack of care… long as we aren’t spending tax dollars on those “dirty Mexicans.”


Here is Metzl on the Trump era repeal attempt:


A constant theme emerged from the almost unimaginably dysfunctional process of trying to sink people’s health care with no real alternative in place: every single GOP proposal, initiative, or inaction carried negative consequences for Southern white working-class populations who formed the core of Trump’s support base.


What the actual fucking hell???


It is absolutely clear why:


In a variety of complex ways, white populations frequently justified their support for anti-ACA positions not through the benefits that expanded health care might have for themselves or their families but through concerns about threats to their status and privilege represented by government programs that promised to equally distribute resources or imagined health advantages. We often found that no ivory-tower health-policy explanation of the ACA’s potential benefits came close to challenging concerns about ways that health insurance came from the administration of an African American president or placed white Americans into “networks” with immigrant and minority populations. 


That’s it. Full stop. 


The history of healthcare in the US bears this out. Harry Truman tried to enact universal healthcare in the 1950s - to match Europe, Canada, and Australia. But it was defeated in part because of the lobbying of the (all white) American Medical Association who didn’t want to have to treat African Americans. This is still the defining narrative in our healthcare debate. White people who want special socialism for them, while excluding the “undeserving” minorities. 


For that matter, every complaint about “socialism” comes down to that. Because there isn’t a viable socialist movement in the US - no mainstream politician of either major party is calling for the government ownership of the means of production. What the right wing means by “socialism” is their belief that deserving white people are being taxed to give benefits to undeserving brown and black people. That’s it. That’s all it is. And this has become obvious in the Trump Era, when right wingers no longer had to hide the racism behind euphemism and dog whistles. 


Metzl gives further proof of this by citing the history of the use of “communism” to describe desegregation - and “mixed marriage.” Yep, interracial marriage was once tarred as a “communist” plot. But this wasn’t just in the 1960s! A Tennessee pastor literally said this….in 2014. Twenty Fourteen, for fuck’s sake! My kids were all born and this evil shit was still being spewed from the pulpit. 


The book examines the battle over the individual mandate in the ACA - that is, the requirement that everyone obtain health insurance. This is one of the most foundational planks of any universal healthcare program. It only functions if everyone pulls together. Letting the (temporarily) healthy skate, while expecting the ill to pay everything is never going to work - if you get sick, you probably can’t work (at least until you get better), and thus the US has a situation where a large majority of individual bankruptcies are triggered by illness - which causes expenses, loss of income, loss of health coverage, and a financial spiral. 


Metzl calls this universal mandate a form of “herd immunity” - and the analogy is even more apropos after Covid, when the same right wingers who refused to participate in universal healthcare because they would have to share with “those people” also refused vaccines, because they saw no reason to protect the vulnerable through herd immunity. 


And now, we turn to Kansas. 


Let me start with a personal story. When I was a kid, we had a favorite uncle (then unmarried), who did all kinds of fun stuff with us, from beach trips to Peter Sellers movies. He was also a political worker - he was part of some significant Republican campaigns here in California, and served as chief of staff for a state legislator later. Eventually, he got out of direct politics and went into real estate. 


Back in the day, he seemed like a thoughtful person, and I think I learned a lot about our political system from him - including how to do door-to-door campaigning, send out mailings, and register voters. 


But as the result of his involvement, he eventually ended up with his politics reduced to Animal Farm level thinking: “Republicans Good, Democrats Bad.” 


No matter what. 


No matter the evidence. No matter the changing policies (such as embrace of immigrants under Reagan to vicious xenophobia under Trump.) 


For a while, I tried having arguments with him, but eventually realized that party loyalty - and ideological loyalty - were the only thing that matter to him at that point. 


The last real argument we had (before he finally just said something openly racist - a deal breaker for me as far as friendship is concerned) was about Kansas. 


Here’s the scenario:


One form of scientific experiment is one where you change a single variable and see what happens. In the best form, the controlled experiment, you do that for one set of identical groups - change a single variable in one of the groups but not the other, and see what happens. 


Kansas under Brownback was as close to a controlled scientific experiment as you can get in politics. 


Brownback slashed taxes, primarily on the rich, promising the same lie that Reagan promised: that tax cuts would stimulate the economy, thus paying for themselves. 


Change one variable, see what happens. 


Other surrounding states did not slash taxes, so, while there is no perfect identical group, you have some significant similarity. 


So what happened?


Revenue dropped substantially, while the ultra-rich got ultra-richer.


This drop in revenue led to significant cuts to infrastructure funding. Roads, bridges - anything that was a public good. 


But particularly to the schools. 


There were two prongs to this. First, universal, across the board cuts, leading to high class sizes, fewer non-core programs (sex ed and the arts tend to be the first to go…), fewer non-teaching staff, deferred maintenance of buildings, and eventually fewer teachers. 


But the other was the real focus of the Brownback administration. Previously, Kansas recognized that you have to give additional funding to schools that serve a lower income population. It takes money to teach English as a Second Language - crucial for the success of immigrant children. It takes money for special education, and having a disabled child is a huge financial stress, often leading to poverty. And, of course, Kansas was ground zero for segregation - Brown v. Board of Education was a Kansas case. So the lingering results of Jim Crow and ongoing systemic racism put kids from the more diverse cities at risk for dropping out or failing. 


The point, of course, for people like Brownback, was that white taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for “those people” to have their kids educated. 


But, since Kansas is actually still a really white state, the majority of the kids negatively affected by the specific cuts to city schools were white. And the global cuts literally hurt everyone. Except for the really rich who could afford a fancy private school. (Dirty little secret here: not all private schools are equal. Go to an affordable one, and you find that a lot of the stuff like band and sports don’t exist at the same level as a public school. All that costs money…) 


So what happened in Kansas, as Metzl details (with a hell of a lot of statistical proof too) is that Kansas went from having one of the best public school systems in the US to one in the bottom third. Scores, dropout rates, class sizes - it all went downhill. 


Is this a surprise? It shouldn’t be. 


Eventually, even Kansas Republican voters got fed up, and started reversing Brownback’s cuts. But damage to schools doesn’t bounce back immediately. Metzl laments that one casualty is that a whole generation of children grew up without realizing what they could have had in a functional school system. This is bigger than Kansas and bigger than education, of course. Americans cannot even imagine living with a functional healthcare system, for example. 


All this to say that my cousin and I had this discussion with my uncle, and he never saw the light. The evidence was clear as day in a controlled experiment that tax cuts resulted in lowered revenue - incontrovertible proof that Reaganomics is a fucking lie. (There is also literally 40+ years of evidence from around the globe of this, too, so Kansas is not an outlier. The rich hoard wealth, not spread it on down. If “christians” would actually read their bible, though, they would already know this. Just saying.) 


That’s when I realized there was no further use in discussion with right wingers. Evidence doesn’t matter. Only ideology - and the ideology that tells them they don’t have to share with others - matters. 


Some money quotes from this section are worth repeating. 


Cuts to infrastructure became increasingly apparent. Kansas fell below national averages on a wide range of public services, including public transit, housing, and police and fire protection. 


Funny how budget cuts lead to poorer services. Who knew? Metzl details how road repairs went from 1200 miles a year to only 200, bridge repair and replacement became close to non-existent, to the point where 3000 are considered structurally deficient. Dams are also deficient, with hundreds risking significant loss of life. 


In an effort to preserve necessary services, municipalities had to find ways to raise funds. At the state level, deductions that benefited low income residents were eliminated, and localities had to raise sales taxes. These are regressive, with the net result that after the Brownback tax cuts (for the rich), the bottom 40% of Kansas residents ended up paying MORE tax. The ultra-rich made out like bandits, at the expense of everyone else. 


The conservative white voters who comprised the majority of Brownback’s base elected a politician who implemented a series of policies that, at their core, limited social mobility. Brownback’s version of backlash austerity concentrated wealth at the top of the social pyramid while starving the main conduits through which immigrant, minority, and poor communities mobilized upward. This form of anything-but-experimental austerity ensured that people at the top remained there and people at the bottom were forever looking up. Austerity codified hierarchy: the rich got richer, and instead of promoting largesse, tax “relief” made sure that the system that assured their dominance remained ever-more inevitably in place. 


Who wants that? Well, it’s all about how you sell it. 


“School cuts definitely started out as something that people thought were only geared toward inner-city, black, and Hispanic schools and districts,” one administrator explained. “That’s how they were sold at first.”


Education has effects far beyond social mobility or individual success, however. It has lifetime consequences for life expectancy. College graduates live on average NINE YEARS longer than high school dropouts. That’s huge. And those numbers are widening. 


As Metzl points out, correlation is easy, but the exact causes are complicated and difficult to trace. However, there are some interesting connections that are easier to see. 


States with the highest education levels also tended to collect progressive state and local taxes, and invest more readily in “education, infrastructure, urban quality of life, and human services.” By contrast, states that cut taxes for corporations and wealthy persons and reduced government services saw worse health outcomes.


But of course it didn’t stay that way. 


Like gun data in Missouri and health data in Tennessee, trends that impacted minority populations broadened to impact white populations as well. Students of all backgrounds and foregrounds, with lives and futures ahead of them, thereby became cannon fodder in the fight to redistribute wealth upward. 


Booker T. Washington really was right. 


The conclusion chapter starts with a horrifying story. In the wake of the Ferguson protests, a white woman and single mother named Becca Campbell bought a gun, and traveled toward downtown with her boyfriend. Exactly whether she intended to support the protesters or oppose them is unclear. And maybe she just wanted to watch. But at some point in the trip, she started waving the gun around, and accidently put a bullet through her own head. 


Metzl posits that she died of whiteness, regardless of what went through her head before the fatal accident. 


Yet what everyone seemed to overlook in their interpretation of Campbell’s death is the point I’ve made throughout this book: we lose perspective when we explain racially charged encounters in the United States solely on the basis of what exists in people’s minds or on their individual actions. Doing so blocks recognition of the ways racial anxieties manifest themselves in laws, policies, and infrastructures - in ways that carry negative implications for everyone. These latter forms of bias result not just from personal attitudes or choices but from the investments and disinvestments that we as a society vote on, implement, and live with in the day to day. In an increasingly polarized country, such structures silently shape larger American interactions, surrounding race, as well as intimate encounters that impact how we live, work, think, feel, and die. 


At least in Kansas, Metzl saw some hope that white conservatives were capable of seeing that they were harming themselves. Particularly encouraging is that some of the more religious ones are starting to return to an idea that they are their brother’s keeper - an idea that has been so difficult to find among white evangelicals in particular. Here is one quote that acknowledges the problem, and looks for ways to fix it.


For Barbara Bollier, a GOP state senator, reversing the Brownback fiscal damage involved combating white racial attitudes that justified tax cuts through a logic that “minorities don’t deserve my money in any way, shape, or form…blacks are just lazy SOBs who don’t want to work.” Bollier, a physician, saw these kinds of attitudes as targets that government needed to address if it was to create better lives for “all Kansans.” 


I too have seen some people - a few at least - come to this realization as well. Even a few of my parents’ generation (although I strongly doubt my parents will ever see the light.) The belief that minorities are stealing “their hard earned money” is a difficult one to counteract, and the proof is in the way that so many are willing to die for whiteness - or at least sacrifice their grandchildren to it. 


Someday, when the history books are written, I think this period of time - my lifetime - will be looked upon with curiosity - that time that white Americans chose to commit suicide because they thought their black and brown neighbors would die a little faster. And the ultra-rich just sat watching it and laughing their asses off at how easy it was. 


As I have gotten older and have observed multiple decades of the disintegration of morality among the American Right (and especially white Evangelicalism) I have become more and more convinced that all stupidity ultimately descends from moral stupidity. 


As Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” 


I have known many people with intellectual disabilities, and they are generally not fools. I have also known plenty of people who had high IQs who were total idiots. 


And in every case, the intellectual stupidity followed on a decision to feed their moral stupidity. The decision that “love your neighbor” didn’t apply to “those people” led directly to the cognitive dissonance as the policies they supported harmed people like them and their descendants. This required an increasing level of denialism about basic reality, to keep the racist ideology intact. 


My parents fell for Reaganomics, but retained a general morality and grasp on reality until the LA Riots. From then on, it was a gradual descent into conspiracy-theory land, charlatan cult leaders, and right-wing nuttery. By Covid, they had bought into all the conspiracy theories, and apparently believe my family will all be dead of auto-immune diseases in a few years because we got the vaccine. 


But I could list so many others. My flat-earth aunt…the one whose family would have starved if not for food stamps, Medicaid, and the Earned-Income Tax Credit (liberal ideas all!), but who has always railed against the “lazy mexicans” who take all the jobs. The religious nuts here in town who harass and bully the LGBTQ kids like mine….and somehow keep getting caught using the N word. And also spout QAnon lies about liberals drinking the blood of infants. (Hey, look, the old Blood Libel is back!) 


Ultimately, though, even if moral stupidity triumphs (and I have hope it can and will be defeated), what will they have gained? The chance to watch minorities die a few moments before them? A slightly less crushing level of poverty and hopelessness for black and brown kids than for their own white grandchildren? Their communities dying for lack of opportunity, education, healthcare? Communities wracked by gun suicides and opiate overdoses and chronic alcoholism? They make a desolation and call it peace


Metzl’s vision of a better future is inspiring. Ultimately, it depends on us humans - white humans particularly, since we tend to live in denial - realizing that we are all connected. If any of us fail to thrive, it hurts all of us. 


The measure of our society’s greatness is not how rich our billionaires are. It is the wellbeing of those at the margins of our society. If they thrive, we all thrive. If they hurt, it will ultimately hurt every one of us. Rather than insisting on dying of whiteness, we would do well to thrive as a multicultural society - where everyone matters. 





Just one final personal note I couldn’t find a place for in the main post. As regular readers know, I have been estranged from my parents for several years. There are a number of long term reasons, from their rejection of my wife (because she worked outside of the home and wore culturally normal clothing, among other issues) to their blatant favoritism towards my abusive narcissist sister, to eventually their rejection of my transgender child.


But actually, THEY are the ones who chose to cut us out of their lives. And the reason my dad gave was that I “insulted” them by repeating in public the disgusting racist things they said to me where my kids may have heard.


They were willing to sacrifice our relationship to their loyalty to whiteness – to their belief that they should be entitled to say hateful lies about people of color without any social consequences. Our relationship literally died of whiteness.