Normal Is What Got Us Here

It’s looking like the country managed a dismount — but sticking the landing requires some difficult truth-telling

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. — George Orwell, 1984

We’ve heard a lot of 1984 references over the last few years. Usually it’s been accompanied by some form of the White liberal pearl-clutching that has grown so familiar these days. If I had a nickel for every opinion piece feigning shock at what’s going on in this country, I’d have enough money to relocate to a nation that practices direct democracy in their political elections.

As I look back now on the America I have always known, I want to be surprised at where we are. I even want to be surprised at how many people are surprised at where we are. But I know better. I know that American political culture is, in fact, a series of tacit agreements and that by examining the nature of those agreements, this moment is the only place we could have come to.

When I hear the phrase “tacit agreement,” the first thing I think about is Vanilla Ice. “Ice Ice Baby” was a big deal in 1990. In the Salt Lake suburb my family had just moved to, it was bigger than that; it was a cultural phenomenon. I watched curiously as Vanilla Ice gave sheltered Mormon kids the one thing they craved above all else: access to cool. Access to cool without having to become a skater and/or headbanger, that is. In Sandy, Utah, at the start of seventh grade, that was the only way. Start skipping class and getting hurt trying to land a kickflip while Alice in Chains blared on shitty speakers in the background—or give in. Shrug your shoulders and admit that you were a sheltered Mormon White kid living in a state that, just a few years prior, had banned Olivia Newton John’s “(Let’s Get) Physical” from the radio.

Of course, we know the cool they were being offered was just a high-starch, easily digestible repackaging of Blackness. A formula dating back to Elvis and beyond, it is so common on the American cultural landscape that it deserves its own category at the Grammys. (Or, in some sense, it is the Grammys.) As a mixed kid in a sea of White people, this formula was particularly problematic. It was always hard to know where to start when a bunch of White kids would tell me I “wasn’t really Black” while I was, statistically, the Blackest person they had ever met. One thing they couldn’t doubt, though, was the Blackness (and therefore coolness) of In Living Color.

In Living Color was the arbiter of cool. When one of their skits hit, it was the closest thing to going viral I can remember in pre-internet society. As a young Black teenager stranded in a Black cultural desert, it was an oasis of all things Black. Black dancing (even though I couldn’t dance), Black music, Black humor. I tuned in without fail for the weekly breath of fresh air sent out over the airwaves. My classmates, however, tuned in for other reasons. For one thing, it was damn funny, so let’s get that out of the way. But for these kids, and I imagine a lot of other suburban kids around America, it was more. It was a weekly ability to tap into Black American culture for the little snippets of cool they sought after. In Living Color let us all know what was “fly” so we could also be “fly.” It was very democratic when you think about it.

When I think about the confluence of these two cultural forces, In Living Color and Vanilla Ice, I like to picture the writers’ room at our favorite Black sketch show: everyone gathered around the table, licking their lips and laughing maniacally at the trap they had so perfectly set for suburban kids across the country. “Hey, Jim, get in here!”

The day before Jim Carrey kicked his shoe off on national television, Vanilla Ice was the epitome of cool. I’m not gonna front here; I liked the song. My Black cousins liked the song. We listened to it together when I visited. It was also nice to have something in common with my couple of White Utah friends who (obviously) liked the song. But there was something different about the way the song was enjoyed in the suburbs around me. There was something different about how they liked it. They liked it too much, for one. But also, they weren’t just enjoying the song. They were enjoying a White guy doing that song and pulling it off. I found it irksome, and by the time Jim Carrey had finished “White, White, Baby,” I couldn’t wait to go to school. To see the carnage, the reckoning of the collective suburban White kid consciousness as they were forced to choose between the two gods they’d been trying to serve this whole time.

It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.—1984

What I found at school the next day left me baffled. I wasn’t generally a talkative kid. New kid/new school, Black kid/White school—I found it better to just not say much. But that day, I walked from class to class in silent shock. Everyone was talking about the In Living Color skit as expected. But it turned out no one liked Vanilla Ice. Not only did they not like him, they had never liked him; they couldn’t remember ever meeting or knowing someone who liked him. From group to group, grade to grade, this was the refrain. Not only was Vanilla Ice dead, he had never lived in our hallways in the first place. I wandered the school that day in a trance. I felt like I had been kicked in the head.

I chewed on that experience for a very long time. You could call it a setback. Or you could call it an introduction to the kind of tacit agreements that keep our society running. When you have a society that was built on the kind of violence American society was built on and claims to embrace the democratic and Christian ideals America does, tacit understandings become the lubricant of civil society. If dominance and exploitation are the fuel, doublethink is the oil. It keeps everything running smoothly. It keeps us all smiling and good-hearted as we enjoy luxuries provided by the pain of others.

I would go on to experience this phenomenon over and over in my life. Once I worked at a print shop where a new handyman was hired to help out. He framed a wall, a very crooked wall, to create extra storage space. Everyone in the shop walked by and laughed at it, except the bosses. As I was leaving, they stood there pshawing everyone who had made fun of it. “It’s a wall!” they exclaimed; it didn’t need to be fancy. A week later, the handyman put the most expensive tool in our shop in his truck and drove off, never to be seen again. The next day, the bosses could be seen looking at the same wall. Now it was crooked. The worst wall they’d seen in their life.

I was on the football team when I was in high school. I remember players who were too cool to acknowledge their own teammates in the hall but would scream and cry at team meetings about how they would die for “anyone in this room.” I was 17 by this point, so I was older and wiser. I knew I wasn’t interested in dying for my high school football team. I knew that after graduation, I wouldn’t be in touch with a single one of them. But I also knew better than to let on at that point. I knew being a “team player” was about more than what you did on the field the same way I knew, 10 years later, not to say anything about the crooked wall at my job. By then, I had sensed something about how groups establish trust in our society:

a) Pick something that isn’t so — the more obvious the better.

b) Declare it so.

c) Only trust those who agree it is so.

d) Ostracize and berate anyone who dares speak the clear fact that it isn’t so.

Because in a land of self-righteous pirates, you need people who do the dirt, and you need people to call it clean. What better way to determine who you can trust than a tacit social contract? No one is on record. No one meets to declare everything sanitary. We just agree that it is so.

These contradictions are not accidental nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink. — 1984

And so when George W. Bush said, a month or two into his presidency, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, I took it as a declaration of intent. The polls showed that no one believed him. From the general public to the intelligence agencies, it was considered laughable. I mean, hadn’t Bill Clinton just bombed the hell out of that country to get everyone to forget about his indiscretions? The people around me brushed it off — an absurd idea from an absurd man. But it was the absurdity that made it dangerous to me. That he could get up and declare such an obvious falsehood with such a straight face meant he was testing the waters. He was seeing what we’d let him get away with.

We heard those words from him again a few months after 9/11. And that time, they stuck. Roughly half the country suddenly believed Iraq had WMDs when less than a year before, hardly anyone had believed it. How did that happen? What made so many people change their minds? Now’s where people say something about the success of pro-war propaganda. I call bullshit there. Sure, the propaganda was successful. And sure, Americans have the political memory of a goldfish. But that’s not what was happening. It’s not that people started buying into a savvy political propaganda campaign. It’s that they didn’t care. They were hurting and they were angry and they wanted blood. They wanted to punish someone; it didn’t matter so much who. Sensing this, already wanting to invade Iraq, and having a sound understanding of how doublethink works in our society, the administration simply put the same idea back on the table. It was snatched up like free candy.

It turned out everyone had been worried about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs for quite some time now. And anyone trying to examine that line of thought was met with a resounding call to “Support the troops!” (This was usually said threateningly and before one could finish a sentence.) After all, there were only two sides. And the right side wasn’t worrying about little details like accuracy. Ultimately, it came down to whether or not you were a true patriot. Either you were on the team or you were not. Now was the time for action and belief. That was what the loyalty of the moment required of you. There was no tolerance of any thought contrary to the tacit agreement. The administration would get what they wanted, the public would get what they wanted, and both would pretend that the other had sincere motivations. Your objections were met with the ferocity we reserve for those who are breaking the contract by stating the obvious truth we have agreed to ignore.

Doublethink lies at the very heart … the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. — 1984

And so the American people got their blood. They got to put their feet up on their lunch break and watch “shock and awe” like it was an early July 4. Billions of missing dollars, a generation of suffering vets, and a million Iraqi lives later, there were never any WMDs. And a little after that, it became acceptable to say so. The people you said it to responded with the same line, like they’d all rehearsed it together: “If we’d known then what we know now.” The brazenness of the statement was astounding to me, made in the face of all the death and destruction they had just unleashed on the world.

More astounding was how the left let them get away with it. The Obama administration didn’t want to talk about war crimes of the former administration because it was time for our nation to “heal” and “move forward.” Liberals across the country were giving conservatives a similar free pass. No need to dwell on the past. Besides, it was crude to say “I told you so.” Better to assume they had learned their lesson than to risk the conflict involved with teaching it.

There are two big lies that keep America going. The lie on the right is that righteousness drives all this destruction and greed, and the lie on the left is that we have healed from it.

If it hadn’t been for my prior experiences, I would have been shocked, again, into silence. But I didn’t let those I knew get away with it. I was branded as petty and gloating, but I was willing to take those labels for a moment or two of sanity. So when my White grandmother said she didn’t know about the WMDs, I knew what she meant because I’d been there. I’d watched her choose carefully the sources that would tell her what she wanted to hear. “Well, I knew,” I replied. “So next time, listen to me instead of whoever you listened to, and then you’ll know, too.” Her face turned red; she stuttered and turned away. She knew she wasn’t off the hook.

Unsurprisingly, the nation didn’t follow my lead. We moved quickly into an era of supposed reconciliation. But it was a bandage on a festering wound. The right had denied reality to its face and gotten away with it. And those very same people, while the left was celebrating the nation’s newfound unity, were laying the groundwork for the next time. As Mitch McConnell declared on the Senate floor his strategy of obstruction at all costs, the left focused elsewhere, masking its avoidance by calling it the higher road. Instead of an honest examination of what went wrong, they were tickled that W. snuck candies to Michelle Obama, refusing all the while to acknowledge the connection between that and now.

There are two big lies that keep America going. The lie on the right is that righteousness drives all this destruction and greed, and the lie on the left is that we have healed from it. Combined, these lies sanitize and perpetuate the cycle of American violence. Imagine a game of tetherball where both people are pushing the ball in the same direction. That’s the piety of the right combined with the permissiveness of the left. Liberals want to present themselves as the adults in the room, comforting conservatives after their outbursts so the house can run smoothly again. In reality, they are the parent at the store buying whatever their child wants until they just shut up, their inability to say no ensuring another tantrum to follow. They present themselves as the antidote to the viciousness of the right when, in fact, they are merely the respite.

And yes, given a choice between the two, I will choose the respite. (For one thing, it’s then that more space for progress exists; during attacks it is forced into a defensive position.) But what we’re really looking at is two ends of the same agreement. One does the dirt; the other declares it clean. Declares us healed. Declares lessons learned. Both benefit.

For anyone sincerely wanting to move on from this moment, it will take a lot more than NPR calm and liberal civility. It will take more than finally getting the toddler to calm down in the grocery aisle. The behavior must be addressed. The cycle must be stopped. If you’re not willing to speak up tomorrow, you’re not entitled to euphoria today. We need to be willing to remind someone they liked Vanilla Ice, to admit to the football team that we wouldn’t die for each other, to tell our bosses the wall is crooked. If we’re not willing to have these moments, we’re not building a better America. We’re not breaking the tacit agreement and stepping into the deliberate accountability and decision-making that is the precursor to change.

If you’re excited at the election results, fine. If you take a deep breath to enjoy it, fine. I, too, will be enjoying the break. But if you aren’t willing to stand up and tell someone that you saw what they supported, what they brought us to the brink of—if you’re not willing to make them try to defend the indefensible—then all you are is the cool side of the pillow, the boom in a boom-bust cycle of political violence. You are an indispensable end of the American drill-down to the bottom. And when we get there, you’ll only have yourself to blame.

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