Volume 4, Issue 18: Cruel Country
"I love my country like a little boy, red, white, and blue. I love my country, stupid and cruel."
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Tuesday night, roughly eight hours after 19 schoolchildren and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde, Texas, I attended an Election Night rally for my friend Kelly Girtz, who was running for re-election as mayor of Athens, Georgia, the town where I live. The rally was at the Little Kings Shuffle Club in downtown Athens, a place where you can sit on beaten-up old ‘70s couches and put your feet up on a coffee table with a stained photo of Betty Boop underneath the glass. I was optimistic that Kelly would win. It’s a progressive town, he’s a progressive guy, he has done a good job as mayor. I like him, as a friend and as a representative of the people: I donated to his campaign, I promoted him on social media, I put up a lawn sign. I did all the silly little things you do to try to make a difference, however small.
The crowd at an election night rally for a progressive mayor in a mid-sized college town is roughly what you’d expect. You had your old-timers, your long-time protestors and rabble rousers, white-bearded, sensibly shoed tenured professors who have been fighting the good fight for decades. You had your craft brew crowd, Gen-Xers who never miss the Drive-By Truckers Homecoming shows but otherwise tend not to stay up too far past 10:30 anymore. You have the people who put in the work every day—social workers, teachers, church leaders, volunteers—who consider political events like these simply part of the tending of the larger garden, making the rounds as part of a life dedicated to quiet, consistent public service.
And then you have the kids. I kept looking at the kids.
Not the children, though there were a few of those; Kelly’s son is teammates with my son William on the Athens Little League 10Y All-Stars this summer, a terrific shortstop and a funny kid who will talk baseball with you as long as you will let him. (I spent part of the night mocking him by reminding him the Braves, after 2021, are still seven titles behind the Cardinals. I’ve gotten good at this in the last seven months.)
I don’t mean those kids, not yet. I mean the earnest youth. I mean the kids working on Kelly’s campaign and other campaigns, the ones who were scrambling around all night, frantically updating the election results page, the ones scouring social media, the ones desperately trying to find out voter turnout figures from various polling places around town. Were numbers big in Normaltown? Was turnout down in East Athens? Did they get a push from Winterville? For most of them, this was their first campaign; one was a college student who said he was inspired by watching Kelly march with Black Lives Matter protestors and wanted to “be a part of something important.” He was so, so earnest. The rest of us there were drinking and socializing and grousing and sharing stories of holding our kids closer when we’d picked them up from school that day, after the horrors of Texas, horrors that would only get worse as news unfolded the rest of the week. I will confess: I could not quite share the totality of his earnestness, and I do not believe many others in the crowd shared it either. This was not our first campaign, and not the first political candidate we believed in. Even when it turns out the way we want it to, it has a tendency not to turn out the way we want it to.
This was, after all, also not our first school shooting. We’ve been here before. We’ve seen that nothing—no one—is going to stop us from being here again.
I couldn’t tell the kid it’s just going to get harder from here. He was doing his part—he was believing. I am not sure sometimes how many of them there are left. I did see other college students at the bar, a lot of them, but they weren’t a part of the Girtz campaign, or Election Night celebration at all. They were just there drinking, playing cards, swiping left, swiping right, off in their own little worlds, worlds that had nothing to do with believing you can change this world in any meaningful way. I noticed them looking up at us occasionally, all of us wearing our little “Athens-Clarke County Democrats” pins and waiting for election results to come in. I have to tell you: They looked as us like we were idiots. They looked at us like we were doing the dumbest, most pointless thing in the world.
This week, the writer Alex Pareene, in his newsletter, posited that an underappreciated problem with shrugging your shoulders and saying that nothing can be done, when something horrific happens like something horrific happened this week, is that it fosters a whole generation of people who will, totally understandably, stop trying to do anything at all. As he put it:
Politicians elected to solve problems by doing politics blame “politics” for why the problems cannot be solved. In that context, what do you expect people to embrace? What solutions might they turn to, once you have taught them that this system, which excludes them from any meaningful representation of their interests, which forecloses any possibility of their preferences from being enacted, is “democracy”? … Anyway, 19 little kids are dead, and I don’t expect anything meaningful will be done to prevent the next 19 little kids from getting killed. I know most of the complex logistical, legal, cultural, and political reasons why our system is incapable of preventing this. I leave those explanations to other authors. I ask instead what anyone with power in this country—a group that has intentionally excluded young people from its ranks—plans to do about those reasons. And I invite the reader to think about the implications of the fact that those people with power cannot answer my question with anything remotely credible. What are you going to do about the fact that we all know you can’t do anything?
It is one thing to believe things are bad. It is quite another to believe there is no way to stop them from being bad—that the fight has already been lost.
Before this horrors of this week, you saw this in the wake of the leaking of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Two-thirds of Americans are against overturning Roe v. Wade, the very definition of a landslide. Abortion has been one of the signature issues of the last half-century of American politics, and one would think that the overturning of the defining court case of this era, changing a fundamental American right, a right that two-thirds of the country supports, would lead to a seismic uprising of the American people. But it hasn’t. The leaking of the decision hasn’t budged the polls at all, and the people who spent decades trying to take down Roe v. Wade, which, again, two-thirds of the country supports keeping, are the ones likely to be rewarded this November. I know gas prices are high—and I once again implore President Biden to push the big “make gas prices low” button on his desk, why won’t he push that big button, it’s sitting right there?—but this sure feels like an abdication of the one venue to make change we have. If we’re so upset about Roe v. Wade—or the lack of gun regulations that have led to constant mass shootings—why will we not go out and fight for what we believe in?
I think it’s the hopelessness that Pareene talks about. I think many no longer believe anything can change. If you believe nothing can change, what can you do? Why bother doing anything? Why invest in anything making any sort of difference at all?
It makes a person want to just focus on you and yours—to try to keep the people you love safe and just accept that the rest of the world is just going to have to fend for itself. That’s to say: It uses our best instincts to bring out our worst.
And it was hard, for the first part of this week, not to feel this way about the Texas shooting. I haven’t written one word about it, and writing is the only way I know how to deal with anything. I was devastated, like tens of millions of Americans, and I held my kids closer, and tried to protect them from it, to let them still be kids, to pick them up from their last week of school and know that they’re home now, they’re here, they’re safe. But every piece of news I saw about the shooting made it worse, those children, their parents, those teachers. And to see the initial response, the usual collective shrugs of Thoughts And Prayers, the bad-faith dissembling of our leaders who have no desire for anything to change, the slumped shoulders of those who have seen all this happen before and seen no one do a goddamned thing … it couldn’t help but make you numb. It would make anyone numb. I tried to fill it with distractions—watching Jurassic Park movies with the kids, staying up late with baseball games, drinking too much and looking up at the stars, trying to feel as insignificant and small as possible. What else could you do? What else could anyone do anymore?
But as this week went along, that changed. And I think it changed for a lot of people.
The anger I have seen this week—the sort of anger that’s just blinding and raging enough to make you really do believe this time it might be different—has unfolded on two separate, but parallel, fronts.
The first is the usual—the absurd defenses of public officials, most of whom are incentivized to uphold the status quo, in the face of this rolling, perpetual tragedy. There was a time when the solemn bows of heads would be accepted, or at least understood, but when that no longer worked, the justifications had to become more surreal and baroque. Thus, the “hardening” of schools, the arming of teachers, the Orwellian notion that the problem is not what killers have with them when they walk through doors, but the doors themselves. These shootings have now happened often enough that we’ve heard these justifications over and over, and they are no longer believable, if they ever were in the first place. Whatever your thoughts about Beto O’Rourke, however much you want to chalk up his interruption of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference as a political stunt, this is what it was getting at: These are all empty words with zero action, we all know this now, you want to grab them by the lapels and scream what are you going to do?
But the second is the police response, a story that becomes more shocking with every update. I could live on this planet for five thousand years and not be able to wrap my mind around this:
The issue is not the incompetence and cowardice of an individual police department, or at least not entirely that. The issue is that everything they have claimed has been proven wrong. They said loosening gun laws wouldn’t lead to more school shootings: Wrong. They said funding security and putting more cops at schools would slow school shootings: Wrong. They said they would provide better mental health services in lieu of gun laws: Wrong. They said they would protect our kids: Wrong, wrong, wrong. And then those in charge—those whose primary job is to protect us and our kids, the only reason we put them there—lied to us about the whole thing. From the beginning. Reflexively. Like they thought it would work this time. Because it has always worked.
But it looks like it’s not working this time.
Aaron Rupar @atrupar"Of course it was not the right decision. It was the wrong decision" -- Texas DPS is basically throwing the on-scene commander under the bus for the fact cops didn't act quicker to stop the Uvalde shooting https://t.co/OfZgDoas64
There is anger. There is so much anger. And people are not angry when they do not care anymore. People are not angry when they’ve given up.
And the last thing we can do is give up.
Kelly won his race, pretty easily. I left before they announced the final results: It was late, and it had been a long day, and the kids had school tomorrow, their last day of school for the year. Apparently there was a big celebration. I’m happy for him. He is a good mayor.
The next day, we walked the kids to school, gathering with all the teachers and other parents to say goodbye for the summer. William is ending the fourth grade, the same grade as those kids in Texas, and he’ll be a fifth grader next year: His last year of elementary school until the treacherous tundra of middle school. Wynn will be in the third grade. They were having a talent show: Wynn was playing the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in a play with his best friend Charlie. He was incredibly excited.
The parents and teachers couldn’t help but exchange nervous glances at dropoff; we’d all been watching the news. But there was a resoluteness there too, a sense that, after all everyone has been through, for so long, we were all just happy to be there, grateful to be there—proud to be there. A sense that this was a special place, a place to be protected, a place to hold onto … a place to fight for.
There is an inclination to hold onto these moments—the last day of school, lying on the couch munching on popcorn while dinosaurs eat people on the screen, the lazy afternoon playing with the dog and trying to stay cool, just everyone sitting quietly, doing their own thing, but together—and see them as the refuge from the outside world, the place to escape. But they are more than that. They are the goal. They are where you’re trying to go—what you want. And you have to fight for what you want. Being defeatist, believing nothing can change, is the quickest way to lose what you want. Those kids playing cards at Little Kings, they have so much they’re going to need to fight for: They just don’t know it yet.
So what’s your excuse? What’s mine? The Ernest Hemingway line, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for,” is oft-quoted, most famously (in the darkest possible fashion) at the end of the movie Se7en. But the whole line, from For Whom the Bell Tolls, is often left off: “If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”
This world is a fine place. It is worth fighting for. I will very much hate to leave it. And if we win here, he will win everywhere. There is anger in the air. And where there is anger, there is passion. And there is change. I believe it. I really do.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
The Ugliness of Yankee Stadium’s “Jackie” Chants, New York. Now there’s something that’s pretty discouraging to hear.
Your Quarter-Pole MLB All-Stars, MLB.com. Huh-huh, I said “pole.”
Ten Essential Ray Liotta Performances, Vulture. Grierson is in Cannes so I had to write this one by myself. Watch Something Wild, it’s so great.
The Stage Is Set in Georgia, Medium. Well, here we go.
MLB Teams With Deceiving Records, MLB.com. I’ll knock down those Brewers any way I can.
When You Meet Your Idols, Leave Them Alone, Medium. On watching a baseball game with Roger Angell.
This Is An Interview I Did Last Week About Sports Activism That I Forgot To Link, Southpaw Sports. And I am thus doing so now!
The Thirty: Every Team’s Randomly Great Reliever, MLB.com. Weirdly, every team has one.
Your Friday Five, Medium. It’s Friday, I'm all high, get me out of FLA. In school, yeah, I fooled ya, now I know I made a mistake.
The Long Game With LZ and Leitch, the last episode, we got emotional. Cheers to everyone who listened, and cheers to the crew, and, mostly, cheers to LZ for doing such a fun show with me. We’re not done with each other yet.
Grierson & Leitch, I did a solo show on “Men” and “Firestarter” and the Jurassic Park movies.
Seeing Red, Bernie and I tried to get the Cardinals to shut down the Jordan Hicks experiment..
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we did our start of summer show.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“No Atheist Has Done This Much Damage to the Christian Faith,” Peter Wehner, The Atlantic. Peter Wehner is the best writer on faith and religion working right now—do not forget his devastating piece on the ugly politicization of faith from last October—and he has the appropriately mournful reaction to Southern Baptist Convention report.
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Nothing to Find,” The War on Drugs. I saw these guys play on Monday night, and it was fantastic: As had been widely advertised, they are one of those bands whose live show elevates their (already great) songs into something transcendent. This was a surprise song they played, one they said they hadn’t played in years, and it was fantastic. The highlight of the live show is still “Under the Pressure,” though. What a band.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
It’s summertime, everyone. Enjoy Memorial Day weekend. You have earned it.