A writer must “know and have an ever-present consciousness that this world is a world of fools and rogues… tormented with envy, consumed with vanity; selfish, false, cruel, cursed with illusions… He should free himself of all doctrines, theories, etiquettes, politics…” —Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?). “The nobility of the writer's occupation lies in resisting oppression, thus in accepting isolation” —Albert Camus (1913-1960). “What are you gonna do” —Bertha Brown (1895-1987).
by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
October 19, 2018
(This is adapted from the talk that
Matt Rothschild gave on October 18 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine.)
Let me cut to the chase here: I’m
worried to death about the health of our democracy. I’m fearful that our highly vaunted system of checks and
balances might not be up to the task right now. Our democracy is hanging by a
thread, and it might not hold.
We have several huge underlying
problems that threaten our democracy, and we have Donald Trump, and I’ll try to
address all of these.
But I’d like to do so in the context
of a book I’ve been reading by two Harvard professors (Steven Levitsky and
Daniel Ziblatt) that came out this year entitled “How Democracies Die.”
They, too, are wondering whether our system of checks and balances will hold,
and they have serious doubts.
They note that democracies die not
only by sudden military coups. A lot of times, they say, “The assault on
democracy begins slowly. For many citizens, it may, at first, be imperceptible.
After all, elections continue to be held. Opposition politicians still sit in
Congress. Independent newspapers still circulate. The erosion of democracy
takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”
Part of that piecemeal erosion, they
argue, can be seen in the violation of unwritten democratic norms of behavior.
They cite two such norms—“mutual toleration” by competing parties and
candidates, and “forbearance” or restraint in the exercise of their powers.
They call these the “soft guardrails of American democracy,” and they argue,
and I agree, that these guardrails have been discarded.
It began with Newt Gingrich in the 1990's, and his
refusal to compromise on the budget, which forced a painful government
shutdown. And then, of course, there was Gingrich’s headlong rush to impeach
Bill Clinton on ludicrous grounds. This ushered in the era of “extreme
polarization” that we’re in right now, and extreme polarization, as the authors
note, is itself a threat to democracy.
Another glaring example of
discarding the guardrails was Mitch McConnell’s vow, when Obama was elected,
to make sure Obama was a failure.
And in 2016, McConnell’s decision
not to let President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, even get a hearing or a vote
on his nomination to the Supreme Court was a clear example of the lack of
forbearance and restraint by the Republicans. It’s all about power. It’s all
about winning, as Trump acknowledged after the Kavanaugh confirmation.
But before I get to Trump, I need to
mention a few other huge underlying problems that threaten our democracy and
that predate Trump’s descending of the escalator and announcing his candidacy.
One underlying problem is the
problem of money in politics. As
Jimmy Carter acknowledged a couple of years ago, we don’t really have a
democracy anymore. His direct words: “We have an oligarchy of unlimited
political bribery.” You and I and everyone in this room do not have the same
power to choose who gets elected and what laws are passed and what policies are
pursued as the giant contributors, like the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelsonor Richard
Uihlein -- or George Soros and Tom Steyer, for that matter.
So, you might say, there are
billionaires on the left and right so it balances out. It usually doesn’t
balance out, for one thing, because the big donors on the right tend to spend
more than the big donors on the left. But even if it did, our democracy isn’t
supposed to be a tug of war between a couple of billionaires on the right and a
couple of billionaires on the left. We’re not supposed to be reduced to mere
spectators in our democracy; we’re all supposed to have an equal tug on the
Another problem is the crisis
of journalism and the media in America. Newspapers are dying out. There are
fewer and fewer reporters to keep those in power accountable. Radio and cable
TV, after the Fairness Doctrine died
in the 1980s, have become shouting matches, or campfire rituals for whichever
camp you’re in. There are fewer and fewer places for real debate and civil
political discussion. We’re in separate camps; we might as well be in different
Yet another underlying problem
is our grossly unequal economy. When the economy predominantly
rewards the rich, they get even more say over who gets elected and what laws
are passed and what policies are pursued. We become less and less of a
democracy and more and more an oligarchy or plutocracy. Ultimately, capitalism
devours democracy, and it’s munching away at it right now.
A final underlying problem is
the culture of racism that rips apart the fundamental concept
that we are all created equal and that we all have equal rights and an equal
say. The election of President Obama gave a lot of people the false hope that
we were moving beyond this deeply rooted problem, but it has come back with a
vengeance with the brazen white supremacist movement.
Then there’s Trump.
The authors of How
Democracies Die say there are four key indicators of authoritarian
behavior, and Trump meets them all.
1. “Rejection of (or weak commitment
to) the democratic rules of the game.” Examples:
His bogus claims of millions of illegal immigrant voters. His assailing of
judges. His attack on Mueller.
2. “Denial of the legitimacy of
political opponents.” Examples: “Low Energy Jeb,”
“Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary” and “Pocahontas.”
3. “Toleration or encouragement of
violence.” During the campaign, you
remember there was a heckler at one of Trump’s rallies and Trump said, “Knock
the hell out of them. I promise you: I will pay the legal fees.” See also his
outrageous comments on Charlottesville. (Note: When I got home last night, I
found out that Trump had just praised Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte
for assaulting that reporter last May. Trump said: “Any guy who can do a body
slam... he's my guy.”)
4. “Readiness to curtail civil
liberties of opponents, including media.” See
“Fake news” and “the media is the enemy of the people.” Trump has also
suggested that libel laws should be tightened so that he can’t be criticized so
much by the media. And he’s threatened to go after Amazon and Jeff Bezos, who
just happens to own the Washington Post. And here’s what Trump had to say about
the protests at the Kavanaugh hearing: “We shouldn't have to put up
with this kind of stuff,” and, “It’s embarrassing for the country to
allow protesters.” Or take his remark that NFL players shouldn’t be in this
country if they’re going to kneel during the national anthem. He has no clue
about the First Amendment!
Then there’s his assault on the
civil liberties of immigrants: Not just the Muslim ban, and not just the
hideous policy of tearing children from their parents, but also the executive
order saying that ICE agents could send back anyone not
only who’s been convicted of a crime but also those who are “chargeable” with a
crime. “Chargeable?” Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? In the
context of Kavanaugh and even the Saudi Royal Family, Trump claims to believe
in the “innocent until proven guilty” precept. But not when it comes to
So those are the danger signs,
according to these scholars.
Let me add my own concerns about
Trump: He’s not an out and out fascist, but he’s the closest thing that we’ve
ever had to a fascist in the Oval Office. He’s not Adolph Hitler. He hasn’t written an equivalent
to Mein Kampf; and his political views, at least until recently,
have been all over the map.
But he has many of the inclinations
of the fascist.
He loves strongmen, and not just Putin but Dutarte and others, including Kim Jong-un
and the Saudi royal family, it appears.
He fantasizes about being president
for life. When President Xi of China essentially became president for life,
Trump said: “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”
Trump is a bully, and fascists revel in bullying, and their supporters
admire them for it. Orwell called such
admirers “bully worshippers.”
He also echoes the language of the
During the campaign and still
afterwards, he’s talked about “America First,” which was the slogan of the Nazi
sympathizers here in the US before Pearl Harbor. He can’t plead ignorance about
this because the Anti-Defamation League sent him a letter during his presidential
campaign and noted the ugly historical echo and urged him to stop using the
phrase. But he hasn’t stopped. He put it in his Inaugural Address, and he keeps
His constant invocation of “fake
news” has ugly echoes, too. The Nazis used the term “Lugenpresse,” which means
“lying press” in German. In fact, some Trump supporters have picked it up in
its original German. (See this Time magazine article.)
And Goebbels used “the enemy of the people”
to refer to Jews, and dictators throughout history have invoked this phrase
against one group or another.
There are a few other crucial trademarks
of the fascist that Trump embodies.
1. Incessant Lying
Trump has broken all the records for
Presidential lying. He can’t tell the truth even when he says hello and
goodbye. As of August 1, he had uttered 4,229 lies or misrepresentations,
according to the Washington Post’s tally. His flagrant
lying is a telltale sign. Here is the first sentence from another new and
disturbing book called The Death of Truth,
by Michiko Kakutani, who was the book editor at the New York Times forever and
“Two of the most monstrous regimes
in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were
predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth.”
Or take Orwell again: “The really
frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits 'atrocities' but
that it attacks the concept of objective truth.”
2. Another trademark is racism
That Trump is a racist and that he
makes racist appeals is, at this point, incontrovertible. After all, he
wouldn’t rent his apartments to black people. He led the vicious campaign
against the Central Park Five and continued to vilify
them after they were exonerated. And, of course, he led the Birther Movement against
President Obama. And he launched his campaign with racist appeals against
Muslims and Mexicans. And finally, after Charlottesville, it became totally
3. Then there is
ultra-nationalism. Trump makes
no bones about being an ultra-nationalist. That’s what all the “America First”
talk is about. Or look at “Make America Great Again.” At bottom, that’s an
appeal to people’s sense of bereaved and betrayed patriotism, and that kind of
appeal has been crucial to fascists and authoritarians, like Hitler and
Mussolini and Pinochet and Franco. The University of Wisconsin’s great
historian of fascism, George Mosse, has stressed the central role of
ultra-nationalism in fascism.
Racism and ultra-nationalism are the
sperm and the egg of Fascism, and Trump’s doing some in-vitro fertilization
right there in the Oval Office.
4. Finally, fascism is a mass-based
movement, and Trump has a mass base. His
popularity can’t seem to drop much below 40 percent ever, no matter what he
does. And he has this zealous, over-heated base at his rallies. When Jim Acosta said, after a recent rally,
“It felt like we weren’t in America anymore,” that’s something to take very
seriously. And when you see the white supremacists and neo-Nazis parading
around in Trump paraphernalia, it’s hard not to conjure up images of the Brown
Shirts, especially when they chant, “Jews won’t replace us,” and when Trump
says some of those people were “good people.”
America is not a Fascist state yet.
If it was, I’d be arrested or beaten up as soon as I walked out the door, and
you might be, too. But we could get there, fast.
You might remember at the beginning
of my talk, I quoted the authors of How Democracies Die saying
that authoritarianism could creep in slowly, piecemeal, in baby steps.
But they also warn us that
democracies can die “in one fell swoop.” And that’s what keeps me up at night.
Here are three ways it might die in
one fell swoop, and I’m going to tell you about them so you too can be kept up
The first is what’s called Norm Ornstein’s “nightmare scenario”: Trump fires Mueller and pardons everyone (and I think
he’ll do that); then there are huge protests in the streets; Trump’s zealots
and the neo-Nazis attack some of those protesters; violence escalates; Trump
declares martial law.
The second is if the United States
is attacked again, even at one-tenth the size of
9/11. As the authors of How Democracies Die note, “Major
security crises—wars or large-scale terrorist attacks—are political game changers,”
and they represent “moments of danger for democracy. Leaders who can ‘do
whatever they like’ can inflict great harm upon democratic institutions.”
Madeleine Albright also mentions this dire possibility in her book, “Fascism: A
Warning.” Everything we know about Trump’s pathological personality suggests
that if we’re attacked again, all bets are off for our democracy.
Now you might think that my mention
of the possibility of “martial law” is hyperbole or some crazy talk by a loony
It’s not. Listen, General Tommy
Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said that if we’re ever attacked
again by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, we might have to suspend
the Constitution. And Condoleezza Rice’s deputy at the National Security
Council, General Wayne Downing, said essentially the same thing: If attacked
again, “The United States may have to declare martial law.” So when the
generals talk in public about martial law, you can bet that their subordinates
have drawn up plans for it. That’s how the military works.
You remember Ted Koppel, don’t you?
He was the anchor of the news show “Nightline” for more than a decade. Well,
Ted Koppel warned about this, too, in a graduation speech he gave at Berkeley
in 2004. Here’s what he said: “More than likely, the use of a chemical or
biological weapon in a terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland would lead to
the imposition of martial law.”
I promise you, there are plans right
now for martial law on the shelves of the Pentagon or Homeland Security or the
FBI, and all Trump would have to do is pull them down off the shelf.
Here’s the last dire scenario, which
is less likely than the first two but not outside the realm of the possible,
given Trump’s personality, and it’s simply this: Trump is impeached by the
House and convicted by the Senate, but he refuses to leave. During Nixon’s impeachment hearings, some people were
worried that Nixon would call out the tanks to keep himself in power. And it’s
conceivable that Trump would, too. As Stalin said when he was told that the
Pope wanted him to stop persecuting Catholics, “How many divisions does the
Pope have?” Trump is commander in chief of the most powerful military in the
world. How many divisions does the House of Representatives have? How many
divisions does the Senate have? How many divisions does the Supreme Court have?
As I said, I think this one is less
likely, and the military chain of command might refuse to go along with Trump.
But if any of these three scenarios
came to pass and Trump declared martial law tomorrow afternoon, you can bet
your last dollar that tomorrow night Sean Hannity would be praising him for
doing so on Fox News.
It can happen here. That’s the stark fact of the matter, and it’s more likely to
happen here than I ever thought possible.
Here’s one indicator: A Washington
Post poll last year of
Republican voters found that 50 percent of them would be OK if there’s no
presidential election in 2020!
So why am I not going to draw a hot
bath tonight and pull out a razor blade?
Because I’ve studied fascism. I
studied it at college. I studied it at The Progressive. And I studied it again when Trump became
the Republican nominee. And what I learned from my studies is that even if the
fascist, or the fascist in the making, takes power, a country doesn’t descend
into full-blown fascism unless civil society collapses.
And the good news is that civil
society is not collapsing. Civil society is standing up to Trump!
The courts are standing up to him.
The states are standing up to him,
with many of them suing him.
The media is standing up to him,
with the exception of Fox and right wing talk radio.
The late night TV comics are
standing up to him, and their mockery is a balm to our spirits.
Even some Republican intellectuals
and pundits are standing up to Trump, like George Will, and David Frum, and
David Brooks, and Jennifer Rubin, and Steve Schmidt, who ran McCain’s campaign.
Even Morning Joe, who is not exactly an intellectual heavyweight, is standing
up to Trump. And I’ll applaud anyone who calls Trump out, no matter how
opportunistically. And that even includes Charlie Sykes.
But most important of all, the
people have been standing up to Trump since day one.
Or at least day two, with the
tremendous Women’s March in Washington.
My wife was there, with more than a million others. And I was at the march in
Madison, on library mall and State Street, 75,000 strong. And the costumes, the
home-made signs, and the spontaneous chants were exhilarating. I remember some
young women chanting: “We don’t want his tiny hands anywhere near our
underpants.” It’s that kind of attitude that’s going to get us through.
And then there were the great
immigrant rights rallies, first at the airports when Trump announced his Muslim
ban. Within minutes, people flocked to O’Hare and flocked to LaGuardia and
other airports around the country to demonstrate their support for immigrants
and asylum seekers.
And here in Wisconsin, Voces de la
Frontera has put on one amazing rally after another in defense
Then there are the protests in
defense of our environment, demanding action to address the climate change
crisis. There was the march of the scientists a couple of Earth Days ago; there
was the tremendous protest against the Dakota Pipeline, led by Native
Americans; and there have been many other protests since.
And the Black
Lives Matter movement has drawn much-needed attention to the
problem of police violence, and the “Me, Too” movement has done the same for
People, by the millions, aren’t
taking any of this stuff lying down!
And that’s not only a good thing;
it’s a promising thing. And we’re going to need more of it before we’re done.
Here in Wisconsin, there are also
There is a tremendous effort under
way by several great groups to get as many people as possible registered to
vote and enthusiastic about voting.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, the ACLU of Wisconsin, Vote Riders,
and Common Cause are all getting out there. And so is Wisconsin Voices, an
umbrella organization of more than 50 progressive nonprofits that I sit on the
There is also a mass movement in
Wisconsin to tackle the problem of money in politics that I mentioned. Led by an amazing group called Wisconsin
United to Amend, 132 communities in Wisconsin have passed
resolutions or referendums saying that they are in favor of amending the U.S.
Constitution to proclaim, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons
and money isn’t speech! Wisconsin is second only to Massachusetts in the number
of communities that have climbed on board.
And there’s another mass movement in
Wisconsin: this one to ban gerrymandering and to demand fair political maps. Already, 41 of the 72 county boards have passed
resolutions that they are in favor of fair, nonpartisan, independent
redistricting, and these county boards have sent their resolutions on to the
state legislators to urge them to change the law and give us fair maps.
Finally, we’ve got a very impressive
progressive nonprofit sector in Wisconsin, and we’re all working
together. We’ve torn down our silos, and we’ve
shelved our egos (for the most part), and we’re all rowing in the same
direction. We meet regularly, we strategize together, we write op-eds together,
we share each other’s posts, we go to each other’s events; we understand that
none of us can get it done alone. We’re a model, I think, for progressive
nonprofits in other states.
And I take heart in the
inspirational words of Howard Zinn, who wrote A People’s History of the
United States, and in his last dozen years, he wrote a column for The
Progressive magazine. Here’s a nugget of his wisdom that I’d like to share with
you in closing:
"To be hopeful in bad times is based
on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of
compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we remember those times and
places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this
gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this
spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however
small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. … To live now
as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us,
is itself a marvelous victory."
First, do you remember the
flawed “Pension Ramp” (Public Act 88-0593) signed into law in 1995
that exacerbated the unfunded liability, and that the IEA leadership supported
Public Act 88-0593?
Second, do you remember the IEA leadership “proudly supported” Senate Bill
7 that was signed into law in June 2011, the bill that ensured that
teachers’ evaluations and their tenure were tied to the Performance Evaluation
Reform Act (Public Act 96-0861), the bill that ensured a so-called “streamlined
process for the dismissal of teacher tenure,” the bill that required an
authorization of 75% for a strike vote in Chicago, to name just a few
complications that confront today's teachers?
Third, do you remember the IEA leadership had agreed to diminish and impair
current teachers’ and retirees’ constitutionally-guaranteed benefits that had
been protected by previous Illinois Supreme Court rulings, because the IEA
leadership believed SB 2404 would thwart any further attacks on our Pension
Protection Clause? Do you remember that Senate Bill 2404in May,
2013, a unilateral reduction of pension rights, was declared unconstitutional in
May 2015? Fourth, do you remember the IEA leadership did nothing to stop the Illinois legislature's 3% cap on retiring teachers' pensionable salaries that was in violation of the Pension Protection Clause?
Now the IEA believes “Michael
Connelly understands that pensions are a promise and understands the importance of
collective bargaining rights…”:
Well, the IEA has apparently forgotten that Connelly voted to diminish and impair public employees' and retirees' constitutionally-guaranteed pension on December 2, 2013. He was one of 30 unethical Illinois senators to do so.
The IEA has apparently forgotten
that Connelly sponsored SB 1763 which would "amend the General Assembly
Article of the Illinois Pension Code and require active Tier 1 employees to
elect either to (i) have automatic annual increases in retirement annuity and
survivor's annuity delayed and reduced or (ii) maintain the current benefit
package with additional limitations on pensionable salary..."
The IEA has apparently forgotten that Connelly sponsored SB 2172 which
would “create a defined contribution plan for all new annuitants, offer
inactive members a buy-out option, and shift costs to local school districts.”
The IEA has apparently forgotten that Connelly sponsored SB 2173 which
would amend the General Assembly, State Employee, State Universities, Downstate
Teacher, and Chicago Teacher Articles of the Illinois Pension Code and require
active Tier 1 employees to elect either to (i) have automatic annual increases
in retirement and survivor's annuities delayed and reduced or (ii) maintain
their current benefit package with additional limitations on pensionable
salary; [it would also] provide that a Tier 1 employee who elects item (i) is
entitled to have future increases in income treated as pensionable income, have
contributions reduced to a specified rate, and receive a consideration payment
of 10% of contributions made prior to the election. [It would also] provide
that a Tier 1 employee who elects item (ii) is not eligible to have future
increases in income treated as pensionable income..."
The IEA has apparently forgotten that Connelly sponsored SR 1590 that
states the belief that "the Illinois Constitution should not be amended to
permit a graduated income tax."
The IEA has apparently forgotten that Connelly sponsored "opportunity scholarships" (SB 0688) and "vouchers" for private school tuition, a $100 million tax credit program. The IEA has also apparently forgotten that Connelly sided with Rauner's right to work agenda; that Connelly does not care whether Rauner's right to work agenda will weaken the middle class by reducing wages and encouraging free-loaders; that it will harm local businesses and create a weaker Illinois economy; that it will stifle workers' earnings, via the destruction of a fair-share collective bargaining economy; that it will also eliminate the IEA's and other unions' power to advocate for their memberships.
“Scotland may change the laws around game hunting after a US
hunter attracted fierce criticism for posing with a dead wild goat and other
animals killed on Islay in the Inner Hebrides. ‘Beautiful wild goat here on the
Island of Islay in Scotland,’ Larysa Switlyk, a Florida-born hunter who hosts
a show on Canada's Wild TV, wrote on social media, alongside a
photo of her posing with its corpse.
”‘Such a fun hunt! They live on the edge of the cliffs of the
island and know how to hide well. We hunted hard for a big one for 2 days and
finally got on this group. Made a perfect 200 yard shot.’ Switlyk also posted photos
of another goat, a ram, and a red stag killed during the Scotland
hunting trip, sparking outrage from many online and calls to limit trophy
hunting in the Hebrides.
“Judy Murray, mother of the Scottish tennis player Andy, called the hunt ‘disgraceful’ and urged
the government to stop similar events taking place. The backlash gathered steam
on social media Wednesday, soon prompting a reaction from lawmakers.
“Michael Russell, member of the Scottish Parliament for Argyll
and Bute, which includes the island in question, said he would raise the hunt
with the government ‘as a matter of urgency.’ ‘If this is actually happening on
Islay, and laid on by some sort of tour company I would want to see it stopped
immediately,’ Russell said. Scottish First Minister Nicola
Sturgeon said the government
‘will review the current situation and consider whether changes to the law are
“It was ‘totally understandable why the images from Islay of
dead animals being held up as trophies is so upsetting and offensive to people,’
“The National, a Scottish newspaper, splashed Switlyk across
its front page Thursday,
with the banner headline ‘GOAT HUNT FURY.’
“For her part, the US hunter may be unaware of the snowballing
reaction to her photos. She wrote on Instagram late Wednesday night
UK time that she was ‘headed out on a bush plane for my next hunting adventure
and will be out of service for 2 weeks.’
“‘Hopefully that will give enough time for all the ignorant
people out there sending me death threats to get educated on hunting and
conservation,’ she added. ‘FYI, I was in Scotland over a month ago.’
“While hunting is common in parts of the UK, especially in areas
where deer culls are deemed necessary for land management purposes, there is
less of a culture of posing with supposed trophies after a kill as there is in
the US. Numerous American hunters have sparked outrage worldwide for posting
photos of wild animals killed on controversial hunting trips in
Namibia and other African countries.
“The prevalence of hunters posting photos of their shoots on
social media has coincided with increased backlash to the practice, and the
perceived gloating over killing wild animals with high-powered rifles.
“While some game companies, particularly in African countries,
justify hunts on the grounds that the large fees for killing animals help fund
other conservation efforts, many experts dispute this.
‘Economically, the actual benefits accrued by local people from the hunts have
been found to be exaggerated or practically non-existent in the case of trophy
hunted animals like polar bears in Canada,’ Jeffrey Flocken, a senior vice
president with the Humane Society, wrote for CNN in
“‘Hunters are not like natural predators,’ he added. ‘They
target the largest specimens; those with the biggest tusks, manes, antlers or
“The country's Ministry of Environment and Tourism has ordered
an investigation into the latter case, saying that the kill was ‘unethical and
unprofessional,’ and the hunters involved could lose their licenses, according to the Namibia
woman sitting next to me in the waiting room is wearing a blue dashiki, a
sterile paper face mask to protect her from infection, and a black leather
Oakland Raiders baseball cap. I look down at her brown, sandaled feet and see
that her toenails are the color of green papaya, glossy and enameled.
room at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, is full of people of
different ages, body types, skin colors, religious preferences, mother tongues,
and cultural backgrounds. Standing along one wall, in work boots, denim
overalls, and a hunter’s camouflage hat, is a white rancher in his forties.
Nervously, he shifts from foot to foot, a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand.
An elderly Chinese couple sit side by side, silently studying their phones. The
husband is watching a video. The wife is the sick one, pale and gaunt. Her head
droops as if she is fighting sleep. An African American family occupies a
corner. They are wearing church clothes; the older kids are supervising the
younger ones while two grown women lean into their conversation and a man —
fiftyish, in a gray sports coat — stares into space.
America, that old problem of yours? Racism? I
have a cure for it: Get cancer. Come into these waiting rooms and clinics, the
cold radiology units and the ICU cubicles. Take a walk down Leukemia Lane with a strange
pain in your lower back and an uneasy sense of foreboding. Make an appointment
for your CAT
scan. Wonder what you are doing here among all these sick people: the
retired telephone lineman, the grandmother, the junior-high-school soccer
coach, the mother of three.
Show up early on Friday morning and lay your
forearm on the padded armrest of the phlebotomist’s chair. Her name tag
She is clear-eyed and plump, and a pink plastic radio on her cubicle desk
softly plays gospel at 8 AM. Her fingernails are two inches long, and it is hard to
believe she can do her job with nails like that, but she’s flawless and slips
the needle into the hardened, scarred vein in the back of your hand.
wish there were other ways to cure your racism, America, but I don’t see one.
Frankly your immune system seems to be the problem. Installed by history and
maintained by privilege, it is too robust, too entrenched to be undone by
anything less than disaster. That’s how it is for a lot of us. If you are white
and doing well in America, a voice whispers to you incessantly, repeating that
you deserve to be on top; that to profit is your just reward. And it’s not only
white people who need the cancer cure; it’s any person who thinks that someone
of another religion, color, or background is somehow not indisputably, equally
The first time you park your car in the vast,
cold cavern of the underground garage and step onto the elevator, you may feel
alien and forsaken. Perhaps you’ll feel that you have been singled out unfairly,
plucked from your healthy life and cast into this cruel ordeal. Walking through
the lobby with a manila envelope of X-rays under your arm and a folder of lab reports and notes
from your previous doctor, you’ll sense the deep tremor of your animal fear, a
barely audible uneasiness trickling up from somewhere inside you.
But there is good news, too. As you pass one
hallway after another, looking for elevator B, you’ll see that this place is full of people — riding
the escalators, reading books and magazines, checking their phones near the
coffeepots. And it will dawn on you that most of these people have cancer. In
fact, it seems as if the whole world has cancer. With relief and dismay you’ll
realize, I’m not special. Everybody here has cancer. The
withered old Jewish lefty newspaper editor. The Latino landscape contractor
with the stone-roughened hands. The tough lesbian with the bleached-blond crew
cut and the black leather jacket. And you will be cushioned and bolstered by
the sheer number and variety of your fellows.
strange country of cancer, it turns out, is the true democracy — one more real
than the nation that lies outside these walls and more authentic than the lofty
statements of politicians; a democracy more incontrovertible than platitudes or
the country of cancer everyone is simultaneously a have and a have-not. In this
land no citizens are protected by property, job description, prestige, and
pretensions; they are not even protected by their prejudices. Neither money nor
education, greed nor ambition, can alter the facts. You are all simply cancer
citizens, bargaining for more life.
is true that this is not a country you ever planned to visit, much less move
to. It is true that you may not have previously considered these people your
compatriots. But now you have more in common with them than with your oldest
childhood friends. You live together in the community of cancer.
good news: now that you are sick, you have time to think. From this rocky
promontory you can contemplate the long history of your choices, your mistakes,
your good luck. You can think about race, too, because most of the people who
care for you will be nonwhite, often from other countries. You may be too sick
to talk, but you can watch them and learn. Your attention is made keen by need
and by your intimate dependence upon these inexhaustibly kind strangers.
years ago I was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery followed by
chemotherapy at MD Anderson. It was the start of my journey through this
well-lit underworld. By now I have orbited many times around the honeycombed
complex of registration desks, prep rooms, and staging areas, potted plants and
bubbling aquariums. I have sat in the infusion lounge, where twenty IV poles rise like
trees beside twenty upholstered recliners, each pole hung with a fat plastic
udder feeding gemcitabine or cisplatin into someone’s arm: the unnaturally
cheerful evangelist minister; the gray-faced Vietnam vet wearing his American
Legion hat and windbreaker, as if he were going off to another war. We are not
tourists in this place; we live here now.
In nothing but my hospital gown and cotton
long johns, I have pushed my IV pole down the corridors at midnight, trying to keep my
skinny legs from getting weaker. I’ve rolled my IV miles through the deserted hallways and empty waiting
rooms, taken it over the sky bridge and back. Once, at 1 AM, I met a black guy
doing the same thing. We paused and talked a bit, in our matching pale-green
smocks, with our IV poles and drip bags. He explained to me, with a
strange enthusiasm, that his doctors had cut out and then reversed his rectum,
and now they would not discharge him until he could pass gas for himself.
That’s why he was out walking so vigorously each night. As we stood there
together on the wide, deserted walkway, it seemed as if cancer had erased our
differences by bringing us into the intimacy of shared trouble. Then, with a nod,
he strode swiftly away on his muscular legs, at least four times as fit as I
the Republic of Cancer you might have your prejudices shattered. In the rooms
of this great citadel, patients of one color are cared for by people of other
colors. In elevators and operating theaters one accent meets another and —
sometimes only after repetition — squeezes through the transom of
comprehension. And when the nurse from the Philippines, or the aide from
Houston’s Fifth Ward, or the tech named Dev says, “I’ll pray for you,” you are
filled with gratitude for their compassion.
place bears a passing resemblance to those old photographs of Ellis Island — so
many travelers come from afar, sitting with their papers and passports, hunched
on wooden benches with luggage at their feet, waiting to find out if they will
be admitted and advanced to the next stage in the process. Some of the
travelers are dressed in pajamas and slippers; some have on shiny blue
tracksuits and Nikes; and some wear suits and ties, as if being presentable
will make a difference. The shabby and the affluent, the stoical and the
anxious, the scrawny and the stout, the young and the aged. If we are tense or
pace restlessly, it is because we are aware that we may, on short notice, be
swiftly deported. And because of this, perhaps, our hearts soften.
One awful night, after I’d made a scouring
passage through the ER waiting room — room of heartbreak and harsh
lighting — a smiling man from Nigeria named N’Dbusi entered my cubicle. I
remember how he introduced himself, then reached out with his forefinger and
thumb and gently plucked at my arm. Like a pleat in a piece of fabric, the skin
stayed in a raised position. “You see this, my friend?” said N’Dbusi. “It seems
you are dehydrated. We are going to give you some IV fluids to moisten you up.” He continued to talk
with undiminishable cheer as his hands deftly removed the paper wrappers from a
needle-and-tube kit and threaded the needle into my vein with the grace of a
seamstress slipping a stitch into silk. He must have done this thousands of
times. But where others might have grown bored and careless at the repetition,
he had perfected an elegance.
is the stupefying and ultimately transforming thing: that here, where I do not
expect it, I encounter decency, patience, compassion, warmth, good humor. I
remember the middle-aged nurse from Alabama, his calm Southern twang and beer
belly, who stood firm one night, utterly unperturbed while I vomited
repeatedly, as if a demon had seized control of my insides. With empathetic
watchfulness, he administered the proper shot until I fell backward into a
state of blessed relief. I remember the shift nurse with pale-olive skin and
thick eyebrows who, in the middle of the night, brought me hot packs of damp folded
towels heated in a microwave. She was from the Middle East, maybe Syria or
Egypt. She was so kind and respectful to me that, after she departed, I
abruptly burst into tears and blew her a kiss through the closed door.
historical record — for tolerance, for human learning — is not promising. Yet I
believe, more than ever, that at the bottom of each human being there is a
reset button. Undeniably it is difficult to get to. To reach it seems to
require that the ego be demolished by circumstance. But reach that button and
press it, and the world might reshape itself.
Unfortunately you must come here, America. You
must lie on the gurney and be wheeled down miles of corridor under a sheet,
staring up at the perforated-tile ceiling and the fluorescent lights, not
knowing quite where you are. You have to ride a wheelchair to your date with
the MRI machine, past
women and men being wheeled to similar destinations. You will look into faces
lined with fatigue and pain and anxiety. Often a glance will pass between you:
a glance without the slightest veil of disguise or pretense; a look of
recognition and solidarity. It is a strange communion, but that is what it is.
I remember how the orderlies would wheel us
along, calling out as they approached the intersections of corridors, “Coming
around! Coming across!” in order to avoid collisions. I remember handsome
Marvin, the mayor of the hallways, with his sleek cornrows, greeting everyone
he met, his full voice singing, “Coming around, coming around! Coming across! Coming
America, I express this rather unconventional wish for you: I hope you get
cancer. In order to change, you must cross this threshold, enter a condition of
helplessness, and experience the mysterious intimacy between the sick and their
caregivers, between yourself and every person who is equally laid low.
into the fields and meadows of the examination rooms, come to the clean beds,
to the infernal beeping of the monitors, to the lobbies and alcoves of this
labyrinth. Look at the faces of the ones who are attending to you. Witness
those who are silently passing by on their pilgrimage to surgery or radiology.
Let the workers be fairly paid and valued, for their skills draw us together
like the edges of a wound. Listen to the music of the voices around you. As the
machines tick, as the ventilators suck and heave and exhale, as the very ground
beneath our feet starts to dissolve, we shall be changed. Coming around, coming around, coming across, coming around. The Cure for Racism Is Cancer
TONY HOAGLAND is the author of several poetry collections: Priests Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (2018), Recent Changes
in the Vernacular (2017), Application for Release from the Dream (2015),
Unincorporated Personas in the Late Honda Dynasty (2010), What
Narcissism Means to Me (2003),Donkey
Gospel (1998), Sweet Ruin (1992),Don’t
Tell Anyone (chapbook 2014), Little Oceans (chapbook 2009), Hard Rain (chapbook
2005), History of Desire (chapbook 1990), Talking to Stay Warm (chapbook 1986),A Change in Plans (chapbook 1985),Twenty Poems that Could Save America and Other Essays (2014), and
Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and