The Casual Villainy of Feel-Good Neoliberal Bullshit

A few nights ago, a very kind friend took me to a private screening of a film about homelessness, under the presumed theory that my own homeless experience from four years before might be of help to the filmmaker. This filmmaker, who I should point out was an extremely tall and quietly affable man (affable, at least, to anyone who he detected was very much like himself!), believed, like many myopic neoliberals, that he was doing the right thing with his film. But he wasn’t. He was, in fact, contributing dangerously and cruelly to a repulsive dehumanizing myth that has become as seductive as catnip to most of the American population.

The film played. The affluent crowd that gathered in the basement of this tony Manhattan restaurant cheered as some talking head boasted about delivering forty pairs of socks to the homeless. The socks, said this starry-eyed subject, were a way to give the homeless an identity. But I knew damn well that what these people really needed, as I once so desperately begged for, was food, a shelter that wasn’t committed to daily debasement and that actually did something to protect residents from random stabbings, and a stable job that permitted someone who had nothing to save enough resources for first and last month’s rent. This preposterous subject also bragged on film about taking homeless people to a comedy show to cheer them up. Never mind that this is a risible impossibility, considering that shelters impose a draconian curfew each night, usually sometime between 9 PM and 10 PM, that you must hit. If you don’t make this curfew, for which you must factor in a lengthy line in which security guards pat you down and tear through what little you have, you will lose your bed and have all your possessions, meager as they are, thrown into a huge plastic bag and tossed into the street. (This happened to me. And I was forced to haul a very heavy bag with fragile lining, half of what I had damaged and dingy, on a subway, where I could feel the eyes of every commuter looking the other direction.)

I watched as a shoeshine man on-screen bought into the lazy, drug-addled homeless stereotype who never seeks out work (oh, but they do, even when they have a substance abuse problem!). It was a trope no different from the way Reagan had used Linda Taylor, an incredibly rare and unlikely figure hardly representative of homelessness, to establish his staunch conservatism and needlessly demonize the welfare system in 1976. And I was shaking with indignation as the filmmaker, who appeared himself as the film’s first talking head in a bona-fide act of artistic narcissism, bragged about how he had talked to a homeless person, believing her sad face to be an act. He refused to acknowledge her real pain and true fear as he painted himself as a champion of the underprivileged. I looked to my right and I witnessed the filmmaker himself sitting in his chair, responding to his repugnant untruths and counterfactual bromides by bobbing his head up and down to every cinematic cadence he had manufactured.

The film I saw, or at least what I mostly saw (because I bolted after about thirty minutes of this: I was so enraged after one “well-meaning” audience member laughed at a homeless stereotype and chuckled over the film’s bootstraps bullshit, which presented poverty as a “choice,” an emphasis that greatly overshadowed, oh say, examining the details of a rigged system or humanizing the people who are often locked into a nigh inescapable abyss and who are rendered invisible simply because they lost their jobs at a bad time or suffered any number of setbacks that could happen to anyone (hell, it happened to me!), and because this was a “celebration” for the filmmaker and I knew that if I stuck around, I would have gone out of my way to fight fiercely with ruthlessly truthful invective and I am really trying to live a more peaceful life and let things go more — but goddammit you see puffed up privilege like this and it’s not easy!), angered me beyond belief. It was a superficial glimpse of what at least half a million people in this nation go through (and this number is rising): an absolute lie that refused to address vile welfare-to-work realities, the shameful bureaucracy of standing in line for a day arguing to some underpaid heartless stooge why you should get a mere $150 each month to eat (and under Trump, these already svelte and insufficient benefits are in danger of being cut further), the violent and depressing culture within homeless shelters that causes so many to give up and that causes smart people (and let me assure you that there are many smart people who are homeless) to throw in the towel when they shouldn’t have to.

As many have argued (including Thomas Frank, whom I interviewed about this significant problem here), the Democratic Party has completely divorced itself from advocating for working people and those who need our help. The Democrats haven’t seriously championed for universal aid since Mario Cuomo’s inspiring keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. When principled progressives stand against this milquetoast centrism, they are — as this incredible episode of This American Life recently revealed — urged to push the reasons why they are running into the middle if they want access to funds that will help them win elections. And when candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually stand for something and beat out long-time incumbents in a primary, they are, as the disheartening replies to this tweet reveal, declared “a piece of work” and “arrogant” by middle-of-the-road cowards who have never known a day without a hot meal and who refuse to address deeply pernicious realities that people actually live. These weak-kneed and priggish pilgarlics still drop dollars with their colicky hands into the room rental till for their Why Isn’t Hillary President? support groups. They are more interested in wrapping themselves in warm comforting blankets rather than surrendering their bedding to someone sleeping on the streets. They are so enamored and ensnared by this ugly and unsound marriage between capitalism and humanism that they adamantly refuse to listen to the very people they’ve pledged to cure. They ignore any fresh new voice who has the steel to launch a political campaign based on the truth. Their shaky tenure is out of sync with the robust reform we need right now to address our national ills.

I now believe neoliberalism to be just as much of an evil cancer as Trumpism. It needs to be fought hard. Because any ideology that prioritizes supremacy (and neoliberals can be a smug and oh so certain bunch) is a call to dehumanize others.

So how did the film screening conclude? Well, I apologized to my friend, told her that I couldn’t take the film anymore and that I knew this was triggering deep rage in me because it denied and invalidated the horrors that I personally experienced and that I had somehow found the resilience and strength to overcome. I took my leave, tipped the bartender far more than these moneyed types did, and saw that the filmmaker was watching me. What? A man fleeing his unquestionable genius? Why yes, you imperious insensitive clueless dope! So I went up to him and said, “My name is Ed Champion. I was homeless four years ago and your film is a terrible lie. You should be ashamed of yourself.” True to form, he went back to cheering on his own film, paying me no heed whatsoever.

How Do You Spend Your Summer Day?

It was ninety degrees in New York and everyone was happy. Vivacious kids shouted at a cheery vendor for cherry ice and the hearty proprietor waved his hand, ushering the kids beneath his canopied shade as he carved out bright granular chunks into pristine cups. A shirtless man with a ratty straw hat angled at a hard random slope strummed a banjo in the park and attracted admirers. Not long before, I ambled past the crackling reports of men slamming dominoes onto the artisanal concrete of fixed outdoor tables sprouting from a brick sidewalk. Even the squirrels were decent enough to leave people alone. It was the kind of summer day where the humidity stops just short of uncomfortable and the sweat feels more like a comforting film and the heat peals a pleasant melody into your pores. And there’s really nothing to complain about at all.

I was walking around Lower Manhattan with a big smile on my face. I had just bought David Lynch’s new book and had read the first few pages and was caught in a very giddy daydream, thinking about some funny characters on a story I’m now working on. That’s when I spotted one of my archenemies, one of the old ones from the literary days. She had once publicly announced that she would throw a fulsome fete if I successfully managed to kill myself (and she had never apologized for it). That couldn’t be her, could it?

The sun was pleasant and the laughs were infectious and my ears picked up the hilarious snippet of a woman describing her hookup from the night before on the phone. And the warm rays kept me giddy. No matter. Not important. Let my archenemy stray away. Now about this barbeque scene! Oh, my actor will love that twist! And if I make that narrative move, oh man, this is going to be so much fun to produce and edit!

And I carried on walking and I looked around and I listened and I marveled and I felt truly blissful. My smile did not wane. How could it? I was still in an incredibly marvelous mood. I’d had a very fun weekend, probably the most fun I’d had all summer, probably among one of the best summer weekends of the last five years if I had to be honest, even if I had not slept much. Wonderful people, everyone friendly, banter with good friends, strange and unreportable adventures. The sight of my archenemy dissipated from my mind completely.

That’s when I looked up and saw my archenemy go way out of her way to cross twenty feet through a thick throng of people, approaching me like a stalker who flouts a restraining order. She was gunning at me with an especially forced and artificial smile. It was the shit-eating grin of someone who wanted to announce that she was a conquerer, but who lacked finesse. I didn’t find her threatening or intimidating in the least. But I did see a sad look in her eyes that her fury could not entirely occlude, the lonely look you often spot in a bully’s adamantine gaze. I still didn’t know if it was really her. And I honestly didn’t care. I mean, I was just happy, truly happy. The hell of it was that she could have spouted off the nastiest invective in the world and I would have (a) probably been very congenial and (b) easily welcomed an opportunity to patch things up.

Finally the moment arrived. What did she say? She said, “Excuse me.” A soft voice. No plan. She didn’t say her name. She didn’t say mine. She didn’t acknowledge what she had done. Or even the many other times she dehumanized me. She didn’t even have the decency to cry “J’accuse!” and declare me the villain. What she probably saw was a very abstracted man lost in his own felicitous reveries, which seemed a damned strange target to impugn and which defied her easy thesis about me. I walked to the right. She then heaved her way there. And we faced each other and I said “Oop!” in the way that Nicholson Baker memorialized in The Mezzanine and we somehow walked past each other. And then I realized that it had been her.

Why had she done this? Well, that question is unimportant. That question is not the right one to dwell on.

What I felt at that moment was not anger, but compassion and pity. One of us was committed to natural connection, to embracing life’s funny knack for resembling a dreamstate. The other saw an enemy she had never had the guts to talk to and zeroed in and went well out of her way to act on a tepid hate. Something about seeing her do this made me realize that only one of us had grown and the other had stagnated. One of us was committed to wonder and positivism. The other was looking for a fight. And when people look for a fight, they are often doing this because they haven’t found the guts to confront their own fears and to stare down hard truths and to finally love the totality of who they are so that they can, in turn, love the totality contained in others.

And that’s the thing about happiness. It is a close cousin to maturity in the way that it sneaks up on you without warning. Months pass and you commit yourself to fully embracing who you are and you suddenly find that you can take more hits on the chin or even forgive someone who had been nothing but nasty and hateful and vituperative to you. And you wonder just who in the hell this new person is. Yet this is a self-examination that’s really not worth going into. The takeaway here isn’t that you’re better when you’re happy, although there is that. It’s that you’re kinder and stronger, kinder and stronger in ways that the unhappy bully never can be. And happiness really is the thing to chase. I really believe that this is the quality that will eventually restore America from its often harrowing fascist trajectory. It may take many years, but we will do it.

As I sauntered into the end of a glorious July afternoon, I knew now that only one of us considered the other an archenemy. I also knew that one of us would enjoy the summer and the other would not. Sometimes it’s just a question of how you decide to spend your summer day.

The Rightful End of Roseanne

Roseanne Barr is finished. And it’s about goddam time.

I watched the first few episodes of the Roseanne reboot with an open mind, but the show’s racism and intolerance, well on display within the show and bluntly expressed in Roseanne’s off-air demeanor, demonstrated very conclusively that this was not a contemporary answer to All in the Family, but something more akin to a sitcom version of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. An early scene showing the Conners swapping an insufficient supply of medication due to inadequate American healthcare created the illusion that this was a show like its previous iteration, one aligned with the working class roots that had made the original such a success. But then we saw the Conners casually belittling “all the shows about black and Asian families” and it became very clear that this was a program committed to white supremacy. As The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum pointed out, the show relied on coded language, unrealistic dialogue, and sideways jabs to disguise its bigotry-drenched narrative.

I was not the only viewer to flee. It took only weeks for the reboot to drop from 18.44 million viewers to a mere 10.42 million. This was the show that Trump had said “was about us,” but that “us” shed 44% of its purported unity within months. The cast and crew quickly became unsettled by the Faustian bargain they had bought into. Co-showrunner Whitney Cummings left. Then writer Wanda Sykes left. And as actress Emma Kenney was about to bolt, she was informed by her manager that the show was cancelled. The linchpin was a startlingly racist tweet in which Roseanne declared that former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett was the product of “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes [sic]” having a baby.

For anybody who had been watching this hatred from the sidelines, Roseanne’s vulgar and vituperative racism was there in the unfettered manner in which she tweeted easily debunked alt-right conspiracy theories as if these hurtful falsehoods represented true gospel. She falsely claimed in March that David Hogg, one of the brave kids who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and who went on to become a formidable activist, had offered a Nazi salute, despite the fact that Roseanne herself had dressed up as Hitler for Heeb Magazine.

Barring a pickup from an online streaming giant — an unlikely event, given Amazon’s recent woes with Transparent and the Roy Price scandal, Netflix cutting ties with Louis CK, and Hulu likely not wanting to risk its progressive-minded programming slate given the success of The Handmaid’s Tale — there is little chance that Roseanne will return, unless she decides to produce it on her own dime. And even then, she would probably not have enough clout to convince all the cast members and crew to return. Such a hypothetical reboot, untethered from the manacles of network Standards and Practices, would only amp up the atavism further in the interest of “truth-telling,” perhaps inspiring the Southern Poverty Law Center to include Roseanne Barr amidst its distressingly voluminous list of offenders.

This was the first television show cancelled by a single tweet. And I don’t think it will be the last. What Roseanne’s self-immolation demonstrates, quite rightfully and righteously I think, is that America does have limits to what it will tolerate. There will undoubtedly be Daily Caller-reading banshees writing thinkpieces proclaiming this cancellation as a calumny upon the First Amendment. But the decision to write and produce a show, much less watch one, has not been quelled and the audience hungry for this casual xenophobia has regrettably not been deracinated. There are still ten million loyal Roseanne viewers. And I can easily imagine Roseanne being propped up as an underground comic, recast as an alt-right faux Lenny Bruce or perhaps the American answer to Dieudonné, and making a fortune through a monthly Patreon account.

In an age in which a self-help transphobic huckster like Jordan Peterson is framed by the “Paper of Record” as a “dark web intellectual,” Roseanne will probably not be the last repugnant show airing on American television. I fear that we are only at the beginning of hatred and intolerance marketed as “wholesome entertainment.” And while mainstream media rejects Roseanne, one must now be on the lookout for independently produced offerings cut from the same Klan cloth that are snatched up by television executives in the interest of corporate profit. This is, after all, how Roseanne was rebooted in the first place. The question now is who has the chutzpah to push the envelope further into a fetid swamp of ugliness and whether some network desperate for a hit is willing to pick up such a bilious offering, counting upon the American public to forget how these same gatekeepers helped make Roseanne happen in the first place.

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Elegy for a Fiend

The thin man looked up and down Second Avenue for the fuzz and raised the snuff spoon to her nostril and she scooped it up with her beak in less than a second. Then the man said he wouldn’t leave because she had sampled the merch and he insisted she had an obligation to buy. She said that fifty dollars was too much and that thirty was the going price in her hood. Then he muttered something about this being Manhattan and she grew truculent.

I stood there, frozen, even as he got in my space aggressively with the spoon from the start when I said no I would not be partaking. And I tightened my knuckles and wondered if I was going to have to get into a fight. Just how in the hell had I managed to get to this place? I was standing outside an underpopulated dive with sky priced drinks and the worst DJ mix I had probably heard in five years and I wasn’t having any fun at all. The man wouldn’t leave and, given his showy scrutiny, it was clear that he was a small time type trying to unload some supply. I had lost a friend to coke many years before. My mother had snorted blow. I had never actually seen her do this, but I did sometimes see the white dusty residue on the mirror some Saturday mornings, along with the whir of the tumbleweed she’d picked up the night before, blowing out the door without even stopping for a newly brewed cup of MJB.

After five minutes, the dealer left. She had a satisfied smile on her face. And the scene gave me new context for someone who I had pegged before all this as merely exuberant.

It was not long after this that I realized $100 was missing.

I had come to her because I had had a wild night and I thought she was the knowing soul who could help me make sense of it. An evening that started with a date that never showed, continued with a happy hour among old men sitting by themselves and sipping their old man drinks as I nursed a pint while staring at nautical symbols, and that concluded in a feral surprise with three young ladies at a karaoke bar who really liked my singing voice and had rather bold ways of expressing their appreciation that thoroughly confused me. It was a story too unbelievable, the kind of tale that a man my age would invent to make himself feel better, yet it actually happened. And I needed a friend who could help me make sense of it. Because it was too improbable. The first woman had left. She had a train to catch the next morning. Shortly before ensuring that the two remaining women, one quite drunk and the other quite stoned, were with friends and had safe passage home, I texted my friend and asked if she was out and wanted to talk. She told me to meet her at a Midtown bar.

I’d met her months before during one of my bar crawls and we’d hung out a few times. We were strictly platonic. She was young. She had a bright voice and a magnetic charisma and an inexhaustible energy that matched mine. We bonded over Russian literature. It was impossible not to like her. And I couldn’t help but love her a little. We had one conversation in which we described our respective sexual histories packed with such loaded tension that we later ended up kissing, although we both put a stop to that when she said she was not into me. I’d let her crash at my apartment a few times. She was quite fond of having me buy a six pack at a bodega around four o’clock and taking it to a bench, with the two of us drinking as the sun came up, casting a lambent tranquility after a raucous evening. Often I would go to one of my early morning shifts right after this, without sleeping. She once sent me a picture where she sat defiantly on the edge of a rail, careless about her balance. I thought it was a pretty thrilling image that captured her spirit and I showed it to a friend, who promptly told me, “That’s nothing special. What do you see in her?” Adventure. Liberation. Independence. A deliberate flouting of the rules. Existence, in a word. But there were many qualities I didn’t see until life happened.

I never really understood what she saw in me until that night. Then I realized that I usually paid for the drinks because I was a gentleman and I tried to be nice. There had been one time in which she had experienced a concussion and I felt the scars on her head and she was curiously elusive about the cause. When I met some of her friends, they all seemed to be strangely quiet around her, almost hesitant to speak and always giving her the floor. When I asked amicable questions of them, they offered terse and sheepish answers. They didn’t want to be known even though they laughed at my jokes. It was damned odd.

When she asked if I had disapproved of her gotcha moment with the dealer when we returned inside the lackluster dive, she already knew my answer. But I replied sadly, “It’s your choice.” What had seemed amusing all the times before had now twisted into this new challenge: who was living the better and more vibrant life? And then I realized why all her friends had been quiet. And between that and the missing cash, that’s when I knew I had to get the hell away from her.

She chased after me, calling me a child. She shrieked that everyone in the neighborhood could hear us shouting at each other. Predictable tactics to shame me. But I could not be shamed. And I would not let her reduce me any further. Her instincts revealed her as a fiend, not a friend. And I ran to the subway and I raced down the stairs and I wept over what had been so horribly revealed and what had always been there all along as the subway began its slow trundle forward.