From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Notes from a Shithole
by Peter Orner
I commit to vote in 2018, and I will vote with a quiet vengeance, but what I refuse to commit to is saying anything original here. I’m not sure I have anything to add beyond more noise. Saul Bellow—god knows a problematic gentleman, yet I revere this old dead Chicagoan because of, among other things, his fearless ability to self-critique—once wrote: “Most political views are like old newspapers chewed up by wasps—faded clichés and buzzing.” Test his theory. Go back and read last week’s New York Times. Or last year’s.
And yet, nightly, I feed off the news like I’m starving. This might be because I’ve spent the entire year and whatever since the inauguration out of the country. I live and work in one our president’s shithole countries, a beautiful one: Namibia, known to some as Nambia, home of roughly two million beautiful people and two of the world’s greatest deserts. After the shithole comment, one of my colleagues at the University of Namibia said, “Prof Orner, I have to be honest, I’m relieved. It means your clown won’t come here, right?”
You’d think I’d spend my time reveling in the distance, enjoying being so far away from my country’s mayhem. I wish had such self-control. Instead, every night, I bike down to the Engen petrol station in Windhoek to pirate the internet and gorge on the latest from home.
Therefore, in unoriginal anger, I join this chorus.
Last month at the Engen station (where, by the way, they sell some of the freshest bread in town) I read about the shooting of another—another and another and another—unarmed black man, this time in Sacramento, capital of my home state, this time shot twenty times, eight in the back.
A few weeks later, I read that there was some discrepancy in the news regarding how many times Stephon Clark had been shot in the back. Is this what we’ve come to—not whether an unarmed American was shot in the back, but how many times?
The shooting of Stephon Clark was passed off by the president’s spokeswoman as a local matter. This seemed to me, so far away in southern Africa, to sum up so much of what’s going wrong right now. Stephon Clark, an American, shot in his grandparents’ backyard holding nothing but a cell phone, is a local matter. It could be an equation: unarmed African American man shot by police = local matter. But it’s true, isn’t it? For once, maybe—though ass-backward and, god knows, for exactly the opposite reason—they got it right. It’s all local. Politics and police shootings. Stephon Clark is a local matter, and we, each and every one of us, are responsible. For those twenty shots. Maybe it starts with something so simple as not forgetting that Stephon Clark was one of us and that we, all of us, must acknowledge responsibility for his death.
And the thousands before Stephon Clark, and the thousands that, sadly, will come after.
How’s this for an unoriginal notion: that all us Americans are connected, that one family’s grief is all our grief.
We are Oscar Grant. Remember this? People have been saying it in the Bay Area since Oscar Grant was murdered in Oakland by a BART police officer in 2009. Is we are Oscar Grant really such a nutty idea?
I’m alone, muttering to myself at a gas station in Namibia, eating a croissant, and indulging in pie-in-the-sky fantasies of us all coming together when every day our divisions become more shoutingly intractable. 2009? Okay, maybe such hopeful dreaminess was in order. But now?
Let this tiny screed—one among so many—become a faded, wasp-chewed cliché tomorrow. Let it. We’ve never been a country of angels. Never. Not for a single moment in time. Look at our prisons. Look at our president. The undeniable truth is that we’ve always been, when it comes to race, more KKK than NAACP. (My spell checker recognized NAACP but not KKK. Is Microsoft Word trying to tell us something?)
And yet: haven’t we always tried to be otherwise? Isn’t trying at the root of what people call this American experiment? For every evil we’ve ever done—unfathomable daily evil, from the beginning—haven’t there always been those few who rose up, at risk to their own lives, and owned it? And in doing so, tried to prevent it? Isn’t that, too, American?
Take action today: Commit to vote in November.
Peter Orner is the author of five books including, most recently, Am I Alone Here?