American Goodness

— Elise Duryee-Browner

Trump International Hotel Las Vegas in Paradise, Nevada, opened in March 2008

Trump International Hotel Las Vegas in Paradise, Nevada, opened in March 2008

It is possible to remember, with effort, that the election wasn’t long ago. A friend died on his way to Standing Rock late Sunday, and there was a memorial in Ridgewood at the bookstore his close friends run (I can’t begin to explain all that) on Tuesday night. I worked alone that morning, at a restaurant in Brooklyn, and because schools were closed for election day it was extremely busy. Rather than normal breakfast into lunch, it was brunch, and people really were eating like they deserved to. Looking back it’s easier to understand why I found the optimism so revolting, so ludicrous. A woman had me sweep the floor under the counter before she and her son would sit. The owner came in, dressed up in white to get coffees and bagels with lox for her and a friend on their way to the polls. Women in pantsuits. Some days, the customers don’t bother me at all, and I can take pleasure in the job. Usually I clear the sugar caddy, check presenter and pen, napkins, silverware, cups and glasses all at once with my own two hands. I remember every order from a table of six; the cooks make fun of us, and we are affectionate with each other and laugh a lot. Other days I cannot tolerate the normal order of things. That restaurants, like the rest of the world, contain and take advantage of structural inequalities: wealthy owners, stressed by high rents and questions of status and identity and who, incidentally, used the violent political climate after the election to justify installing “security” cameras with which they monitor their employees, who work with and against the manager, made miserable with long hours and forced flexibility, who enforces the often arbitrary and changing rules from above and who works with and against the waitresses, usually women and, in the case of my restaurant, very well-educated, aware we work a dead-end job, trapped on display as we bring things to, in the case of my restaurant, men, to whom we either smile or don’t, subject to the distraction or insecurity or simple stupidity of people who can’t do the math to give a proper tip, working with, against, and forced at times to beg the kitchen to make the substitutions that customers ask for, and the cooks, paid much less than us for longer hours, usually illegal immigrant men, are promised raises which are then delayed, made to work on Christmas, who cannot go home to see their mothers for so long that eventually they miss the funeral, who live in a country they don’t much like but whose children are growing up here, little Americans who speak English on the playground and dress as minions for Halloween. Not to mention the Uber, Caviar, Seamless, GrubHub, Stadium, Amazon, Eat24, Postmates, and ChowNow delivery bikers, mostly but absolutely not only young black men, who come to pick up orders that we, the waitresses, receive on six different tablets before manually entering them into the POS system. When someone writes a note saying, “please add chicken to my salad,” we have to respond according to the various horrible user interfaces, probably designed by interns in a day because these companies know that we are not their customers by any means, and either charge the person $6, which they may complain about, tell them we’re out of chicken if we are (this is a bad example, there’s always plenty of chicken), or, if we’re too busy, give it to them for free like they wanted while we wonder why it doesn’t occur to us to do shit like that all day long. Some days I feel so ill or angry that I dream of smashing men on the backs of their heads with our glass water bottles when they smile at my approach as if God’s given them a gift, when they are so ill-fit for society that they can’t make eye contact, when they take up too much space or need to believe I’m sad that a Mexican guy broke into the restaurant and stole all the ipads. That night, after Clark’s memorial, we heard on the car radio that Trump was going to win.

Sometimes it seems to me that there’s a stunted anti-eroticism to people’s comparisons of Trump to Hitler, a fantasy of the completion victimization offers, the extinguishing of the will. If things simply repeat, we can respond by rote; no elasticity of mind is demanded. I shouldn’t be so angry, but when I hear people these days mention Hitler or even hint at Nazism in a press release, my immediate desire is to blow up whatever building I’m sitting in, usually my own home. My grandfather, who came at World War II obliquely, driving supply trucks for the U.S. army in Iran, even going AWOL to gamble, came to believe that the Westchester nursing home where he was in hospice care was run by Nazis, and that they took him golfing; these were among his last experiences on Earth. Godwin’s Law of shitty internet conversations has been made irrelevant by the profound shittiness of everything, and now when I think of someone saying or typing “fascism” I return to the vision I had, stoned and watching Democracy Now!, of Amy Goodman as the Devil, the corner of her mouth turned up with a hint of a smile as she informed viewers of the number of people in Pakistan killed by a drone. I think about Jesus a lot these days, about how only someone who hated immensely would realize how important love is, how only someone who first dwelt in misery, despising his neighbors, could come to realize that we must learn to love them.

My neighbors aren’t and have never been Trump supporters. I grew up in San Francisco at the consolidation of the age people, sadly, are today mourning as dead. I must mention, it’s not dead. All the steel mills and Russian nerds and white supremacists in the world can’t destroy Google, and anyone who’s ever picked up a phone knows it. And secondly, most people I know con ate liberalism and left- ism, and these days they’re probably not wrong. I don’t know much about leftism but I know a lot about liberalism. Trump’s supporters want to kill liberalism, and I can sympathize. Surely they are wrong about a lot of things: they hate and they followed that hate through the only channel on offer. But liberalism is not love.

Please treat the above as a laying bare of my aws. The trouble is I don’t know what tone to use in writing; I guess I suspect no one really pays much attention either way, but I worry that anything without a bit of vitriol will rst soak into the paper and then leak out of the cup. The Kabbalah identi es three primary emotions which permit creation to ow forth: kindness, severity, and then beauty, which harmonizes these prior forces and without which their inherent expansive- ness or restrictiveness would be stuck. Thusly I justify my judgement.


I trust in humanity. We all have the power, some with ease and others with great exertion, to let the immensity of our unconscious mind seep into and overpower what we think we know, to slowly expand our ability, as a species, to press thoughts out in discrete form which previously were formless, to knead a bit more good nature into each phrase or picture. Maybe that is the project of civilization itself, the making trustworthy of the word.


We may not know for some time where and how left and right began, but that they predate humanity, life on Earth, and all the galaxies is certain. Left and right have meaning to quarks, which formed one trillionth of a second after the big bang. And there is no separating human beings from this distinction, the difference between left and right-handedness being exactly as old as our culture, which began to develop before our species even existed; Neanderthals were also predominantly right-handed. The exact reason for this remains uncertain, but evidence in fossil teeth and in primitive tools from a million and a half years ago shows a definitive arc away from the 50/50 hand preference evidenced in the very first manufactured stone tools, over two million years old, toward the ninety percent right-handedness of humans today. Brain lateralization, or the presence of two asymmetrical hemispheres with discrete functions, exists in many vertebrates, but the advent of handedness in humans seems to have provided the external manifestation of this other fundamental binary, the rst being sex (which also produces distinctions in lateralization, and is why feminism, the study of women, remains important today). Left-handed people have differently organized brains from the majority of people, varying widely from case to case. These differences can produce dif culties integrating into mainstream society, as, for example, left-handed people are more likely to be schizophrenic and to not be heterosexual, which may explain the demonizing or exalting of the left in contrast to the right in many cultures throughout history. But some, like Chris McManus, who seems also to wish to tie this difference to the fundamental qualities of our universe, argue that there must be some adaptive bene t to this deviation from the norm for humanity as a whole, perhaps in the trait most often associated with left-handed people in pop culture, that of creativity.

The use of ideas of Left and Right in politics arose, unsurprisingly, in the era of modern democracy, speci cally during the French Revolution when, in the National Assembly, supporters of the king sat to the right of the president and the opposition to the left. This distinction elaborated and deepened as the revolution proceeded, the Left associated with innovation and the Right with established law. So a certain dual association adhered to the political Left, both with a belief in change, openness, new thought, and also with the revolution’s Enlightenment ideas of truth as a matter of facts, the individual as the unit of politics, liberalism and equality. Amazingly, all these years later, through the trials of communism, postmodernism, networked terrorism, globalized capital, and the rise of witchery in Brooklyn, this political position persists nearly unchanged. So as Enlightenment modes grow increasingly entrenched in mainstream urban culture, from the phrase “self-care” and Fitbits to the notion that a person is a string of qualities (white, cis female, pansexual, Gemini INFP), so does the Left; even anarchists and their post-political progeny can be afraid of what they don’t understand (i.e. art).

Fascism, when it emerged a century and a half later, imagined itself as a third way, against both the establishment and against the rationalist Left, which seems important to remember at this current moment in history. Certainly there are similarities between Trump’s platform and fascism, a quick scan of Wikipedia can sate the desire for this symmetry: autarky, xenophobia, authoritarianism, nationalism, media hatred, and certainly his platform is, similarly, an attack on liberalism and rationality and in some ways on the traditional conservative agenda. But picture the other great force in our world today, the tech industry, and it also has its fascisms: its cult of youth and immortality, its visions of improving upon the stock of humanity with DNA modi cation, drugs to cure an aberrant personality, AI. Trump is and knows that he’s grotesque, while they would like a spotless world. Four years ago the political stances and machinations of tech leaders took up far less space in electoral media coverage; this year, Zuckerberg’s posts are cited in The New York Times in the same way as Merkel’s speeches, and the extensive coverage of the maneuvering of Uber and Lyft, Microsoft and Google as they carve out their political territory, not to mention Apple’s earlier refusal to help the govern- ment hack the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, speak to the growing role of these companies and their ideologies, not so much in the old capitalist mode of lobbyists but rather more like an autonomous and imperial country mapped right onto our own (there are both alt-right and leftist calls for a “Calexit”). Trump’s pledges to force their factories out of China and back to the U.S. and his limitations on immigration probably plumb the outer limits of possible government-imposed constraint on the industry; though the German boycott of American culture via its refusal to come to an agreement on usage rights with YouTube, and other forms of internet censorship found in more authoritarian countries like China and Russia, seem much less remote now than a few months ago.

Assuming that these two forces are predominant in the American political landscape—that of the nihilistic, ugly, irrational, resource-grabbing, culture- murdering backlash against the Enlightenment, and that which is so perfectly seamless it’s almost invisible, quietly ideological, outwardly aligned with the liberal status quo, potentially profoundly elitist (see The New Yorker story about tech gurus and their apocalypse bunkers) and which, despite its alleged desire to innovate, is in fact the totalization of the rational (to the point where it believes that through the aggregation and synthesis of big data it can reproduce the human)—we must then assess how and why we, expert producers of culture, are being so effectively squeezed out of the picture. Whatever Trump and Bannon’s true agenda might be, they came into power because of a material and identity crisis in America and in the world, and because of a major backlash against the culture of the urban liberal elite, of which we are a part. This may be a platitude but I say it nonetheless: regardless of its grotesque opportunism, Trump’s election at least moved the frame away from pacifying feel-good clickbait about innovative uses of plastic water bottles and the Brazilian man with no hands who hammers and saws wood with his feet to make children’s toys (it’s content like this that would be more appropriately deemed Facebook’s fake news) toward the reality that climate change and resource wars will produce violence, starvation, and the radical reshaping of our planet such that the globes we spun as children will not be accurate for our own, that revolting zombie societies born and then bloated up by images, like ISIS, can form and grow, that most of the images we feed on are also lies. We have, as an example, relied on the image of a center, to which we could appeal, or beg, or protest. We have soothed ourselves with the exact same kind of hyper-rationalist images that drive the techies, seeing human beings as sets of qualities that can be legislated and quanti ed, and which, one ne day, will get set into equivalence by the great mechanisms of justice.

One major error made on each side of the current debate, by both the white supremacists who say, “defend Europe,” and the liberal elites who say, “Never again,” is to assume that America is European. At the grave risk of being wrong, measured against the minute impact of a voice in an art journal today, I will say that when doing the mental exercise of projecting a future Holocaust, something in which we must all indulge to a greater or lesser degree, it is somehow much easier to imagine it happening again in Europe rather than ever in America. Not to mention history, which does exist. In Gold Rush California, most art made was portraits of miners or of their cabins or claims, which they commissioned and paid for. It must have seemed advantageous in the wake of World War II for the U.S. and Europe to consolidate their image under the idea of the West, but this construct now seems shaky, which might explain Trump’s interest in Russia. And when people complain about the use of America to refer only to the United States, it’s usually in the context of our erasure of Latin America, not to make the argument that we actually have more in common with Mexicans or Jamaicans than with Germans. I guess it’s because we have historically been mostly white and prosperous, with our aspirational and assimilationist self- hatred, that we struggle to accept and comprehend ourselves as a culture in formation rather than a direct lineage out of Europe. We, as is increasingly the case in the rest of the world, have no recourse to an image of pure culture, and even Trump’s “Make America Great Again” doesn’t strike me as truly nostalgic for any particular era in the way cultural critics have painted it, much more as something at and shallow as a meme. Especially because his policy is so isolationist, an acknowledgement (which is in some ways a continuation of Obama’s foreign policy) of the United States’ diminishing capacity to intervene internationally in contrast to a hundred years’ meddling. As a college student I was a bit peeved at the greater culturohistorical importance granted the French Revolution when compared to the American one; the United States has never existed outside the Enlightenment age of the nation-state and capitalism. Always international and multi-racial, always capitalist (in 1850s California the perceived threat of large numbers of French, Chilean and Mexican immigrants made them the primary targets of lynch mobs), we are and have been a people of a humanist declaration, the difficult and contested realization of which has become an increasingly familiar struggle globally as immigrants and refugees ow across borders like money does. The Left has, at least since Vietnam, seen its role as one of opposition to what it sees as American: backdoor foreign manipulation, wars for oil, capitalism, the sicknesses of racism and classism. This aiming of its efforts toward a centralized power (whether the government or white male hegemony) and at concrete structural change tends to diminish the incredible breadth and wisdom of the culture of America’s people (which the Right, of course, does much more explicitly in its grotesque and pathetic monolithic fictions) and seems to come both from a fear of inhabiting contradiction and, probably more importantly, of accepting the burden of America’s over- whelming capacity to influence a world culture which increasingly resembles it. This election was a major blow. No one could get out of bed, but instantly the urge to analyze and speak came. Instagram filled up with political imagery. I found myself full of rage toward everyone around me, depressed by and angry at our elite and privileged culture’s deeply sick need for certainty, for peer recognition, rushed diagnosis. Much more significant to me was the mass emotional response, and I trusted friends’ accounts of this pain much more than all of our scrambled attempts to explain where it came from. And here we return to the hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere, which controls the right side of our bodies and is thus associated with our idea of the right, deals in certainties, in words. Previously unknown tasks activate the right brain, but once they become rote, it’s the left brain that’s activated instead; the right brain comprehends things holistically—the whole body, the human race as a whole, while the left comprehends things as parts and holds the power-hungry, manipulating, unitary sense of self. The most frightening quality of the left brain is its total capacity for rationalization: if your left brain is temporarily deactivated and the right brain given an instruction, upon being awakened the left brain will seize upon whatever explanation for your action seems most logical, and you will believe that justification with full confidence. So the Enlightenment, while at its beginning a revolutionary opening up of the possibilities of knowledge, in the end posits a world which can be understood only in the terms of the left hemisphere, which of course manifests as our right-wing. Depression on the other hand is an activity of the right brain, maybe one way to describe it is as the experience of receiving and processing painful information that cannot yet be articulated in language and cannot be understood in the sequential certainties of our self- aware left brain. So everyone I knew, in the wake of the election, registered the horror emotionally, but our culture’s extreme discomfort with this confusion resulted also in an immediate mobilization of deeply institutionalized mechanisms of politics and thought, like the election popped open a huge bag of Lay’s and we snacked.

I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in China or Russia, but we do know that the arts and culture are not a guarantee, that women were withheld access to the word for thousands of years for a reason, that liberal classrooms even while teaching children about racism still have a fundamentally Western ideology, and that our hyper-rationalist world is approaching the capacity for our total dominion through technology. There is urgency, and I think Trump’s something of a strawman (as is the alt-right). So if we were to consider detaching the idea of the left from its now-ancient Enlightenment fervor for equality, which demands as its nature both a center to manage and adjudicate, and a relentless and eternal process of the parsing of human beings into measurable bits, and look rather at the material and spiritual means people have developed to survive and resist this cold, hard culture while being inextricably bound to it (the steady stream of immigrants always having been vital to this), we might uncover more unity and possibility than we expect. What will it mean if America becomes a cultural backwater, unable to communicate with its bastard children? If we can all acknowledge the humbling experience that was the election, it might then seem characteristically weak-willed and negating that our scripted response to Trump’s ingenious slogan has been to say, as if the machinations of the 1% constitute our whole heritage, well, “America was never Great.”