Just a few feet in front of me: something remarkable and transfixing. But what exactly? After all, I was only watching a TV show on Netflix.
I think sometimes about the strange circumstances of my life now, relative to my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. I’m from the South London suburbs: white, heterosexual, male, middle-class, and English.
Now – though all these things about me are still true – I live and work in America. And my job, in particular, positions me a long way from what used to be my home, and compels me, incrementally, to question, not amplify, the assumptions and assertions of my past.
The giant past of England and its former empire, and the many things people like me inherit from this past – consciously or otherwise.
My employer provides supportive housing, job training, and other support services to people with histories of mental illness, institutionalization, incarceration, and homelessness. And my work, in a fundraising capacity, involves meeting many of these people and helping to share their stories.
These stories may be few, but their details are often exceptional and vivid. Depression struck one man, one day, “like a pin” – deflating him and leaving him in this state for the next 10 months. A woman saw the corpse of her father after he committed suicide, by setting himself alight with lighter fluid. “Anything in the bathroom that was plastic,” she said, “melted on to his body.” This same woman later served in Iraq, for the US Army, suffering panic attacks and despairing daily that war and death are inexorably twinned. “What are we doing here,” she asked. “Young recruits, fresh out of high school – and Iraqi kids, you know, dying.”
Another woman lost her home one Thanksgiving to a fire – “Everything was burned out, even down to my can opener” – and wound up homeless for the next 11 years. Another told me she was raped by two police officers and, later, sexually abused in prison. And another man inherited from his father a long, lonely fight against addiction. He was on his way to an AA meeting in the West Village “when 9/11 happened,” this terrible event anchoring in time the start of his recovery.
Many times I wonder, why are you sharing so much, so candidly? Maybe not knowing me makes it somehow easier? Maybe sharing a story lightens the load of it a little? Either way, though, I think: perhaps my wondering is a kind of conceit. When you pass oppression, injustice, and pain through the filters of being white, heterosexual, male, middle-class, and English… well, they are too easily abstracted.
What good is this abstraction? What is being illuminated, exactly, and for whom? With increasingly clarity, my answers to these questions are: not much; a small part of the whole; and – me, most of all, giving myself far too inflated a role. Why share so much, so candidly? Because everyone has their reasons.
Especially in these uncertain times, what, if anything, can guide us more surely forward? How can we be more empathetic, more often – more hopeful, and more humble? Whoever you are, look around and wonder: how can I begin to oppose the forces of oppression? Of injustice. Of xenophobia. Of misogyny.
Speaking only for myself, these questions have never felt more urgent. As a parent, hoping against hope that the world has better things in store for my two young daughters. And – oh my – as a white, heterosexual, male, middle-class Englishman living in America, grappling with the hard facts of Orlando, Donald Trump, and Brexit.
I don’t know what the answers are. But something about this gathering gloom steels us for the search. I’m tired of the feeling that liberals wage an unwinnable war – and that great advances can’t happen now. Fuck that. Let’s redouble our efforts.
If the slogans and rhetoric of a demagogue look and sound hollow and hateful, well, they probably are – whether or not their appeal originates in people and places left behind and hurt.
If old white people keep on saying, “I don’t recognize this country any more,” tell them: let’s make it better then, for everyone.
If someone says, “I don’t believe in gay marriage,” answer: it’s none of your goddamn business.
If a woman’s reproductive rights are taken away from her, join her fight to get them back.
For my daughters and their precious generation, most of all, let’s sing another song already.
And if you still don’t get it: catch up.
Anthony Bourdain, the white American host of a CNN travel show, is visiting an Iranian family in their home, enjoying greatly their hospitality and food. Within this so-called “axis of evil,” we watch him be a gracious guest, sit still, and listen.