The Safety of Smoke & Mirrors


Much has been said about the clusterfuckery that came to Charlottesville this week, and more will be coming down the pipeline. I think it’s safe to say, as a progressive woman of color, that I stand firmly on America’s Team Punch-A-Nazi, even if I haven’t personally punched one myself. I blame arthritic hands and a tendency to turtle in times of stress.

The world seems crazy now. I know we’re only supposed to use that word in the correct context, but I think in this case, I am. I frequently ask myself if this is real life and then wonder if I really just said that. I carefully clip the shadow of fear from my spine every morning, even though it grows back stronger throughout the day. I’m an online agent of mass punctuation, grinding out worried exclamation points and throwing them in every direction, 24/7. This is my new normal.

Two things that fascinate me in America’s Fascism Reboot are storytelling and safety.

Everyone thinks their reality is the real authentic one. Because of this, I’m amazed that people agree on anything at all. To back up their reality, which is surely the best reality on the market, they will tell themselves a story. You can be a bleeding heart liberal, a diehard libertarian, a straight-up Nazi, or someone who doesn’t give a shit about this country; every day, we tell ourselves stories, backed by information from our favorite storytelling sites – New York Times, Fox News, Stormfront, your weird Uncle Pete – and then we tell those stories to others. We are a nation of storytellers, barely listening to each other.

I often wonder if we will ever write a story together, however impossible that may seem, but one person cannot unite this many. In our society of the white savior industrial complex, it seems like the general public keeps waiting for a Don Draper-like Dumbledore to show up and make some magic. Unite the masses. Give us something to agree on. Make it easier on everyone. Take over. But that is yet another story.

Some people might not know this, but inside of me lives a control freak with the strength of five control freaks. This is a time-honored legacy passed down to me from my mother and her mother, and I hope to pass on this debilitating character flaw to my own child, too. What fun that will be for him to discover in therapy someday.

Everywhere I look in America, someone is trying to control the uncontrollable. From the choices women make about their bodies to where minorities can vote to who can cross our borders to who’s set up to make the most money, the greatest story we tell ourselves is that we can control other people (starting with the founding of this country, when you could own them). You can build a wall, but that won’t stop people from coming here. You can legislate until all regulations are gone and rake in a ton of pipeline money, but you can’t stop oil from spilling. You can totally ban abortion, but it won’t change that women have been getting abortions throughout all of history and time, regardless of the cost or law. You can give every elementary school kid a gun but it won’t stop shooters from planning or trying to execute that plan. Control is gripping something tighter because no control feels like you’re losing.

I feel like control in this country walks hand-in-hand with fear and safety. We fear something and immediately want to control it in the name of safety for all. I see all these people from every side adding fear to a perpetually-running smoke machine, who then wonder why they’re choking on the fumes. Who controls the smoke machine? Is it the media? The U.S. Government? Facebook? Some random guy named Steve?

At any moment, someone is talking about safety in America from every different angle. In Seattle, we talk about the safety of our marginalized communities from a struggling police department, safety on our roads choked with the swell of traffic and outsiders, safety in public spaces from those who could potentially harm us, safety around mental illness, safety with guns, safety online and in school. The list goes on forever because feeling safe – much like storytelling – is important to most people.

But safety, for the most part, is an illusion. At best, it’s a social contract you hope everybody signs; at worst, it’s a loaded fairytale. That locked door can be kicked in. Someone driving on the same highway as you is in the throes of opioid addiction, or still drunk from last night, or fighting with their boyfriend in the car. A wall can be flown over, a border can be crossed from underground. Women and children are still assaulted, men are still murdered. There’s no shortage of suffering. People in government are working every day against something that makes you feel safe, no matter how you voted. Safety does not exist in a world where anything can happen.

I did say for the most part. You can take every safety precaution before, say, climbing a mountain, and the outcome will probably be fine. You can wear your seatbelt, push for laws that keep roads safer, skip doing heroin, and have that fight at home. You still run the risk of something going wrong, but no one should live in a windowless bubble. We can do the things that create the illusion of safety, but that’s not actual safety.

Adding borders and walls and more military and laws against Others and legislation preventing Equality doesn’t feel like safety to me, but I know someone who would say the exact opposite — let’s call her Janice. For Janice, keeping people out equals America being safe. For Janice, everyone in a hijab is a terrorist and anyone wearing a cross gets a pass. White people have to work harder, she says, and black people never work at all. Her son, a drug addict, could’ve been something if the Mexicans hadn’t taken all the jobs. She quotes Fox News at me and defends Confederate statues as ‘history everyone should learn from.’ The moment of conception is a life to her. Everything about Janice’s perspective makes me want to burn her town to the ground – and believe me, vice versa.

Janice doesn’t feel safe in a world that’s not recognizable to her, and she has no desire to make the unknown her acquaintance. She thinks my perspective is dangerous to America, too – I’m soft, not vigilant enough, and will regret the day I said people should be welcome in our country – and I think hers is hard and corrosive. But the stories we both tell ourselves and each other about America are largely about safety. Hers is about feeling safe, and mine is about feeling safe, even though that is not guaranteed; were that true, there would be no risk. Janice and I both want the unattainable, this illusion of a life without fear.

It’s nice knowing there is common ground, but I want to turn that into a more fruitful discussion. It’s easy to write people off who present themselves as racist lady-haters who Won’t Fucking Get With The Times, but I’m trying to remember that I am just one storyteller who wants to feel safe in a sea of storytellers with the same idea. I’m not going to read all their books, but I’m not going to burn them all, either. All I can do is keep looking for ways to connect in a meaningful way with people who want the same thing.

Important to note, though: Facebook is not the way and Nazis, go home.

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4 thoughts on “The Safety of Smoke & Mirrors

  1. […] Old chestnut, revisited […]


  2. michelle says:

    I have been saying to myself and anyone who will listen, that this whole time reminds me of the lessons from recovery programs: there’s the uncontrollable (my addicted family member, DJT#45, a Nazi-sympathizer), and there’s me, trying to control them. The best thing to do is take care of myself, my children, and change what I can–and let go of what I can’t change. I can’t make “Janice” see things differently, but I can work to vote her out of office. People lose sight of what we can successfully control or change, and beat their heads against the wall over what we can’t. So yes, the Nazis exist, but we can drown them out, as was done in Boston, or threaten to cover the field where they’re gathering in dogshit as was done in San Fran. I lose heart sometimes when I fight what I can’t control (other people’s minds), and I gain courage when I successfully do some work that has a better outcome for me (like help a candidate win, or beat back an attack on healthcare).


  3. Joao R Wilkinson says:

    Well written, and with a very nice ending that leaves people hopefully with a moment of introspection.


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