I want to talk to you about how I grew up. But to do that, I’d like to talk to you about where I grew up. The New York Times has this overly detailed map of how every precinct voted in the 2016 election. It’s interesting for about five seconds. I’m going to show you a series of three maps, outlining where I spent most of the first 28 years of my life. These are all locations in Upstate New York.
Exhibit A: Just outside Niagara Falls, NY // 1982–1986, 1988–1993
Exhibit B: Just outside Utica, NY // 1993–2000
Exhibit C: Just outside Buffalo, NY // 2002–2010
I grew up in pretty solidly red parts of the US — Trump’s America, if you will. I didn’t really know it, at the time, although I knew there were racists, sexists and bigots all around me.
One day in the Summer of 2005, my girlfriend (at the time) and I caught wind of the KKK holding meetings in the woods adjacent a non-descript road in Erie County. We decided to find that road in broad daylight, to see what we could see while conceivably there’d be nobody around to catch us. We drove out to the road, found a trail-head, and walked back. Along the 400 yards or so deep into the thicket, we passed black and red-headed dolls and toys hanging from branches like lynchings. There were swastikas carved into trees. Then, we heard some rustling through the woods and sprinted the fuck outta there, because I’m Mediterranean and second-generation American, and she’s Jewish — so although we pass, we don’t pass with straight A’s, and that’s just not a chance we were willing to take. That not-so-secret hideout is right here, and probably still exists today.
But why do I tell you this? Why does it matter where I grew up, or how red the area was, or that my idea for a date was “let’s see if white supremacists are really in our backyard?” Because: in order to understand how people become who they are, it’s important to understand how they relate to the people around them.
As I mentioned before, I grew up in pretty solidly red parts of the US — Trump’s America, if you will. I also grew up, to quote my last piece, “shorter, scrawnier and softer than your average red-blooded American cisgender male.” I was also sicker — and, candidly, smarter. And all those s-words matter, because they’re indicative of a kind of schoolboy code for “weak.” Growing up the way I did made me a prime candidate to be heckled, picked on, bullied, shamed and threatened by the kinds of kids at school who enjoy heckling, picking, bullying, shaming and threatening. The pop-psychology word for the fellas who engage in this type of strategy for navigating and manipulating the social hierarchy is “dominance.” An overview, from Quartz:
Studies show that bullies use a strategy of dominance to attain social influence, leveraging their strength, wealth or social status to manipulate and intimidate others. Lower-status group members don’t like the dominant bully; often, they outright fear him.
I’d often come home from school, and complain to my dad about kids who were saying mean things to me, and threatening to beat me up, and my dad would tell me things like, “those kids aren’t going anywhere in life. You are. One day you’ll have the last laugh.” You know, the kinds of things that TV dads say. (My dad is definitively a TV dad.) I trusted him.
Those kids also had other curious habits for the time: they enjoyed liberally tossing around the n-word. They were super into gay slurs. They made a lot of sexist jokes. They punched kids with disabilities on a whim.
In my head, those things seemed kinda wrong. But they felt … normal(?), because of how widespread it all was among the kids who dominated the social stratosphere of mill towns in northern Appalachia. And so, fearing ostracization and physical harm, I learned to object to their myopia with crass, sarcastic humor and wit, instead of with earnest pleas for tolerance and kindness. (TL;DR — I fought eighth-grade assholes by becoming a first-rate smart-ass.) It worked, to a degree — I changed maybe a handful of minds, and I also made it all the way through senior year without getting stuffed in a locker.
Now, a lot of those kids — and this is somewhat anecdotal, since I’m basing this from my own memory and their current Facebook cities after some cursory stalking — never left those towns: never went away to college, never got a white-collar job, never moved away for work or leisure. They were, and remain, simple people who don’t like change or anything different. And, boy oh boy, does that matter … politically:
Still Live In Your Hometown? You're Probably Voting for Trump
The effect is even stronger among white voters, who already tend toward Trump. Even a bit of distance matters: Trump…
The prejudiced, small-minded bullies in my school became prejudiced, small-minded bullies in real life. This isn’t shocking. I suppose it also wouldn’t shock you to learn I don’t talk to more than a handful of people I went to high school with. Instead, while they celebrated our 10-year reunion, I spent the weekend moving to a pretty dope part of the world — one ripe with opportunity and potential. Boy oh boy, would you look here at my neighborhood now:
Exhibit D: Austin, TX // 2010–present
But how did I get here? I want to tell you that my embrace of marginalized groups of all kinds comes from a good place. I’d love to tell you that. And maybe it does now, now that the feeling is somewhat lived-in. Yet I’m fairly certain that, originally, this stems from the old “an enemy of an enemy is a friend” corollary. The d’bags in my school hated the marginalized. They also hated me. And so I knew on which team I belonged. I’ve read things since, and I’ve seen the way the world’s evolved since, and they’ve only furthered my politics along the spectrum of progressivism — from Moderate Republican, to Centrist Democrat, to Liberal, to Scandinavian Egalitarian — but I think in large part, I saw the way the people who used to be real douchebags to me, saw them zig, knew I wasn’t about that life, and then I zagged. “Only the morons and simpletons and assholes and pricks and white trash think this way. I am not a moron, a simpleton, an asshole, a prick or white trash. Therefore …”
Additionally, everyone I admired — professionally, personally, politically — thought differently than the fellas (they were always fellas, and always white) who initially told me “I fucked your mom last night and didn’t tip her.” These people weren’t like the kids I went to school with. They were intellectuals. Bleeding hearts. Musicians. Poets. Punks. Free-thinkers. Writers. Storytellers. Revolutionaries. Really excellent lays. And they hated the small-minded bullies, too! These were my people. So I felt validated and emboldened.
Additionally, all the books I read, and films I watched, and rappers I listened to talked and thought the same way. Soon, my entire social circle was sucked into the leftist vortex. My media, my friends, my neighborhood (pictured), my art, my science, my politics. And, you know what? I’m okay with that, because I feel like I’ve drifted into a realm of curiosity, empathy and compassion instead of bravado, antipathy and cruelty.
My life experience shaped my ideology. I feel like that’s — whether we’re willing to admit it or not — how a lot of our politics form inside of us. We’re shaped by our life experiences, we begin to develop algorithms for identifying those we find unsavory, we learn to disagree with them, we find others who feel the same, and a coalition forms. I get that this is fairly reductive, but this is more Occam’s Razor than an actual fallacy. Remember: in order to understand how people become who they are, it’s important to understand how they relate to the people around them.
So, yes, I grew up in pretty solidly red parts of the US — Trump’s America, if you will. And I could’ve become that kind of person. One who stayed there. One who stayed stuck in that mindset. One who stuffed kids in lockers and still wishes they could. One who meets in the woods and hangs black-skinned and red-headed dolls and toys from branches. One who carves swastikas into trees. One who’s totally okay with deporting Muslims, putting brown babies in camps, and the “justified” killings of black people. But I didn’t.
I want to say I didn’t because I had a good heart, and a level head, and a kind soul. In reality, I think it’s just because I grew up shorter, scrawnier, softer, sicker and smarter than your average red-blooded American cisgender male — at least the kinds who populated the various parts of Upstate New York I found myself thrown into. Maybe my ideology stems from, initially, a burning desire to get back at the middle-school motherfuckers, and this was my way of having the last laugh.
It’s kinda hard to laugh right now — those motherfuckers appear to be winning, they’ve graduated from gay slurs to guns, it’s getting harder and harder to change their minds, and I don’t feel much like talking to them anymore. I take solace in not turning out fascist, but I take no comfort and give no quarter. Not now. Not when the stakes are far higher than the sticks and stones they used to be.