Monthly Archives: January 2020

’twas the night before Brexit

 

I feel like I should write something to commemorate Brexit Eve, but honestly I feel like everything I want to say has already been said. Three-and-a-half years ago I wrote on this blog why, despite a deep Euroscepticism, I believed people should vote Remain. Then, after the referendum, I encouraged people to get on with making Brexit a success—which, to me, meant fighting for a fair, progressive, leftwing Brexit.

2016 was a long time ago. I’ve since lost my Euroscepticism and become, if not an enthusiastic at least a pragmatic Europhile. Some may say that I’ve given into tribalism, but I’ve come by my feelings on globalization and international cooperation honestly, having seen not just Britain but the world double down on isolation and nativism. From America to Brazil to Austria to the Philippines, the far right is ascendant and seeks to dismantle the internationalism of the last quarter-century. It makes me sad.

I keep thinking about the people who will be celebrating tomorrow. In some ways I can’t begrudge them. Many Brexiteers have wanted this for a long time, working to take Britain out of Europe for years or decades. For them it’s the moment they have been waiting for, a culmination of all their work and the fulfillment of their deepest political desire. Still, given how divided the country is, the raucous celebrations being planned and the celebratory tea towels with Boris Johnson’s smug and utterly punchable face screen-pressed onto them seem crass, at best. A little magnanimity from the Brexiteers would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath; “conciliation” is not one of their traits. Indeed, it is a vice rather than a virtue to most of them.

Then I remember the children who will grow up British but not European. The teenagers who feel as though their future has been robbed from them. The #FBPE Twitterati who genuinely believe the European Union is the key to all future success and that, outside of it, Britain will be but a shell of its former self—a has-been among nations, the senile old uncle to whom no one ever writes but still somehow winds up at Christmas dinner, at least. Anyone who has ever experienced electoral loss can sympathize with them.

For the dyed-in-the-wool true believers, though, it’s even more painful than an election defeat. Boris Johnson might be Prime Minister now, but within five years we’ll have a chance to put him out. Brexit is a once-in-a-generation, if not lifetime, event. What’s done is done. It’s like a Panem reaping: your name has been drawn; you can’t go back. It’s well and truly over—may the odds be ever in your favour.

For what it’s worth, I doubt the worst will come to pass. It seldom does. Whatever the consequences of this foolish retreat into itself, Britain is still one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. That isn’t going to stop being true anytime soon. There will be hiccups, no doubt – I wouldn’t want to be in Dover next month, and God be with us if the prosecco runs out – but it’s hardly the war. You’ll still have bread, and electricity, and bombs won’t be falling on your house. Low bar, I realise, but I’m grasping at straws.

I don’t know what comes next. What do the Remainers put their energies towards now that overturning the referendum is impossible? It will be interesting to see. One thing I hope is that we can move forward. For four years Brexit has dominated the national conversation. You couldn’t turn on Question Time without at least half the conversation being dominated by Brexit. The other half was dominated by racists, and often the two overlapped. Not always a correlation, but rarely a coincidence. There are pressing issues facing the nation, though. Maybe they can get addressed now. Maybe.

My heart goes out to those who are sad, or angry, or bitter, or alternately or simultaneously all three. It’s a tough pill to swallow. If the medicine shortages come to pass, it could also be your last pill to swallow. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. As I said, probably won’t.

To those who are happy, those who wanted Brexit more than they wanted anything—even more than they wanted an all-white royal family—I wish you well as you celebrate getting both. Truly. And I’m sorry for that dig just there. It’s unfair. Not unwarranted, but unfair. Not all of you are foaming-at-the-mouth racists. Just a lot of you. But seriously, party to your heart’s content and your liver’s capacity. Just remember for every verse of “Land of Hope and Glory” you sing one of your compatriots listening to “Ode to Joy” and quietly weeping. You can leave the European Union, but you have to take them with you.

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

Skylar reads… “Shortest Way Home” by Pete Buttigieg

“Skylar reads…” is a new series of book reviews by writer Skylar Baker-Jordan. Each book will be scored on a scale of “one book” to “five books”, with five being the best.

I picked up Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg for the reason most people will have bought the book—to get to know him better. Before last year, most Americans had never heard of the young midwestern mayor who was skyrocketing to the top tier of candidates in the Democratic primary. It seems Buttigieg anticipated this problem, and Shortest Way Home serves as an introduction to Buttigieg, his life, his experiences as mayor, and a general sense of his governing style.

For those looking for detailed policy positions or a deep philosophical treatise that might help nail down Buttigieg’s politics, this isn’t the book. Buttigieg doesn’t really touch on national policy, though you do get some idea of his positions on such things as the economy (government intervention is good, as with the auto bailout), social issues (no surprise, he supports gay marriage) and American involvement in the Middle East (it’s complicated, but the endless wars have got to stop). If you’re looking for the nuts and bolts of “Medicare for all who want it” or Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan (his policies on race and issues affecting Black America), you’re not going to find it here.

That was, of course, never the point of Shortest Way Home. Clearly written to provide background and context for Buttigieg’s presidential bid (the book was published in February 2019, a month after Buttigieg announced his exploratory committee), it is your typical autobiography. Buttigieg traces his life from a brick house in South Bend to Harvard Yard and Oxford to a high-rise office in Chicago and back to South Bend, where he was elected mayor in 2011. It’s an impressive if not always interesting journey on its own—anyone who works in politics or media knows the Ivy League cum Oxbridge (or vice versa) type—and Buttigieg writes about his hometown and childhood with a warmth and ease he doesn’t always display on the campaign trail.

It isn’t until we get to 2010, when Buttigieg ran a failed campaign to unseat an incumbent state treasurer, that Buttigieg’s life story really differs that much from your average high achieving white boy, and it’s here where Buttigieg’s writing is the most animated and dynamic. He writes with gusto about trekking across the Hoosier state, going from fish fries to parades while cold calling in between. The characters he meets along the way—a Republican who writes him a cheque because his buddy “says you’re a good guy” or the party official who meets with him while plowing a cornfield—seem like they could have come out of Primary Colors. Where a more cynical writer would have turned them into ridiculous caricatures, Buttigieg writes about them with admiration and respect.

Indeed, the book often feels less like an autobiography and more like a love letter to Indiana. Whether Buttigieg is recounting how state political and business leaders—including Republicans—came together to defeat a homophobic law passed by then-Governor Mike Pence or how his hometown revitalized itself (under Buttigieg’s leadership, of course) after appearing on a list of failing American cities, “Mayor Pete” writes eloquently and glowingly about his home state. It’s a reminder to those not from the industrial Midwest that the region isn’t the dying wasteland many seem to presume, and it’s in these passages Buttigieg shines.

Buttigieg doesn’t shy away from the more controversial aspects of his mayoralty, which is good. He goes into detail about the demotion of former police chief Darryl Boykins and reckons with his own shortcomings when it comes to policing—one of the chief controversies he’s faced on the campaign trail. He acknowledges mistakes, owns up to failures, and explains his decision in a frank and honest way which would likely surprise his harshest critics.

The book isn’t without its faults, though. Buttigieg’s writing is largely constrained and guarded, and it’s clear he’s holding back and choosing his words carefully. This might be good when you’re a politician, but it isn’t great when you’re an author. Because Buttigieg remains so cautious in what he will and won’t discuss, it’s difficult to get a real grasp on who he is. We find out a few personal details (he’s an early riser, but not by choice; he loves Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) and get a few funny anecdotes (one that sticks out is a practical joke Chasten’s family played on him), but largely we’re meeting Pete the politician, not Pete the man.

That’s a shame, really, because Pete the man has an interesting and relevant story to tell as well. Buttigieg discusses his decision to come out and his relationship with Chasten, but he skips a crucial part of the journey every gay man takes – figuring out you’re gay and what happens next. Memoirs by politicians still in the arena are typically cautious and light on the type of rich and honest details that make the genre so compelling, and Shortest Way Home is no exception. It would have been nice to read about Buttigieg’s internal conflict in accepting his sexuality, when he realized he was gay, and how that realization came to pass. We don’t get that, though, and as a result we’re left with the notion that a big part of Buttigieg’s story is missing. For the man who is the first serious openly gay candidate for president, not grappling more with the process of coming out to oneself is a serious omission.

Perhaps that will be discussed in the post-presidency book. I hope so, because Shortest Way Home is poorer for not including it. If you want to get to know Pete Buttigieg, it’s worth reading—but only if you want the sanitized political version. Honestly, there’s not much here for the average reader that they couldn’t get by reading Buttigieg’s Wikipedia page or any of the dozens of profiles mainstream media has done on him. Shortest Way Home is essential reading to Buttigieg supporters and those interested in the changing economic landscape and the changing cityscapes of the Midwest but not many people beyond those groups. It’s a fun read, though, and I enjoyed the time I spent in Buttigieg’s South Bend with its working-class charm and Hoosier hospitality.

📘 📘 📘

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

Pete Buttigieg, Hillary Clinton, and who gets to show emotion in American politics

Last night the New York Times editorial board endorsed Senator Amy Klobuchar and/or Senator Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic nomination. Leaving aside the arguments for and against each of these candidates as well as the arguments over whether endorsing two candidates makes sense (I think it does), I want to—quelle surprise—talk about Pete Buttigieg. Chiefly, I want to talk about Mayor Pete, emotiveness, and who gets to be expressive in American politics and culture.

First, let’s get something out of the way. I am supporting Pete Buttigieg for president. I think the New York Times’ interview was at times very unfair to him, especially Binyamin Appelbaum’s outright lies about his time as a consultant for McKinsey. I am not happy with the Times’ endorsement, though I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Mayor Pete was the fourth-place pick of the editorial board (behind Warren, Klobuchar, and erstwhile candidate Senator Cory Booker).

With that said, there was an exchange that I think is worth discussing in a bit more detail than I’ve seen discussed elsewhere. In response to Appelbaum asking whether he feels the same anger a lot of young people feel about the state of the country, Mayor Pete answered that “while I may not be as emotive sometimes about my sense of anger or frustration or injustice – and I would argue that some people are given more room to be emotive than others – I would not be doing any of this if I were not propelled by a level of passion.” While debating the pros and cons of each candidate (as shown on The Weekly), Michelle Cottle complained that “Pete talking about how he doesn’t emote as much as some, that’s a real problem. I mean voters love that ‘I feel your pain’ stuff,” prompting Lauren Kelley to rightly point out “he also almost surely would be painted in some unfair way if the gay man on the trail was overly emotional, right? I mean, it’s a bind.”

Indeed, it is a bind – one in which many gay men have found themselves. I don’t know if Pete Buttigieg meant to imply that others have more leeway to be emotive because he’s gay or not (he never expressly says), and I understand the point Cottle was making. Voters really do love a passionate, emotive candidate – think Bill Clinton, think Bernie Sanders, think Donald Trump – though Barack Obama showed that sometimes cool-as-a-cucumber works, too.  But Kelley raises a point that I think is important to make, if not about Mayor Pete specifically, about politics and business in general. Who gets to be emotive, and who gets dismissed when they’re emotive, is something worth discussing.

Gay men have long been portrayed as flamboyant and dramatic, from Nathan Lane’s character in The Birdcage to Jack McFarlane in Will and Grace right on up to Cam on Modern Family. There’s nothing wrong with being flamboyant and dramatic—lots of gay men (myself included, frankly) are, just as lots of all sorts of people are. For a long time, though, the stock character of the gay “drama queen” was the predominant depiction of gay men in pop culture, and that image has become a stereotype of gay men in general. The problem arises not because some gay men are dramatic, emotional, emotive, or flamboyant, but because the straight world assumes that when a gay man is dramatic, emotional, emotive, or flamboyant it is because he is gay and that is, inherently, a bad thing.

As I said above, I’m an expressive and sometimes flamboyant gay man. I’ve never felt any shame in this. One of my nicknames among my friends in high school—given in good nature— was “Bitchy Diva Queen.” (The other was “Zazu,” because I always knew the gossip.) The nickname itself didn’t bother me. The way my emotions were often dismissed because of it, though, did. I developed a thick skin back then—you had to as an openly gay boy in a southeastern Kentucky high school in the early 00s—but when something really did upset me, such as sophomore year, when a group of bullies apparently planned to attack me, my genuine fear, anger, or hurt was dismissed as being “overly dramatic” by my friends, my classmates, and even the administration.

This attitude followed me into adulthood. I was heavily involved in student government during college. During one contentious meeting at a retreat, frustrated, I got up to go smoke (a filthy habit, I know). This was allowed considering how long the meeting was going; people were taking breaks as needed. I walked quickly and with purpose (as I always do, a product of trying to make it from one class to the next without getting attacked in high school), hurrying outside to light a cigarette. The next thing I know the student body president—my boss, as her chief of staff— is outside chastising me for “storming out.” When I tried to explain that I simply needed a cigarette, she wouldn’t hear it, dressing me down for being so dramatic.

Even into the professional world, even in a big blue dot like Chicago, this attitude has prevailed. When I was in meetings with management at the corporate headquarters of a large American mortgage company, I often felt dismissed if I showed even a hint of emotion. One well-meaning boss, who herself could often be heard cussing and screaming from her desk, suggested that I “tone it down” a bit. Another not well-meaning—and to no one’s surprise, male—boss told me to “stop being a diva and stop complaining,” even though I was one of several employees—though the only gay man—raising concerns that day.

Learning to keep cool is an important skill for anyone of any background, because sometimes you can’t just fly off the handle—and sometimes you won’t want to. I’ll be the first to admit there have been times that I have let my emotions get the better of me, when people had every right to pull me aside and tell me to chill out. I think that’s happened to most of us. For many years, this was compounded by an undiagnosed anxiety disorder which I only discovered I had in my late twenties. But time and again, people have somehow linked my emotiveness with my sexuality, othering me in the process.

This is why it matters who gets to be emotive and who does not. Hillary Clinton famously had a similar problem in 2008, when she was first accused of being cold and unfeeling. When she did show emotion at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, she was pilloried for it. “ A common first instinct was to treat the episode as a ploy, a calculated effort to ‘humanize’ the candidate—an interpretation that depended heavily on its having been somehow staged or faked,” Hendrik Hertzberg wrote at the time in The New Yorker, “but the authenticity of Clinton’s emotion was apparent to anyone who took the time to study the many replays with an open mind…”

Hillary Clinton herself has addressed this double standard several times. In 2016, she told the viral photography project Humans of New York she “had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.” In her 2017 memoir What Happened, she rightly called this “another variant on the impossible balancing act” women must perform in order to show enough emotion to be quote-unquote likable while not showing so much that they’re thought of as quote-unquote shrill or overwrought. “If we’re too composed, we’re cold or fake. But if we say what we think without caution, we get slammed for it,” she writes. “Can you blame us for feeling like we can’t win, no matter what we do?”

I suspect the similar double standard experienced by Hillary Clinton and—it must be said, to a lesser degree—Pete Buttigieg is rooted in the same patriarchal, misogynist notions about how women and gay men behave. It’s why when a straight man gets angry, he’s “passionate,” when a gay man gets angry, he’s “dramatic,” and when a woman gets angry, she’s “hysterical.” This is further compounded by race, with tropes such as the “angry black woman” making it even more difficult for Black women specifically, and women of colour more generally, to be allowed space to have and show emotions without ridicule or prejudice. Black men, too, are often viewed as angry or violet where white men aren’t, as a 2017 American Psychological Association study reveals.

Homophobic, sexist, and racist double standards influence how we perceive people’s emotions and emotiveness. Mayor Pete never says why he can’t be as emotive as others, nor does he say who gets to be more emotive than he does. Zooming out from him and looking at the culture more broadly, though, it’s clear that in America, not everyone is equally free to express themselves. So long as stereotypes and double standards continue to affect who gets to show emotion and how that emotion is perceived, we should all remember that sometimes a candidate is guarded not because they aren’t passionate, but because they aren’t allowed to be.

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

We need to talk about sexism and Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders doesn’t think a woman can be elected president. At least, that’s what Elizabeth Warren says he told her, in her own home, in December 2018. “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate,” Warren said on Monday. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

This type of bombshell that can easily derail a campaign. With only three weeks to the Iowa caucuses and a Democratic debate tonight, the Sanders team is scrambling to control the damage, immediately denying the comment and accusing the staffers who initially leaked the comment of “lying.” Yesterday, Sanders himself weighed in on the issue, telling CNN it is “ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win.”

Sanders supporters are quick to dismiss the comment as a misquote at best and a malicious fabrication at worst. And, as Vox founder Ezra Klein tweeted last night, “people communicate unclearly and it’s possible that what Sanders meant to say is not what Warren heard and nobody in this disagreement is lying.” Sometimes giving the benefit of the doubt is the graceful and generous thing to do, and maybe this is one of those cases. There’s a nagging sense, though, that Sanders said exactly what he meant because Sanders has a long and often troubling record when it comes to how he talks about women and women’s issues.

It’s worth looking back to 2016, when Sanders was running in a contentious primary against Hillary Clinton. He certainly never ran an overtly sexist campaign the way Donald Trump did in the primary, Sanders nonetheless had a series of moments which raised concerns about whether he seriously prioritized women’s issues. It cast a pall over his campaign then and has raised serious questions about whether Sanders takes women—and feminism—seriously.

Sanders supporters are quick to point to the fact that the Vermont senator has a consistent record of voting for women’s rights on a range of issues from reproductive rights to equal pay. But, as Katha Pollitt wrote for The Nation in 2016, “there’s a difference between someone who votes the right way, and someone who introduces legislation and champions the issue.” That problem has not gone away. For feminist activists, simply voting the right way is not enough. “You have to be able to engage in a dialogue about race and gender and the inequalities in our system as a result of those two dynamics in particular,” Destiny Lopez, the co-director of the All* Above All Action Fund, told the Daily Beast in June 2019.

Speaking to and about issues affecting women (and, for that matter, other marginalized groups) has long been a problem for Sanders. Part of this is due to his leftwing populism which eschews identity politics and believes class is the primary axis of oppression. Sanders honestly believes that a coalition of the working class is the only thing that can affect real, structural change—and he seems willing to compromise on issues such as abortion if it means building and maintaining that coalition.

In 2017, Sanders caused some controversy by campaigning for an anti-choice candidate in Nebraska. “The truth is that in some conservative states there will be candidates that are popular candidates who may not agree with me on every issue. I understand it. That’s what politics is about,” he told NPR at the time. It’s tough to square this “I’m just being pragmatic” dismissal of concerns with Sanders’ own unyielding zeal for economic and healthcare issues (such as Medicare for All) and raises questions about Sanders’ priorities. The senator is a true believer when it comes to democratic socialism, yet on reproductive rights he is willing to compromise—a worrying sign for feminists concerned that a President Sanders might be willing to sacrifice access to abortion in order to overhaul the economy.

Perhaps this explains why Sanders was so quick to dismiss two of the prominent women’s reproductive health groups in the country. When, in 2016, Planned Parenthood and NARAL—a pro-choice lobby—endorsed Hillary Clinton over him, he lambasted them as “establishment.” It is a ludicrous statement to make about any reproductive rights organization generally and the oft-vilified Planned Parenthood—that bogeyman of the right—in particular, especially because they decided to endorse a woman instead of you.

To Bernie Sanders, though, that anyone would want a woman president (or a Black president or a Latino president or a gay president) is a ridiculous desire. “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age,” Sanders told Vermont Public Radio last year.

At first blush, this sounds sensible enough—people ought to and usually do consider all sorts of issues when voting for a candidate, including and perhaps especially their policies—but, as Isabella Gomez Sarmiento explained in an essay for Teen Vogue on why Bernie Sanders lost her support, “this, to me, feels like the equivalent of him telling everyone who is not a straight, white, cisgender male that we shouldn’t care about seeing ourselves represented in our government.” Sanders is reluctant to or incapable of understanding that, when it comes to voting and public policy there is more than the class struggle to contend with. This was another bone of contention raised by Katha Pollitt in 2016. “The problem is less that Bernie focuses on class and economic inequality than that he doesn’t seem to understand that the economy, like society generally, is structured by gender and race,” she wrote at the time.

In fairness to Sanders, though, he does seem to understand that some people do vote—at least in part—based on a candidate’s sex (or race, or sexual orientation). When asked why Elizabeth Warren was surging in the polls last summer, he cited her sex. “I think that there are a certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected, and I understand that,” he told CNN. The problem is not only that Sanders doesn’t think that’s a good thing, but he also seems to think that’s the only reason a woman might be gaining in the polls and not, say, her thoughtful, bold, progressive policies.

All Sanders could see with Elizabeth Warren was that she was a woman, but ironically he often seems patently incapable of noticing sexism—at least if it comes from his ideological allies. Sanders received a lot of criticism for endorsing Cenk Uygur—a man with a known history of sexist remarks—in his run for the House of Representatives despite Uygur’s history of sexist remarks. Uygur, Sanders said, “has shown enormous courage in standing up to the greed and power of the corporate elite, and has spent his entire life fighting for justice and the needs of the working people of our country.” Part of that “enormous courage” includes objectifying women, including discussing their physical attributes and whether men would perform oral sex on them. (Jezebel does a deep dive into some of Uygur’s sexist comments, if you have the stomach.)

To Sanders’ credit, he retracted the endorsement, but the fact that it was given at all is concerning. Sanders saw a man who spoke his leftwing populist language and that’s all he heard. Being unwilling to hear sexism or listen to women who point it out has real world consequences. When female staffers on Sanders’ 2016 campaign alleged they were victims of sexual harassment and pay discrimination, as well as given menial tasks compared to those assigned to their male counterparts, Bernie initially denied any responsibility for this, responding that he was “busy running around the country” and had no knowledge of these complaints. Again to his credit, he later unveiled a plan to combat sexism within his 2020 campaign, but it was only after the media furor over the allegations regarding his 2016 campaign.

It’s regrettable, though, that anyone, but especially a progressive seeking the Democratic nomination, would need such a plan. It’s worth asking whether his fervent pursuit of ending income inequality has blinded him or calloused him to other injustices—especially sexism. The next president of the United States must be willing to prioritize women’s rights. It’s an open question as to whether Bernie Sanders would.

Bernie Sanders is the darling of the left, and he has many admirable qualities. His lifelong pursuit of a fairer economy and more equitable society are commendable. But there are serious questions about the way Sanders views women and women’s issues which he needs to answer. I suspect Elizabeth Warren will force him to do so in tonight’s debate. How he responds will be key, because regardless of whether Bernie Sanders thinks Trump can be defeated by a woman, women could end up defeating Bernie Sanders.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer with a decade of experience covering US and UK politics, media, and culture. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. 

Harry and Meghan quit their shitty job, and you should too

Harry and Meghan are quitting the royal family, and I couldn’t be happier for them. In a statement released earlier today, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced plans to “step back” from royal duties this year, splitting time between the UK and North America while working “to become financially independent.” In other words, they’re peacing out.

It’s hard to blame them given the torrent of abuse – a lot of it racist and misogynistic – the couple has received since marrying in 2018. Everything from their travel arrangements to the way Meghan holds her baby has been criticized by the tabloids and the Twitterati. The pressure of being constantly—and often unfairly—scrutinized was bound to take a toll. The Sussexes had to weigh whether that toll was worth it and, in the end, decided it wasn’t.

Well done, them. In deciding that the unrealistic expectations set by those around them—from the press to “the firm” (as the Crown is known within Buckingham Palace) to trolls on social media—was not worth the hassle, Meghan and Harry have set an example for people around the world who are fed up with their miserable, high-pressure, low-reward jobs.

It’s a timely lesson in priorities and self-care. A 2018 Gallup poll found that more Americans are unhappy at work than at any time on record. Younger people, especially, are dissatisfied with their jobs. More than 70% of Millennials report they are not engaged at their jobs due to factors ranging from unrealistic expectations set by management to a lack of new opportunities and career advancement.

The stresses of being expected to be able to finish multiple complicated projects quickly and proficiently will eventually catch up with you. This is especially true when you’re making less than what their parents made at similar jobs and, thanks to smartphones, are expected to be reachable at all hours of the day.  When you an never escape the pressure, the pressure can become unbearable.

It’s a phenomenon which Buzzfeed called “Millennial burnout,” and it’s one I’m all too familiar with. I spent eight years working in the mortgage industry, in a job CNN once included in list of “stressful jobs that pay badly.” The job often involved long hours, intense pressure, and frankly very poor compensation. After the company I was working for decided to up the stakes by enforcing an unreasonable turnaround time, I decided enough was enough and quit.

That was in September of last year. Four months later, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m building a career as a freelance writer while working on my first novel. I’ve lost 20 pounds in two months because I’m not eating crap at my desk and drinking to calm the anxiety of being expected to close a loan in fifteen days. I’m not having anxiety attacks now that I’m done with borrowers who can’t or won’t provide the necessary documents, loan officers with unrealistic expectations, and underwriters and managers who expected me to do my job as well as theirs. I’m happier than I have ever been in my professional life because I dared to step away from a role that was making me miserable.

Which brings me back to Harry and Meghan. A lot of people are already criticizing them for putting their health and happiness above “royal duty.” Piers Morgan is, predictably, already crying that Meghan “broke up” the Royal Family. The rest of the Royals are said to be “hurt” and “disappointed” because they weren’t consulted. But why should they have been? A little heads up on the decision might have been nice, but at the end of the day, Harry’s and Meghan’s personal and professional happiness are no one’s business but their own.

It takes a lot of courage to admit that something everybody thinks should make you happy doesn’t. I left a job with a corner office, gave up my own apartment, and moved 500 miles to live with my grandparents while I write my first novel and freelance. Most people have been supportive—just as most on social media appear to be supporting Harry and Meghan—but a few have side-eyed me, asking why on earth I’d make such a drastic decision. It wasn’t an easy one, I admit, but the panic attack I had in my office helped make it for me.

All the lofty titles and all the money in the world can’t buy you happiness. There is no shame in trying something and deciding that it isn’t a fit for you, whether it takes you one year, two years, or a lifetime to decide. Harry and Meghan looked at their life, with the trappings of wealth and privilege, and saw a gilded cage. Rather than choosing a stoic suffering, they chose freedom and joy.

Making such a drastic change is never easy, and it is never without consequence. It is, however, sometimes the only sensible thing one can do. Life is too short to be miserable, whether you work in a cubicle or a castle. May we all take a lead from the Meghan and Harry and choose happiness in 2020.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer with a decade of experience covering US and UK politics, culture, and media. His work has appeared at The Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. 

Why I’m supporting Jess Phillips for Labour leader

Featured image and video: JessPhillips.net/YouTube

In May 2015, I was on the ground in London covering the general election as an independent journalist. Following that year’s terrible results for Labour, I wrote a blog on this website describing why, in my view, the party lost because Ed Miliband didn’t run far enough to the left. Later that summer, in a column for the Gay UK Magazine (no longer available, but archived here), I endorsed Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader.

As someone who believes that nationalising the rails, public utilities, and offering free broadband are all in the public interests, Corbyn seemed like the obvious choice. And, as I wrote in my autopsy of the 2015 election, the public seemed to agree—despite the fact they had just rejected milquetoast Miliband.

A lot has happened since then. From Brexit to Grenfell Tower to the continued cuts to public services, five years ago feels more like fifty years ago. In the cold light of the dawn of a new decade, it’s easy to see how foolish I was to think a move to the left would lead to electoral victory. Corbynism was a poisoned chalice from which I gladly drank and, as a result, Boris Johnson occupies 10 Downing Street.

This is, in part, my mea culpa. It is with the guilt and shame of having been so catastrophically wrong that I approach the current Labour leadership election with my blinders finally removed. The British public isn’t as left wing as me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t desperate for change. Boris Johnson didn’t win the last general election so much as Jeremy Corbyn lost it—for reasons that include but go beyond his manifesto.

People didn’t trust Corbyn’s Labour party. From his mealy-mouthed answers on Brexit to his scandalous inability or unwillingness to tackle antisemitism within the party, they simply didn’t think Corbyn represented their views or interests. Rightly or wrongly, voters felt he talked not to them, but down to them, and that much of his frontbench did the same. Simply put, voters didn’t like Corbyn and they didn’t like Corbynism.

After two straight general election defeats, it’s clear that it’s time for a change of direction. Labour needs a leader who can regain the trust of the British people, who is charismatic enough to both carry the red banner for socialism and go toe-to-toe with Boris Johnson, and who has a vision for a brighter future and a plan to make it a reality.

That woman is Jess Phillips.

Ever since she famously told the writer Owen Jones that she would “knife Corbyn in the front” rather than conspiring behind his back should she ever feel the need to break ranks with him, Jess Phillips has impressed me. Her frank and unapologetic approach to politics is refreshing. There’s no calculation with Jess, no pretence, no show. She tells you what’s on her mind, what she thinks you need to hear, and she does it with a gusto and earthy charm matched by none.

“We have to go back to the basics,” she told Andrew Marr on Sunday. “My son doesn’t go to school five days a week. And while that is the case—and lots of people in the country, they can give you their own example; they can’t get social care for their parents—and while that is the case, offering people free broadband was just not believable.” It’s the kind of candid admission that we so rarely see, but that voters so desperately craves from MPs.

That Phillips can be so blunt while remaining so charming sets her apart from most politicians and pundits today. She’s incredibly likable in an era where likability matters more than it ever has before. When Jess Philips enters a room, whether a pub or the Commons chamber or a tv studio, she owns it. She is a larger-than-life personality from a salt-of-the-earth community. She has the populist magnetism of Nigel Farage without all the racism and poor bashing.

Phillips has her critics, invoking an ire few politicians are ever unlucky enough to receive. Jacobin recently lamented her “remarkable faith in the power of public relations and internal company processes to resolve industrial disputes,” but this is an example of what makes Phillips so appealing. She doesn’t live in the world as we would like it, but rather as it is, which means that, unlike those on the hard left, she sees not only what is wrong but, crucially, how we can use the tools at our disposal to fix it.

She’s shown an ability to do this time and time again, having an uncanny knack for capturing the public attention and directing it at issues which desperately need fixing. Whether it’s doing homework with her son on the steps of Number 10 to protest Tory education cuts, blasting xenophobia and standing up for migrants in her own constituency and across the country, or brilliantly and heartbreakingly reading the names of women murdered by men to highlight the epidemic of domestic violence, Phillips knows how to get your attention.

If you think that’s it, though, once she has your attention, she knows how to get things done. Her tenacious campaigning for domestic violence refuges in part forced the Tories to commit to putting them on a statutory footing. Phillips campaigned for more domestic violence refuges for over a decade, showing a gritty determination that is absolutely needed not just for the next election, but for the next Labour government. Things are not going to change overnight, and this pragmatic yet progressive attitude is exactly what the British people are looking for.

With sharp political instincts and a Barbara Castle-like understanding of the working class (especially its feelings towards the EU), Phillips has managed to increase her majority by nearly fifteen percent since 2015. That’s the most of any Labour MP in a constituency which voted to leave the EU.* As though that isn’t impressive enough, her constituency of Birmingham Yardley saw only a small decline in her majority from the 2017 election to the 2019 election.

That she managed all this while actively campaigning for Remain is a testament to just how good she is. “My constituents don’t mind that we might disagree – they appreciate above all else a straightforward approach,” she wrote last month for the Guardian. Phillips credits “our ability to disagree well, with good humour and a shared vernacular” with her popularity.

I would agree. With a common touch and good-natured attitude towards people of all political persuasions, Jess is the right woman for this crucial moment in the history of the Labour Party and the history of the United Kingdom. She is the woman to lead Labour out of the wilderness and back onto the path to electoral victory.

*This blog was updated on 15 January 2020 to correctly identify Jess Phillips’ constituency as having voted to leave the European Union. It previosly stated her constituency had voted to remain.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer. With a decade of experience covering US and UK politics, culture, and media, his work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Tennessee. 

Mine Eyes Have Seen (a short story)

in-the-appalachian-mountains

Photo: PublicDomainPictures.net

I recently found this story I wrote in 2008 for a creative writing class I took in college. Given the current tensions with Iran, I thought it was worth sharing.

 

O’ beautiful, for heroes prove
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
‘Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine!
~Katharine Lee Bates, 1893

 

“It was your feet that first attracted me to you,” Jake said, brushing his floppy blonde hair out of his bashful blue eyes.

Carter tilted his head, eyes narrowing, as he looked at Jake. His chocolate ice cream casually dripping from the scoop to the cone until finally melting onto his hand, skin tanned from the hours spent outdoors working on anything with four wheels and an engine. “My feet?”

“We were in your mom’s diner, the first week after I moved here.  Your sister saw you and whispered ‘that’s my brother.’  You had your back turned to us, reading something.  Probably one of those sports magazine you like.”

“Hey,” Carter said.  “Don’t knock sports.  Just because you’re not a real man.”

“I’m a real man!” Jake said, smacking Carter’s chest.  Carter smirked, and Jake rolled his eyes.  “Anyway, you were playing with your flip-flops, dangling one off your foot.  I noticed right away.”

“You noticed my feet?”

“They’re too big to miss.”

Carter grinned proudly, his straight teeth stained with the remnants of chewing tobacco, a habit he had developed in high school but given up shortly after.  “I guess that makes sense.”  He noticed the ice cream on his hand and licked it off.

“Must you?” Jake asked, looking away as Carter lapped up the melted mess.  “You look like a dog when you do that.”

Carter rolled his eyes.  “Don’t start with me.”

“I am just saying you could use a napkin or something.  Besides, I told you not to get a cone anyway.” Jake frowned, crossing his arms. His hair swished as he shook his head. “It’s just going to melt all over your uniform.”

Jake’s eyes narrowed, and he lifted his hand to his forehead to block out the sun, which gleamed on the gold buttons of Carter’s dress blues. “I don’t know why you’re wearing that in the middle of July, anyway.”

Carter shrugged.  “Mama wanted me to wear it.”  He sat down on one of the four oak benches surrounding a fountain.

The fountain, the centrepiece of Jake’s family garden, was one he had always particularly enjoyed. He loved the gurgle of water bubbling down its five tiers, all made of an ornate marble with reliefs of local scenes – coal mines, Appalachian sunsets, Daniel Boone – spilling into one another, until finally splashing into the giant pool at the bottom, murky from the southern moss collected along its sides and its base. It had always brought him a sense of peace, watching the water cascade along the smooth, white stone.

Jake sat down next to Carter, resting his head on his boyfriend’s shoulder. Carter wrapped his arm around Jake’s elfin frame, pulling him close to his own body.  Jake had thought their combined warmth would be too much in the summer heat, but a cool breeze blew over the western ridge, the soft pinks and purples of the mountain laurel rustling in the wind as they filled the air with earthy sweetness.

“Aren’t you hot in that thing anyway?” he asked, feeling at the rough, thick fabric.  Carter shook his head.  “And besides, you’re 19 years old.  Why is your mother still picking out your clothes.”

“It makes her feel like I’m still her little boy,” Carter said.  “It makes her feel better about me leaving.”

Jake looked down, frowning.  “Don’t talk about that.  You’re not leaving.”

“I have to,” Carter said, his words deep and thick and rich, like a dark Karo syrup.  He cupped Jake’s chin, lifting his head, but Jake refused to meet his eyes. Carter gently squeezed Jake’s jaw and Jake looked up.

“What?” he said, his lips quivering.

“We’re gonna be okay,” Carter said.

Jake sighed, closing his eyes. “It isn’t me I’m worried about.”

“Me?” Carter asked.

Jake looked up, opening his eyes, furrowing his brow and pursing his lips. “Yes, you.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Carter said, kissing the top of Jake’s head.  “I’ll be fine.”

Carter cupped Jake’s face in his palm. His fingers curled under Jake’s chin, still raw from a recent shave, his thumb stroking over the other man’s cheek. Jake’s bottom lip quivered and Carter’s thumb followed, sliding across the smooth flesh “We’re going to be okay,” he said.

“Are we?” Jake asked, his voice cracking as he stifled a sob.

He looked away, not wanting Carter to see the tears now stinging his eyes. He stared across the ridge, a balmy haze shrouding the tops of the distant hills. The evergreens lining the summit just barely peeked above the fog-line, as though craning their necks to make sure this hollow was safe. Crickets fiddled the beginnings of a sullen lullaby as the day wound to a close. The trees and the crickets and even the fog provided a familiar, if cheerless, comfort.

Jake bit his lower lip, sniffling as he repressed a sob.

“Don’t,” Carter said, wiping a tear from his cheek. “I’ll be fine.”

“I just don’t see the point in all this.  You’ve already gone once.  You did your duty.  You served your country.  What more do they want of you?”

“I had more to give,” Carter said, puffing out his chest.

“No, you don’t,” Jake scoffed, sneering at his boyfriend’s vainglory. It had always been one of Carter’s worst traits, this belief that he was somehow, as though by divine provenance, responsible for saving whoever or whatever it was needed rescuing at the time. “You’ve given enough.”

“It’s never enough.  Not when you’re fighting for your country.”

“The President said the mission was accomplished,” Jake said, his tone quick and his volume rising as he gesticulated with his hands.  “We have achieved victory.  I watched it on television.  I heard him say it a couple months ago.”

“He was wrong, okay?” Carter said, gritting his teeth. “That was a year ago, and he was wrong. There’s still more to do.”

“But do you have to be the one to do it?”

Carter shrugged.  “Somebody does.”

Jake leapt up, stomping wildly as he screamed into the late afternoon air, his voice echoing off the mountains and throughout the hollow.  “But why you? Why do you have to go?  They don’t even want you.  They say so themselves.”

“They never asked, and I never told.” Carter stood up too, but Jake turned away from him, unable to face his boyfriend as he tried to justify this act, which to Jake seemed to paradoxically be selfless and selfish at the same time. Jake admired Carter’s heroic streak. It’s why he loved the man. But Jake needed him here, in this hollow, by this fountain. Not wherever he was going.

He felt Carter’s hand on his shoulder. “I made a promise, Jake.”

“You made a promise to me,” he said, turning to face Carter, his arms crossed, his tearstained cheeks wet and red like a dewy rose. “You said we’d be together forever and now you’re throwing that away.”

“Nobody’s throwing anything away.  I meant every word of that.  But there are things that are bigger than us.  We’re at war and my country needs me.”

Jake rolled his eyes.  “Yeah for no good reason.”

Carter began rubbing his temple, breathing deeply.  “For a million good reasons.  Look, can we not start this again?  It doesn’t matter how you feel, we’re there.  And there is no way I can get out of it.”

“Yes you can,” Jake said, wrapping his arms around Carter’s torso, clinging to him as he rested his head on his chest.  “You could tell them.  You could tell them everything.  Or I can.”

“You won’t,” Carter said, grabbing Jake by the shoulders. “If you did, you’d lose me for good.”

Jake winced as Carter’s fingers pushed into his bone, but he didn’t struggle to get away. The physical pain was at least a welcome distraction from his heartbreak.  He looked up at Carter, choking on a sob. “Haven’t I already?”

Carter exhaled, running his hands from Jake’s shoulders down to his chest, squeezing the smaller man as tightly as he could.

Jake loved being wrapped in Carter’s strong arms.  He loved listening to his breathing, the sound of his lungs providing him with life’s force. He felt safe as he listened to Carter’s heart beating.  Tonight, though, he could hear nothing, save for the crickets.  He loved their melodies, but to Jake, they were just the opening act: no matter how much he enjoyed them, they weren’t the reason he was at the concert.  He wanted to hear the headliner.  He wanted to hear Carter.

“Look at me,” Carter said.  Jake didn’t move, so Carter forcefully grabbed his chin, lifting his head so that their eyes met.  “Look at me, damn it.  I’m always going to be here for you.  I’m always going to be the one that loves you most, the one that will keep you safe.  When I said forever, I meant it.”

Jake looked up at Carter, desperation stitched across his face.  He bit his lip as he continued to quietly sob.  Carter held on to him but slid his hands from the warm embrace to Jake’s hands, taking them in his own.  He squeezed tightly, smiling gently.  “Stop that.”  Carter wiped away the tears from Jake’s right cheek.  “Men don’t cry.”

Jake accidentally smiled.  “Maybe we’re not men?”

“Bullshit.  We’re men.”

“I’m only 17.  The law says I’m still a boy.”

“Well then you’re a little boy.  But me –” Carter peacocked, standing tall and lifting his head into the air a little.  “I’m a man.  I’m a soldier.”

“You’re my soldier,” Jake whispered.  He snuggled into Carter, hoping to feel a hint of reservation in his embrace, or see a glimmer of fear in his eyes.  Instead, he saw a man at peace.  Jake looked down, but Carter once again forced his head up, looking Jake square in the eyes.

Jake took comfort in the big brown eyes, so friendly and dark and warm.  Carter smiled, leaning down as Jake craned his neck, stretching his body to meet Carter’s lips. The kiss felt different than any other kiss they’d ever shared.  Somehow, this kiss was emptier, was more one-sided.  Jake didn’t understand, but he didn’t much care; it was nice being with Carter for however much longer they had together.

Jake broke the kiss.  “Let’s get out of here.”  Carter smiled and followed Jake up the cobblestone path, the gurgling fountain becoming more and more distant as they made their way to the big house.  Jake decided to make them both a chicken salad sandwich, left over from the annual 4th of July picnic, but Carter didn’t touch his.  He didn’t have an appetite.  Jake figured he probably wouldn’t have much of an appetite either if he knew that he would be going off to war.

He imagined the sound of the gunfire, the heat of the desert, the scratchy, irritating sand drying out his sunburned skin.  He didn’t like to think about these things, and he’d never dare ask Carter about them, although he had a natural curiosity about them.

Carter never wrote about them during the first part of his tour.  He had always wanted to concentrate on things going on at home: who won prom queen, who was valedictorian, was Old Man Rice still alive and if so was he still hanging out in front of the Dollar General with his friends.  Carter didn’t like to talk about Iraq, and that was fine with Jake.  He didn’t much want to know.  Imagining Carter in that situation was more than he could handle.

After sandwiches, Jake led Carter upstairs to his bedroom.  He flicked on the light, revealing the midnight blue walls with white trim, giving the room the ambiance of a snowy winter’s night.  On the walls were various posters of celebrities and models he had cut from his Abercrombie shopping bags.  A pile of stuffed animals, artefacts of Jake’s childhood, sat in a distant corner, save for one plush, cerulean rabbit.

Carter had always said it reminded him more of a girl’s room than a boy’s room, but Jake didn’t care. He was going to decorate his room how he saw fit.  Jake recalled how Carter especially hated the “blue bunny”, though, because even when he slept over Jake insisted that Buster stay in the bed with them.  “He’ll get lonely down there,” he’d always say.

Jake slid onto the large bed, pulling down the blue-and-white gingham quilt and crawling under it.  He reclined back on one of the three body pillows used in place of regular pillows.  He motioned for Carter to join him.

“You already tired?” Carter raised an eyebrow.

Jake grinned.  “Not particularly.”

“Good.”  Carter crawled on top of Jake, pinning him down.  “Because I’ve got a better idea.”

“What would that be?”  Jake looked at Carter, his eyes full of excitement.  He knew exactly what Carter wanted.  He sighed and twitched anxiously under Carter’s strapping frame.  “Do we have to?”

Carter frowned.  “We don’t have to, but I really, really want to.  I’m not going to be able to for a long time, and I’d like to do it one last time.”

Jake groaned.  “Fine.  But only once.  Okay?”

“Great,” Carter said.  He leapt off Jake and ran to the other side of the room, turning on the television and then, the old Nintendo 64.  Jake smiled as he watched Carter shuffle through all the games he’d played as a child, methodically searching for just the right one.  Jake was never a big video game aficionado, but Carter loved them.  The only time Jake ever played anymore was when Carter was around.  He hated playing, but watching Carter get excited about beating the next level of Golden Eye or some shoot-‘em-up war game made it all worth it.

Jake climbed off the bed and walked over, leaning down next to Carter.  “Find one yet?”

“This one,” Carter said.  He held up one of the more violent games, proudly displaying his careful selection.  It had never actually been Jake’s, but his brother’s; Jake had received it as a gift when his brother had left for college, but never played it.  Carter, though, loved it.  It involved little toy soldiers fighting in their world and ours, going to war in such places as the bathroom and a Christmastime living room.  Jake found it utterly ridiculous.

But this time, it was more than ridiculous.  It was an atrocious choice.  Jake picked the game up and examined it.  He contemplated it for a moment, carefully remembering the details.  Instead of the little green army man running around, he envisioned Carter shooting a grenade launcher at a blender in the kitchen.  He giggled at the thought, but couldn’t bring himself to put the cartridge in.

“Pick another one,” Jake said.

Carter pursed his lips, pouting.  “But I want to play this one.”

“We can’t play this one.  Pick something else.”

Carter stared at Jake.  He leaned down and kissed him.  “It’s okay.  It’s just a game.”

“I don’t want to think about it,” Jake said.

“Fine.  Then we won’t.  You pick one.”  Jake searched for a moment before pulling out a children’s racing game, where a chimpanzee and his friends raced around in hover crafts and the like, trying to save their land from an evil reptilian invader.  It was marketed to children, but Jake still found it thoroughly enjoyable.

He looked at Carter for approval.  Carter groaned, but nodded.

They spent the next couple hours playing, racing, and laughing.  Or rather, Jake did.  Carter said he wasn’t interested in playing “a kiddy game” but took great pleasure in watching Jake enjoy himself.  Jake wished Carter would play with him; he felt guilty telling Carter no to the army men game, figuring this was his punishment.

After finishing the game and changing into pyjamas, Jake lay sandwiched between Buster Bunny and Carter. Curled into the nook between Carter’s arm and chest he snuggled as close to his boyfriend as he could get.

“Hold me tighter,” Jake whispered.  “I want to really feel you.”

“You will,” Carter smiled, pulling Jake closer to him.  He kissed Jake’s forehead.  “I love you, kiddo.  You know that, right?”

“I love you too.”  Jake closed his eyes and took in the sounds.  The crickets chirped louder and louder outside his window.  He smelled the pillow; it still smelled like Carter – his drugstore cologne mingled with the scent of Marlboro’s and motor oil.  It was a familiar scent that put Jake at ease.  He snuggled up closer to Carter, falling asleep in his arms as he had done so many times before.

Carter was gone when Jake woke the next morning.  Jake didn’t think anything of it.  Carter often snuck out in the morning to avoid being detected.  If Jake’s parents knew Carter slept over as much as he did they would have killed them both.  They had long ago accepted that their son was gay, but they sat strict boundaries about relationships.  Jake found this wildly unfair, but his parents reasoned that the same rules would apply to women had he been straight.

“Jake, honey, are you up?”  Jake’s mom knocked on the door.  “You need to get up.  We’ve got to be at the church soon.”  Jake lay there, silently staring at the windows.  He fished around under the covers until he found the blue bunny, drowned in the sea of blankets sometime in the middle of the night.  “Jake?” she asked.

Jake yawned.  “I’m up,” he said.

“Good, because we don’t have a lot of time.  Open up, honey.  I’ve got your suit.”

Jake climbed out of bed, the hardwood floor cold and sticky against his bare feet.  He unlocked his door and cracked it, peeping through at his mother.  Her flowing blond hair was in a conservative bun, and she was already wearing her black Sunday dress.  She smiled sadly.

“Honey, you need to get ready.”  Jake opened the door further and she handed him his suit.  “We don’t want to be late.  The church crowds fast.”

Jake looked at her curiously.  She couldn’t meet his gaze and instead looked down at the floor.

“There’s breakfast on the table.  I made your favourite.”

Jake closed the door and turned to jump into his shower, directly adjacent to the bedroom.  After getting ready and putting his suit down, he headed downstairs; he and his parents ate in silence.  It was so unlike them to be so standoffish.  Jake has always prided himself in having a very good relationship with both his parents.  He wondered if they were angry with him.  Did they know that Carter had spent the night last night?  Was it because Jake was so late getting up?  He knew he had to go to church, but it wasn’t even Sunday.  They should cut him some slack.

The car ride to the church was also filled with a terse silence.  The curvy mountain roads were flanked by steep hills, lush with the green summer foliage. Jake was thrown all around the back of his father’s new SUV, which made him queasy.  He watched as the trees gave way to the familiar sight of the river below, and on the other side of that, more mountains and more trees.  Little shacks, some still occupied, others long ago abandoned, would sporadically appear as they drove, but nothing even remotely close to a community took form for most of the trip.

They finally arrived in town twenty minutes later, and after Jake’s dad fought for a parking spot, they walked into the church.  Jake asked to stay behind and wait for some of his friends.  He wanted to wait for Carter.  After all, this church is where he’d first met Carter’s sister, and if it weren’t for her, he wouldn’t have known Carter.  It was full of good memories.  Jake’s parents went inside.

More people followed. People Jake knew from school – teachers, janitors, students, the principal. The wait staff of Carter’s mom’s diner and the mechanics from the local garage Carter had worked at through high school. Even Old Man Rice showed up, forgoing his usual game of checkers by the courthouse.

None of them would even look at Jake, but he shrugged it off. Being openly gay in the mountains won you a few enemies—especially in a Baptist church. Nobody, it seemed, wanted anything to do with him. He had long since gotten used to icy stares or, as was the case, no stares but rather a quick deflection of the eyes, as though he were some sort of gay Medusa.

He didn’t care. He had Carter. He had a few friends, too, but nobody was as loyal and devoted to him as Carter.  Few people knew that Carter and Jake were together, which Jake realized was for the best.  Those who did were mostly supportive, but they were also mostly family. He longed to one day be able to hold Carter’s hand as he walked proudly down Main Street, past Old Man Rice and the checker-playing pensioners and straight into the diner, holding his head high and demonstrating their love.

It was a nice thought, Jake thought, looking at his wristwatch and tapping his foot. Maybe someday.

He clicked his tongue as he heard the church bells start ringing.  Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed Carter’s number.  No answer.  Voicemail.  “Hey, it’s Carter.  Y’all know what to do.”  Beep.

“Carter, it’s me.  Where the hell are you?  Church is about to start and I really don’t want to have to sit through two hours of fire and brimstone without you by my side.  You need to get here!”  Jake slammed his phone shut and turned on a heel, about to head inside.

“Miss me?” Jake heard Carter ask.  He turned around and saw Carter running up the concrete steps to the old brick church.  The wooden steeple, painted white, towered above them as the bells again rang, this time chiming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“Where have you been?” Jake’s eyes were bugged out in frustration, his teeth clinched tightly together, locking his jaw into an angry curl.  “They’re about to start!”

“They can’t start without me,” Carter said.  Jake looked him up and down; he looked clean, but he was still wearing his dress uniform.  Carter hadn’t changed clothes at all.

“I can’t believe you’re wearing that again,” Jake said.  “Never mind, we have to go in.  My parents saved us a seat.”

Jake drug Carter into the church as the bells finished chiming the miserable hymn.  They walked past rows upon rows of people, all looking sympathetically at Jake and Carter.  Jake didn’t understand what their problem was.  He found his parents and sat down next to them.  They hadn’t saved Carter a seat after all; there was room only for him between his father and the principal of the high school.

“You were supposed to save Carter a seat, too.”

“What?” Jake’s dad stared at him, mouth agape, as though he’d suggested saving a seat for bin Laden.  His mom motioned for him to sit down, and he did.  He looked at Carter, silently mouthing the words “I’m sorry.”  Carter waved it off and went up to the front.

The choir took their places to the side of the pulpit and opened their books.  The congregation followed suit, Jake included.  He was a little confused, as they didn’t normally start off with a hymn.  But then again, they didn’t normally have church on a Thursday, either.  As he stood, he looked around the room for Carter.  He spotted Carter’s family, including his sister – Jake’s best friend.  She was weeping uncontrollably.

Jake didn’t understand.  He started to head in that direction but was stopped by his own father’s hand on his shoulder, cautioning him to stay.

“Are you okay?” his father asked.

“I’m fine,” Jake said, baffled.

He looked again at Carter’s sister.  Why was she crying?  The choir began singing the first verse of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”  It caught Jake off guard.  He looked up at the choir, their long blue robes flowing and swishing as they swayed with the piano’s sombre melodies.

Jake noticed the preacher wasn’t at the pulpit, but rather was below it, kneeling and offering a prayer.  The choir continued to harmonize as Jake tried to discern what the preacher was doing.  It didn’t make sense to him.  An American flag?  The preacher was praying over an American flag?  The blue shield, speckled with the white stars were barely visible, but that’s what it had to be.  An American flag.

Jake looked around for Carter, hoping maybe he could explain what was going on.  Carter always had the answers Jake didn’t.  He looked around, but Carter had disappeared.  Carter wasn’t there.  He looked behind him and noticed that Old Man Rice was wiping a tear away from his eye.  Jake had known Old Man Rice since the day his family had arrived in town, and he’d never seen Old Man Rice cry before.

Jake looked again to Carter’s family, but Carter still wasn’t there.  Jake began to worry.  His breathing became rapid.  It was cold in the church, and Jake wished someone would turn down the air conditioner.  Carter’s sister was still crying.  It was cold and Carter’s sister was still crying.  Why was she crying?  Why was it cold?  Jake looked around.  He wanted Carter.  Where was Carter?

The choir finished their song as the preacher stepped up to the pulpit.  The American flag was still draped over something.  A box.  Jake saw the American flag covered over a box.  And next to it, on one side, a picture of Jesus.  Framed in a golden casing, Jesus looked like he was frozen in an unyielding agony.  The nails were driven through his wrists as he limply draped off the cross, blood staining his olive cheeks from the crown of thorns.  His head was uplifted, as though God had cupped his chin and forced Jesus to look Him in the eyes.  But Jesus’ expression wasn’t one of hope, or happiness, or surrender.  It was one of sheer pain, of brutal misery.

And on the other side of the flag-covered box, framed with silver, was a photo of Carter, smiling at Jake with those tobacco-stained teeth one last time.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer covering politics, media, and culture in the US and UK. His work has been published at the Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, the Daily Dot, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee.