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In the face of coronavirus, we need a little Blitz Spirit – but not in the way you think

“Well, it’s a national emergency,” I said to my grandmother yesterday as she lamented that she couldn’t find toilet paper (Brits read: loo roll) at the supermarket. “People need to stop hoarding and start realizing that we might have shortages. We might need to ration. America needs a little Blitz Spirit.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, Blitz Spirit refers to the attitude of Londoners during the blitzkrieg, or German aerial bombardment of London during the Second World War. It’s marked by stoicism, resilience, and cheerfulness in the face of a perilous situation. Over the ensuing decades it has entered British civic religion as the defining national trait, a stiff upper lip, “keep calm and carry on” attitude.

Writing in The Atlantic, Helen Lewis explained why Blitz Spirit won’t be enough to save the UK from the coronavirus. “As the government inevitably restricts Britons’ lives to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” she writes, “the country has to reject the voices urging us that we are overreacting, that we should stoically stagger on, as Saint George or Boudicca or Winston Churchill might have done.” Rather than carrying on as usual, this time we must do the opposite and change our behaviour to meet the moment. Anything less could be catastrophic.

She is right. During the Blitz, Londoners went to pubs, gathered around bombed out homes, mingled in parks and continued going to work and school. In the face of a deadly pandemic that is the worst thing you can do. Social distancing works and, as experts have said, flattening the curve—meaning slowing the spread of the virus so as not to overwhelm our medical resources—is imperative. Doing that means staying home a lot more than we’re used to and, rather than pulling together as a community, staying as far away from one another as possible.

So while in that regard Blitz Spirit is the last thing we need, there is another way to look at it—one I think we should emulate in the face of this international emergency. Yes, the dogged determination to just get on with things was a defining trait of Londoners during the Second World War, but they also understood, more or less, that in order to provide for the greater good they would have to make personal sacrifices. Foodstuff would be rationed by the state, curfews would be implemented, children would be separated from their parents in evacuations. None of this was easy, some of it was mandatory, but all of it was necessary in order to get through the crisis at hand.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I read through the comments on a Facebook post in which I asked folks how concerned they were about coronavirus. Most people were at least somewhat worried, if not for themselves then for their more susceptible friends and relations.

Yet you couldn’t be on social media yesterday and not see empty store shelves where people have panic-bought everything from the aforementioned loo roll to, according to one Facebook friend, heads of lettuce. And while most of my friends—which, it should be said is obviously not a random sampling nor a scientific poll—said they are at least a little concerned, others admitted to being shockingly blasé about it all. Whether because they think God will protect them, or they are young and healthy, or they don’t think they’ll get it, they’re going about their days and ridiculing the “panic” of everyone else.

It really bothered me, not only because this kind of attitude will help spread the virus far and wide, but because it illustrated an incredible selfishness—just as those panic-buying all sorts of items are demonstrating. Hell, people are already stealing NHS hand sanitser. Our societies are incredibly selfish, and in moments of national crisis that is incredibly dangerous.

Dr. Patti Minter, a history professor I studied under at Western Kentucky University who is now a State Representative in Kentucky, once said to me that “Ronald Reagan made it okay for Americans to be selfish again.” It’s a comment that has stuck with me over the ensuing years, and one I think is equally applicable to Margaret Thatcher and the UK. We are an incredibly selfish society, both countries, prioritising our needs over the needs of our community.

That happened during the Blitz too, of course. There was a black market for goods being rationed, and people tried to cheat the system. But by and large, people understood that in a moment of national crisis personal sacrifice was required. They made it without complaint. It was what needed to be done, so they did it.

We need that kind of moral clarity and certitude now. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, society nearly disintegrated. People didn’t heed the warnings, gathered in large crowds, the virus spread, and then it was every man for himself. Folks wouldn’t check on the sick, wouldn’t bring food to those infected, no one would bury the bodies—people self-isolated too late, but when they did, my God did they self-isolate.

In a 2017 essay for Smithsonian Magazine, historian John M. Barry explains how bad it got:

 

In Philadelphia, the head of Emergency Aid pleaded, “All who are free from the care of the sick at home… report as early as possible…on emergency work.” But volunteers did not come. The Bureau of Child Hygiene begged people to take in—just temporarily—children whose parents were dying or dead; few replied. Emergency Aid again pleaded, “We simply must have more volunteer helpers….These people are almost all at the point of death. Won’t you…come to our help?” Still nothing. Finally, Emergency Aid’s director turned bitter and contemptuous: “Hundreds of women…had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy…Nothing seems to rouse them now…There are families in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high and they still hold back.”

 

And this is where Blitz Spirit comes in. As much as it has always been about having a stiff upper lip, it has also been about doing what needs to be done for your community and your country. We cannot give into the fear, but also cannot give into the selfishness. I see it happening already, and it’s deeply concerning. We need to face the reality that the only way we’re going to survive coronavirus is if we all pull together.

That means you may have to go without toilet paper. You might not be able to go to your local coffeeshop or bar. Those concert tickets you have? You might not be able to use them. That big trip you were going on? Cancelled.

Suck it up. Take one for the team. Even if you think you’ll be fine, think about all the people who won’t. Think about what happens if you get sick and spread it to your grandpa, or your elderly neighbour, or the little old woman trying to fill her prescription at the chemist (Americans read: pharmacy). We need to think about one another right now, which starts with accepting that we’ll have to make some sacrifices over the next few months.

So stay home. Watch Netflix. Make your own coffee. Don’t horde. Don’t panic-buy. In fact, don’t panic at all; panic is useless and counterproductive. But accept that things are going to get hard for you and for everyone else. This is a national crisis, whether you’re in the US or UK. It’s going to hurt.

We’re all going to feel it one way or another. That’s what happens in a national crisis. But remember, the operative word there is not crisis. It is national.

Show some Blitz Spirit and do what needs to be done for the country, not for yourself.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

Reading my teenage blog: Part II – “Its Just A Small Town Saturday Night”

“Reading my Teenage Blog” is a series of essays by writer Skylar Baker-Jordan where he, well, reads the online diary he kept as a teenager and responds as a man in his 30s. He hopes to find insights into how he – and the world –  has changed from the early ’00s to the early ’20s. Some names have been changed and some portions redacted in order to protect the privacy of those he writes about.

This one was painful because of how explicit I got. I considered redacting a few portions, and did one (I explain why I didn’t, and why I did). I’m still not sure this is the best idea I ever had. Part of me feels like this will come back to bite me in the ass. Still, I think there are lessons to be learned and insights to be gleaned by looking back at what I wrote, for the world to read on the Internet, in the early noughts. Let’s see if you agree.

Its Just A Small Town Sunday Night 4/21/2002
Well, I just got off the phone with [Sabrina]. We both agree that what happened between us last night should stay between us-especially because I’m gay. When she asked me what posessed me to do that, I said it was the high that I was on. I really think that there was so much nicotine in my system that I was high and not thinking straight. I smoked two packs in about eight hours. I’ve NEVER done that before. But moving on.

I kissed a girl and I… didn’t like it. Very fucking cute that I would blame it on being “high” off nicotine. I don’t actually remember this specific incident, but picking up on context clues and a fuzzy 18-year-old memory tells me I kissed Sabrina. This was not the last time I would kiss a girl (this would happen a couple times in college), but it was never more than a funny game to me.

From 2001 – 2002 I was on what many called at the time (and maybe still do) the “bi now, gay later” plan. I knew I was gay, but for a few months I waffled, telling others – and myself – that I was maybe bisexual. I knew I wasn’t, but being gay seemed so freaking hard. Weirdly, I remember that it wasn’t the homophobia that bothered me, but the thought of being single through high school. Of course, once I discovered that being gay wouldn’t condemn me to a sexless adolescence I quickly gave up the ghost of performative bisexuality and just came out as plain ole’ boring gay. I wonder if kids these days still struggle with this? I was the only openly gay kid in my high school (though not the only gay kid – there were others, and I knew who they were because they told me). For me, dating was a real challenge. These days, though, so many kids come out. Is finding a teenage romance still a problem? I don’t know.

I do think I remember this night, though. If not *this* night, a night around this time that has stuck with me my entire life. My sophomore year there were three girls I hung out with for a few months – Sabrina (mentioned above), Marida (pronounced Merdee), and Brandie (or Brandiie or some unique spelling – can’t quite recall). They were sound, but we drifted apart pretty quickly. I remember one night, though, spent cruising mountain roads while we blasted country music, smoking cigarettes in the park under a pale moonlight, driving 30 miles to Wal-Mart just to walk around. I’ve often wondered why I remember that night so much. We had a laugh, but we didn’t do anything memorable. Yet looking back on it, I see that it’s one of the last nights of innocence I ever had. Just me and three girlfriends goofing off. Yeah, we smoked cigarettes, but that was as rebellious as we got. Flying down a country road blasting Alabama through the mountain night felt quintessentially southern, quintessentially high school. I think that’s why it sticks with me.

Mark. We made out for about 30 minuets yesterday, and for me to say that I didn’t enjoy it would be a lie. He is so sexy, so preppy, has the cutest feet (next to [Ryan]) and is so my type. But I didn’t feel that spark with him that I felt with [Ryan]. As much as I want him to be, he’s not [Ryan]. And when I was giving him that hand job, I couldn’t help but to feel that I was cheating on [Ryan]-even though we aren’t even dating. Mark gave me his number and wants to get together again, and even though I enjoyed his company and his kisses (and his cum…..yes thats nasty I know but hey this is my diary-my most private thoughts go in here-just the whole world gets to see them), I think I like him more as a friend. In fact, my love for [Ryan] has never wavered. I only want him. And that scares me. It really does.

I almost redacted two parts of this, and you can probably figure out which two parts they are. Something we didn’t understand in 2002 is that the Internet is forever. To find my teenage blog you would really have to do some deep digging. The website has been offline for at least 16 years. Yet, it’s still there if you know where to look. That’s a frightening thought, and any Gen Z folk reading this should take heed. Nothing online ever goes away.

Now, Mark. I have no idea who this is. I do not remember a Mark. Sorry, Mark. If you read the previous entry in this series, you’ll know I do remember Ryan. He was probably the first boy I ever loved, even if it was a puppy love. Still, dealing with those feelings as a teenager is scary. I had only just turned 16 when I wrote this. At the time I felt so grown-up and certian of myself. Looking at this, though, it’s clear that I was still a child and deeply insecure and unsure of what I was doing. This isn’t new; adults looking back at their teenage years with mortification is a tale as old as time. It’s especially uncomfortable, though, when you read the words you wrote as a youth. 

[Sabrina] thinks that me giving up sexual activity is the worst thing I could do. I’m going to be so “jittery (I’ll) be bouncing off the walls.” I swear, I dunno what to do. I really, really don’t. My heart says give up sex for him, but my head (and dick) say not too. So I dunno. Me and [Sabrina] have decided to tel [Ryan] about my dream. She’s going to do it tomarrow-somehow. [REDACTED]

I redacted part of this because taken out of context or in bad faith it could be used to hurt someone, and while I think the chances of anyone I went to high school with reading this or figuring it out small, it’s not something I want to worry about. None of the people I wrote about in this diary consented to being written about, a harsh truth I have to accept as an adult and actually had to reckon with in high school. My senior year, my online diary became public knowledge and I became Gossip Girl before there was a Gossip Girl. It was never my intention, but it happened, and I couldn’t control the fallout. I was indignant at the time. I am remorseful now.

I wish I had the context for my decision to “give up sex” because I don’t remember this at all, which probably means I didn’t do it. Of course, as of this writing I was still a virgin. I wouldn’t be for much longer; looking at the date this was published, I would lose my virginity within three weeks of its writing. Still, I’d love to know what was going on in my head and in my life before and after this entry. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), only excerpts of my online diary from 2001 – 2003 are available, meaning some things will be mentioned without context and with no way to know what exactly was happening. Things I thought I would remember forever have been forgotten, while some things I read bring back memories so vivid they could have happened yesterday. Funny, that.

I’m really annoyed that I didn’t know how to spell “tomorrow.”

Well, thats it. Nothing major has happened today. I’ll ttyl all.

When was the last time any of us used “ttyl.” I wonder if teenagers today even know what “ttyl” means?

Peace.

Bye.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

Words on Walford: Week of 17 – 21 February 2020

Over the past decade, EastEnders anniversaries have come to be known for their epic nature. For the 25th anniversary in 2010 we had the first live episodes as Bradley Branning fell to his death and Stacey Slater admitted to killing Archie Mitchell. In 2015, the 30th anniversary saw Kim Fox gave birth, Kathy Beale returned from the dead, and after ten months of wondering, fans finally learned that Bobby Beale killed his sister, Lucy. Oh, and the episodes were live again.

Both the 25th and 30th anniversaries were widely praised by critics and fans alike, so expectations were high going into the 35th anniversary episodes, which aired last week. Eschewing the live format of the previous two milestones, Kate Oates and Jon Sen – the creative bosses currently at the helm of EastEnders – opted instead for a major stunt, sending many of our favourite characters on a party cruise and one of them to a watery grave.

Spoilers lurk below, so if you haven’t seen EastEnders recently read ahead at your own peril.

We’ll get to that death later, because it is a gamechanger. Sen and Oates deserve credit for being brave enough to kill off Dennis Rickman, Jr, because it took guts. But what they also deserve credit for is changing up the entire format of EastEnders. Traditionally married to linear storytelling with few sound effects and nearly no incidental music, Sen and Oates have not shied away from tinkering with the format that viewers have come to know. This was evident during the festive season, which saw an episode told entirely from drunk Linda Carter’s view and the New Year’s Day episode a flashback to Christmas Day, showing events we hadn’t seen before and filling in several plot holes.

At the time, many fans were unimpressed with the changes, particularly the flashback episode and the cheesy drumbeats used throughout the Christmas Day episode (such as when Louise “feels” Keanu get shot). I was and remain one of them. The sound effects are utterly unnecessary and distracting, not just because they’re tacky but because they are not something EastEnders viewers are accustomed to, making them even more jarring and taking us out of the story. They were, mercifully, forsaken during boat week. As for the flashback episode—I’m not opposed to a flashback episode in principle, but the New Year’s episode felt utterly unnecessary, as every bit of it could have been told in a linear Christmas Day episode.

Not so with boat week. Seeing the day’s events from different characters’ perspectives was fascinating. Sticking with one family—whether the Carters, the Beales, or the Mitchells—allowed us to more fully invest in their storyline, devoting our attention entirely to those characters in that moment. In a way, it felt as though the stakes were raised because our minds weren’t constantly casting back to what was happening elsewhere on the boat. Being left entirely in the moment—such as when Mick tried in futility to rescue Linda on Monday—led to some edge-of-the-seat viewing, and the anguish of having to wait days to find out why the boat crashed and whether certain characters survived made the show unmissable. It was a brilliant choice by the production team.

Still, I wouldn’t want this sort of storytelling to become the norm. Like cumin, a little goes a long way. The same can be said for incidental music. The scene at the end of the Christmas episode, where Martin burns Keanu’s belongings as “Stay Another Day” swells to a climax, was incredibly gripping. Similarly, the montage at the end of Friday’s episode—showing the denizens of Walford coming to terms with Denny’s death—was particularly haunting. I would have used Julia’s Theme or some other version of the iconic theme tune (maybe not Pat’s Theme—the dark, melancholy version used when Pat Butcher died, but something like it), as it’s more familiar to fans and has a long legacy of being used at particularly poignant moments in the show’s history.

Even with an unfamiliar tune, though, the poignancy of those moments following the tragedy on the Thames was only increased by the music. Now, I don’t want to see EastEnders go full on American soap opera and have every scene scored, but music definitely added to the atmosphere of two of the finest moments of boat week, both in Friday’s episode—the aforementioned closing montage and the montage of the characters following their rescue from the river.

Well, almost all the characters. Poor Denny Rickman, aged only 13, did not make it off the boat alive. The decision to kill off Sharon’s only oldest son was, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, a bold one. Denny is the epitome of a legacy character, the only biological descendant of one of the show’s original and most iconic characters who was, until Friday, still on the canvas. Some fans have complained that he wasn’t a “major” character (as the producers had promised), but it’s hard to get more “major” than the son of Sharon Watts and the grandson of Den Watts.

Was it the right decision? I don’t know. On the one hand, it isn’t an obvious colossal mistake the way killing Roxy and Ronnie was in 2017. While Denny certainly rises to the level of “major” character, those fans who feel cheated are right in that he hasn’t driven any storyline or been front-and-centre, well, ever. Most of that is down to age; for a number of reasons it is hard to give child actors major storylines. I, for one, find myself mourning the Denny storylines we’ll never get. He had the makings of a proper little villain, a chip off grandpa Dirty Den’s old block. That we won’t get to see Denny (as well as actor Bleu Landau, who is one of the most compelling young actors working in British television today) grow up is a real loss for the show. There is a lot of squandered potential there.

The show seems to think it’s worth it. Scriptwriter Pete Lawson tweeted that even six years after Lucy Beale’s death, we’re still feeling the repercussions. In some ways this is true—there’s still conflict between Bobby and Ian over Lucy’s murder, and in many ways that moment in 2014 defines Bobby Beale as a character. And then, of course, there’s Peter, who only just returned and will have to deal with his own anger towards Bobby. It drove storyline for other characters, too—Max’s revenge plot, Lauren’s eventual relationship with Steven—so, I can see where the production staff would think it was a rousing success.

https://twitter.com/petelawson68/status/1231156226219745280?s=20

There is one major difference between Lucy Beale and Denny Rickman, though: Lucy wasn’t an only child. Now, I know technically Denny isn’t an only child either—he has a little brother now, born the same day he died in what must be the most soapy twist of all time—but he was the only biological grandchild of Den Watts. That made him a unicorn. Killing a unicorn is a risky move. As a writer, I don’t think I would have done it. Kate Oates herself has said that having those iconic families represented on the canvas is important, making it even more puzzling why she and Sen would greenlight the death of a character with such deep and rare connections to the show’s past. As of the time I’m writing this, I do not agree creatively with the decision to kill Denny.

That might change. Lawson is right that this has the potential to drive story for years. Phil and Ben caused the boat accident that killed Sharon’s son. Ian tried to rescue him, but Denny was only in need of rescue because Ian locked him below deck. This puts three of the longest-serving and most iconic characters right at the forefront of the show, which is exactly where they should be. There’s so much potential for compelling story. How does Sharon react to her best friend’s role in her son’s death? How does she react to her estranged husband’s role? How does Phil react when he finds out Ian locked Denny up? How does Callum react to Ben’s involvement in a boy’s death? (That is, assuming Callum survives being trapped in a skip.) And how does Ian look at Bobby now that Ian himself is wracked with guilt over his role in another’s death?

The answers to these questions will determine whether the Denny’s death was “worth it.” The one thing I’ll say is, for me, if Sharon and Phil reconcile then it absolutely was not. Nothing short of all-out war between Sharon and Phil, with Phil eventually getting his comeuppance (however that looks) will satisfy me as a viewer. Phil and Sharon have had a destructive relationship for going on 30 years, and it ultimately lead to this unspeakable tragedy. To have them reconcile now would be to not only insult Denny’s memory but to insult the viewers. It should not happen.

There’s so much more to talk about, including Sharon’s funeral home birth (who saw that coming?), Mick and Linda’s reconciliation (as of now that storyline has been tied up too easily, but I suspect it won’t be smooth sailing—no pun intended—going forward), Halfway in a skip (escaping your kidnapper only to end up in a skip is such a Halfway thing to do), Bex’s drugs (I’m glad she wasn’t the boat death for so many reasons), Bobby’s brain bleed (I hope they explore the Islamophobia storyline further, but with the attention and care it deserves), Peter’s return (blimey, he is quite the dish), and just where exactly is Patrick Trueman. For now, though, we’ll leave it here. I have a feeling we’ll be able to discuss all this next week.

Scene of the week: The aftermath of the boat crash, including the attempts to resuscitate poor Denny

Line of the week: “I played my trumpt, what do you think?” – Sonia, sarcastically explaining to Martin how she got rid of the police

Performance of the week: Kellie Bright as Linda broke my heart when she was pleading with Mick to save himself so their children would still have a parent alive

Character of the week: RIP Denny Rickman – you deserved better, even if you were a dick

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

Skylar reads… Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

“Skylar reads…” is a new series of book reviews by writer Skylar Baker-Jordan.

By now, most people will be at least passingly familiar with André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. The story of two young men who fall in love on the Italian Riviera, it was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 2017. The novel, like its setting along the northwestern Italian coast, is lush and beautiful and inspiring. Bittersweet like an overripe peach, Call Me By Your Name is part romance novel, part bildungsroman, and—like the passion between protagonist Elio and his beloved Oliver—all-consuming. I enjoyed being transported from a dreary winter in Tennessee to the scalding hot summers of 1980s Italy almost as much as I enjoyed reliving what it feels like to be young and in love.

Indeed, I want to talk about that, partly because (as I said earlier) the novel has been out for so long that any review I provide here is unlikely to add anything new to the cultural conversation. One could write entire essays on the symbolism of the peach and the poo (if you don’t know, read the novel) or of the frequent references to feet and the tactile language Aciman uses to evoke the electricity even the slightest touch can spark between two young people in love. I’ll leave it to the literature scholars and critics to do that, though. I’m more interested in what feelings this novel evoked in me, not because I’m a narcissist but because I suspect they’re universal.

If you’ve ever loved and lost, especially if you loved and lost at a young age, prepare to have those old scars heedlessly cut open. Aciman’s novel takes place in the mid-80s, but Elio tells the story from, doing the math, the mid-00s (which makes sense; the novel came out in 2007). The distance of decades allows him to tell the story of his adolescence with the perspective of an adult, replete with the hindsight, wisdom, and nostalgia that invariably entails.

All of us, at one point or another, have looked back on our teenage years with a sort of longing tinged with regret—whether it’s for a life choice we’d like to change, a lover we might not have even realized we miss, the general loss of innocence, or some combination thereof. Younger readers (say, anyone under 25) might not fully appreciate the wistfulness that thinking about your deep past can evoke, but older readers certainly can. Aciman captures the languor of lifelong regret in a way few authors have.

For me, this meant harkening back to a time ten years ago when I met the man who would become the love of my life. Like Elio and Oliver, we had a tortured will-they-or-won’t-they relationship which culminated in a passionate love affair and ended far too soon because he wasn’t ready to accept his same-sex attraction. Like Elio and Oliver, there was a not insignificant, but not unreasonable age difference between us (I was 24 when we met, the same age as Oliver; he was 18, a year older than Elio). Like Elio and Oliver, I suspect that age difference was insurmountable, though; six years might not matter at 34, but it matters a lot at 24.

We were the inverse of Elio and Oliver, though. I was the one who fell head over heels in love and he was the one who saw us for what we really were—two lonely people who found one another at precisely the right time, but who would never work outside the bubble in which we then lived. He had his demons, to be sure. He wouldn’t come out publicly until seven years after we broke up, and he’d have a child along that journey to self-acceptance. But, looking back now, I suspect that he was always more levelheaded about us than I was. I think he always knew that the life I said I wanted with him would never be enough—little things he said, like “don’t you want to move to London?” or “what about your writing? Why don’t you write more?”—and that he was in no position to give me what I craved, at least not for more than a few months.

Indeed, it was only a few months—the most confusing and logical, the most agonizing and joyous, the most tender and most callous, the most I’ve ever been loved and been loved and the most I’ve ever loathed and been loathed few months—but it still haunts me to this day. I can’t see an orange crewneck or a zip-up hoodie without thinking of him, and the one I used to steal from him and wear around because it was warm and comfortable, but mostly because it smelled like him, his musk and his cologne. To this day the scent of Old Spice reminds me of those nights spent lying in his arms.

Whenever I fall and scrape myself, I think of that first night we met, sitting outside his dorm room while I bled (having fallen, drunk, as we walked) and he insisted on getting a first aid kit. The symbolism of this is not lost on me now. I had no idea how much I would hurt myself for this boy.

We sat up all night talking about life, about books, about music, about art. As the sun rose, we walked to Waffle House—another thing he took from me. I walked home, across the entire desolate length of campus and down College Street to my apartment at about 8:00 AM; by noon he was at my place. We were inseparable from then until we weren’t anymore.

Reading Aciman’s novel made me long to be in Europe, to walk down Roman alleys and sun myself on Monet’s berm. More than that, though, it made me want to go back to my own past, back to Bowling Green, Kentucky. It made me want to walk the length of campus again, as I had that sunny, late summer morning, like a pilgrim walks where Jesus walked. It made me want to go back to the yard where we first met, back to steps where we first kissed, back to the picnic table where he, a student, and I, an alumnus finally said our goodbyes. It made me wonder where he is, what he’s doing, who he’s dating, and if he’s happy.

It also made me consider the passing of time and the wisdom of age. I recently found my high school diary. One entry was about the boy I had a crush on at the time. “He smiled at me. Twice!” I exclaimed. The innocence of youth. The boy who wrote that is a stranger to the man I am today, yet we are inexplicably one and the same. I don’t think I’d get so excited over a smile today, and I certainly wouldn’t take it as irrefutable proof that the object of my affections reciprocated. I wish I could be that naive again.

I remember that boy fondly too. He was a nice boy. It’s been even longer since I’ve seen him, to the point I don’t even remember what his voice sounds like. There were others before my Oliver, who was also my Elio as I was both to him as well. There have been a few since. None have compared to him. None hold a candle.

I don’t suspect he feels the same about me. I imagine plenty followed me, more than one more beloved than I ever was. I hope he thinks about me, though. Undoubtedly, he does; I was his first. You always remember your first. I hope it’s with kind thoughts, though, or at least not all regrets.

How is it that one person can change your life so completely, and that even after a decade leave your heart in tatters by simply coming to memory? A question for the philosophers. He was that to me. Is that to me. No one as ever compared, and as I approach my 34th birthday, I suspect no one ever will.

Why him? I ask myself that whenever he comes to mind. He was cute, but he wasn’t hot. He was nice, but he wasn’t always kind. He wasn’t dumb, but he was no great intellect. His opinions were pedestrian and shallow—a product of his age, perhaps, and an intellectual immaturity which doubtless four years of college could have solved. I only knew him for one.

So why him? He made me feel safe. Whenever he was around, I felt like I could conquer the world. He made me feel valued. There was no shame in working in a coffeeshop, all writers do, he’d say. Your value isn’t measured by your bank account, Skylar, shut up this ramen is fine. He made me feel attractive at a time I was painfully insecure. He made me feel needed a time I felt useless. He made me feel hopeful at a time I felt despairing.

He made me feel loved. He loved me. He told me, but more than that, he showed me. In the little ways—bringing me a slice of pizza when he came over, because he correctly guessed I hadn’t eaten; showing up at the coffeeshop and sitting for my entire shift so I’d have someone to talk to; playing a song twice in a row because he knew I liked it. In the big ways, too, supporting me as I had to institutionalize one of my best friends and never leaving my side when another old friend passed away.

He’s the only man I can say that about. For as little as we knew one another, it’s remarkable what all happened. Six months. I met him in August 2010. We broke up in February 2011. Six months I knew him. A lifetime I’ve loved him.

Unlike the film, Call Me By Your Name ends with a reunion 15 years after the main events of the novel. Then it flashes to five years after that, back in Italy, our two protagonists still longing for one another but unable or unwilling to bridge the time that has now come between them.

I haven’t seen him in nine years. I suppose that means I only have to wait another six.

★ ★ ★ ★☆

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.

Forget winter. Farage is coming

The day after the 2016 EU referendum, I warned that Remainers needed to get on board with Brexit in order to avoid a swell of far-right populism. Looking back, I feel like a Stark on Game of Thrones, saying “Winter is Coming” during a long, sunny summer.

Few, it seems, were listening.

It has been clear for some time that the UK is in the midst of the greatest political realignment since the 19th century. The Conservatives and Labour parties dominated the 20th century, but there is no guarantee they will survive the 21st. This weekend’s European election results indicate they may be in more trouble than we thought. I have never been more sorrowful to be proven right.

The Brexit Party won big, carrying a 10+ point lead over its nearest competitor, the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives and Labour suffered their worst defeats in living memory, and ChangeUK – the new party founded by former Labour, and then Tory, Remainer MPs – didn’t even crack five per cent.

There is a silver lining for Remainers, in that if you combine the explicitly remain parties (LibDems, ChangeUK, SNP, Greens), they’re practically neck in neck with the combined total of the Brexit Party and the seemingly now-irrelevant UKIP. Still, this doesn’t change the fact that a plurality of the electorate chose to vote for a party who is so adamant on leaving the EU that they put it in their name, led by Britain’s very own Littlefinger. If chaos is a ladder, as Lord Baelish once said, Nigel Farage is climbing it right to the top.

And therein lies the problem. Hearken back to the good ole days of 2015. After the General Election, one of the biggest questions in British politics was what would happen to Nigel Farage. UKIP did abysmally and it looked like his career was over. But like a reactionary Jon Snow, Nigel Farage rose from the political dead, and 2016 saw his life’s mission accomplished. It emboldened him, and today he can claim to be the most effective party leader in the UK.

The risk here isn’t Brexit. Not really. Despite being a lifelong Eurosceptic, I supported the Remain campaign because I couldn’t stomach the people leading the Leave Campaign – a group of hard-right goons who, as was once said of Littlefinger and is certainly true of Farage, would see the country burn if they could be kings of the ashes. I saw the writings on the wall then, and I see them even more urgently now: hard-right populism is on the rise in the UK, and Brexit is the dragon on which it will arrive.

So while most in the Westminster bubble argued over who would sit on the Iron Throne, some of us were frantically trying to get people to pay attention to the threat from the North (of England). A rising sense of disenchantment with the political establishment was emboldening a dangerous new reactionary politics. And now, that threat has arrived. The only thing that kept UKIP from gaining more than one seat in 2015 was first-past-the-post, a system in which the candidate or party with the largest share of votes in a constituency wins that seat. The Conservatives and Labour were the bulwark against such a threat, the two-party system, to beat this metaphor to death, like the Wall keeping out the White Walkers.

But now those two great political parties look like they’re about to fall. They were both decimated this weekend. The Tories are now involved in their own Game of Thrones. The Labour leadership is more interested in appeasing its members than winning an election, leading it to be unable or unwilling to formulate a cohesive Brexit strategy.

All this while Farage and the nefarious policies he represents gain massive political inroads.

It is no longer worth discussing what happens if authoritarian populism becomes mainstream. It already has. So how to nip this in the bud? The answer is simple.

The UK must leave the European Union on 31 October, deal or no deal.

In another Westerosi turn of events, as Theresa May falls, her house words become clearer and more relevant than ever: Brexit means Brexit. It must, no matter the cost.

There are dire consequences to exiting the European Union without a deal, I know. And in some ways, it means Farage and the Brexit Party have won. After all, this is what they want – the UK to exit the EU and default to World Trade Organisation rules. There’s the issue of Northern Ireland and the border. There’s the issue of the millions of EU citizens living in the UK and the millions of British citizens living in the EU. Leaving these issues unresolved is the worst possible scenario, next to not leaving at all.

The alternative is just too grim. If Brexit doesn’t happen, and soon, it won’t just be the European Elections the Brexit Party wins. Every day the country remains in the EU is a day Prime Minister Nigel Farage becomes more likely. Think of what that would mean to the working classes, who would suffer under his economic policies, or to immigrants and people of colour, or to LGBT rights, the feminist movement, or trade unions. It would be devastating.

The only way to turn back the tide of authoritarianism is to give the people what they want and put this issue to bed once and for all. The only way to stop Farage from winning in Westminster is to let him win in Europe.The only way the country can move on from Brexit is to Brexit.

Not doing so is to risk everything. It is clear the British voters want the UK to leave the European Union. A second referendum was held, in a way, and Remain lost again. The choice was the squabbling of the past three years or to just get on with it and leave, and “just get on with it and leave” was so appealing that the country just voted for the Night King.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is an American writer. He writes about British politics and culture and has covered every British election since 2010. His work as appeared at The Independent, HuffPost UK, Salon, the Daily Dot, The GayUK Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives on the coast in North Carolina.

 

Trump’s attacks on the press makes the press moreimportant than ever

trump acosta

Donald Trump hates the press. It’s no secret. He’s been attacking us since before he won the presidency. But yesterday, he acted on that hatred in a sinister threat to democracy.

News broke last night that the White House had revoked the “hard pass” of CNN’s Jim Acosta, allegedly for grabbing a White House staffer during a press conference in which Trump called Acosta “terrible person” who reports for “fake news,” an accusation he lobbed at Acosta and CNN after Acosta asked a question about bombs sent to the network earlier this month.

The revocation of Acosta’s hard pass effectively bans Acosta from the White House. According to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, the Leni Riefenstahl of this administration, Acosta was suspended for touching a staffer during his questioning. The video shows the White House is lying, and it’s actually Acosta who was grabbed.

In the same press conference, Trump called PBS’ Yamiche Alcindor’s question about whether his embracing the term “nationalist” – a term loaded with fascistic connotations – may have emboldened white nationalists. It was clearly a way to shut Alcindor up without having to answer her quite relevant question.

We should all be terrified by this sudden turn of events. It is utterly unprecedent for a president to ban a reporter for asking tough questions. Sure, many (if not all) presidents have had strained relations with the media at one time or another. That’s because it’s our job, as the free and unfettered press, to ask tough questions, speak truth to power, and hold administrations to account.

Trump doesn’t believe that. Instead, he wants fawning talking-heads like Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro singing his praises like they’re the Pink Lady of North Korea. When they do, they’re rewarded. Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro both got to appear onstage with the president ahead of the midterms—a move so blatantly unethical that even Fox News had to publicly chastise their top-rated talent for making. When they don’t, they get chucked out like Jim Acosta.

I’d love to say this is all just a temper tantrum because Trump took a bruising in the midterms. But it’s not. His history of hostility towards the press is storied. Now that he’s lost the House of Representatives—and sees the walls closing in around him—it’s only going to get worse. Donald Trump will not take this lying down.

But neither should we, the free and unfettered press. For that is what we are—for now. We must keep speaking truth to power. We must keep asking the tough, uncomfortable questions, like “why the president emboldening racists?” and “why does he think it’s okay to say CNN is the “enemy of the people?” after one of his supporters tried to blow CNN up.

Some on Twitter have suggested that the entire White House Press Corps walks out in support of Acosta. I cannot support this. If no one is there to report on this administration, who knows that they will do? Instead, reporters should double-down, asking tougher questions and demanding more thorough answers. The Republic depends on it.

None of this is hyperbole. Oh, that it were. This is serious. Trump has become even more unhinged in defeat than he was in victory. He’s like a caged animal, teeth bared and ready to fight for his life. His first targets are us in the press.

We cannot back down. Rarely has the press been as vital as it is now. The American people deserve to know the truth about what’s going on, and this administration is bound and determined that they do not. Trump insists on propaganda. We must counter it by continuing to report what we know, writing what we see, and making sure the people know the truth behind the lies. History has its eyes on us.

Last week, I wrote in the Independent that as a critic of the Trump administration, I am scared for my safety. But that fear cannot stop us from doing our duties as journalists and opinion writers. We are vital to the survival of democracy, and rarely in American history has the survival of democracy looked so tenuous. It won’t be easy. There are swaths of the country ready to accept the lies of the Trump administration. But we must steady the buffs. The future of the Republic is at stake, and we are the last bastion before it falls to an authoritarian strongman.

I’m not going to shut up. Neither should you.

 

“Jenny” Lives with Sodomites: Section 28 in Historic Context

section 28

Photo: BBC/Alamy (If you look, third from the right, you’ll see a young Peter Tatchell)

I wrote this paper during my senior year at Western Kentucky University. 

It came up in conversation on Twitter last night, so I thought I’d share with you all. I only have a hard copy, so I scanned it and made it a .pdf. I’m not super tech-savvy, so I’m not sure how to make it look any more pleasing to the eye. But if you click that link, you should be able to read the paper.

For those of you who don’t know, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in British schools and by British local councils. It is what galvanised the lesbian and gay movements into coalescing. From the struggle against Section 28, an alliance emerged that would produce, among other notable groups, Stonewall.

This, to me, has always been the genesis of what we consider the “gay rights movement” in the UK. There were disparate groups before Section 28, sure, but they didn’t have the political successes that the movement would experience in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. This is down to several factors, including – ironically – that Section 28 had the whole nation talking about homosexuality, which is exactly what it was meant to stop.

The 1980s saw a slowing of progress on gay rights, brought on by Thatcher, yes, but also by the Aids crisis. Section 28 was an overreaction by Conservative backbenchers to what was a minor controversy in London. In this paper, I try to put these events, and others, into historic context to give a picture of the birth of the modern British LGBT rights movement.

A few things to remember when reading this:

  • I wrote this eight years ago as a student. It is only about 28 pages long (double-spaced, as was required). So it is by no means exhaustive. It is simply my contribution.
  • My writing has (hopefully!) matured and improved since my early 20s. Please be kind
  • I’m American, and was only two years old in 1988. So I don’t have a memory of these events. Some of you may remember things differently, and I would love to hear from you

I hope you find this as interesting as I do, and that you enjoy the paper.

Finally, this seemed to be a big hit on Twitter last night, so I leave you with a video of the Lesbian Avengers abseiling into the House of Lords to protest what was then known as Clause 28.

 

 

On my hiatus

 

 

jacksonville

This piece is a long time coming.

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing for the past eight months, save a couple pieces for INTO. While this was the plan in late 2017 – to take 2018 off of pitching and writing about politics and pop culture – it hasn’t exactly happened as I anticipated. “Man plans, God laughs,” they say.

The plan back in January was to write my first novel. I’ve long dreamed of doing this, and spent much of 2017 doing the legwork, building out this elaborate fantasy world and creating these rich characters. If that sounds like bragging, it kind of is. I’m incredibly excited about this project. I don’t know if it will ever get published, but in January and last year, I wasn’t worried about that. I was just having fun being creative and writing for the sake of writing.

And then my brother got his by a bus, and he almost died. Something like this is bound to impact you, but it utterly changed my life. While he was still in a coma I decided I was going to uproot my life, one I’d spent seven years building, and move from Chicago to North Carolina to be closer to him. By the end of March, I was here.

For the first couple weeks I was back I was at the hospital with him nonstop. He was in a rehabilitation wing making remarkable progress. When I left to pack up my life and move down here at the end of February, we weren’t sure he’d be much more than a vegetable. By April 1, he was walking on his own and mentally sharp as a tack, if a little obstinate and mouthy – as teenagers are apt to be. By the time he was released, though, it was clear that he was going to make as near a full recovery as anyone who is hit by a giant bus going 35 MPH possibly can.

So I went back to Jacksonville, where my family lives, and settled in at my grandmother’s house.

Then I had to find a job. That took longer than I thought it would.

Then I had to find an apartment. That happened faster than I thought it would.

Then I had to build a social life. That still hasn’t happened.

And now, after two months working at an office job (hi new work friends!), I’m ready to start writing again.

Truth be told, I had the itch for the first time when Connor was still in ICU. We were waiting for the doctors to tell us something or other, I can’t even remember, and I was in the waiting room watching live coverage of the Parkland shooting. The aftermath of that, seeing these brave high school students stand up for commonsense gun laws and for their – and my brother’s – generation, was inspiring. I wanted to cover it so badly. But not as badly as I wanted to be there for my brother. And so, my focus remained on him.

Since then, there have been countless times where I’ve thought that I should pitch an article, or write a blog, or do something else to get back in the game. But I haven’t. And part of that is understanding my own limitations.

Writing is an exhausting endeavor, even when you’re well practiced and nimble. Producing a 650-1000-word essay on a dime is no small task, especially when you’re trying to persuade the world around to your point of view. It’s mentally draining and can be physically exhausting.

So is looking after your hospitalized brother. One thing my mother and I discussed while Connor was in the hospital was how exhausting simply sitting in a hospital can be. The stress of sitting, waiting for some news, wondering if your loved one is going to be okay or if the test results the doctors are giving you are going to confirm some unknown horror, is a crucible of anxiety I cannot explain unless you’ve gone through it yourself. It takes everything out of you, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

But then, this was going to be a tough year by any measure. Those of you who were around back in January know that 2018 started off with a self-reckoning. I was drinking too much, I was unhappy with my overall appearance – in particularly my weight – and I was trying to figure out where I wanted my life to go. Then, Connor got hit and everything changed. Suddenly I wasn’t living my life just for me, but for someone else. My brother needed me, and he needed me clear-eyed and alert.

Deciding to move here was the easy part; settling in has been more challenging. I’m not exactly from a big city – Hyden, Kentucky only has about 400 people, and I lived seven miles outside of it. Even Bowling Green, where I went to college, or Dayton, where I grew up aren’t all that big. But after seven years spent in Chicago, with holidays in London, and not really living either very often, coming to a town the size of Jacksonville, North Carolina – population about 70,000 – has been an adjustment.

There are no gay bars here, let alone a gay village. Fine dining is Olive Garden. And while God forbid they socialize healthcare in North Carolina, they have no problem socializing booze; the state literally owns the liquor stores, so you must go to one of these Alcoholic Beverage Control (or “ABC”) stores to buy anything harder than a Malbec. Church is where folks go to see and be seen, and some people even have bumper stickers next to their “MAGA” decals that proudly proclaim they are “NOT A LIBERAL!” to which I always think “THAT’S A SHAME!” when I see them (yes, them – I’ve seen more than a few).

It’s safe to say, then, that it’s been a bit of a culture shock. But it hasn’t been as bad as you’re probably imagining. The people down here are friendly and nice. Not Midwestern nice, but proper nice; they genuinely care when they ask how your day is going. The weather is hot and humid, and it rains all the time, but it’s sure as hell going to beat Chicago come February. The cost of living is astronomically lower. I have a two bedroom in the heart of Jacksonville for less than I was paying for my garden unit one bedroom in Logan Square. And of course, it’s nice to be close to family.

But even with all that’s good, it still isn’t anything I’m used to. Getting used to being back in the south, coupled with the sheer stress of moving a thousand miles (regardless of where from or to), has really taken all the energy and spare time I’ve had. For not only am I having to adjust to a new town, with new people, in a new state, but I’m having to get used to a new time zone, a new routine, and a brand-new life full of brand new people.

That’s made writing not only more difficult, but less of a priority. I knew that in order for me to flourish in Jacksonville, I was going to have to focus on being in Jacksonville. And that meant not focusing on what was going on in Washington, or New York, and certainly not my beloved London.

I’ve spent the past four months doing just that – getting to know my new town, finding my new hangout spots, and settling into a groove that suits this new life. I think I’ve finally found it. Last week, I started writing my novel. I’m only about 1500 words in, but it’s a start. It’s invigorating. While I’m still dealing with the anxiety I’ve always dealt with when it comes to writing, I feel excited enough to push through it, and hope to have a rough draft finished by December 31.

I also think I’m going to start pitching again and commenting on the news of the day, though I’ll probably do it less frequently than I used to and probably share less of my work on social media. The truth is, I have a lot to say about politics and media, but I’m not particularly interested in discussing or debating it with my cousin’s boyfriend’s mother’s best friend on Facebook. It’s just not a productive use of my time. Arguing on social media is a waste of energy, accomplishes very little, and ultimately is quite boring. I’ve thought of deleting all the social media apps from my phone, following the brilliant Abi Wilkinson’s lead, to eliminate distractions and simply live more presently in the moment. It will, I think, help me be a better writer. I’ve not done it yet, but I’ll let you know if I do and what comes of it.

In the meantime, this is my first piece back to work, as it were. I don’t really know why I felt the need to write this, but I did. I suppose, on some level, it’s so that I can process the past eight months and the whirlwind journey I’ve been on. It really feels like it has less to do with who is reading this than it does with simply writing it and proving to myself that not only am I ready to start writing again, but that I can start writing again.

I also wanted to give you all and update on my life. I haven’t been as active on social media, I’ve all but disappeared from the websites you used to read me at, and I haven’t been terribly open about what’s been going on.

So that’s it. I’m a North Carolinian now. But I’m still a writer. And I can’t wait to write so much more.

Five things we learned from the 2017 General Election

What a night. Theresa May, who became the longest serving Home Secretary in a century now looks to be the shortest serving Prime Minister in 300 years. After failing to win a majority in an election that by all measures she should have won, her position looks untenable as prominent Conservative MPs – such as Anna Soubry – have called on her to “consider her position” (a polite euphemism for step down) on national television. There’s every possibility that the Democratic Unionist Party – Northern Ireland’s far-right, homophobic party – could prop up a minority Tory government, but even if so, May looks unlikely to be leading it.

This is the third British general election I’ve covered as a journalist and it is, without a doubt, the most shocking of my life. Few, including myself, saw this coming. Yet here we are, and whilst it’s still incredibly early, there are six things we can take away from Thursday’s vote:

 

  1. This is a very bad result for Brexit

Let’s start with the obvious: it’s clear that Brexit negotiations must be put on hold, or Article 50 temporarily rescinded altogether. Negotiations were due to start on 19 June, but that seems all but impossible now. May is likely to step down, which means we’re going to have a Tory leadership contest. That will take weeks, at least. No matter who fills her kitten heels, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll immediately be ready to go to Brussels. Even the Sun is reporting – quite uncritically – that EU officials are already suggesting they may put the brakes on any negotiations. It’s untelling when they may go forward.

Beyond that though, Theresa May’s loss is a blow to a Tory hard Brexit. The Prime Minister called this election to “strengthen her hand” in the Brexit negotiations. The Daily Mail famously called on her to “crush the saboteurs” on its front page, but the saboteurs ended up crushing her. The British people have made it clear that a hard Brexit is not what they voted for. Britain is likely to remain in the single market, and the entire Tory Brexit plan will have to be scrapped and rewritten. Labour’s Brexit plan resonated, and soft-Brexit Tories must certainly feel emboldened to take on their more Eurosceptic colleagues.

  1. This is a very good result for Corbyn

Nobody saw this coming, not even – I’m told – the Labour leader himself. Yet Jeremy Corbyn has achieved the greatest political upset in modern British history, even though he technically lost the election. Literally everyone, including his own party officials, had all but accepted a massive defeat was in the cards. This morning, though, Labour MPs who were expected to lose their seats – like moderate Wes Streeting – have actually increased their majority. This is the best result for Labour since 2010. I cannot stress how incredible this is. When everyone – including me – had written Corbyn off as a loser, he’s proven is he, well, a loser, but not quite as big a one as any of us thought he was.

Normally a Labour leader in his position would be called on to step down. But there are a few things working in Corbyn’s favour here. For starters, expectations were so low that this loss actually looks very good. Beyond that, though, he was bolstered by the people he brought into the party and, crucially, the youth vote. Corbyn has emboldened Millennials and Gen Z in a way no other politician on either side of the Atlantic has. Labour won’t want to lose that momentum going into future elections. He also had little time to prepare for this snap election – six weeks or so – and faced an unbelievably hostile media.

His performance tonight proves Labour is trending in the right direction and that his vision resonates with voters in a way Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband never did. They may grumble privately, but expect Labour moderates to fall in line over the next several months.

  1. Lynton Crosby has lost his magic touch

The Tory Svengali who won David Cameron two elections should never have been brought in to run Theresa May’s campaign. Not only do reports from CCHQ indicate that he never really “got” her or what to do with her, but he had also lost a campaign the Tories expected to win just last year – the London mayoral campaign. That campaign should have shown that Crosby’s unique blend of fearmongering and soundbites no longer worked. The Tories made the fatal mistake of thinking London was one thing but the country another. It became apparent that Crosby’s reluctance to send May out into the field and his attacks on Corbyn as a terrorist sympathiser never resonated with the British public. This is possibly because there were two attacks on May’s watch at the height of the campaign, but it’s more likely that the British people have wised up to his tricks.

  1. The tide of right wing nationalism seems to be waning

After Brexit and Donald Trump, a lot of us were bracing for the nasty re-emergence of a right-wing nationalism the West hadn’t seen since the 1930s. But with the defeat of Le Pen and Britain’s rejection of a hard Brexit this week, it seems that the tides are turning. By voting so overwhelmingly for internationalist, left-of-centre parties (Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Greens), Britain has rejected an inward looking, isolationist, xenophobic worldview and shown it is still open and accepting and ready to act on the global stage. It’s hard to see how any reactionary populist wins going forward, which will be a massive relief to fair-minded people in Britain and beyond. (And, you must imagine, to the Democrats who must campaign in the US midterms in 2018.)

  1. The future is more uncertain than ever

As I type this the Tories are currently tearing themselves apart (privately, of course) over whether Mrs May can remain on as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, John McDonnell is calling on the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens, and other parties to help Labour form a minority government. It’s more likely the Conservatives will be joined, or at least bolstered, by the DUP to form a right-leaning coalition or minority government, but anyone who tells you they know is lying. Assuming someone does form a coalition or minority government, though, there’s no telling how long it might last. Many are predicting an autumn election (please don’t tell Brenda from Bristol), but others are saying the Tories – should they succeed – will cling on until 2022, when they Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2010 mandates the next election happen. The truth is, we simply don’t know what will happen. This level of uncertainty is not only bad for Brexit, but bad for the markets – which, though as I type is early in London and the middle of the night in New York – have already reacted with volatility throughout Asia.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next. No one does. But whatever happens, we can all be assured we have witnessed one of the most galling political upsets in British history – and that the country may never be the same again.

Milo, Laurie Penny, the Lost Boys, and Toxic Masculinity

 

milo

Milo Yiannopoulos lost a book deal, a plum speaking gig, and his job this week. Photo: Flickr

I’ve spent a lot of the last three months calling Trump supporters and the alt-right monsters. I did so on this blog. I did so in The Independent.

But there is something missing from my analysis, and it’s something Laurie Penny touched on in a much praised and much derided piece for the Pacific Standard. Before I get into what Penny did and didn’t say, though, let me tell you a story.

When I was 22, I met a young 18-year-old straight boy. We’ll call him Jacob. Jacob was white, blonde, heterosexual, and totally lost in this world. Beyond anything, he was impressionable. Jacob only wanted to be liked. To belong somewhere. Gangly, bumbling, and painfully awkward, Jacob and I met through student government. I took an instant liking to him. He was sweet, goofy, and though intellectually inelegant (as 18-year-olds are apt to be), clearly intelligent.

Jacob looked to me as a mentor, and I to him as a kid I could help. I nurtured him and invited him to hang out with friends and go to parties. Eventually he pledged the fraternity I always hung out with (but didn’t belong to). I didn’t think this a good idea – Jacob was too sensitive, too vulnerable, and frankly too cerebral to really fit in with this hard-drinking, fast-fucking crew. I’ve written about my own college years drinking and fucking my way up and down fraternity row, and I was afraid that blend of toxic masculinity (which at the time I got a high off of) would kill poor Jacob.

Fast forward eight or so years, and he probably disagrees. I still don’t. Jacob was relentlessly picked on, though I must stress not hazed, by the guys in the fraternity. Most of it was the good-natured banter that twenty-something men tend toward. Some of it was a lot crueller. All of it proved too much for Jacob, who began drinking heavily and was prone to becoming violent when intoxicated. It got him banned from some fraternity parties and even, for a time, my house – unless he stayed sober.

Around this time, Jacob took a women’s studies class at my behest, and even began dating a lovely feminist woman. It seemed that he would sort himself out. But a year after I moved to Chicago, I got a call from him saying they’d broken up, and that he was in a very dark place. No stranger to dark places myself, I took a Megabus to see him. He rebounded, and I left.

As friends who live hundreds of miles away from one another often do, we drifted apart. It wasn’t really until last year when I drunkenly called him to catch up that I realised the boy I’d met who entered this world of toxic masculinity grew up into a misogynistic man and Trump supporter. We’ve not talked a lot since.

I’m from Kentucky, so the fact that people I know and even considered friends voted for Donald Trump isn’t all that surprising. But reading Penny’s piece, I thought specifically of Jacob and the strange, drunken, and desperate course he travelled from a dorky college kid to a self-identified feminist to the type of guy who, had he been born a few years later, could’ve been in that car with Penny and Yiannopoulos, evacuating UC-Berkeley.

I’m going to quote at length from Laurie’s piece here, because I think she makes two important points – one clumsily and one cogently. First, this:

It is vital that we talk about who gets to be treated like a child, and what that means. All of the people on Yiannopoulos’ tour are over 18 and legally responsible for their actions. They are also young, terribly young, young in a way that only privileged young men really get to be young in America, where your race, sex, and class determine whether and if you ever get to be a stupid kid, or a kid at all. Mike Brown was also 18, the same age as the Yiannopoulos posse, when he was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; newspaper reports described him as an adult, and insisted that the teenager was “no angel,” as if that justified what was done to him. Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when he was shot and killed in Cleveland for playing with a toy gun. The boys following Yiannopoulos are playing with a toy dictator, and they have faced no consequences as yet, even though it turns out that their plastic play-fascism is, in fact, fully loaded and ready for murder.

This is the bit that seems to have gotten Penny the most flack, and to be fair, I get it. Writer Mikki Kendall summed it up best in a Twitter thread, in which she points out that Penny building her argument on the bodies of dead Black martyrs is callous and insensitive. I take that point. (I’m posting the first tweet in the thread below; please read and consider it.)

Still, engaging with who gets to be seen as a child, or an innocent, or have their behaviour excused because of youth is a worthwhile intellectual exercise, because in our culture not everybody gets to have youthful indiscretions. That is, in fact, almost exclusively the purview of straight cis white men.

So while perhaps Penny’s word choice was unfortunate, I don’t think her point was far from the mark. And yes, impact matters more than intent, but I have always believed that intent should be considered when thinking of how we respond, because it does still matter.

I say this not only as a defence of Penny’s own work and intentions, but because it plays right into the next very important point she makes. While, as she writes, “these are little boys playing games with the lives of others,” she also points out that Yiannopoulos

exploits vulnerable young men. Not in a sexual way. Not in an illegal way. Yiannopoulos exploits vulnerable young men in the same way that every wing-nut right-wing shock-jock from the president down has been exploiting them for years: by whipping up the fear and frustration of angry young men and boys who would rather burn down the world than learn to live in it like adults, by directing that affectless rage in service to their own fame and power. This is the sort of exploitation the entire conservative sphere is entirely comfortable with. What happens to these kids now that the game has changed?

If you think that centring white male Trump supporters is the antithesis of everything you stand for and the very thing both Penny and I have dedicated our careers to not doing, well, you’re right. So let me say before we go any further that I will absolutely side with any marginalised community over angry, privileged, adultalescent men – whether 17 or 70 – who leverage their power and privilege to harm the most vulnerable. As I’ve said many times, to many friends, and on many panels, I say now for the first time in print:

Explanations are not excuses

There is absolutely no excusing the behaviour of Yiannopoulos, his fanboys, President Trump, or any of the enablers, gatekeepers, or even voters who propelled them all to where they are today. None. But I do think the left, the resistance, and for that matter American culture generally could benefit from asking ourselves what brought them to this point.

If you read Penny’s piece, it’s clear that it wasn’t economic anxiety. If you look at the polling data on who voted for Trump, it’s clear too. But I think Penny hit the nail squarely on the head when she labelled these groupies “the lost boys.” Because I know a boy like them. I know Jacob.

Jacob graduated university in 2013 and moved to a mid-sized southern metropolis in search of the elusive American dream. He found dead end after dead end, working a sales job he didn’t like which (if I recall) he was eventually fired or laid off from. He found dating hard, impossible even. Women just didn’t seem interested in him.

At some point between 2014 and 2016 he moved back to his parents’ house in a small southern city and resumed working at the fast food restaurant he worked at while in high school. Last I talked to him, which was probably last spring, he was the manager. He was still living at home. He was still single. And he was noticeably and perhaps understandably angry about it.

It was at that time he told me that he thought, like Yiannopoulos, that feminism was a cancer on Western society. It had damaged the natural order of men on top and women subservient. All the social progress we made wasn’t working for him, so it obviously wasn’t working for anyone. Best to go back to 1956.

This is of course absurd. It is also straight up sexism.

Yet – consider one of the young men in Yiannopoulos’ posse, who told Penny that “I think a lot of people in this crew wouldn’t be part of the popular crowd without the Trump movement. I think that some of us are outcasts, some of us are kind of weird. It’s a motley crew.”

This quote gave me pause, and I reread it probably four times before going on, particularly the phrase “popular crowd,” which is one most often heard in high school cafeterias, not political discourse. That phrase in and of itself conjures up adolescence, immaturity, and a childlike longing to be recognised as part of the crème-de-la-crème of your social unit. That is not the phrase a well-adjusted adult uses unironically.

I have often times thanked God that I’m gay, because I think it saved me from going down this darkly bigoted path. Being openly gay in Kentucky from 2001 – 2011 did for me what it clearly never did for Yiannopoulos: it made me empathetic to other minorities. But if you read the essay I wrote for Salon about trying so desperately to belong to Greek life at my alma mater, you’ll see that I tried desperately to fit in with the oppressive class:

But from under them I could still obtain a certain level of social cachet. My reputation as someone who would fuck but didn’t talk grew, and with that, came a certain level of trust. “Put a cock in his mouth and he’ll shut up,” one of my buddies once joked. Suddenly, I was invited to the premier parties, not just from the fraternity I was hanging out with, but others. And I went, because it felt good. Being invited signaled acceptance, even if it was only on their terms. I might not be one of them, but I could hang with them, and that meant something.

I was a women’s studies minor. I knew better. Yet I still fell for the trappings of white heteropatriarchy, which as I said in that essay, is one helluva drug – especially to a working class gay kid who had never found any semblance of social acceptance anywhere else.

The sociologist Paul Kivel has a theory he calls the “act-like-a-man box,” which explains the pressures men feel to achieve, to provide, to dominate women, and to suppress their emotions and how these things can negatively impact not only their mental health but their politics. It’s basically a handy diagram to explain the theory of toxic masculinity, and square in the middle of it can be found Jacob and the Milo Yiannopoulos fan club.

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Paul Kivel’s “act-like-a-man box”

Yiannopoulos first came to American prominence through GamerGate, which was a sexist backlash against women playing video games masquerading as being about journalistic ethics. He built his cult following of basement dwelling, Red Bull chugging nerdy men by tearing down the women who many of them felt were invading a space where they could live out their misogynistic, violent fantasies without retribution or critique. Games were all they had, because for many of these men, they were social rejects. (I can say this with some certainty, as the gamers I know who are well-adjusted adult humans reject GamerGate, Yiannopoulos, and Trump without hesitation.)

Yet these are men who were, for a variety of reasons – whether because they were nerdy, or more effeminate, or overweight, or socially awkward – emasculated by the patriarchal norms described in the act-like-a-man box. Instead of burning the box and liberating themselves, they retreated further into it, where they found Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos waiting to exploit their anxieties and insecurities for profit and for power.

Jacob wasn’t a gamer, but he was in the act-like-a-man box too, and Trump and Yiannopoulos found and converted him too. These Lost Boys, as Penny calls them, were lost because they – for whatever reason, or for many reasons – couldn’t live up to the pressures of socially constructed toxic masculinity. So they turned to people who could help redefine that.

This is probably key to why Milo Yiannopoulos so appealed to these young men. Sure, as Penny points out, they weren’t gay, but Yiannopoulos simultaneously defied the norms of masculinity – camping it up, wearing his pearls, openly talking of sucking dick – while being embraced by the patriarchy. If he could do it, they likely thought, so could they. It actually makes perfect sense that Yiannopoulos was the standard bearer of these Lost Boys. He accessed the social currency they desperately want to possess.

Of course key to all of this is how they viewed what it means to be a man. The toxicity isn’t only what it does to them, but what it does to others. That to them being a man meant dominance, violence, and sexual control of women is exactly what enables rape culture to thrive and domestic violence rates to stay abysmally high. It’s patriarchal, white supremacist bullshit that keeps women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and other marginalised groups oppressed. But – and this is a fact many leftists don’t want to grapple with – it also hurts white cis straight men who are denied agency unless they fit these narrow parameters of what it means to be a man.

It has been pointed out numerous times that Yiannopoulos was brought down not by his bigotry but the bigotry of others, whose homophobia was so triggered by what he said about the pederastic paradigm (and I do believe that’s what he was trying to say) that they exiled him from Trumpland. Whether his Lost Boys continue to follow him remains to be seen. Judging from the comments on his Facebook page, I think many will. I also think, as someone who has followed Yiannopoulos’ career since 2009 (which is around the time Penny and I first followed one another on Twitter), that we’ve not seen the last of him. His career has at least six lives left. What the next one manifests as, though, is anyone’s guess.

If Yiannopoulos can’t rehabilitate his image in the alt-right and even mainstream conservatism, someone will surely rise to take his place. As Penny’s article shows, there are plenty of Lost Boys waiting to play Peter Pan. One of them will assume the mantle in due course.

When they do, though, I hope we have a better understanding of who they are and what they’re all about. Because I think understanding the toxic masculinity – and the denial of it – that gave rise to Yiannopoulos and his cult following is important. Besides the obvious “know thy enemy” trope, if we’re ever to successfully deconstruct white heteropatriarchy, we have to know how it harms men too, and also what it can propel them towards. I chose feminism, socialism, and queer theory, opting to burn this shit to the ground. Yiannopoulos, Jacob, and others chose instead to find alternative means of accessing the power and privilege they felt they were denied. That is the more pernicious and dangerous path, one which has undoubtedly led us to where we are today – an era where the progress we’ve collectively made over the past 50 years is in its greatest peril.

We need to think about how we can reach, maybe not these men who are already lost causes, but other boys and men who could become them. And to do that, we need to grapple with toxic masculinity. We need to include it in our analyses and activism.

That doesn’t mean we stop centring women, people of colour, LGBT folks, disabled folks, immigrants, or any other marginalised group. We can’t. That work is too important – more important – and frankly more pressing. Lives are at stake. When you’re in the middle of a war you don’t ask the soldiers to think about how they’ll rehabilitate the enemy after victory. But for those of us who have the currency to spare, we should start examining these questions and considering how to raise principled and purposeful boys into feminist men.

None of this is to excuse any behaviour. “I was just following orders” wasn’t an excuse at Nuremburg, and it isn’t an excuse here. These assholes need to be held to account, full stop. And they cannot be let off the hook. Again, explanations are not excuses. But to not examine how they became who they are is to risk raising the next Milo Yiannopoulos.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a journalist and essayist based in Chicago. He writes about British and American politics and pop culture. His work has appeared at The Independent, The Huffington Post UK, The Daily Dot, and Salon. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan.