“You’ve come to the right place, Mr. Mencken.”
Disclaimer: None of this ever really happened.
But then, La Mesa did burn on national television…
O’Brien: Ah, Mr. Mencken. San Diego Reader, SD on the QT: Almost Factual News, isn’t it? Come in, sit down.
Walter Mencken: Thank you.
O’B: Now, what seems to be the trouble?
WM: I think someone is stalking me.
O’B: Stalking you.
WM: It sounds ridiculous, I know. But for the past month, I’ve been receiving odd messages. Sometimes texts from unknown numbers. Sometimes tweets from accounts that have numbers instead of names. Sometimes emails. And lately, even actual postcards.
O’B: And these messages – what do they say?
WM: “You are racist.”
O’B: And, using just one word, how does that make you feel?
WM: What? I’m being stalked! How do you think it makes me feel?
O’B: You tell me.
WM: Okay, fine. Unsafe.
O’B: Very good.
WM: Good? How on earth is that good?
O’B: Because it’s only when you’re in a state of disequilibrium — or “unsafe,” as you choose to call it — that you can really accept the possibility — even the necessity — of change.
WM: Change? What are you talking about? The only change I’m interested in is the stopping of these messages.
O’B: And that’s precisely why I’ve been sending them. Because you’re not yet interested in meaningful change.
WM: I’d call not being stalked pretty meaningf — wait. You’ve been sending them?
O’B: Sit back down, Mr. Mencken. There’s a good fellow. Now I want you think for a moment, about that one message: ‘You are racist.’ Not, ‘You have racist opinions,’ not ‘You have committed racist acts,’ not ‘You have said racist things,’ not even the tantalizingly similar, ‘You are a racist,’ as if you were merely an example of a type. After all, as Hamlet noted, all moods, forms, and shapes of racism are but actions that a man might play, and you know all about that sort of ‘just kidding’ slipperiness, don’t you? Always ready to play the ‘just kidding’ card and point to that ‘Almost Factual News’ disclaimer on your little page in the Reader. But ‘You are racist,’ that gets at that within which passeth show, hm? Those three little words create an identity between ‘you’ and ‘racist,’ a deeply problematic identity. Tell me, have you seen that particular formulation anywhere else recently?
WM: This is crazy.
Witnesses to history.
O’B: I don’t think now is the moment to start tossing around slurs against the mentally ill.
WM: Fine. Yes. It’s on one of the slides from the White Privilege Powerpoint presented to San Diego Unified teachers this year. They got asked for a one-word reaction as well.
O’B: Now we’re getting somewhere.
WM: No, we’re not. For starters, I’m not a teacher.
O’B: Oh, but you are, Mr. Mencken. We’re all teachers, in our own little way. All shaping the next generation by our words and actions, all building a future that is either better or worse. Some of us even have newspaper columns to help with our teaching. A platform from which to speak. You will protest, no doubt, that kids today don’t read, and that they certainly don’t read newspapers. But of course, some of your work shows up online, and the internet is forever, at least for now. You never know who might stumble across one of your little articles. And besides, we pride ourselves on being thorough.
WM: We? Who is we?
O’B: The authorities, Mr. Mencken. The people you came to for help. And help you we shall. I want you to look at a photograph for me. Do you recognize it?
WM: I ought to. I took it. How did you…
O’B: I think you’ll find that is not a fruitful approach.
WM: … Yes. It’s from the La Mesa riot back in May.
“Don’t think of it as torture. Think of it as exercise — stretches for your soul. No pain, no gain.”
O’B: The La Mesa what?
WM: Right. The protest that turned into a riot.
O’B: Protest has many forms, Mr. Mencken. It seems it’s my turn to be a teacher. Look at the photo. Tell me what you see.
WM: A mostly peaceful protest.
O’B: I don’t know what’s more concerning — your sad attempt at humor, or the fact that you think it is somehow appropriate right now.
WM: I see three rio…protesters, right after they put an incendiary device in a city vehicle, turning pointless destruction into a photo op.
WM: They set a fire department vehicle on fire, which you have to admit is a little bit funny. And also pointless, if what you’re protesting is police brutality.
O’B: Perhaps. But when you consider how fire department and ambulance response times vary according to neighborhood demographics, you may begin to see that police brutality is merely one symptom of a disease that is very much systemic. They also set fire to a Vons delivery truck. Do I really need to tell you about food deserts in poorer neighborhoods? It’s the wisdom of crowds, Mr. Mencken. Even if they didn’t know what they were doing, they knew what they were doing.
WM: They smashed up the library, too. Are books the problem?
O’B: : That very much depends on which books, and who is writing them.
WM: Here’s one: 1984. The people in that one had concerns about a book as well. Full of dangerous ideas that challenged the prevailing orthodoxy.
O’B: Yes, 1984. A book written by George Orwell, who pretended to be a friend to the poor even as he savaged the one real force in this world capable of smashing the capitalist regime that creates the poor. A man who denounced communist propaganda but wrote a defense of P.G. Wodehouse, a British dandy who broadcasted from Germany during the war. Not a good look these days. Need I remind you that Antifa stands for anti-fascist?
WM: That’s not fair –
O’B: Neither is life, as the haves are forever telling the have nots. But we’re doing what we can to change all that. That’s why the teachers at San Diego Unified are looking at slides that explain how White Privilege is both a weightless knapsack and a weapon.
WM: Gotta say, a weightless knapsack sounds like a lousy weapon.
O’B: I think I see now. Your silly jibes are a defensive reaction, an expression of White Fragility. The conversation makes you uncomfortable, so you attempt to make a joke out of it. But no one is laughing, Mr. Mencken. Just like no one laughed at your story about the statues. You thought you were being silly, exaggerating to make a point. But they will come down, all of them. They must, if we are to be freed from the tyranny of the past and its normalization of white racial identity. The way that white people’s customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups are compared.
WM: I thought white people didn’t have culture. Appropriation and all that.
O’B: I know you don’t mean that. I read your story about the district’s new policy on subject mastery. It wasn’t amusing in the slightest, but it was instructive. It showed us that You Are Racist. That’s why we started sending you the postcards, which were the beginning of your education. Deep down, you knew those cards were telling the truth. That’s why you couldn’t ignore them. That’s why you came to us. And now, if you’ll kindly step this way...
WM: Wait, what? Help!
O’B: Now then, let’s try this again. Here is another picture from the La Mesa protest in May. Tell me what you see.
WM: I see a bank on fire in a small town that didn’t know how to deal with a massive protest that used a dumb cop’s shove as a flashpoint for out-of-towners outraged over George Floyd. No, wait! I see…a blow against income inequality, which helps create a permanent underclass that can be safely dismissed for racist reasons by those in power. Or, or, wait a second! I see…protest against systemic racism embedded in lending practices that prevent minorities from buying homes and starting small businesses! No? Wait! I see…the first step toward dismantling capitalism itself, a deeply racist system which concentrates wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, almost invariably white, at least in this country, at the expense of and through the exploitation of the poor, who are sometimes white, but never mind them, because they are still fundamentally privileged by the color of their skin.
O’B: You’re trying too hard, Mencken. You know why? Because you don’t believe any of it. You just want to guess what I’m thinking, so that the pain will stop. But remember the slides from San Diego Unified. There is always discomfort when confronting your own privilege. You must learn to welcome it. As DiAngelo teaches us, “Niceness will not get racism on the table when everyone wants it off.” Let’s take the dial up to 60 this time, shall we? I really am looking forward to seeing what you come up with in the new year.