Look to your left, look to your right. Not Me, Us: Why I'm voting for Bernie Sanders for President
I'm ready to love somebody I don't know.
My brain is throbbing---it throbs a lot, these days, its soft jelly bouncing around the hard walls of my skull---and I keep trying to write this, I keep trying to say this, but it’s been so hard because...well, because all of this is so hard.
It’s hard to wake up when my dreams thrash me awake at night; it’s hard to get out of bed when inexplicable anxiety seized my body; it’s hard to voice my thoughts when I live in abject terror that my words might make someone hate me; it’s hard to work on something when I’m racked with guilt over the other things I haven’t worked on; it’s hard to be kind when I know it makes some people uncomfortable but it’s hard to be tough when I know I can be wrong and blinded by privilege.
It’s weird, really---in some ways, my life has never been better. I have a wonderful, loving partner. I have an incredibly rewarding job that pays me, for the first time in my life, a liveable wage with decent healthcare benefits. (Sadly, this doesn’t mean I’ve been able to save much yet, just that I’ve been able to make a dent in my long standing debts.) I have kind, forgiving, compassionate friends. I love and am loved, and nothing matters more than that.
A present of privilege cannot erase a past of precarity; while I don’t have much mental memory of the financial struggles of my immigrant childhood (trauma will do that to you), the pain and stress and guilt of that formative time rumbles deeply in my bones. Every time my boss shoots me an ambiguous look, I immediately think I’m going to be fired and my homeless; every time a friend calls me out for mistakes I’ve made, I think I’ve alienated everyone I care about; every time I get a voicemail from my Mom I think I’ve somehow gotten a long forgotten hospital bill that will ruin my family.
If I am not afraid of the future, then I am endlessly relitigating my past---my brain twists and re-examines every breakup, everytime I said something that made a girl uncomfortable, everytime I offended someone, everytime I screwed up or fucked up or made a mistake. My past makes me fear my future, and my future is paralyzed by my past.
All of this, all of this, all of this---is the result of generations and generations and generations of trauma and oppression. I can’t speak fully to this, because frankly, my parents are probably going to read this and probably going to get mad, though I don’t think this is an indictment of them---it’s an indictment of a system. It’s an indictment of a world that forced a young, smart girl in Poland to drop out of school and support her family, it’s an indictment of a system that made a young father spend most of his hours doing brutal manual labor and left his young, insanely stressed wife alone at home with two young kids in an alien country, it’s an indictment of a whole complex litany of factors that I can’t begin to comprehend or explain, except to say this:
One of my earliest memories is, as a young boy, barely 8 or 9, sitting in a bare room and staring intensely at a cold blue bottle of Windex. I was young and I knew little, but I knew this:
1. My family was in pain, deep, wild, crazy, intense, shouting, bone clenching, angry, pain.
2. This was entirely my fault.
3. And most importantly, drinking this blue bottle would burn through my insides, and maybe, just maybe, it would end their pain.
I...I have never written this down, before, and my hands are shaking as I’m writing this. My whole body is just trembling, quaking, Jesus, fuck, this is scary.
But. It. Is. Important. For. Me. To. Finish.
Obviously---I didn’t drink the bottle, and I have felt so much guilt for it. There was a time when I believed this guilt, believed it in my head, walked around in the world agreeing with the sentiment that the people I love would be better off I had died.
The good news is that I don’t believe this anymore.
The bad news is that my body still does.
In some ways, this contradiction---this war between the head and the heart---is more painful than a congruence of self-loathing. When you believe in your heart you should be dead, and you believe in your head you should be dead, there’s an odd sense of alignment---the world sucks, but it sucks in a way that makes sense.
But when your heart wants you to die but your brain does not, man, that shit makes no sense at all. I’ve spent a lot of the last few years wrestling with this dysphoria, trying everything to make things make sense---I drank recklessly, I dated relentlessly, I tried to be super healthy and I tried to be super unhealthy. The irony of it all is that I kept just barely avoiding the Reaper; I had a heart attack at 26, I collapsed on a plane at 29, I fell into a horrifying car wreck at 30. It was like the world itself reflected my internal struggle, like the Universe, like my brain and my heart, could not decide whether I should live or I should die.
As my brain waged war on my heart---throwing meditation, healthy cooking, therapy, sleep, friendship at it, in an attempt to sway it---it made some progress, in fits and starts. The moments I felt genuine, unfiltered joy are so rare that I can picture them clearly---walking with my beloved friends in the windy streets of Essouria, running through the streets of New York with a former flame, drinking beers with an old college buddy and his love, drunkenly knocking golf balls around with my best friend to celebrate the wedding of another close friend, pouring through notes of kindness and love from friends around the world, and of course, every waterfall dance, every candle-lit stretching routine, every tender, loving moment with my ikegai.
I wish I could tell you a story of redemption and healing and happy skies ahead, but that story wouldn’t be true---you do not erase generations of trauma with a few years of effort. Some days are amazing; some days, I think of that blue bottle. Even on days that my head feels clear and my heart fulls feel, I grieve for the Armand that could have been. I weep for the child who was beat up and taunted in Middle School because he didn’t know the right middle class social cues; I sob for the kid who hit himself in High School Chemistry because he thought failing the class meant failing his family; I mourn the adult who alienated his friends by being so swallowed by his anxiety that he was unreliable, hurt women by being so desperate for their affection that he creeped them out and made them feel uncomfortable, who disappointed so many who put their faith in him for not delivering the things he promised.
Grief without action is selfish, but action without hope is impossible.
And for a long, long, long time...hope was hard to find. Even as I made my own immediate circumstances better, I felt so hopeless about being unable to change my past or to make progress in the future---the world is so big, and I am such a small, broken little piece in the vast, uncaring darkness. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve laid awake, just staring at my girlfriend sleeping next to me, and wishing so desperately that she and others before her could’ve met an Armand whose brain wasn’t riddled with the worms of poverty and intergenerational trauma.
She can’t meet that Armand, of course---you cannot change the past.
But as one of those sleepless nights stretched into morning, I watched a video---Bernie Sanders had just launched his 2020 effort, and...I don’t know.
My entire essay has been building to this, polls are going to close soon anyway and no one will read this before their votes are cast, but goddamit, I just...don’t...know.
How do you convey that spark in a dark heart? How do you explain the flicker of strength flowing into aching muscles? How do you put into words, on digital paper, the visceral, feeling that for once, for fucking once, you are heard and you belong?
There’s a speech that Killer Mike gave, supporting Bernie, that began with a James Baldwin quote.
“You asked my father to wait. My brother to wait. My uncle to wait. How long must I wait on freedom? How long must I wait on rights, and equality, and liberty?”
For a long time that argument, that sentiment, felt so true, so overwhelming, and yet I could not comprehend it---I am a white, middle class, college educated man living in one of the richest regions in the world. How could Baldwin’s words about the black struggle feel so true to me---and why did they feel like he was speaking to something deep inside me, when it seemed so different from the real life I experience everyday, the life most of my peers seem to live?
Bernie Sanders and Killer Mike know the answer to that question. Mike continues,
“And as a black child, that resonated with me, because I knew I’d been denied, and I personalized that. But as I grew, I started to understand….
Poor white people have been denied.
Women have been denied.
Gays and lesbians, transgender people, been denied.
Immigrant children been denied.
Everybody---outside that 1% has been denied.”
And God---God, that is it.
My struggle is not the same as that of a woman, or an LGBT person, or a black person---my white male body shields me from so much unfairness in this world. But while for many, the privileges of whiteness are enough to bargain away the right to a decent life, I reject this deal. I have tried so long to justify my progressiveness as a form of nobless oblige, to argue that I fight for others as a way of giving back---but it never felt true, it always felt hollow.
This is the truth---while my oppression and struggle is not the same as the oppression and struggle of others, it is still part of it. Whites: we will not bring black and brown equality as an act of charity; we will win it together, putting our bodies on the line with theirs. Men: we will not build a world where women have the same agency and opportunity as men by assembling binders of women and patting ourselves on the back for our feminism; we will win it together, by immersing themselves in their struggle as they do with ours.
The struggle for economic justice is not in tension with the struggle for social justice; they are inextricably woven together, and one cannot succeed without the other. We will not lift the poor from their misery until every LGBT person can work a job without being afraid of being fired for who they love or who they are; we will not create an equal world for women by swapping some male CEOs for female ones while their female housekeepers and maids struggle to put food on the table.
My pain is not the only thing that’s a product of a larger, interconnected system and past; so, too, is my hope.
I support Bernie Sanders not because of the man but because of the movement; his campaign gives me hope because it’s not about him, it’s about us. That’s why I applied for, and fought hard for, a job on his campaign a few months ago. I didn’t get it, and that’s okay---the person they hired instead is frankly far better at the job than I ever could’ve been. But I wanted to mention it because I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wrote in that letter over the past few days. It’s interesting both what has changed and what has not:
“I am the son of Polish refugees born into deep poverty - there is no campaign, there is no movement, there is no voice on our national political stage that speaks as deeply and powerfully to the core, structural failings of our rigged economic system than yours. When I heard Bernie speak on a debate stage about his struggling Polish father, and how in awe he would’ve been at how far his son had come in America, my entire body shuddered. My life, which began in a cramped and shabby apartment stuffed to the brim with starving immigrant families like mine and continues in a shiny, overpriced city stuffed with engineers and entrepreneurs, embodies both the awful struggles this country can impose on its most vulnerable and the enormous opportunities it can offer when we stand up together and fight for justice.”
I believe every word of that letter, still today, but if I could write it again now I would tell a story much larger than my own. I would tell the story of my exhausted immigrant mom, studying late at night after spending long days running a household, hoping to build a better life for a child she didn’t understand but loved anyway. I would tell the story of my friend from TJ MAXX, a man whose creative brain should be pumping out Oscars but due to the inequities of race and class is spinning inside the gray hull of a FedEx truck. I would tell the story of my brother, whose looks and charm far exceed mine but whose poverty stressed childhood constantly weighs on his love for himself. I would tell the story of a girl I once dated, whose rapist roams free while her trauma imprisons her nightly.
The first step to my liberation is to understand that my pain wasn’t solely my responsibility; the second one was to understand that neither was its cure.
We suffer together, we rise together.
“So I want you to take a few seconds to look to your left and look to your right. Look to your neighbor and say, neighbor, the time is now.”
All of us, or none of us.
“There are more of us. We are stronger---we will wait no longer. The time is now. When you go to that booth next year, I need you to carry in that booth the memory of this room:
We are together---we are united.”
Our planet is on fire; our schools are crumbling; our kids are getting shot; the struggle is too big for me to wallow in the narcissism of self loathing, to pretend that I am special in my awfulness. The answer to a self hating ego is not a self worshipping one---it is ego death, the surrender of the desire to be a special snowflake and the acceptance that, for good or for ill, we are all just people, doing our best, and people doing their best do their best together.
And no, I am not trying to talk down the revolution, I am not trying to hide the radicalism---I know this pitch sounds, in some way, like a less eloquent and more angry version of Obama. That’s not entirely an accident---I think Bernie Sanders is less a rebuke of Obama and more a continuation, because Obama and Bernie both build on a long American tradition of Revolution.
As much as I personally find a lot to like about Mayor Pete Buttigieg, one thing that always irked me about him is that he talked about the American people not being ready for a revolution, as if revolution was somehow a new and alien concept in American tradition. This country was founded by the American Revolution; much like all revolutions, it was guided by a set of ideals that it fell short of. Revolutionary spirit has always been in our blood---Black and white indentured servants alike rose up together in Bacon’s Rebellion in Jamestown, gay men and women bled together fighting for LGBT rights in Stonewall, Native Americans and the descendants of those who colonized them held together to to defend the sacred ground of Standing Rock.
The America I know is not afraid of revolution; it cannot wait for it. Senator Bernard Sanders is a revolutionary not because he rejects the great traditions of America but because he embraces them.
Nor does Sanders’ movement reject the Democratic Party; if anything, it represents its highest ideals and proudest traditions.
When we are told that treating people with decency and protecting their rights is unamerican, Sanders, understands, as Jimmy Carter does, that “America did not invent human rights...human rights invented America.”
When we are told that we have no obligation to each other and no expectation from each other, he understands, as Bill Clinton does, how untrue that is, because “‘we’re all in this together is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’”
And when we are told that hoping for a radically better future is a false hope, he understands, as Barack Obama does, that “in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”
There is nothing more Democratic, more American, than this simple idea: I am part of everyone that has come before me and everyone I have ever met; while I’m responsible for my own flaws I am also responsible for the flaws of everyone else---thankfully, while I’m responsible for my own success I am also responsible for the success of everyone else.
We share our defeats but we also share our victories, which makes this moment even more urgent.
“Our time is right now. We will not wait four more years. We will not wait twenty more years. We will not wait two more Presidents. We will not wait three more Presidents.
The time is now.”
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men---whether they be a petite black girl staring at a blue hospital wall in Georgia or a chubby white boy staring at a blue bottle in California---are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, whether that Creator is Jesus Christ or Allah or simply the beautiful randomness of the universe with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It’s time to dissolve the political bands which have connected us with an elite that cares nothing for us, and connect them again to each other. It’s time to assume the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle us.
A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that we declare this now:
“The time is not in the future. The time is not some abstract time.
The time is not something that might be; the time ain’t something that could be; the time ain’t nothing that should be, that would be; it ain’t tomorrow, it ain’t the day after, it ain’t coming next week, the time is now.
The time is now.
The time is now.
The time is now.”
My brain is throbbing, but so is my heart---it beats for a better world, it pulses with the hope of a nation. I can’t say that I am not afraid---in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared in my life. But I have love and I have hope and I have courage, all because I have all of you.
Listen—I love you. Whether you are my friend or my lover or someone I have never met. I love you because you are a human doing their best; I love you because you are a person, just like me, who has fears and hopes and dreams. And because I love you, I will fight for you.
As Bernie put it:
“Take a look around you. And find someone...you don’t know. Maybe somebody who doesn’t look kinda like you. Are you willing to fight for that person as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?”
I, along with millions of others, am prepared to fight for someone I don’t know, because I am someone they don’t know.
Because this is not about this is not about me. This about us.
That’s why I’m closing this computer and running off to vote for Bernie Sanders today, and why I dream that you will join me.
Not for me.
Because God, I fucking love us.