The Essay Portion of the Election Part II
In the first part of this essay I talked about Us. In this part I talk about Them — and Me.
Two years ago I quit my full-time, high-profile media job because of my boss. He was the fourth and worst boss I had had in the 4 1/2 years I was at a public broadcasting station you’ve all heard of. He strutted around with the swagger of a schoolyard bully, demeaning everyone around him with his coarse language, crude jokes, and sexist comments. He micromanaged his workers — all highly qualified, brilliant professionals who had been successfully doing their jobs for years — to the point of tears, bragged about his vindictive and deceitful behavior during meetings, denied me a long-promised promotion to a supervisory position in favor of someone much younger and less knowledgeable in a move that not only humiliated me but everyone else as well (he said that if it were up to him everyone who worked for him would be in their 20s), and wrote evaluations that were withering and pejorative in their criticism. He told me that he considered my “knowledge and experience to be a liability” and deleted the database I had spent three years building without consulting me (which would have saved him a lot of trouble, since the people tasked with creating the new database duplicated many of my efforts, but he was determined to take away any idea that the work I had been doing for the company — which I had done virtually for free during literally hundreds of hours of uncompensated overtime — had any value). I was not the only one who hit the required numbers that represented the metrics for success in this field (ratings, fundraising goals, connection to the community), but he didn’t care about that; his only metric for success was subservience to him. He actually bragged about the number of complaints lodged against him to Human Resources. He could do this with impunity because apparently he was acting exactly the way his superiors wanted him to act. He’s still there.
I’m not there, because I made the calculation that any workplace managed by someone that volatile and unhinged would not be stable enough to see me through retirement. So, a week before I turned 53, I walked away from the place that was supposed to be the peak of my career, one of the most coveted jobs in my admittedly niche and not particularly high-paying field.
One thing I forgot to mention is that many people found this guy charming. I will never understand this. Strong, intelligent women would laugh girlishly at his crude, sexist, arrogant jokes during meetings. People from other departments who didn’t work directly under him thought he was an improvement over our previous boss, which he most certainly was not. (Many of these same people would complain about him bitterly when he wasn’t around.) What really upset me, in fact, was witnessing the way he treated others; I certainly did not get the worst of it. I was in a relatively privileged position, but I could not stand working for someone so sadistic. The environment was utterly toxic.
In any case, what I discovered when I left that job and resumed my previous life as a freelancer is that what had happened to my former workplace had happened to everyone’s workplace. Immature, bullying managers who deliberately created toxic environments for their workers seemed to have become the new norm. Making workers unhappy and anxious has seemingly become more important than making them productive. No matter how long and faithfully they have worked for their company or added to its value, the employees are constantly reminded that they’re easily replaceable, that their individual contribution to the company is meaningless, and if you imagined they would keep their promises they made during those fleeting moments when they realize they actually do need you, you’re a sucker who should just know that it was a lie.
And now what’s happened to the American workplace has happened to America itself. Our new president is a charming bully. (My old boss resembles Chris Christie more than Trump, but it’s the same basic archetype.) And once again I am feeling alone and facing a dilemma. Why do all these supposedly straight-arrow, salt-of-the-earth residents of the heartland see their savior when all I see is a disgusting phony? And to what extent am I enabling him by staying in this country?
The latter is really the key question here. When we look back at those German citizens who stayed in the country after 1933, we see the bad guys. Those who tried to resist and fight the Nazis from within are largely forgotten; yes, there were some noble martyrs, but the reality is that the Nazis were defeated from without, not from within. If I had more clout and power and money then maybe I could stay and try to be an Oskar Schindler for the millions facing persecution and deportation; but I don’t have that kind of power. I am basically living off the fat of the land right now, and owe my survival to the generosity and indulgence of a few kind souls and institutions who think that my knowledge and experience actually is worth just enough to keep me off the streets. But those kind souls and institutions are themselves living off the fat of the land, plying their artistic and intellectual endeavors for a society that is about to pull the rug out from underneath them. Within a year or two they may well find themselves in the same boat that I’m in — and then what? All of us intellectual liberals fighting like rats over the last few scraps of opportunities to maintain a living. It’ll be like those Iron Curtain countries in the 60s and 70s when trained professionals like doctors and physicists had to work as house painters and sanitation workers — and they soon might not get even those jobs if they’ve ever expressed anti-Trump sentiments on the Internet.
Maybe it won’t be like that; I don’t know. But it’s going to be bad, and it won’t just be “them” who suffer. I can’t stand all the posts I see trying to be positive and saying “we’ll get through this.” Even if you do, there will be millions of people who won’t. And remember that a large reason that Trump won is that the people who voted for him hate us much more virulently than we hate them. They see us laughing at them, and they want blood. They won’t care if the Internet is used to blacklist people, or if the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are torn down to make way for condos and a Wal-Mart, or if all street protesters are mowed down and we have a Tiananmen Square every day. They just don’t care.
And to those who try to find solace in Trump’s comments that make him seem not as bad as all that, like his keeping parts of the ACA, I’ve got news for you. Trump is just a puppet now, like Bush was. Nothing he says matters at this point. It’s all about his staff and his cabinet, and they’re your worst nightmare.
So here’s my question, everyone: what should I do? I can barely support myself at this point: I’m no use to the movement, and by staying I think I’ll just be helping to normalize the situation, since I’ll just be running around teaching cello lessons and broadcasting Mendelssohn symphonies as if any of that matters.
Last Wednesday I was in the Bronx, giving a fourteen-year-old Dominican girl her first private lesson. As we played Ode to Joy together I started tearing up. This is exactly the kind of activity and cultural exchange that is being taken away from us. (You will respond: see, James, that’s why you should stay. But there are many cello teachers out there.)
Not that I have any clear idea where to go. Volunteering for that one-way trip to Mars might be the best option.
In the past two years I have spent many hours second-guessing my decision to leave my last full-time job. But then it always comes back to: I just could not work for that boss. Maybe that’s my own failing, but it simply did not seem possible; homelessness still seems like the better option. And now I feel: I just cannot countenance a Trump presidency. Maybe it’s my own history of being bullied as a kid; I don’t know. I was bullied a lot, often brutally, and I had no support from any grownups about this, because there were no grownups around to support me. No one’s fault, but that’s the way it was. And now I feel profoundly alone. I’m white, middle-aged, without a formal education, and not a part of Trump nation. I suppose it was my own choice to be underemployed. I have nowhere to go; I’m not anybody’s cause. I want to be useful. But the bullies have won, the world is run by them now, and there’s no escape.