On Cheerleaders, Karens, and the American brain virus

The 1960 desegregation protests in the Ninth Ward. The venom was equal for black and white children and their parents.

While our nation has been busily tearing itself apart from incompetence, indifference, conspiracy, squishy fascism, and a total collapse of central leadership, I’ve had the relatively privileged position of reading. A lot. Usually on the porch or in the garden, watching a steady stream of folks pass by and watching the waning use of masks during this pandemic. And I’ve been gravitating to books either written during the mid-century or tracing history through the 20th century. Not as an escape, but as a search for where history rhymes with its present moment. And sometimes when it rhymes it sings.

John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley has sung a few times. It’s a beloved book, but I knew nothing of it when my wife handed it to me from her collection. Late period Steinbeck with a title that sounded close to Tuesdays with Morrie crossed with Marley & Me? Would this be buttery nostalgia of the Sunset Magazine variety? Not so…especially when Steinbeck really gets going, and by the close of the book I’d realized that the one final stop along the way was a dark then as it is now, sixty years later.

The Charley of the title is Steinbeck’s old faithful French bleu poodle, a snaggle-toothed good boy with an increasing case of prostatitis. Steinbeck’s travel method: a GMC camper van dubbed Rocinante, which would have looked very new on the roads of 1960. The journey: Counter-clockwise starting in Sag Harbor Long Island, through the Northern border states, dropping down through his beloved west coast, across the South-West and Texas to Louisiana and back home.

The restored GMC Camper Van that John Steinbeck drove. Hi-tech for 1960.
The restored GMC Camper Van that John Steinbeck drove. Hi-tech for 1960.

It’s an odd book, as Steinbeck’s journey happens in fits and starts. He spends way too long in certain parts of the country — the whole Great Lakes section — and then zips through other states without so much of a howdyadoo. Halfway through the book and he was still in Michigan. I can imagine a modern editor insisting the author be a little more equanimous in his coverage.

I try not to read up on a book until after I finish it, and so found as many have since documented, that Steinbeck took huge helpings of artistic license and went back for seconds and thirds. Like the fact that he took his wife along on some of the trip. Like the fact that he often stayed in much nicer hotels along the way. Like the fact that he was much more ill and depressed than the book suggests. That fans have found retracing the route in the same timeframe is impossible. That his son said that his dad just sat in the camper van and wrote the book without starting the engine. But the book still exists, a creation of Steinbeck’s brain, through which American history circa 1960 drives itself.

Steinbeck’s journey begins in early September, 1960, when Hurricane Donna passes through Sag Harbor and delays his departure, and ends in December. During this time Kennedy beat Nixon in a real squeaker of an election: 49.7% to 49.5% of the vote. Yet Steinbeck never mentions it. He mentions the race, the two candidates, but the result? It’s conspicuous by its absence. (This was one of the highest turnouts for an election in the 20th century, at 64% of the population voting. It’s steadily been declining ever since.)

Steinbeck finds an America demoralized, paranoid, darkened with worry over annihilation, taciturn to the point of rudeness. There is a sickness in this country, as a political reporter friend tells the author.

“If anywhere in your travels you come on a man with guts, mark the place. I want to go to see him. I haven’t seen anything but cowardice and expediency. This used to be a nation of giants. Where have they gone? You can’t defend a nation with a board of directors. That takes men. Where are they?”

This was the torpor that would soon flip from relief into the celebrity-worship of Camelot, the young, hot couple soon to be in charge. You don’t find any hope of that in this book. Instead, you find a man bemoaning the homogeneity of life on the road: “…in the eating places along the roads the food has been clean, tasteless, colorless, and of a complete sameness. It is almost as though the customers had no interest in what they ate as long as it had no character to embarrass them…If this people has so atrophied its taste buds as to find tasteless food not only acceptable but desirable, what of the emotional life of the nation?” (However, Steinbeck agrees America really knows how to make a good breakfast.)

As go America’s menu choices, so goes its political ones. And yet! There is something terrible being whipped up in the kitchen, and Steinbeck sets out to sample the dish.

Once he leaves Texas, a Thanksgiving-timed chapter which burnishes that state’s “hey, we just might secede one of these days” myth, the author heads towards New Orleans, a destination that suddenly seems inevitable, as if this is where he’ll find the heart of darkness that beats in the old South, its arteries stretching out to all four corners. Steinbeck isn’t going for jambalaya in the French Quarter. He’s going to see the integration protests.

When we think about these protests these days, we imagine Little Rock, Arkansas. The iconic Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With sums it up: the tiny black girl dressed in white, between towering authority figures providing escort. The men’s faces are out of frame, the racist graffiti and the tomato stains are not.

Iconic paintings have positive uses: Rockwell provided an image to the growing Civil Rights movement. But they also have negative, unintended ones: an image can suggest a one-time occurrence, especially if we see if enough.

Rockwell would have had to paint dozens and dozens of canvases to fully represent the gnashing, racist rage that continued for years after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, which ruled that separate schools were “inherently unequal.” Six years later, and the protests were still happening wherever a black family wanted to send its child to a public school.

Steinbeck lays out his non-racist credentials, like any white man tends to do as he gears up for ideological battle: he knew a great family in Salinas, the Coopers, and they sure weren’t lazy or ignorant! But weirdly, he says this:

“I am basically unfitted to take sides in the racial conflict,” because of his lack of experience living in the South. And he suspects that “the blight can disappear (in Southern schools) only when there are millions of Coopers.” There’s a possibility that this popular writer recognizes that he is writing for a large white audience, many of who might be racist, but it might just show the privilege of not having to worry about taking a side.

So he heads towards New Orleans. The mental landscape changes. Gas station attendants and other white folks keep confusing his dog for a person. “I thought you had a nigger in there!” they laugh after the poodle shows itself. And this har-de-har joke repeats with a different person in every stop. Steinbeck becomes aware of himself, too, not as the celebrity writer he had become, but as a Yankee with New York license plates. He realizes he better not park anywhere near the protests lest he be confused as a Civil Rights worker or a journalist (or even “a goddamn New York Jew” as one man warns him), which could mean smashed windows and slashed tires.

Because here’s the truth, just as it was then, just as it is today: most of the protestors want their rights to shout and hurl epithets, but most don’t want the ignominy of being identified in the press. The Cheerleaders as they are called, this group or ur-Karens, are the local celebrities. They arrive early, at dawn, long before school starts, take up their place in the ad hoc gauntlet, scream invectives, then disperse. They shop, they return home, they housekeep. Then they return just before the final bell for an afternoon session of racist yelling.

The scene unfolds much like the Rockwell painting: the little girl, all in white. The National Guardsmen, stern, steely. One holds the girl’s hand. And then a composite character, Nellie as he names her, 50-something, dressed in a “coat of imitation fleece and…gold earring,” a short body that is “ample and full-busted,” with a “ferocious smile” and a handful of newspaper clippings.

The image of the news-clippings in her hand is where I started making the connection between 1960 New Orleans and now, in those Trump’d-up rallies ostensibly about re-opening the economy, but which are really an acrid gumbo of conspiracy theory, gun-worship, subsumed racism, and general fear.

“No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut in to cover. But no I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate.”

Television may be more liberal these days in what it considers an obscenity, but it is just as conservative when it comes to homogenizing protests. It’s not hard to find egregious examples of racism and neo-Nazi rhetoric, but cover that and the groups will claim media bias. Self-censorship rules in these instances. (I can also hear an old editor of mine saying “find the heart of the story! Find the emotion!” by which he meant find the acceptable complaint, not the real one.)

But here’s where it really locked in place for me:

“..here was no principle good or bad, no direction. These blowzy women with their little hats and their clippings hungered for attention. They wanted to be admired. They simpered in happy, almost innocent triumph when they were applauded. Theirs was the demented cruelty of ego-centric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heartbreaking. These were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience…these speeches were not spontaneous. They were tried and memorized and carefully rehearsed. This was theater. I watched the intent faces of the listening crowd and they were the faces of an audience. When there was applause, it was for a performer.”

And that is more and more important for the people now who feel alienated by the political process, or alienated by a society that is shifting away from a white male, middle class success story. It gives them some agency to counteract the daily fear.

That’s not to absolve any of the Cheerleaders, but to recognize those similarities: abject fear that their whole society, the whole history of the south, the economic success built upon the bloody backs of slave labor, was coming apart. (They soon figured out ways to stop that.)

California re-open protests
California re-open protests

We’re also seeing that now: a whole service economy based upon $7.25/hour minimum wage jobs, a gig economy sometimes delivering less than that, field workers, immigrant labor, global slavery all down the supply chain. All of this is now coming apart. The desire to go back to work is really a desire to send the slaves back to work: in our meat processing plants, in our hospitals, in all our essential services.

As I write, our city is accelerating towards a Stage 2 re-opening of bars and restaurants, which I have more than enough reason to dread will lead to a Wave 2 of infection. Just like the loudest and the meanest of the desegregation protests sowed doubt in the minds of “regular folk” like Steinbeck, in so much as he saw it as a struggle he didn’t see fit to understand, so have these protests “worked.” Funded by numerous dark money organizers, fueled by social media, Fox News, and decades of poisonous anti-science beliefs, the protests were still very small. But not in the eyes of the media who gave the impression that there was two equal sides to this issue, enough to infect those who wouldn’t wave a Gadsden flag and march maskless in the streets, enough to wonder if maybe we were being too cautious, enough to wonder what it would hurt to just go to happy hour again, order the nachos, and stiff the waitress.

The right have always been good at projecting and telling on themselves, and in this case, weren’t these re-open protests the “crisis actors” Alex Jones used to talk about? Only in this case, because the Right have the business savvy of the successful grifter, crowds volunteered their time and played their roles. Better to be in the streets, on stage, playing the True Freedom Loving Patriot than at home, backstage, as the passive victim of late-capitalism.

The Kennedy-Nixon debates were the first to be televised, and as the story goes, those who listened on radio felt Nixon won. But those who watched it saw Kennedy as presidential. Could it be the Southern protestors were one of the first to realize the power of television and the newsreel? That media would not expose them — instead it would reframe them in the best possible way.

The Nixon-Kennedy debates, extra squishy edition
The Nixon-Kennedy debates, extra squishy edition

Absent both times were the voices that needed to be heard: interviews with African-Americans in the 1950s, interviews with service economy workers today. Like then, we didn’t expect them to have an opinion worth hearing.

In the end Steinbeck drives back to Sag Harbor, his experiences (including a racist hitchhiker) in the South so toxic that the homeward journey isn’t worth a mention. Safety lies ahead for him, and like he learns from a black college student he also meets along the way, the promise of Civil Rights. It would come faster than either of them would think, among all the other pent-up energies just waiting their turns to explode in the ‘60s.

But this is a different time. The poison is everywhere. There is a bit of the Southern ignorance in every state. It has connected similar fearful minds with internet speed. The actors and the script is different. The audience is the man on the throne and the gods of capital. And for now there is no Martin Luther King, Jr., no Rosa Parks, no Malcolm X, no James Baldwin, no Polaris by which to guide ourselves out of the spiral. Just an assortment of viruses and brain worms in a collapsing state.

Writer, filmmaker, photographer, cocktail maker & shaker, film instructor. Host of http://www.funkzonepodcast.com

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