I’ve been to the front, and I bring word.
I sat next to Red America. She wasn’t who I thought she was,
and she was talking to me, and she was wearing a pink sweater,
and we sang a nursery rhyme.
Everything she said was propaganda, wrapped in a glow of “forbidden truth.” None of it was forbidden. None of it was secret.
None of it was truth.
I’m going to tell you some things. Not because I want to disseminate this misinformation, but because it’s out there, and for a lot of people, this is their truth. Understand, I’ve been beside myself, turning this experience over in my mind. I’d love to hand it over to you with the moral closure and clarity of an after-school special, but I don’t have the perspective yet.
All I can do is tell you what happened.
My two-year-old daughter and I made our way through check-in, airport security, and to our gate, weathering only three breakdowns, one of which was mine. We pre-boarded, found our seats, stuffed our stuff, and overhead compartmentalized. We sat for a moment. She experimented with the bounce capacity of her seat.
We got up to use the restroom, and when we returned, the window seat in our row had been filled by a middle-aged, blonde woman. Pleasant face, she said hello.
My daughter was getting fidgety before take-off, so I made a subtle apology to our row-mate. I gave her one of those looks that says, “I have a toddler, she’s a good kid, but yes she exists, so I hope that’s not a thing for you.” The woman was cool about it, said she’d just come from helping her friend with her little kids, and she was used to it, she liked kids. I felt very lucky that she was my row neighbor. We talked lightly about kid stuff for awhile, then we took off.
Once the air terrain and the toddler energy smoothed out, I looked over and noticed the book our row-mate was reading (we’ll call her “Lee” from here on). I’m not going to print the name of the book, because I don’t want to give it any publicity, but I will say it involved the words “secret societies.” This clued me in that Lee had leanings either towards the fringe Right or the fringe Left. The two sides meet and overlap on certain conspiratorial subjects. So of course, being a chronically curious type, and also an “X-Files” fan, I had to ask her about a book with a title like that.
She smiled, and tucked her hair behind an ear. She was pleased to talk about it, and though she was reverent about the author, she gave a vague answer, saying it was about “a lot of things.” She said if I really wanted to know, she would tell me, but she could talk about this stuff forever, fair warning. We had 2 ½ hours, and the baby was behaving, so I was down. I asked her to tell me. I was expecting a nutty jaunt down the UFO, or Bigfoot, or paranormal rabbit hole, maybe a little “Hollow Earth Theory.” That isn’t what I got.
She closed the book, pointed to the cover, and leaned in closer. She said that the book uncovers the way “secret cultic societies control the media,” to sway mass opinion and knowledge. I’ve heard this before, and certainly it is fact that corporations have manipulated media to sway mass opinions – the most notable to my mind, is the cigarette lobby, casting smokes as being sexy, fun, and even healthy, for decades until science prevailed. But it wasn’t a mere marketing thing for her, Lee jumped onto a subject I never saw coming: The Sandy Hook school massacre.
I made a confused face when she said that – which prompted her to explained that the Sandy Hook mass shooting was a faked stunt, created by the government, in order to whip up public support for gun control. That nobody was killed, and that the school was fake.
Now I knew, fringe Right for sure.
I didn’t respond, because I was hit with two conflicting emotions. On the one hand I was horrified about the callous dismissal of the deaths of children, on the other hand, I had an impulse to laugh at the madness of the theory. This clash of horror on the verge of delirium, would last for the rest of the flight.
By now, in the brand new Trump era, I’ve heard several stories of Lefties and Righties getting stuck together on plane flights, and the twitter rants which ensue, or public shout-downs. I always thought that if I were in one of those situations I would take the bull (shit) by the horns, and do a beat-down for the blue states. But this was not a public show of force, I did not feel assaulted, deliberately or personally – just appalled.
She went on to talk about how glad she was that Trump had been elected.
“I mean, I wasn’t like, that into him, but as a Libertarian I don’t want anyone taking guns away. I mean most of the guns taken away wouldn’t be from criminals anyway.”
Lee talked about two other massacres, Pulse nightclub, and the Boston bombing. Both stunts. Nobody died. All the people at the nightclub in Florida were actors, how do we know? Most of them had IMDB pages. Proof.
She said that we don’t need the media to tell us what happens at these things.
“Why should we trust one reporter, when there are hundreds of people talking about it on YouTube?”
These “reporters” are, according to her, of equal or greater value, substantively, than the press, since the press is biased towards the left. According to her.
I realized this was not going to be a conversation, this would be an overview lecture on post-truth America. She continued, as the eye of her conspiratorial lens dilated, internationally.
Lee feels we should deport all immigrants, close all the borders, and stop helping other countries altogether. The conversation turned to Syria. I said, “It’s a very complex, and tragic thing.”
She was passively unsympathetic to the plight of the people, just like she was about the domestic shootings, almost as if there were no civilian casualties, it was just another vast game of intrigue.
This was a moment where I could’ve taken a political stand. I could’ve argued with this woman, over policy, and history, and basic human decency, but I asked myself if this was a teachable moment – I read her – these theories were her bedrock. She had already told me that, by profession, she was the editor of a particular Libertarian magazine, so she considered it her job to cultivate these conspiratorial versions of everything. She was not confrontational, she felt that she was teaching me, and I recognized that was true, horrid though it was, and that I was about to learn a lot about the world beyond my sphere.
I decided not to give any opinions for the duration of the flight.
I decided to listen. No matter what.
“Ok, so my theory on Syria, well, a lot of people don’t like it.”
She told me that the “real story” is that ISIS is involved, also America, but Russia is innocent in all this. She said that Hillary Clinton wanted war with Russia, which Trump is trying not to do, and that peace with Putin was the most important thing. She said that Russia is in a bad way right now, the people are suffering, and Putin is a great man with whom we should be allied. She said this with a tone that this was obvious.
She also mentioned that when she brings this up around her family, they…
“...shut me down, they don’t let me talk about this stuff because they were all for Hillary, but don’t they know she just wanted to start WWIII? I mean c’mon.”
“Mm hmm,” I said.
For a moment, I got a bigger picture on Lee. She was the outsider in her family. The more you listen, the more you learn about the teller, and why they need to believe what they need to believe. She wants some truth in a world that is changing and is making less and less sense with the way she was raised. She does not want to feel the pain of America’s domestic failures against its own people, so she lives in a mental space where those failures don’t exist, they’re all conspiracies, dictated by mysterious dark forces.
Instinctively, I felt for her, but my empathy would soon freeze again.
I continued, “But what about all the people who are dying? Families?”
She didn’t brush off the question, so much as she brushed off the condition of the people as being an actual tragedy. She said the Syrian refugees are “not all Syrian,” that the true reason for the existence of refugees (I realized she was referring to ALL refugees in the world, as a block) from anywhere, into Europe and/or America, is to overtake white populations. To render extinct the “white race,” by people who would come to their countries and “outbreed” them, to bring about the White Genocide.
I didn’t breathe for a few seconds. I was looking at a White Nationalist. A real one.
I had a gut reaction to protect my daughter. I put my arm around her tiny shoulders, and looked down at her. She was obliviously coloring on a napkin and singing to herself. I was glad she wasn’t old enough to understand this conversation going on, literally, above her head.
Several times during the flight, Lee pointed out how beautiful my daughter is. Several times. My multi MULTI-racial daughter. And she said this to my face, surrounded in voluminous Afro hair, my brown skin, and my scarf with Sanskrit and Buddhist imagery on it. It did not occur to her that I am everything she is lecturing against. She could not see the people in front of her.
Back to the lecture….
Lee went on with talk about percentages and figures relating to American racial demographics, and how whites would be outnumbered soon, how this should not be allowed to happen in the white, Christian nations, like America, and European countries.
Her body language was open across the middle seat, and she was leaning in, like we were having girl-talk about sex positions. She knew that her words were kindling, and didn’t want to start a fire with other passengers, but she was just so pleased to have found someone who she thought was a confidant (I was praying nobody heard her, and thought I was complicit.). At this point I took out a blank, lined, book, and starting taking notes. She was pleased for me to do so, as she felt she was bestowing knowledge. I told her I wanted to look up some of this stuff when I got home, because it was so interesting and I’d never heard it before (thankfully she was unfamiliar with dry sarcasm). I had my pen at the ready, waiting for her to drop the white supremacy agenda, the big plan, so I could report back – but there was no revelation, beyond further and further depths of regurgitated bigotry.
She went back to Syria.
“Want to know the real reason for the fighting, altogether?”
Of course I wanted to know. Let’s go all the way down the rabbit hole.
“Sure, what is it?”
“Ok well, a lot of people get offended by this...” A thing she no longer had to say to me.
She explained that it all had to do with the grand Zionist plan of Israeli expansion. That it’s truly the Israeli government, working with America to expand Israel through Syria.
I asked her to elaborate.
She began to talk about the “true intent of the Jewish people.”
I’ve been around anti-Semitic talk before, because most people don’t know I have any Jewish heritage. I’ve heard a lot of it, actually, but it was passive and tasteless, nothing like this. It’s always been an ethical choice, for me, when to step in and correct someone, because it involves “outing” something that isn’t obvious about myself, “dropping the J-bomb” as I’ve referred to it, and frankly, that can be dangerous. Certainly, in this situation, it was getting harder to honor my self-imposed oath of silent learning, but this day, I chose to listen. I was not going to change her heart in one awkward plane flight.
She went on to say that the Jews run all of the banks and industries (an old conspiracy stand-by).
I said, “like… you mean all Jewish people?”
She said that 80-90% of American Jews have no idea what their religion really stands for, what it really means, and what the “Jews who run things” are actually trying to do.
In one of my few attempts to interject a pivot on perspective, I mentioned that all religions came from ancient texts, and all ancient texts say weird things, and modern followers of those religions leave certain parts to history – like Christianity abandoning the acceptance of slavery. This didn’t seem to get anywhere, because she was convinced this did not apply to Jews. Or Muslims btw. But then, in one of many twists in her logic, she laid into evangelicals for being too rote, for helping Zionists, and said that she wasn’t even sure if Jesus existed. So Christianity, to her, was an emblem of whiteness, and American-ness.
Only as a secondary function, was Christianity a source of spiritual inspiration.
I needed to take a breather. I pretended to look through my bag for something.
Right then, I looked down at my daughter who was face down in the middle seat. She had discovered that she had two hang-nails on her middle fingers, and she had her little arms fully extended to both sides, middle fingers out, wildly “flipping the bird” in all directions.
This was exactly how I felt.
Lee did not notice.
The stewardess came by and I got a snack, Lee got some juice. We refueled before Lee jumped back onto her train of thought, and asked if I wanted to hear her theory on WWII.
“Supersize me.” I said.
I didn’t actually say that, but that was how I felt. Hit me.
She sounded, when talking about pre-war Germany, like she sounded about Putin’s Russia. Like she was describing a wounded animal, in need of support and sympathy.
Then came the line.
“Hitler, who knows how bad he really was.”
I felt the need to laugh, because I’m a big Mel Brooks fan, and it sounded like a thing he would say before a satirical song and dance number. But this was the other side. She un-ironically compared Hitler to Trump, as a “problem solver.” A weeder-out of problem demographics. She said they were Work Camps, not Death Camps. That he didn’t want to kill anyone, could’ve had them deported – he just didn’t.
I was looking at a Holocaust denier.
There was a lull in the conversation.
We still had around 30 minutes to go. I shared some peanuts with my daughter. Lee commented on how beautiful my daughter’s eyelashes were, and said she was so smart. My girl jumped up and down on the seat waving at the people behind us, unaffected by what Lee had just spilled all over her mother’s consciousness.
We didn’t talk for about 20 minutes. She went back to her book, and I played with my girl. The plane began the descent.
I felt Lee, one seat over.
I felt her presence, calmly reading.
I felt the both of us, moving in the same vehicle, in the same direction, to the same destination.
She has a fantasy that keeps her mentally safe. People who believe like her, they do not want to allow themselves to feel the pain of America’s true failures. The realities of racism, sexism, and classism are too uncomfortable, and require too much personal examination. “Good vs. Bad” is easier to stomach than “progress takes time, effort, forethought and sacrifice.” It’s easier if a shadow government, perhaps run by a religion which feels foreign to you, is secretly pulling all the strings, and causing all the suffering you cannot imagine God would allow. So those people must be evil. That makes it a clear “us vs. them” one-step thinking.
As much as I felt like I should hate her, I did not hate her.
I felt familiar with her, in that she had shared the things that matter most to her, and I had received them without (outward) judgment.
I felt her isolation.
I felt that we were two women who felt lost, and truly wanted, in our drastically opposing ways, to make the world better.
This was our greatest point of division, and our greatest bond.
Just before we landed, my daughter started singing a song.
Lee looked over and said,
“That’s one of my favorite songs.” And smiled.
We landed on the tarmac, all three of us singing a chorus of “Pop Goes The Weasel.”
Some of you are going to ask me how I sat there.
Some of you are going to tell me you would’ve gotten up and changed seats. Some of you would’ve argued her or, righteously, gotten in her face. The way I looked at it, walking away from her would’ve been a lateral move, would’ve gained no ground for me. It seemed to me that my choice was to learn, or not to learn.