Last month my partner of 17 years passed. I know, real downer of an opening line, but in most major life events eventually there’s a lesson. Gary had been HIV-positive for 30 years. His former partner died of AIDS. Gary also carried the genetic markers for Huntington’s disease and used to joke about surviving HIV long enough for HD to take him out, and that’s exactly what happened last month. A handsome, strong and incredibly funny man withered in the course of a few years and I’m left here, to mourn, but marvel at courage. He died with grace while suffering a disease that’s a combination of Parkinson’s on steroids and Alzheimer’s. He never complained or felt sorry for himself, and only once toward the end did he say, “I’m afraid.”
Gary was one of the bravest people I’ve ever met, and the contrast to the present American zeitgeist and culture of fear makes strength in the face of painful and inevitable demise all the more admirable. Personally, I can think of no better time to speak of fear in America, the land of the free and the brave.
This City on the Hill historically ebbs and flows in the desire to beckon the tired, the poor and huddled masses. America, the land of immigrants, is conflicted with bouts of self-loathing, as if parental lineage that doesn’t trace to the Mayflower is a source of shame, regardless that Mayflower passengers were immigrants too. A schizophrenic worldview isn’t new or confined to our shores. Nationalism and populist rhetoric is flourishing globally but it’s especially galling here, given the statue in New York harbor. These spasms of fear and resistance surface periodically but never in my relatively long life have I seen a resurgence of quite this magnitude. America has never seemed so afraid. Americans seems incapable of owning enough guns, having a big enough military, enough border security or embracing black, brown, or beige humanity.
The real America the Brave, the true patriots and lovers of freedom are in a shouting match with armed, terrified white people. As a gay white man that’s faced death and seen dignity in suffering far too many times, I’m exhausted by the fear of 36 percent of Americans, those who still find this fear-mongering president acceptable. American fear, stoked by this president is the crazy aunt in the attic and a source of shame.
An uncomfortable percentage of white Americans are scared to death. They act out and excuse the bad behavior of cowards and bullies. Like her or hate her, Hillary was right. There is a basket of deplorables, and while I’ve no doubt many of the abominable are decent people who genuinely seek a better good, the fear that drives them is indecent and their actions and speech are crude, rude, lewd and hypocritical.
Fear has created people of terrible values, primarily Caucasians who wouldn’t know true patriotism or true faith or courage if it bit them. They’re driven by fear, resentment and entitlement. They quiver because they know no number of guns or pew time will stop the inevitable and that days of supremacy are limited. Soon there will be more black and beige than white, so they flounder and wail, hoping noise will overshadow reality.
I’ve lost tolerance for whiny white people. I have no patience with those who have the opportunity to change their lives when they wake up tomorrow, because Gary won’t. And the truth is, we all have a Gary in our lives. Most of us have witnessed courage in the face of death.
We may not be the greatest generation. That nomenclature has been claimed. But we are the second greatest generation. We survived AIDS. We survived those years when you simply didn’t know if you’d die a terrible death. There was a time there was no test or treatment. We smiled and laughed and persevered and pathed the way for later generations to bicker about the latest acronym for not being straight. We did it, we survived, and Gary saw it all.
Clearly, this is personal. I’ve seen a lot and survived a lot too, and I don’t call myself brave simply because I refuse to own a gun or that I embraced my gay enchanted self long before it was acceptable.
The bigger picture is far bigger than my small story. The bigger picture is national and international and we got to this place, this landscape of racism and anti-intellectualism and the reign of the Mad King because we haven’t been brave enough to call out our family, friends and neighbors who claim “the base.” It’s hard to stand up. It’s hard to be truly courageous. It’s hard to be brave, but we’ve reached a tipping point. Man and Woman up – call out the deplorables.
A big slice of America are scared for all the wrong reasons. They’re not scared of climate change or nationalism or the saber-rattling nincompoop in the Oval Office. They’re scared of brown families. A new Gallup poll for July released Wednesday indicated that Americans felt the biggest problem facing the country is immigration.
In the afterglow of true courage, I will no longer excuse or attempt to empathize with frightened, armed, backward, Caucasian cowards. They have brought us to a precipice.
The world is a less better place without Gary, a man whose career was devoted to taking care of premature babies, “legal or illegal” in the great state of Arizona.
What passion drives the fear-mongers? Clearly, it’s not about the children, or freedom, or the courage to do the right thing. Evangelical Jesus, Trump, and white entitlement are not going to save them. If you can’t convince them, then walk away and make sure you continue to participate by talking, writing, making art and expressing. And for the love of God, vote! It’s not too early to encourage the courage and conviction of the ballot box.
Kurt Niece is an artist, jeweler, and author of The Breath of Rapture and Mercury Fields. He lives in the crystal valleys of Hot Springs Village, Ark.