This dramatic encounter happened a few weeks before the 2012 US Presidential election. I was traveling from New York to Virginia quite a lot to work with the OFA campaign there. Obviously, the whole stint was unpaid, so I paid for my own hotel stay and everything else. One time my boyfriend suggested that I stay with his friends who live near Tyson’s Corner which was not very far from Obama campaign office. I thought, sure why not. So one day, after an exhausting 5-hour drive from NY to NoVa I arrive at their house. Now it’s important to remember that just weeks before the election the polls are getting tighter and passions are flying high reaching the fever pitch on both sides. The tensions were especially high in VA since it was a heavily contested battleground state. People are high-strung and anxious everywhere you look. One Virginia man shot his entire family and then himself out of fear of the upcoming Obama victory. Just to give you an idea of the polarization at the time. So, I come into the house, meet the wife – a nice lady, say hello to the kids, drop my stuff in one of the rooms (it’s one of those mansions in “leafy DC suburbs” as they say, with infinite number of rooms) and come down to the kitchen for a drink. The wife opens a bottle and we engage in some chit-chat. About half-hour later the husband comes into the kitchen, we shake hands and then the inevitable question: “So what’re you here for?” I, in my habit of not beating around the bush, say half-jokingly: “Yeah, let’s get this out of the way before you kick me out – I’m here to volunteer for the Obama campaign.” Now, I played this scenario with my boyfriend and was reassured that there won’t be a problem. The problem was that he spoke on the phone with the wife – who had no issue with the purpose of my visit. Well, the husband wasn’t informed in advance. Even worse, he was a major Romney donor, I later found out. Anyway, long story short, he leaves the kitchen without saying a word and about 3 minutes later I receive a frantic text from my boyfriend that literally says: “dude, I think it’s better if you get out and go to the hotel.” I show this text to the wife and say something like “Uh, I think I have to leave now”. It’s not often we get kicked out of somebody’s house for political reasons. Face to face encounters even with political opponents seem to be milder in real life than online, simply because we see the human side of the opposition. But this wasn’t the time to test the bounds of southern hospitality. So I raced upstairs, got my things, said thank you to the wife, jumped in the car and left. I was a little shaken, but instantaneously sober, as the surge of adrenaline helped me get rid of the buzz from a couple of glasses of wine. It was getting dark, but I had a GPS and was on the way to the hotel within a half-hour drive that my boyfriend booked for me in a matter of minutes. I made it to the hotel, and luckily, there was some steakhouse next to it where I could get some dinner, couple of vodka-cranberries, and contemplate.
I like to view this encounter from a broad perspective. There are major social/economic/political shifts that are going on right now. It’s increasingly likely we will never get back to the way things were in 2003-2007: bountiful well-paid jobs, crazy bonuses, lavish lifestyles, endless opportunities to do even better. There was a crash landing for many (mostly men), a rude wake-up call. I can’t quite be gleeful about it. I’m all too aware of fallibility and frailty of all of us, humans. While we would like to be our own selves, be laid back, enjoy beauty and lazy afternoons with a book, or simply stare at passers-by in the park, we’re en-masse condemned to take care of, to prioritize our physical needs throughout our entire lives: make money, pay bills, meet obligations. Men, especially white men, either by a privileged background or by being naturally entrepreneurial are better at this than others. Because men are good at making money (I’m not discussing “how”, I’m just looking at the facts now for the sake of making my point) they have been the beneficiaries of all the upside, they’re the ones with the most to lose. Again, I have to repeat, I’m not turning this into a feminist post, there are women who benefitted from the upside and suffered from the downside, I’m simply showing that because the top of the wealth hierarchy is occupied mostly by men, when shit hits the fan they’re the ones with the most to lose, they’re the ones who have only the downside. This explains the overall despondency, the frustration, the paranoia, the attempt to blame everyone around them, especially during the election season. So this is the kind of backdrop and the kind of guy at whose doorsteps I showed up on that fateful night. Thus I can’t really be mad about the whole encounter – his entire way of life was collapsing beneath his feet, or at least that how he saw it, and here I am, rubbing it in by my mere presence. He doesn’t know how to live under the “the new normal” where his status, financial or otherwise although those are closely correlated, is diminished. Everything was so perfect before! So anyone or anything that reminds him of his diminished statue is unwelcomed. I have to digress a bit here. In my criticism of Wall Street in financial industry in general, I tend to criticize the system, the structure itself, not the players in particular. Once you’re a part of that community, you play by those internal rules, you become one of them: it’s a normal part of the process. You assume a certain routine that, if followed correctly and diligently, would produce a great windfall. But somehow it doesn’t work this way anymore: one still gets up at 6 am, gets to work, sucks it up, makes calls to clients, just like he did for years, and yet this familiar routine fails to produce the same results as it did before. Hours are the same but bonuses are smaller, if you’re lucky to even get one. Many in the old industry are still clinging to the old structure in the hope that one day things will get back to the way they were, if only they manage to hold on long enough. But the structure crumbles and there’s nothing underneath, only the unknown. Fear of layoffs, of the company being taken over by rivals, of cut in pay; the bills, the obligations, the expectations – it’s a natural instinct to engage in rationalizations, finger-pointing, scapegoating, denial and search for answers.
Perhaps, today is not a “new normal” but simply “normal”; perhaps, the aberration was the easy-going years prior to the crisis, not today’s drag. Maybe we were mistaken to assume that the best-case scenario of 2003-2007 was the base-case scenario. I especially don’t envy the contemporary male, full of dumb illusions of control over his own life, but I do feel sorry for him.