Recommentunde: Musk, Manchin, & My D.C.
I escaped from the USA!
Welcome to the Substack version of my newsletter which differs from the Puck version only with the inclusion of the photo above and this note.
As is becoming my habit, I’m drafting this newsletter on the Acela train from D.C. to New York, and by the time you receive it, I should have landed in Barcelona, and these hands will be nowhere near a keyboard but instead wrapped around a “vermut de la casa” cocktail which I consider to be a required salutary beverage when in that great city. I plan to be on vacation across the Atlantic for at least a month bouncing around Spain, France, and Italy. Who knows? Maybe I’ll extend my stay indefinitely. Kidding. (Not kidding??)
This trip to D.C., as with others lately, was a mix of work and nostalgia. I gave a keynote speech to the KIPP charter school alumni network at the Capital Hilton. The night before that I was crowned “Master Blackspert” in actress and comedian Amanda Seales’s live show Smart, Funny and Black at the Kennedy Center. Most memorable, however, was my visit to my childhood neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant where I connected with classmates from elementary school I hadn’t seen since 1989. One of them is a Marine veteran, barber, and artist. The other a lifelong E.M.T. with the fire department.
Amidst drinking all the agave-based spirits the bar had to offer, we recalled our shared experiences that usually doesn’t register as part of “D.C. news” to the rest of the nation, who tend to forget the nation’s capital is also an actual city with real people that has nothing to do with budget reconciliation. Instead we talked about our love for our teachers and go-go music, the shop owners who fixed our bikes for free, the preposterous current prices for the homes we grew up in, and the fact that we basically were raised on the set of The Wire with drugs, gangs, and police activity subsuming our community. Even though I’ve talked about my childhood and thought I understood it, I was still occasionally shocked to find out how much day-to-day danger and gun violence had become normal, and how much I barely escaped being more affected by it. For example, my old friends reminded me that the block I lived on was the literal site of a raid conducted by 400 law enforcement personnel to arrest a gang that operated outside my front window.
I’m bringing this up for a couple of different reasons. First, I think we all have some ability to shift our own narratives away from painful truths that have shaped us. Talking with my friends, and looking back at the news coverage of my hood, I have started to remember more than I’ve previously recalled about those times. Second, there’s more to the story of city life than those crime-focused headlines revealed. Yes, there was crime and roaches, but also kickball and tag. Third, I’m not that special, just lucky. America’s story factory paints Black men and boys as dangerous or at-risk or both, and requires someone like me to be an anomaly. If you hear that story often enough you start to believe it. You start to think, “My mother was different. I worked harder. Something about my D.N.A. helped me make better choices.”
Those can all be true, but what is also true is that I was just plain lucky. I could have stepped out of my home on my way to school one day and not come back. Someone else could have gotten the slot I filled at the private school across town. I want us to live in a world where I truly am not special, just another kid who got a great education and took advantage of widely-available opportunities. Instead of putting pressure on kids and their families to escape their homes, we should be working to create homes and hoods worth staying in, and then more people like me could marvel at the preposterous current prices of the homes we still own.
Ok enough of my memory lane trip. Now on to just a few other things on my mind…
I'm Over It
Elon Musk will have his day in court sooner than he claims he wanted. Meanwhile, I’m still bothered by the fact that I am forced to pay attention to the whims of a childish billionaire in the first place. Many bytes have been transmitted opining on and analyzing Musk’s attempt to institute backsies on his Twitter purchase. Puck’s own Bill Cohan has predicted the outcome rather well so far. I won’t add much more data to the stream except to say I deeply desire a humbling moment for Musk coming out of all this. I find his immaturity quite insulting: the bullying tweeting; the formal offer to purchase while bypassing his own due diligence; the weak excuses about bots in an attempt to reverse the offer (which is not how any of this works) all while wasting lots of people’s time. Musk behaves in ways we wouldn’t tolerate from most women or people of color, and certainly wouldn’t tolerate from anyone poor. None of the kids I grew up with would be afforded such leeway, and I’m simply over it.
I’m also over Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator who lives on a yacht, drives a Maserati, is the most fossil-fuel funded politician, and holds the vast majority of his investments in coal. His latest success is to push us all closer to systemic climate failure with his scuttling of a deal to boost investments in climate action that would help us meet our emissions reduction goals. Manchin says he doesn’t want to drive up prices or burden future generations with an increased national debt. He argues from the same false playbook that says we have to choose between “the economy” and “the environment.”
The brutal truth is that there is no economy without a stable climate. Europe is on fire. The Great Salt Lake is drying up. Climate collapse is a far worse debt to hand future generations than any funding efforts to prevent that collapse. (The undiversified West Virginia economy is the ultimate case in point of the vicious circle this all creates.) If we look at the cost of natural disasters alone, the U.S. spent more than $150 billion in 2021, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Since 1980, we’ve spent over $2 trillion, but the trend is increasing with the number of incidents per year and the price we pay for each one going up as global temperatures rise. In the future we will look back at Biden’s $500 billion climate plan as a bargain compared to the ongoing economic onslaught of storms, droughts, forced migration and more. It’s not just a matter of money. The opportunity cost is measured in time as well. Anything we don’t do now to avert climate disaster, we’ll have to do even more of later. Money we don’t spend now will have to be spent down the road, and with less time to deploy it. It would have been easier to prevent climate catastrophe back in the 1980s (as we got so close to doing) than it is today. And it is easier today than it will be in 2040. It’s like we have a time machine, and can use it to both see and positively affect the future, but Manchin is preventing us from using it.
In moments like this, I am subject to despair. How can one man wreak so much havoc? Then I remember that we can all do more to counter the Manchins of the world. If you’re in need of a motivational boost to believe we can still act to preserve quality human life on Earth, I urge you to watch Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s recent TED talk, “How to find joy in climate action.”
In the spirit of joy, I’ll leave you with a video pulled from my PBS series, America Outdoors. In this segment, I spend time with Color The Water, a group created to encourage and teach BIPOC people in Los Angeles to surf. It’s a moving, touching, and fun piece about making space for joy in spaces that don’t always welcome it.
Fittingly, this week’s episode (airing Tuesday) is focused on Appalachia, where I found a very different story from the one Joe Manchin is invested in. You can watch in the PBS video app on your screen of choice, on regular old TV, or on the PBS website.
As a reminder, you can connect with me via text message. Send a text to 202-894-8844 with the word Substack in the body.