The wind was skipping around like a newly widowed woman who just learned that her dead hubby left her his entire estate. Hardly anyone was walking down the street; just some scattered oddballs who had nothing better to do at four in the afternoon than wander Main Street in Concord and hope for a rainfall that would never come. I wasn’t wandering; I was passing Gibson’s Bookstore on my way to the Beijing-Tokyo lounge, where I hoped to soften myself up before I returned to Gibson’s and listened to an abbreviated speech by a man named Andrew Yang.
Fortunately, I was the only one in the lounge, which is never a guarantee at Beijing-Tokyo, least of all on a Friday afternoon. I don’t go to BT’s as often as I used to, not since one of the strongest bartenders rolled out of there near the end of May, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and I needed a kamikaze if I were to stand any chance of suppressing my vomit when I finally met Yang. The remaining bartender was completely unintrigued by my impending appointment, which was probably just as well: if you don’t know about Yang yet, then you’re better off sparing yourself the headache.
Somehow, that single drink hit me as hard as if it’d been my third. I became very lightheaded and maddeningly aphasiac: I forgot how to articulate the question I intended to present to Yang, and I asked myself quite seriously if there was even any truth to what I would ask him. It’s one of those terrible, but not at all uncommon, moments whereat I lose all confidence in the basic template of reality, and when I face the fully credible idea that I’m another drink away from a one-way ticket to the funny farm, courtesy of the Yang 2020 committee.
I finished the drink and made my way back to Gibson’s. I was expecting reassurance, a return to normalcy and stability, but my paranoia tripled in intensity because there was no indication, none whatsoever, that a presidential candidate was about to enter this bookstore and perorate before the Concord public. There was no advertisement anywhere on the sidewalk, no placard affixed to the window or door of the building, no suggestion that anything of consequence was about to transpire inside the bookshop in which I was suddenly standing. Granted, I was almost an hour early, but at the same time, wouldn’t Yang have wanted to pack this place to capacity?
Without a more sensible alternative, I took a seat in Gibson’s Café and ordered a French coffee. I thought I could knock down my current chapter in Songs of the Doomed, but the caffeine sent my heart into overdrive, and I struggled to focus. It did seem to neutralize the haunting aftereffects of the kamikaze, which was already a distant memory for me, but it sharpened my anxiety, which on a good day tends to be nearly lethal to me.
Suddenly, I understood the problem: I was entering enemy territory. I was about to walk among a crowd of people who actually appreciate Andrew Yang enough to come to a bookstore on a Friday evening and listen to his sales pitch. Even if only a handful of people showed up, they would stand united in their love for Yang, which would make me persona non grata. I wouldn’t heckle him, of course, but, if given the opportunity, I would ask him why he hadn’t said anything, not a single word, on the campaign trail in reference to Julian Assange. In fact, with the exceptions of Elizabeth Warren—who lied to me when I asked her about this issue in January—and Tulsi Gabbard—whose eloquent support for Assange is refreshingly welcome—none of the Democratic candidates have said anything at all about the Trump Administration’s war on WikiLeaks.
Before we go any further, I understand that Mike Gravel has been supportive of Assange, but even he has stated that the purpose of his candidacy is to raise awareness, not to win the nomination of the Democratic Party. I respect Gravel greatly, including all that he said when he ran for president in 2008, but at the moment, I’m uninterested in attaching his name to Gabbard’s whenever I write about “the only Democrat who is brave enough to say this,” etc.
Now, back to Yang: with forty-five minutes to go, the first of the spectators made their appearance. I noticed that, at some point as I had been drinking my coffee, a young woman had set up a table just beyond the foyer and was asking people for their names, physical addresses, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers—the better to receive notifications about things Andrew Yang was planning to do. Nobody had to register with her, or with anybody else, before listening to Yang, so why did I have to register for this event on the Internet? Was anyone supposed to check my ID at the door? Did anyone care? And why had a robot possessed by Yang’s committee sent me two text messages the previous night, requesting that I confirm my reservation for the second time?
None of this exactly assuaged my paranoia, so I decided to walk around the bookshop and see if anybody wanted to talk turkey with me. I noticed a young man sitting near the center of the store, not too far from the spot where Yang would stump, so I moseyed over and tried to find out what I could. He told me, and anybody else who cared to listen, that he had taken a bus from Columbus, just to listen to Yang, for whom he had the utmost respect. He described the harassment he received from a pack of homophobic religious fundamentalists on his way to Concord, but he wanted all of us to rest assured that he was a Christian, too. People seemed to like listening to him, but when he started telling everyone that he couldn’t take the bus back to his hotel, which was somewhere near the Canadian border, then people began to turn their attention elsewhere—even though, he told us over and over, he would “never even think of asking for a ride”.
“I just got in from Columbus this morning,” he said, “and I’ve been wandering the streets since 10 AM!”
Even if Andrew Yang hadn’t been scheduled to visit, Gibson’s Bookstore offers no refuge for the apolitical. There were several bookcases dedicated exclusively to political subjects and studies. I found several collections of feminist essays, an entire trolley full of books on the history of LGBT rights in America, and several full-length printings of the Mueller report. None of it surprised me, but I did have to wonder: what, exactly, is the net effect of all this virtue-signaling? Does one gain social credits by reading these books, as opposed to other books that argue against all of this? It’s a very circuitous and self-replicating market, but there must be such a market, or else this bookstore would be closed, like so many others. Still, I was a little creeped-out when I found that Madeline Albright, one of the most vocal cheerleaders of American imperialist violence, had written a book titled Fascism: A Warning.
By this time, the Yang Gang had come into its own. People were walking around wearing “Climate Action” t-shirts and hats reading “MATH”. A middle-aged woman, who had seen an advertisement for this event in the Concord Monitor, asked me what “MATH” meant, and I confessed I hadn’t a clue, but later on, we learned that it was an acronym, meaning: “Make America Think Harder”. A period after each letter would have been helpful, especially for that particular acronym, but maybe we ought not to bellyache. It certainly didn’t bother any of the people who wore the apparel, some of whom met up near a bookcase designated “Books in the Media” to express their frustration with individual polluters.
“I tried to tell my little brother not to throw away his water bottle,” a young woman told a man she had just met, “but he did it anyway!” She shook her head and sighed, “People are just so lazy. And greedy.”
Maybe sixty people had gathered by the time Andrew Yang appeared. Several of them had to put down their copies of Yang’s bestseller, The War on Normal People, in order to applaud when he finally showed up. He was only fifteen minutes late, which was understandable, as he had hurried over here after a visit in Laconia earlier in the day, which had taken place only after he had visited Plymouth even earlier in the day! That kind of intrastate mobility would have been impossible for Warren, judging by the size of her massive demonstration in Hooksett five months before, but then again, Yang needs to hustle if he wants to make up for the modest gatherings he attracts. There’s a reason why there was no security to speak of, not even a coherent registration process. Still, you have to respect the man for going out truly in the open: it’s charming, that attempt to break down the barrier between the politician and the public.
Yang began his speech by stressing his connections to the Granite State, and to New England more generally. I wasn’t aware that he had attended Phillips Exeter Academy, which is described on the Internet as “an elite boarding school”, nor was I aware that he graduated from Brown University. Curious, isn’t it, this effort of his to present himself as “one of the people” when he admits that he has lived an upper-class life from the very beginning. He tried to make us laugh when he said that he didn’t realize until his adolescence that not everybody’s father has a doctoral degree, but doesn’t this only prove that he isn’t “one of the people”? And while we’re on the subject, does anyone still honestly believe that emphasizing your “local roots”, whatever those are, will win you favor? That gimmick hasn’t bowled any thoughtful person over since George W. Bush insisted that “not many New Hampshire people talk like” John Kerry.
But let’s not waste time any more time on this chatter. The only reason anyone even knows about Yang is because he has advocated for a program, known as “universal basic income”, whereby all adults in the United States, excepting those in prison, will receive $1,000 in monthly governmental assistance. He explained that this assistance is a necessary solution to the problem of the titans of technological industry generating billions of dollars in annual revenue while failing to pay a dime in federal taxes. In other words, part of the money we spend on Amazon and its brethren would be returned to us in the form of a $1,000 federal allowance.
It should come as no surprise that right-wing conservatives all across the country are mocking this idea as a socialist fantasy. Unfortunately, Yang has a point: if electronic and robotic automation is truly the way of the future, then it is unfair to expect human beings to compete with machines for jobs. The only solution is to protect the people from inevitable poverty. It sounds pretty reasonable to me—unless, of course, we consider that $12,000 in annual income is nowhere near an acceptable standard for the American middle class. Even if the $250 in weekly income is delivered to us tax-free, it averages out to a wage equivalent of $6 an hour.
Indisputably the most fascinating moment of Yang’s presentation occurred when a woman in the audience asked the presidential candidate if the $1,000 in monthly assistance would disqualify a person for other forms of federal assistance, including food stamps and Social Security. Yang was visibly uncomfortable with this question—and with every truly challenging question—but credit him for admitting that, yes, the $1,000 in monthly assistance would probably be all that a person could claim in federal assistance.
Well, he’s certainly making us think harder, isn’t he?
During his speech, Yang referred to the Obama Administration as “the good White House”. As he must, considering that then-President Obama once described Yang as a “Champion of Change”. I may not have noted this if it weren’t for Yang’s admission, stated several times during his stop at Gibson’s, that Trump was elected because people are terrified by the threat of unemployment and impoverishment. Trump’s supporters had legitimate reasons to vote for him, says Yang, because many of them had lost their jobs to automation. However, this raises the uncomfortable question of what, if anything, Obama did to halt and to reverse that devastating process of automation. He did nothing, of course; in fact, he consistently supported policies that promoted automation, but it seems unlikely that Yang will ever acknowledge this troubling link.
He probably won’t acknowledge Obama’s war on whistleblowers, either, a war that Trump seems to be willing to support. The impending prosecution of Julian Assange is not the only threat to the First Amendment and to journalistic practice, but it is the loudest and most straightforward of such threats being made today. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Yang has not said anything one way or the other in respect to Assange, so I decided to ask him directly about what, if anything, he would do to support him.
Grimacing and sighing, he said: “You know, I think Julian Assange should stand trial. You know, I am generally pro-whistleblower, and pro-people-that-are-trying-to-call-out-bad-behaviors, but in that particular case, he did end up disclosing some information that really had no useful purpose except for potential damage to our infrastructure, like cables locations and other things, so I certainly would not be in favor of, like . . .”
“. . . pardoning him?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think he should stand trial.”
Plenty of people claim that are “generally pro-whistleblower”, the unfortunate substance of which is, all too often, that they like the idea of whistleblowing, or they like whistleblowing in theory or as an abstract concept, but when faced with a practical and specific instance of whistleblowing, they would criminalize the behavior and prosecute the man or woman who blew the whistle. It is hardly the sole contradiction or logical fallacy to which the American people are susceptible, but it is the one that is the most relevant in the case of Julian Assange. Perhaps this is the reason why Yang never spoke about this issue publicly until I brought it up: it isn’t necessarily that he’s afraid to speak about it, but his opinion isn’t needed because he would not interfere with what the Trump Administration is currently doing. In other words, he agrees with Trump on this point, and so, it is pointless for him to offer his two cents.
As the problem of surveillance capitalism spreads, and as our personal security and privacies are taken away by the behemoths of tech—the same behemoths to whom Yang is happy to surrender, provided that they pay for the cost of our room and board while they keep us imprisoned—fewer and fewer politicians will speak out on this devastating danger. And if there is still somebody out there who presses them to make some kind of statement, these politicians will not even pretend to support individual freedom. Instead, they will declare unambiguously that they stand on the side of the prosecution, on the side of the authoritarians, on the side of the people keeping us captive.
Still, at least he told me what he actually believes. At least he didn’t lie, like Elizabeth Warren did.