Let's Read The Overton Window pt. 12: How the other half lives

It's chapter 20 let's go.

Outside the skies were still threatening,

The skies were still threatening to what

and to accompany the frigid light rain a wicked crosstown breeze had begun to blow.

Were the skies threatening to rain? Because it's already raining.

(Yes, I'm being nit-picky. No, I DGAF).

Noah and Molly get in a cab, and Noah passes the driver a big tip to drive slow. Do you need to bribe someone to do that? Couldn't you just say "please drive slowly"? 

“There were no dates on those screens at the end,” Noah said. “There’s nothing to say that this thing is happening tomorrow, or next week, or next year.”

I initially got all rowdy because I thought the book was contradicting itself again here, but then I re-read the end of last chapter and realized it didn't say EXIGENT was going to happen in three days, but rather that once the EXIGENT process begins, it will take three days to finish.

Still, Noah was in the room when his dad talked about putting into motion a plan that involves using a major catastrophe to enact the government's villainous reshaping of America. That would seem to indicate that it's probably going to happen some time soon.

She shook her head. “It’s happening now.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I can see it. The economy is crashing, Noah. There’s no net underneath it this time.

Yeah, there really should be a net of some kind. Like, a social safety net to make sure people don't end up destitute on the side of the road because economic forces outside their control made them homeless. I'm sure Glenn Beck would agree that that's a good idea.

“They’ve doubled the national debt since 2000, and now with these bailouts, all those trillions of dollars more—that’s our future they just stole, right in front of our eyes.

She's right about this, but the solution is not to establish a flat tax rate and adopt conservative economic policies.

Noah says that he'll be okay when the collapse comes because he's a rich guy, and he can take care of Molly and her mom as well. But Molly's not buying that, insisting that money isn't going to be able to save them when the time comes.

After a time her clasp on his hand tightened for a few seconds, but it didn’t really feel like affection. It was more like the grip a person might take on the arm of the dentist’s chair, or the gesture of unspoken things an old love might extend at the end of a long good-bye.

I can think of multiple ways this could have been spun into a nice chapter ending, like maybe comparing her grip to that of a ship-wreck survivor clinging to flotsam or something (because they're drowning, you see. In liberalism.), but instead we get a dentist's chair, which feels too mundane given the dramatic stakes, and then some vague poetic nonsense.

In chapter 21, Noah and Molly arrive at her place.

“Come on up,” she said. “See how the other half lives.”

Truly, the two faces of America are represented in this book: a rich, white 28 year old corporate vice president, and a white right-wing political activist. Our two heroes encompass the entire length and breath of modern American society. I can't think of any important factors at all that are being left out there.

The book tries to make out that Molly is living in some sort of decrepit slum, but the description just reads like...an apartment building. Like, a totally normal apartment building that normal, average-income people live in all over the country. Yes, the concrete courtyard is "dismal" and there's unfinished maintenance and metal gates and locks and shit everywhere, but so what? My family lived in an apartment building like this when we lived in New York. Last time I visited my dad in LA, he lived in an apartment building like this.

And Molly's actual apartment isn't even bad! It's just the outside, public areas that are run down and depressing. 

Great effort had obviously been taken to transform this space into a sort of self-contained hideaway, far removed from the city outside. What had probably once been a huge, cold industrial floor had been renovated and brought alive with simple ingenuity and hard work. The result was one large area divided with movable partitions to form an impressively cool, livable loft. From where he was he could see a spacious multipurpose room off the entryway, a kitchen and laundry to the side, and what seemed to be a series of guest rooms toward the back.

Actually, make that way better than "not bad."

My jaw hit the floor when I read this initially because I thought the book was trying to claim that Molly lived by herself in a three to four bedroom apartment in New York, but she clarifies that it's some sort of communal safehouse that the Trapper Keepers have set up all over the country.

Which is still ridiculous. Beck is trying to claim that "the other side" in America is a childless twenty-something year old living in a massive shared apartment, with the backing of an (apparently very well-funded) underground political organization, not to mention her mother, who also founded said organization. That captures the millennial experience of poverty in a nutshell, all right.

“The tea sounds good.”

“We make it pretty sweet where I come from.”

“Bring it on, Ellie Mae. The sweeter the better.”

Ah, the famous sweet tea of The South. Where Molly is from. Is there some reason the book isn't clarifying that?

He walked about midway into the front room and found a slightly elevated platform enclosed in Japanese screens of thin dark wood and rice paper panels. There were a lot of bookshelves, a dresser, a rolltop desk, and a vanity. But the space was dominated by a large rope hammock, its webbing covered by a nest of comfy blankets and pillows, suspended waist-high between the red shutoff wheels of two heavy metal pipes that extended up from the floor through the ceiling. This room within a room was lit softly by small lamps and pastel paper lanterns. The total effect of the enclosure was that of a mellow, relaxing Zen paradise.

Seriously, this is the kind of shit bougie millionaires have in their apartments. I guess the Trapper Keepers used the power of Personal Responsibility to pull themselves up (way, way up) by their bootstraps, like the rest of the poors are too lazy to do.

Noah checks out the reading selection in the communal library, which provides an eye-opening look at the Trapper Keepers' political leanings, although I don't think it was meant to.

They've got None Dare Call It Conspiracy (a right-wing conspiracy theory book), Empire by Orson Scott Card (the Ender's Game sequels he wrote when he was all the way off the deep end), and best of all The Blue Book of The John Birch Society.

Beck once again tries to fudge things by also including left-leaning books like Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman and The Coming Insurrection. But I'm not buying it, and here's why. One of the books is Rules For Radicals by Saul Alinsky. That's a name we've heard before--during Arthur Gardner's big evil monologue, when he talked about standing on the shoulders of giants. Alinsky was mentioned as one of his influences, along with Woodrow Wilson (who's the person who started America's slide towards destruction, remember).

In other words, it very much seems, although it's not directly stated, that these left-leaning books are in the collection so the Trapper Keepers can study the thinking of their enemies, and not because they're a bipartisan rainbow coalition of all walks of life and creeds like the book is trying to pretend.

There's also a matter of degrees. Of the left-wing books mentioned, two are fairly mainstream and left-of-centre; only The Coming Insurrection is what you'd justifiably describe as far-left. By contrast, in the other direction you've got an out and out conspiracy theory about bankers (*cough*) controlling the world, the first part in an infamously hardline conservative fiction series written by a notorious homophobe, and the bible of the god damn John Birch Society.

And then there's Noah's reaction to all of these. I know he's meant to be a politically apathetic sheeple, but he's not ignorant or uneducated. I refuse to believe he'd look at these books and be like "Hmm, what an eclectic selection of political thought." No, he'd be more like "So you guys are some sort of far-right extremists, then?"

Oh also, they've got a bunch of manuals on how to fight gorilla wars and make grenade launchers. Written by this guy, who is fairly famous in the right-wing militia circle.

Anyway, Hollis shows up again and is all soft-spoken and cuddly as usual. At some point he's going to get shot or something, and it will turn out his body is filled with cotton candy and the scent of fresh mountain air.

The big man gave him a warm guy-hug with an extra pat on the shoulder at the end.

There's no such thing as a "guy hug." It's just called a hug. Get over yourself.

Hollis takes Noah over to his table where he's making hand-made ammunition for a big rifle. After Noah is like "WTF", Hollis claims it's just for hunting, which I am totally not buying and which Noah shouldn't either, but somehow he does.

Molly brings Noah to a conference room (how big is this place? Did they buy an entire floor?) to introduce him to some regional leaders of the Trapper Keepers. I'm really curious where these guys are getting money from. I guess donations are the most plausible source, but given that even worthy charities have chronic trouble raising funds, I don't think an organization whose mission statement is "Let's buy guns to, like, defend the constitution or something" would be very successful.

...Oh right, America. I take back everything I said, they'd be rolling in it. This is the most plausible part of the book.

“Let’s see.” He began where she’d ended and went around the other way. “That’s Patrick, Ethan, George, Thomas, Benjamin, Samuel, John, Alexander, James, Nathaniel, another Benjamin—Franklin or Rush, you didn’t say which—Francis, William, and Stephen.”

OMG the Trapper Keeper leaders take on the names of American founding fathers like they're the patriot AIs from Metal Gear Solid or something. This is hilarious.

There's some more star-spangled America wanking where the leaders read out the words of Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers and it's all reverential and shit.

Can I just say, America's deification of its founders is really, really bizarre to an outsider. Like, from where I'm sitting there's not much difference between all the George Washington ass-kissing and what North Korea does with its dead leaders, with the exception that y'all aren't still venerating his living descendants. It's basically a state religion.

The Republic of Ireland was founded less than 100 years ago, and we do name streets and shit after the rebel leaders, but if someone started reading Patrick Pearse or Michael Collins' letters like they were holy scripture, everyone would think they were in the fucking IRA. And even the devotion we do allow ourselves isn't unquestioning; the centenary of the Easter Rising was in 2016, and it prompted a (perfectly calm, non-hysterical) national conversation about whether we should really be honoring these guys when they got a lot of innocent bystanders killed. Meanwhile, Americans still act like you murdered their grandparents if you point out the founding fathers owned slaves. 

“It’s one of the things the Founders’ Keepers do,” Molly said. “We remember.”

“You remember speeches and letters and things?”

“We remember how the country was founded. You never know, we might have to do it again someday.”

It doesn't matter how the country was founded. That was more than two hundred years ago, when the territory that would become the United States consisted of thirteen colonies on the eastern seaboard of a landmass that was still incredibly distant and remote from the continent of their mother nation. America today is far larger, has a much bigger population, is a linchpin of the global economy and is sitting on a stockpile of weapons that could literally end all life on Earth. American military bases and soldiers span the globe. When you gain that level of power and influence over that many lives, you have to start thinking rationally instead of slavishly following a document written by dead men.

Don't get me wrong: parts of the US constitution were very progressive for their day, compared to the norms of much of human civilization. The doctrines of freedom of speech, religion and thought are worth defending (although I have to point out that they were never actually practiced as thoroughly in the US as they have been in other countries that adopted them later), but the hypocrisies and out-dated nature of America's founding principles can't be ignored.

The fact that the declaration of independence declared all men to be equal (and back then, they really did mean all men) at a time when white Americans owned slaves is a fatal flaw in the basic fabric of the US that commentators were pointing out even when it was written, and which the country has never dealt with since. That a nation founded on stolen land could have the inalienable rights of property ownership woven so tightly into its DNA is a sad farce.

Words like "freedom" and "liberty" didn't mean to the founding fathers what they mean to most people today, and their primary beef with Britain wasn't tyranny or oppression but unfair taxation and political representation. Of all of the territories that have broken free of British rule, the American colonies were treated the best and had the least cause to revolt; what injustice did exist in colonial times was mostly perpetuated by the very people demanding "freedom", and continued to be perpetuated by them for generations afterwards.

American constitution-thumpers aren't just trying to regress to a time whose moral outlook is wildly incompatible with the modern world, they're trying to restore a past that never actually existed.

...Anyway, let's hear Molly say some things that aren't true.

Noah asks why they're bothering to remember this stuff, because it's not like anyone is burning history books. Molly responds that they might as well be, and uses as her first example the fact that American elementary school kids are likely to only know false stories about Washington, like the cherry tree thing, rather than actual facts.

And okay, I agree it's weird that a lot of Americans are still teaching their kids things which we know for a fact to be wrong, but that's hardly the most egregious example she could have given. What about the fact that conflicts America was involved in are taught from a completely skewed perspective, or the way so many Americans are so ignorant of the world outside their own borders, or

Ask a kid in high school about Ronald Reagan and they’ll probably tell you that he was a B-list-actor-turned-politician, or that he was the guy who happened to be in office when Gorbachev ended the Cold War.


Ask a college kid about Social Security and they’ll probably tell you that it was intended to provide guaranteed retirement income for all Americans.


Glenn, you're really not trying very hard here.

He closed the book carefully and gave it back to her. “Molly?”


“Hit me with a little Thomas Paine.”

Geez Noah, you've barely even started dating. Leave the kinky stuff until you know each other better.

So Molly starts reciting Thomas Paine to him from memory, which is a totally normal thing that normal people do. Then they go back to her room, and Noah asks if all of those guns Hollis has are legal. This means it's time to talk about the second amendment, because by god, Glenn Back has opinions about lots of things, and you are going to hear them all.

“It took over a year, and the guy who owns them had to get fingerprinted, interviewed, and charged about a thousand dollars to exercise a constitutional right.”

“Welcome to New York. There’s a lot you’ve got to live with when you live here.”

It's funny how the politically neutral Noah just naturally agrees with Molly about everything, with the sole exception of whether there's a point to standing up to encroaching government tyranny. The book is set up almost like a religious conversion narrative, but Noah seems to be 90% of the way to Beckianity already.

She spoke the words thoughtfully. “‘The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’—that seems pretty clear to me.”

Except that's...not what the second amendment says. Noah kind of points this out, except even then neither of them state the actual text of the amendment, like the book is afraid you might think too hard about it if you saw it written down on the page.

“The word militia meant something different back then, Noah. Ben Franklin started the first one here. The militia was every citizen who was ready and able to protect their community, whatever the threat. It was as natural as having a lock on your front door.

“Today the police are there to protect society, but they’re not obligated to protect you and me as individuals. The Supreme Court’s ruled on that quite a few times. And they certainly won’t protect us from the government, God forbid it would ever come to that. So the way I read it, the Second Amendment simply says we have the right to be ready to defend ourselves and our neighbors if we have to.”

Yes, except that's not what the amendment literally says. People who take this approach argue simultaneously that the second amendment is perfectly straight-forward and clear, and also that its actual meaning isn't evident in the text itself and needs to be divined via historical interpretation.

Also: the big divisive phrase isn't "militia", it's well regulated, which the book doesn't touch on at all. Taken at face value, that would at the very least seem to actively call for some form of gun control law; under a stricter interpretation, you could argue that it permits the formation of state armies like the national guard and nothing more.

This is the problem with basing core founding principals of your society on the words of twelve dudes who aren't around to explain what they meant.

After settling the second amendment debate once and for all, Molly and Noah talk about the Trapper Keeper book collection some more (we're more than 50% of the way through this, by the by, and I feel like the actual plot still hasn't started). Molly confirms my earlier suspicion that some of the books were written by the Keepers' ideological enemies, but doesn't specify which ones--sneaky move, Glenn.

There's also a weird bit where they talk about the Ragnar Benson books that tell you how to cage humans and make homemade flamethrowers, and Molly reveals that he's Hollis' uncle. Except Ragnar Benson is a real person. Does that mean Hollis is based on someone real as well? Or is Glenn Beck writing IRL fanfic of underground right-wing authors? This is very strange.

“Hollis?” He pointed over his shoulder with a thumb. “My Hollis?”

"My" Hollis, eh Noah? I think our protagonist wants to take a stroll through Hollis’ mountain trails, if you know what I mean.

Molly immediately dispels the gay by inviting Noah to lie in a hammock with her, and there's some more cute romantic banter about Noah being afraid to get into it in case it flips over. I swear, this should have been a bubbly rom-com about an overworked executive falling for a homespun country girl from, like, South Carolina or Alabama or wherever the hell Molly is from.

“No, it won’t.” She held out her hands to him, beckoning. “I just want to forget about everything else for a little while, okay? Come here, now. Don’t make me ask you again.”

Molly is clearly going to be the top in this relationship.

Our two lover birds lie in the hammock and blab about the American revolution some more. Have I mentioned how fucking long this chapter is?

“It’s more than that. Our rights come from a higher power, Noah. Men can’t grant them, and men can’t take them away. That’s the difference, I think, between what happened in the French Revolution and what we achieved in ours. We believed we had the will of God behind us, and they believed in the words of Godwin. One endures, and the other fell to human weakness.”

There are two major downsides to this way of thinking (apart from the fact that it, you know, isn't true).

The first is that if your rights are eternal and unchangeable, they can't adapt to the changing circumstances you find yourself in. The "all guns all the time" interpretation of the second amendment made a lot more sense when the most powerful weapons available were slow-loading, inaccurate muskets. It makes a whole lot less sense when civilians can buy high-powered weapons capable of mowing down dozens of people with almost no practice (according to Anders Breivik, the use of a holo-sight made shooting his victims incredibly easy, even at a distance).

When you talk about "changing" rights, alarm bells tend to go off in people's heads, and for good reason. But change can go both ways. We can decide that people deserve more rights than what they're currently afforded.

For example, as the digital age progresses, we're dealing with new questions about privacy and anonymity that our ancestors never could have dreamed of; if, a decade or two down the road, Americans decide that a constitutional right to digital privacy is the only way to protect people against the depredations of technology companies, how will people who believe the constitution is divinely inspired respond? Surely, the only consistent reply would be to say that if God intended Americans to have that right, he would have beamed it into the founding fathers' heads at the time the constitution was written.

The US is one of the only countries not to ratify several landmark UN resolutions on human rights, including the conventions on the rights of children, women and disabled people, partially out of this mindset that "rights" are a god-given phenomenon that humans can't and shouldn't tamper with, rather than human constructs that we can change if it suits our needs (there were other reasons in all of those cases, but thinking about them for too long makes me want to break things).

The second reason Molly's rights-from-heaven approach is bad is because it ensures that bad rights--or bad interpretations of rights--are much more difficult to fight against. Religious groups in the US have argued (and judges have sometimes agreed) that the right to practice their religion includes the right to discriminate against certain people. Some have even argued that other people gaining rights, like gay couples gaining the right to marry, would actively infringe on Christians' religious freedom, even if they weren't compelled to alter their own behaviour or conduct in any way whatsoever. This obviously makes no sense, and without the backing of a higher power there'd be zero justification for it; but invoke God and the idea that American's rights come from him, and suddenly they've got solid ground to stand on, at least among conservatives.

There's some more blathering where Molly explains some of Glenn Beck's core ideals (but obscured by a lot of vagueness so you don't think too hard about the implications) and then Noah finds a sketch she made of a peaceful, rugged-individualist log cabin.

“Just a place like this to share with someone, and the freedom to live our lives there. The pursuit of happiness, you know? That means a different thing to everybody, and that’s the way it should be. But this is mine; this is what I dream about.”

"Everyone gets to decide their own idea of happiness, but if you pick the wrong one we'll actively stop you from pursuing it, ha ha."

Noah suddenly starts having a migraine or something:

Then he noticed a subtle blur that had crept into his vision. A little shimmer had formed around sources of light, and though he blinked it away the strange haze returned after a moment more, this time accompanied by an odd discomfort, like a passing wave of vertigo.

I thought this sounded like the beginning of an aura migraine, but nope, Molly drugged him with that southern sweet tea.

He felt her arms around him tight, her tears on his cheek, her lips near his ear as the blackness finally, fully descended. Almost gone, but the three simple words she’d whispered to him then would stay clear in his mind even after everything else had faded away into the dark.

“I’m so sorry.”


I will admit, I didn't see that coming.