This Is Not a Game

Somehow we keep forgetting real lives are at stake

This is the mid-week issue of Men Yell at Me. A newsletter that is opinions, essays, and journalism about politics and gender in the middle of America. You can read past issues here. If you like it, you can subscribe. If you don’t like it, you can still subscribe.


Sometime in the spring of 2020, I emailed the head of the Iowa GOP, Jeff Kaufmann, to let him know I was getting death threats. I did not know if he was behind them. But they had ticked up since I began my job at the newspaper. The first time I’d met him, he’d screamed at me, calling me fake news. And he had posted on Facebook a collection of my tweets, calling me unprofessional. The Facebook post had removed my handle, but the signal was clear: this was war. Every time that happened, I got an uptick in emails and DMs from people calling me a cunt and so much worse. That summer, a reporter had been fired from the Des Moines Register because of a GOP-led social media backlash. And I was afraid of something worse.

I did not then, nor now believe in a vast conspiracy. I only knew that Iowa GOP operatives have sock puppet accounts that exist just to encourage online trolling. And I knew several of them had come after me and that GOP operatives were actively campaigning to get me fired. I was collateral damage in a war of words. And it was impacting my life. My ex husband’s life and my children’s lives. But this wasn’t about that; this was about seeing me as a human being. I am a human. I am a neighbor and a mother, and those words, so many of them flung about on the internet, had a direct effect on my life and put me and my children at risk. I didn’t want the disagreements to end, just the harassment. 

He never replied. 

Several months later, the social media attacks escalated. My face appeared in an attack ad against Joni Ernst’s challenger, Theresa Greenfield, and then I was fired.

It’s easy to believe this war of words is just a game. People log in and post dunks and insults and they get likes and shares. Some politicians’ entire personalities seem to exist online, quote-tweeting AOC or the president, reply-guying their way to fame. Life seems like a little video game, won and lost through words typed out on glowing screens.

Even reporting has a horse-race approach to the sum total of our reality. COVID deaths are just another number, just another percentage in the political accounting of life. Legislation, whose passage could materially affect the lives and livelihoods of so many people in America, is treated not as a serious issue, but as gamesmanship.

But this is not a game. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that what is at stake in these battles are our lives.

In 2007, two of my sisters were in a devastating car accident. At the time, my father was out of a job and my sisters thought they were insured by their college. But because of a paperwork issue, the college said they weren’t covered. So while my sisters fought for their lives in the hospital, we worried about how to pay to keep them alive. One sister was given the wrong blood type during emergency surgery and later had to declare bankruptcy at 18 because of the expensive and experimental therapy used to keep her alive.

Eventually, under Obamacare, the loophole that their lives had fallen through would be closed. And I think about the pain and the fear and the worry we had in the hospital and in those months and how so much of our trauma and loss could have so easily been solved.

I also have sisters whose entire lives have been changed by the Child Care Tax Credit. In Colorado, some estimates show that the program will help pump $3 billion into the state economy. 

Politics is not a game. 

Christopher Hooks wrote in 2016,  “That’s what politics is — the way we distribute pain. It’s not a sport or a fraternity or a game. It’s how we determine who gets medication and who dies young, who learns in a class of twenty kids and who learns in a class of thirty, whose school has a counselor that’s trained to look for signs of sexual abuse and who doesn’t.”

So no, this isn’t a game. It might be fun to play Twitter pundit, worrying over the deficit, dunking on someone who you don’t like. Explaining what “real Socialism” is to someone who jokingly Tweeted about it. But what hangs in the balance are the actual fragile human lives.

It’s often so clear that the people who treat politics like a game are insulated from the worst of its effects.

Recently, activists who followed Sen. Kyrsten Sinema into a bathroom at the University of Arizona were criticized for not being civil enough. As if civility had anything to do with the brutal realities of our lives. All civility means is the insulation between power brokers and their actions.

Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin are currently holding up vital legislation that would close the Medicare gap, save people $50 a month on insurance premiums, lower housing and drug costs. These numbers might seem small, but when I first left my marriage, some months the difference between making rent and not was $50.

So, while life-changing and popular legislation is being held up in the Senate by two senators, political pundits are hand-wringing over whether people should protest in bathrooms. Hand-wringing about the optics. Pearl-clutching about the budget deficit, when lives are at stake.

I once wrote a profile of Tucker Carlson. I remember hanging up from the interview with him so frustrated. Because I had wanted to ask him about his words and his rhetoric. I wanted to ask him about how, for him, they were a game that made him very rich, but for me, these ideas and ideologies, they’d wrecked my whole marriage, my town, my church, everything. But I was unsuccessful. 

I told my friends it was a bust. I hadn’t been able to ask my question, not really. He interrupted and joked and filibustered. And then a friend said that perhaps the non-answer was an answer. Not long after that article came out, Carlson claimed that Antifa broke his door. There was no evidence of that. He made himself the victim. The reality was that people who were frustrated with the rhetoric, how it was influencing policy and their lives, protested him and for one of the few times, he could not hide from the consequences of his words.

And he had to face it. But instead, he made himself the victim.

Sinema’s response wasn’t much different. She called the protest “not legitimate” as if there were a right way for people to fight for their lives. 

It’s often so clear that the people who treat politics like a game are insulated from the worst of its effects.


Further Reading:

Christopher Hook’s important 2016 essay. And I liked Michelle Goldberg’s take on Sinema.

And….

Also, happy Got-Fired Anniversary to me! A year ago this week, my face was in a GOP attack ad, I was called “insubordinate” because I told my paper not to publish a racist op-ed, and a GOP staffer whined because I made fun of him for putting on a chicken costume. In the year since, I’ve sold a book, written about religion and the insurrection, cancel culture, birth rates, Facebook memes, and the summer we never had. I also wrote for other outlets, decrying Iowa’s pandemic response and a tale of Iowa dentists and the First Amendment. I am very grateful to everyone who thinks this writing is worth reading and engaging with, even when you think I am so very, very wrong. I hope you stick around for another year. I hope to bring in new voices and take on bigger projects and keep crowning dinguses. To celebrate, I’m having a small sale on newsletter subscriptions. Or you can just sign up for free. And as always, if you want a membership but can’t afford it, let me know! I’m happy to help.

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Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, sent on Wednesdays, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.