Autism Without Fear: The Presidential Election in Green Bay, Wisconsin…as Seen Through Spectrum Eyes

10/31/2016 10:41 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2016

by Michael John Carley

As an individual on the autism spectrum, I’ve written a tad about my seemingly interplanetary move from New York City to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and I’ll no doubt write more. The anthropological tome inside my head is already thousands of horror/comedy-filled pages long.

But in addition to my snooty New York vs. Green Bay comparisons, this election has also brought up three spectrum observations that I believe deserve voicing; interpretations that neurotypical pundits don’t seem to be making, and that surprisingly have nothing to do with Donald Trump’s attempted humiliation of a disabled reporter.

1. Living in a swing state stinks

(…even if Billy Bush made it less swinging)

Imagine you’re me, and you’ve lived in New York for decades. It’s a place where—Pataki and Bloomberg withstanding—the Dems win seemingly every election. Your vote, arguably, doesn’t count too much; so you can often flick the switch for a third party that touches your heart. Be it the Libertarian Party, the Worker’s World Party, or even the “Rent is Too Damn High” Party (yes, this was an actual party), go ahead. Let your heart decide, because your head isn’t needed.

But here in a very split Green Bay, cultural mores permit Trump signs on the front lawns of my neighbors. As I walk my dog past “Trump/Pence” or “Crooked Hillary,” I bitterly miss living in any atmosphere that would hold my neighbors accountable for what I believe those signs really mean. I fantasize about spray-painting “Racist!”, or “Grab my pussy!”, alongside their houses (trust me, admirers of President Bush living in NYC had guts). Many here would suggest that it is now time for me to become more nice.

For almost two years, I tried unsuccessfully to adopt, to hold back, to be “Wisconsinnice.” After all, no one had asked us to move here.

But I stunk at it. I stunk so bad that no one will ever believe I tried.

However, in trying, I learned some things; anthropological lessons that have been crystallized by this polarizing election. To start: Not only was Wisconsinnice not working for me, it doesn’t work for them. The whole “nice” thing, seemingly mandated outside the metropolises here, is not in place from a position of strength or community—at least not anymore. It seems now to honor a fear of confrontation.

To my astonishment there is little Midwestern work ethic, little Midwestern toughness (physical or mental), little of the Midwestern sense of community that I was looking forward to when we moved here. Aside from the inevitable exceptions to the rule, there is merely racial segregation, a poor economy, a Republican party with twice the obstructionist mandate as the national version, a Democratic party with 1/100th the intelligence of the national version…and supposed values that I keep hearing about, but that seem shallowly derived from TV commercials for either beer, or pickup trucks. Crazy, right? Or is it the angst of my exile that causes me to believe so much damage exists?

They say that Green Bay is a great place to raise kids. But (as a father) I vehemently disagree. They cite the parks, the quiet, and the low crime rate in their argument. But I see kids here being raised with no exposure to the outside world, if the outside neighborhood! Our job as parents is to give our kids wings, not handcuffs; and I don’t see a lot of young people wanting to spend a year in Indonesia, or to live for a year in Paris. The kids here seem to want to stay close by after graduating. Like their parents, they lack confidence.

If it is an over-emphasis on loving and protecting children, well, as Gil Grissom once said, Nazis loved their children too. Nazis were just as nice as they waved to one another while mowing their lawns.

To be thought of as “good” (as opposed to “nice”) people actually have to lift more of a finger.

Being nice has its strategic usefulness. And when you don’t need to be confrontational, you’re kind of a dick if you’re not nice. But being nice is overrated, and it is a far cry—not synonymous—from being good. In a prior career as a minor-league diplomat, I hung out with both a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. They were good, and they were not nice. One was even kind of unbearable to be around.

Whether it’s the autism thing, or the New York thing, I now see that being a town bull in a China shop is inescapable. For instance, in a heavily-Catholic Green Bay, I have endured several conversations that ventured into LGBTQ territory:

(They say:)

Well, it’s complicated.

(and then, borrowing from a prior column, and feeling an overinflated sense of purpose, I say:)

No, it’s 2016. It's bigotry.

No, conversations don’t always go so righteously for me. By being so “in your face” I justify accusations of narcissism, egomania. It causes some problems…

But it solves more. I do not suffer their region-wide depression. And when I am wrong, there is accountability..

This element of “let’s get it out of our systems” with regard to lawn signs, this UGLY Presidential campaign, and the debatable value of all around truthfulness…has been discussed as a possible positive this election year—but only in the “burning man” context: We advocate for the topic of hard discussions in the belief that we can’t build something new unless we completely demolish what existed prior, whether it’s the Republican Party, Obamacare, or Washington itself.

Otherwise, we run from the hard topics, we discuss truthfulness as a negative, because our fears of violent (and unlikely) revolution terrify us.

But we can have these conversations without falling apart. I don’t insult (to be fair, fellow baptized) Catholics by insinuating that they can’t handle my criticisms. Somewhere, I believe I honor them by assuming them capable. And by being so real/confrontational, I think we’ve learned a lot from this election about the corporate biases of TV news networks, the hypocrisy of conservative Christians, and the crap lurking behind the Clinton veneer (Bill, just shut up and go hide, willya?). This can’t be all bad…

What seems bad is that the Trump crowd was denied the chance to use the rest of us as a sounding board as their ideas developed. It’s classic cabin fever, or what happens when there is no accountability—where if you think of an ok idea—but have no one to bounce the idea off—you inevitably start to think that your “ok idea” is a brilliant idea, when it’s not.

Couple that with the fact that we, as a whole, are becoming less afraid to ostracize one another. In the Midwest, this presents a dilemma. And it is very hard to find your true community, if not your true self, if you are consistently apologizing for your passion. As much as they are not my true community, Trump fans have finally realized this, or have finally been encouraged to express themselves, albeit at such a late juncture that their passions have to be referred to as uninformed.

By not engaging, we ignore. And when we get ignored, we get angry.

2. The word, “Unite.”

There is one element that unites all voters, but that no candidate will dare admit, and that is this: None of us really want to be united anymore. People of my values have no desire to respectfully share space with those we consider bigots. And in turn, the so-called bigots have finally done what any PR-minded strategist would advise…own the criticism, turn the accusation into a counter-accusation. The “bigots” don’t hide anymore. We can see them! And they are proudly proclaiming that they don’t care if we think they’re bigots. This is working for them in the short term. However…

3. Should bigots be denied their humanity?

I don’t think so, especially when bigotry itself is frighteningly human. If you grow up in a segregated area where everyone is the same, you will feel threatened by those who are different than you. It’s as simple as that. Let’s say that something then happens to turn the existing fear into hate, and then…

Our mistake herein is to believe that we have to want to hang out with bigots because they’re so human. No, no, no!

Or, I could tell you about one of my Trump-loving neighbors who can be “the sweetest old lady” as we discuss kids, or as our dogs sniff each other. But then the “nice” thing kicks in, and that hokey, Disney channel argument that “we’re all good people”…No: we’re not doing that either.

It is not a sin to be uneducated, and it is certainly not a sin to be insecure. This mantra, that I have always believed in, is tested here in Wisconsin. Recently, I felt obligated to get excited because the Wisconsin Governor’s Council on Autism was considering putting a single spectrum person on the council. Really? That’s progress? Are you kidding me???

It is a sin to be dirty, however. And whether it’s a) a youth hockey organization where the undeserving children of Board members are making spring teams, b) unqualified (and dirty) special education directors preside over entire public school systems, or c) a statewide Joint Finance Committee that slips legislation in at 2 a.m. so the public won’t have a chance to comment on it?…Trust me, they are dirty in Green Bay.

Are the dirty protagonists to blame? Or should we instead look to what I believe are the real culprits—The bystanders, or the collective, who regard such behavior as “same old same old,” who do nothing, because that wouldn’t be nice, and so they therefore justify the behaviors? The bad guys are only doing what’s expected of them. They take advantage of opportunities. Here in Wisconsin, it’s our side that is the problem. We provide them the opportunities, and we say nothing when their indiscretions surface. It is nice to live in a town where everyone is nice. But nice can’t exist to disguise a fear of confrontation.

How we confront is the measuring stick, not whether or not we confront.

***

As a Bernie guy who believes that unequal distribution of wealth and resources is our nation’s biggest threat, I still have to swallow my pride and acknowledge that we are better off financially than 90% of the rest of the planet, that our athletes just out-medaled the world by a considerable margin at the Olympics, and that (going out on a limb here) ISIS doesn’t really threaten the people of Wisconsin. We may not be “great” but we’re sure a lot more presentable than we have been in the past.

Yet Trump supporters feel differently (and no, Trump supporters are not just conspiracy-loving males living in poverty). We expect them to behave in ways they are not conditioned to. Even Nate Silver, my hero of pragmatism and data, seems to have given up trying to understand them. Now I hear him use words like “stupid” and “disgusting” like I do when I’m frustrated. No, Trump supporters in their ideological infancy weren’t challenged to do more than they could. The problem is they weren’t challenged enough. And to be challenged is to be included.

And without training and opportunity, my dog will only poop on the lawn she chooses. My calling her stupid will not help or encourage her to choose the lawn of my choice.

Out of shape, over-entertained, isolationist-thinking, mostly-white “human beings” can’t see how unthreatened they are because they’re segregated, they’re uninspired, and because we’ve made them feel left out. Just imagine...What if one of ours—someone in a position of power—or even a perceived dick like me (though if you were nice you’d blame my autism), had stated, say, 5 years ago? . . .

Hey gang, look. We know now that we’ve been invalidating your experiences. I guess we just don’t understand why you believe things that…don’t really gel with anything the rest of the planet thinks. But either way, we responded by putting you down. This made you justifiably angry. We’re sorry. We fucked up.”

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Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, a School Consultant, and the author of “Asperger’s From the Inside-Out” (Penguin/Perigee 2008), “Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum,” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), and the upcoming “’Why Am I Afraid of Sex?’ Building Sexual Confidence in the Autism Spectrum…and Maybe Everyone Else!” In 2000, he and one of his two sons were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Re-evaluated in 2014, Michael John was diagnosed with ASD. For back columns of “Autism Without Fear,” or for more information on Michael John, you can go to www.michaeljohncarley.com

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