Gov. Andy Beshear and the Bare Minimum: He can do better, and so can we

Here in Kentucky, we’re on week three-ish of COVID-19 quarantine, and our governor, Andy Beshear, has gained local and national attention for his response to the global pandemic. Some have likened him to Mr. Rogers due to the comforting nature of his daily 5 p.m. Facebook Live streams. Others have dubbed him a sex symbol, naming his competence and empathy as clear turn-ons. Perhaps most famous are the widely circulating Andy memes, said to provide folks with a good laugh and sense of comradery during these times. Gov. Beshear seems to have been elevated to celebrity status overnight, and his public approval seems to be at an all-time high — at least according to my news feed, where folks are tirelessly praising his leadership.

That disturbs me. Why?

Well, because there are serious implications with elevating Beshear as a hero for simply showing basic human decency.

Yes, I’m grateful that Beshear is seemingly consistent, considerate and reliable — but I hold these standards for everyone on this Earth. Why applaud Andy when he’s only done the bare minimum?

I believe this is happening for a few reasons:

1) Kentucky is recovering from four years of Matt Bevin, and we’re happy with anything we can get. Local activist and organizer Jenny Bencomo Suárez said it best: “I know we’re still getting acquainted with someone who isn’t a Christian fundamentalist/extremist, hyper-capitalist, racist … who had a masturbatory obsession with ending safe and legal abortions above all; however there are still standards and white men don’t deserve praise for doing the minimum of what’s demanded.”

2) Many of us, particularly white folks and folks with privilege, have a tolerance for white male mediocrity that we refuse to interrogate. In her article “The Audacity of White Mediocrity,” author, poet and activist and LEO columnist Hannah Drake wrote that white mediocrity is when white folks are held to the lowest standards and receive the most praise, while Black folks are held to much higher standards and receive little to no praise for similar and better work. In addition to disparities in standards and recognition, Black folks and folks of color also experience violence and harassment as a result of simply existing and being great. A good example of white mediocrity might be if I, a white person, am widely celebrated for writing this article, while Black folks have been dismissed, harassed and threatened for naming and pushing back against these ideas for centuries.

How might we apply this concept to our assessment of Andy Beshear? His whiteness, maleness, cisness and socioeconomic status work together to produce a saturated privilege… which ultimately, increases the level of bullshit and mediocrity many of us are willing to tolerate.

3) We allow our personal feelings for Beshear as an individual to cloud our critique of the state as a system.

In 2014, Reetu Mody wrote an article called: “The Criminal Justice System Is Not Broken, It’s Doing Exactly What It’s Meant To Do.” I love this title, because it’s so clear and telling and true. In the article, Mody critiques those who ignore the racist and classist functions of the U.S. government and calls for dismantling the system altogether. She writes that while reforms may be well-intentioned and result in some changes for some communities, they ultimately leave the state and its foundations intact — thus, enabling the continued violence that has been experienced, enacted and witnessed in this country since colonization.

When we consider any past or recent history preserved by marginalized folks, we find that the U.S. government was created by white, straight men for the sole purpose of asserting their dominance and maintaining their social, cultural, political and economic power. We also find plenty of examples of the ways in which that same government has controlled, disenfranchised and murdered Black folks, Native Americans, folks of color, women, queer and trans folks, disabled folks, immigrants and poor folks to achieve that goal for literal centuries.

I am not suggesting Beshear is solely responsible for creating or dismantling these conditions. Nor am I here to judge you for finding comfort or safety in the Andy memes. We all have the right to cope in ways that are accessible to us during this collective trauma, and I hope you continue to find joy where you can. However, I am suggesting that there are complex power dynamics that exist between individuals and the government, and it is in our best interest to constantly engage them. The current reality is that the government has a proven track record of creating struggles for marginalized folks and then ignoring them. Having a likable person in office does not excuse or change that.

We all have a role to play in social change. And right now, Beshear’s role is to:

1) understand his power as a white male governor 2) enact immediate, systemic changes that uplift and protect Black folks, Native Americans, folks of color, LGBTQIA+ folks, undocumented folks, poor folks, disabled folks, children, the elderly, immigrants, sex workers and all marginalized folks who are always, already struggling and 3) keep that same energy long after quarantine has subsided.

Right now, this means freezing rent and utilities and forgiving any accumulating balance. Housing the homeless. Providing food, income and healthcare for all in need, no questions asked. Releasing folks from jails and prisons. Ending ICE raids. Protecting undocumented folks, sex workers and frontline workers. Providing information, services and resources in various formats and languages, increasing accessibility for immigrants and folks with disabilities. Student loan forgiveness. And much, much more.

Beshear and other elected officials do have the power to enact and initiate these changes: Suspending evictions and loosening unemployment restrictions is only a Band-Aid, and we deserve sustainable, holistic solutions that provide immediate, direct support while addressing the root problems: capitalism, racism, sexism and other social harms. Due to its foundations and history, the government is unable to deliver such solutions — and yet, the decisions political leaders make can, do and will have great impact on us.

How do we reconcile these contradictions? I try to remember that the government is only one avenue through which we might find some relief, and even this is a generous assessment by my standards. As author and activist adrienne maree brown noted, the state is not capable of participating in any transformative processes with us because they are so deeply invested in a culture of white supremacy, punishment and oppression. Thus, we must continue to generate our own solutions, our own possibilities, within our networks and our trusted communities.

In short, we must take care of each other. Our role as citizens is to take what we can while remembering: No one saves us but us. Andy may be your friend, but the government is not. Beshear can do better — and so can we.

[Author’s note: As I reread what I’ve written, it feels important to name my deep respect and love for political organizers working for social justice. Years ago, I attempted political organizing and burned out because I couldn’t figure out how to navigate a system that is so dedicated to harming my people. I recognize that it takes great courage and capacity to show up each day and grapple with these complexities in real time, especially when many of you are directly targeted and impacted by the legislation and policies you are fighting against and fighting for. But regardless, you keep on keepin’ on, because you are truly dedicated to improving our lives. My critique of the system is not at all a critique of you individuals. I know my role in illuminating the conditions under which we live and imagining ways forward is inextricably connected to the work you do on a daily basis. I learn from your commitment, passion and ability to hold nuance. Thanks for being you.]

Madeline McCubbins (they/them) is a queer, nonbinary activist, artist and writer. Follow their art on Instagram @warm_scribbles and creative journey @themadelinemccubbins.