Was America Always This Way?

I think what a lot of us have been struggling with recently is the question of how a country that reelected Barack Obama could have come so close to also reelecting Trump — or, conversely, how a country that very nearly reelected Trump in the midst of outright social and economic catastrophe could also have reelected a Black dude with a middling economy not even a decade before. How could a country that was “always this way,” that always had so many people willing to throw away democracy and lives and the economy in order to keep white supremacy in the White House, have also reelected Obama in 2012? It seems impossible for many of us to imagine that Obama’s America and Trump’s America are not only the same place, but also by and large made up of the same people.

Trump’s overt racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and overall vulgarity have proven to be a remarkably effective turnout operation for white voters, even without all the ballyhooed micro targeting that was supposed to be able to sway close elections. This undeniable fact raises many disturbing questions. If we were always this country, if the deep wells of white supremacy that Trump “activated” were always there, does that mean that Romney could have won in 2012 if he’d only been more racist? If he’d only been a brazen, vulgar, Trumpian figure rather than an avatar of the old school genteel white patriarch, would that have won him the White House? Even worse, could Trump himself have beaten Obama if he’d run in 2012? After all, Obama ’12 only beat Clinton ’16 by 60k votes total, whereas Trump ’16 beat Romney ’12 by over 2 million.

The answer, I think, is no. The Trump path to victory in 2016 was not open in 2012, even if you disregard the influence of Comey’s shenanigans, WikiLeaks dumps of Russian espionage, the differences between Obama and Clinton’s relations with the media, and so on. Why? Because in 2012, Shelby County v. Holder hadn’t happened yet.

A person could be forgiven for thinking of voter suppression as a thing the left has always complained about, that has always been with us, and therefore something that has barely changed over the years. Such a person would be wrong. The 2013 Shelby County decision opened the door to a new wave of voter suppression the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the ’60s. Since that decision, states have been free to close hundreds of polling places, often without warning, to impose new voter ID laws even as they close DMVs, and to purge hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls, a policy the court officially condoned in 2018’s Husted ruling. The Republican Party’s brazenness in pursuing a whites-only electoral strategy owes everything to these decisions.

Much ink has been spilled about negative partisanship over the last few years, with commenters right and left agreeing that Donald Trump has had a particularly polarizing effect on the electorate, jazzing up both his base and his opposition, culminating this year in the highest-turnout election in living memory. In 2012, the last time a Democrat won Florida, it was not unreasonable for Republicans like Romney to worry that going full racist would end up turning out more voters against the GOP than for it. The famous “2012 Election Autopsy” urged national Republicans to abandon the politics of white racial grievance, arguing pretty reasonably that a party that went 1 for 6 in the presidential popular vote was not on a sustainable path (it’s now 1 for 8).

But the Court came to the rescue and provided a different path to victory: doubling down on voter suppression. If you can rally and radicalize your own base while keeping half the people you turn off from ever reaching a polling booth, brazen white supremacy stops being such an automatic loser. In 2016, in a perfect storm of Russian interference, sexism in media, meaningless but scary-sounding FBI announcements, and high third-party margins, it was just barely enough to eke out an electoral victory amid yet another popular vote loss, this one a loss by over 2 percentage points and over two and a half million votes. This year, even with record suppression and the unprecedented gutting of the US postal service, it wasn’t enough.

This is not a victory lap. With a 6-3 Supreme Court and no guarantee of a Senate majority, the Suppress Your Way To Victory path remains, and with it, despite all demographic change, the Rally Racist Whites path. If you think demographic change is bound to overcome legalized voter suppression, I’d encourage you to look up the demographics of the antebellum South. It’s not enough to have the majority on your side, you need the law on your side too. Until we can change the structure of our voting systems, or at least guarantee that they won’t get even worse, the Trumpian path to power will remain. If we can return our small-d democratic infrastructure back even to 2012 levels, that path will almost certainly disappear.

To return to the original question, was white America always this open to racism and demagoguery? Yes. Most certainly. Was that always a viable path to conservative victory? No.

So, have we seen the last of the Romney/Ryan genteel racist? Considering all the genteel racism even on the other side of the aisle, I doubt it. But I suspect that with another Romney-style presidential candidate, Republicans’ white rural turnout problem would return in full force. After Trump’s loss, future Republican candidates will have to reweigh the risks and rewards of relying purely on white supremacy and grievance politics. Or, as famous Twitter personality dril would put it:

I’m Not Woke, and I’m Not Your Ally. Yet.

I’ve been uncomfortable for sometime with the left’s two most common terms for the “good kind” of privileged people: Woke (usually used for white people who aren’t shitty), and Ally (used in all sort of contexts, but my first exposure to the term was in high school in reference to “straight allies” who supported gay rights). It has taken me some time to really put my finger on why I don’t like the way these terms are used.

After all, the language of alliance is deep and descriptive, and the metaphor of wokeness is evocative and powerful. Who can argue that mainstream white culture’s inability to perceive black humanity and all but the most stylized black pain isn’t in some ways like being asleep, and that those who break free from that slumber don’t come out shocked and disoriented? Who would disagree that if we’re on the same team, we’re therefore allies?

Well, first let’s talk about “woke.” To my mind, the term implies that those of us who are woke see what’s going on, but how can anyone ever really see and understand what’s up without being there? Hell, some people aren’t “woke,” don’t get it, even though they ARE there. To accept the term “woke” feels like accepting the idea that a white person can truly, deeply understand all the ins and outs of white supremacy and oppression without having experienced them on the receiving end.

Okay then, but what’s my problem with the language of “allyhood?” I think again it’s the notion that you can be an ally as a noun and retain it as part of your identity, as opposed to the more accurate notion that alliances are things we construct that frequently fall apart. The US and USSR were allies. Then they weren’t. Alliance is something you do toward some shared goal. If your goals aren’t shared, you’re not an ally anymore. I’ve seen white people claim to be allies of people of color in the same breath that they demand that members of that community abandon their goals. That is, frankly, not an alliance by any means.

I like ally better as a verb. White liberals can ally with people of color to elect certain officials, pass certain legislation, effect certain cultural changes etc. Jews have in the past allied with black Christian church leaders and Muslim leaders  to combat white supremacy (hopefully we can keep that going). When you and I ally with each other, that relationship is inherently one of action, and is assumed to be temporary unless proven otherwise. Sometimes such an alliance can also lead to friendships. Great! But you’re only an ally to my cause, and I’m only an ally in yours, if we’re working TOGETHER. If I go ignoring your needs or prioritizing my wants over them, I can no longer consider myself your ally. Our alliance is over.

A Common Misunderstanding of HRC’s Strategy

I went on a massive Twitter rant this morning while I should have been writing book 2 (it’ll be done on time! I promise!), and I figure, now that I’ve spent all this time ranting about this, I may as well get some more mileage out of it by putting it up on my website. It all started with an article in Slate by Will Saletan, in which he points out that Hillary Clinton’s recent “alt-right” speech sought to make Donald Trump unacceptable to mainstream Republicans, but didn’t try to tie down-ballot GOPers to him. So far so good, but Saletan then makes the analytical error of assuming this means she’ll be more conciliatory with Congressional Republicans. Take it away, me!

 

 

A message to the Bernie-or-Bust crowd: Your revolution’s success is conditional on Hillary Clinton winning.

A lot has been made about how Bernie Sanders’ coalition, built almost entirely out of people under 40, is the future of the Democratic party and quite possibly the country. Journalists and “journalists” across the political spectrum all seem to agree on one thing: Hillary Clinton may win this battle, but Bernie Sanders will almost certainly win the war.

There’s just one problem with this analysis: the whole scenario is conditional upon Hillary Clinton becoming the next President of the United States.

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Why I hope Ted Cruz is Nominated

For months, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that I hope Ted Cruz wins the Republican nomination. Why? Because for the last two presidential elections, conservatives have been lying to themselves in a way that endangers our country. When John McCain lost a race that no Republican could have won, conservatives said it was because he was a moderate. When Mitt Romney lost, it was because he was a “moderate.” I can’t overstate how much damage this argument has done to our country – it is this thinking that has encouraged ultraconservatives to run primary campaigns against slightly more practical ultraconservatives, creating a climate of fear among elected Republicans and thereby also creating the culture of brinksmanship that was so dominant in the Boehner years. It’s done real harm to our economy, to our most vulnerable citizens, and to our standing in the world.

Well, Ted Cruz is the Movement Conservative platform come to life, in all of its repulsive glory. A Ted Cruz loss would blow the conservative fantasy of their movement’s popularity to smithereens, because no one is more conservative than Ted Cruz. This is a man who attacked Donald Trump not for his open racism but for saying that we shouldn’t let Americans die in the streets. If he wins a nomination and then loses the general (as he almost surely would), the conservative movement may finally, finally lose its stranglehold on the party.

The danger was always that by some horrible circumstance, Cruz might then go on to win the general election. Well, folks, that looks nearly impossible now. In order to win the general, Cruz will first have to win the nomination at the convention despite having far fewer votes and delegates than Donald Trump, and then somehow unite the party. Put simply, that’s not going to happen. If you have some evidence somewhere that Donald Trump and his supporters are graceful losers, show me, because everything I’ve seen in the last months practically screams otherwise. So we’re starting from a place where Ted Cruz essentially steals the nomination from the Trump people, prompting an even greater crackup than a Trump nomination would. Trump has no incentive to play nice, and his supporters aren’t loyal Republican party people. A good third of the party would peel off to either write in “Trump” or stay home altogether, and you can’t win an election with only two thirds of just under half the country.

So this is the scenario I’ve been hoping for all along, and it looks like it may well happen: Ted Cruz is going to steal the nomination at the convention, and then be crushed in the general. The implications down-ballot are enormous. We may well be looking at a solidly Democratic Senate, a House that’s much closer than expected, and a President Clinton empowered to nominate whomever she pleases to the Supreme Court, for however many vacancies open up within the next two to four years. What kind of a person will she likely nominate? Well, let’s see. Last time we had a Clinton in office – the more conservative Clinton, mind you – we ended up with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I’m very happy right now.

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N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.

What is Activism For?

This will be a short one, I promise. I just want to take a moment to point to tonight’s huge wins for the Black Lives Matter movement. In Illinois, state attorney Anita Alvarez lost her reelection bid by big margins after gaining notoriety for shielding Chicago police after their killing of Laquan McDonald. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, it looks like County Prosecutor Tim McGinty will lose his reelection bid too, after coming under fire for refusing to prosecute the killer of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Put simply, THIS is what activism is for. The little races are often the ones that matter the most, and local government has in many ways a lot more power over people’s day-to-day lives than the federal government does. Building a protest movement is sometimes deceptively easy, and many movements have failed because of an inability to focus on those places where real change is possible.

Black Lives Matter, for all that it is decentralized in its leadership, seems to understand this on a basic level. Their ability to influence the next president more or less ends once the the Democratic primary does, but the problems that BLM seeks to address are primarily state-level problems (ignore the headline and read the whole article – you’ll be glad you did). The vast majority of state- and county-level races have so little public attention that a modest bit of organizing can go a very long way. And those races matter a LOT. DAs and county prosecutors, for example, have practically absolute power over whether police are held accountable for criminal behavior.

When Occupy Wall Street was at its height, its most obvious flaw was that it functioned much more as an expression of left-wing rage than as a driver of alternative policies. Black Lives Matter isn’t falling into the same traps, and that means it’s also much less likely to fall into the same memory hole.

On Fleeing the Donald Trump Presidency

A Jewish friend recently told me in all seriousness that she had renewed her family’s passports and was prepared to flee the country if Donald Trump actually won the presidency. The statement struck me as odd, but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking.

Let’s be clear: I do not put genocide past Donald Trump. He has encouraged violence among his supporters in ways large and small, called Mexican immigrants rapists, suggested that entire Muslim families be exterminated for having a family member involved with ISIS (with no due process to verify that you’ve targeted the right people, of course), and suggested that we ban Muslim immigrants and deport those who are already here. He has come out in favor of torture. If you think that he’s just saying these things because he thinks they’re what his supporters want to hear, I encourage you to read this 1922 New York Times article about how this Adolf Hitler chap was definitely just playing to his base and didn’t really mean any harm, for all of his violent rhetoric.

So why do I find it strange to suggest that as liberal Jews, we should flee the country if Donald Trump is elected president? Because fleeing isn’t good enough.

First of all, the 21st century United States is not early 20th-century Germany. It is not one of many world powers struggling for supremacy in a pre-atomic world. If tomorrow the United States decided to exterminate a group of people, it would almost undoubtedly succeed. If, for example, President Trump were to decide to drop hydrogen bombs on Iran or Russia or even China, literally nothing in the world could stop him. On a smaller scale, you may have heard of these things called drones that are super popular among the US intelligence community…

On the whole, running is useless.

But even so, that’s not what really bothered me about my friend’s suggestion. What bothered me was the idea that we, the Jews of America, should flee the country rather than stay and try to protect the actual targets of Trump’s demagoguery. Because for all that Donald Trump is undeniably anti-semitic, his anti-semitism is a matter of ugly and thoughtless stereotyping, not hate. We are not the targets. The targets are Muslims, Latinos, and black Americans. Internationally his hate is directed primarily against China and Mexico.

First they came for the Muslims, the Mexicans, and the People of Color, but I said nothing because I was already on a flight to Israel.

That’s my concern. I feel that if we are serious about Never Again, we have to be willing to risk ourselves to protect others. We have to be willing to stay behind in Trump’s America, to protest his policies and even to take our neighbors into our homes if need be. We can’t hang around watching Schindler’s List and feeling powerless when there may be actual lives that we can save.

If we’re lucky, it won’t come up. Trump will not be our next president, or if that disaster should befall our country, hopefully his election will fail to turn America into the authoritarian hellscape that many of us fear. The risk that a President Trump would turn to genocide is real and it’s frightening, but it’s not exactly a lock. Maybe he’d turn out to be less Hitler and more Arnold Schwarzenegger. One can’t know for sure.

But if it does go down the way my friend fears, it would be wrong for us to abandon our country to the authoritarians. America will need people of good conscience more than ever. As Jews in the 21st century, our country has chosen to grant us the privilege of whiteness; the least we can do is to use it to defend Trump’s true targets.

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N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.

Why I’m Not for Single-Payer Either

It should come as no surprise that as a young, white, northeastern liberal, I have a lot of friends who are Bernie Sanders supporters. While I have come to feel the same frustration that Clinton ’08 supporters felt toward us Obama folks, I have been quick to note that I appreciate the way Sanders’ candidacy has been moving the Overton window leftward. That having been said, I’ll make a confession: I think some of Bernie Sanders’ actual ideas are pretty lousy.

Single-Payer is one of these.

Yes, other countries have Single-Payer (or its cousin, Socialized Medicine) and yes, health care in those countries is much cheaper than it is here, for about the same quality of care. Yes, I believe that universal healthcare is an essential piece of the liberal cause, and no, I don’t believe that “Obamacare” is sufficient in its current state.

“So what’s the problem?” you ask. “Are you going to give me that old, ‘America is different because of its political system’ stuff? We’re trying to change the political system!”

Except, of course, that you haven’t got any strategy to change the political system, besides voting for Bernie Sanders. And, frankly, that’s not a plan.

Guys, millions of people stood up in 2008 and said, ‘enough is enough.’ President Obama won by millions of votes, picking up electors from surprising places like Indiana and Omaha, Nebraska. It was a mind-blowing victory. But it didn’t change conservatives’ minds, and it didn’t intimidate their representatives in Congress. I know this is hard for people like myself to understand sometimes, but Republicans in Congress have zero incentive to go along with liberal policy initiatives, especially ones like free college tuition and Single-Payer healthcare.

Conservatives, who are the ones voting in Republican primaries, aren’t against our methods of achieving universal healthcare or better college access. They’re against the goals. What we liberals call a social safety net, they call an “entitlement.” They don’t want American families to feel “entitled” to food or healthcare or a living wage, because they think these things promote laziness. That’s why, instead of jumping on board when Democrats pursued healthcare reform in 2010, they did their very best to stop the law and, even if that didn’t work, at least make it as unpopular as possible. And at least on the second half, they succeeded! “Obamacare” is unpopular. So when exactly are they supposed to have learned the lesson that cooperation with liberals is good for them?

Okay, but how about if the Political Revolution rolls across the nation and the Dems (and/or Democratic Socialists) retake both houses of Congress? Sure, Bernie Sanders has done nothing to make this happen, refusing to campaign or fundraise for other Democratic candidates (unlike Hillary Clinton), but what the hell. Let’s say his coattails are so unusually powerful that Democrats across the nation win the popular vote by some 10-12 percentage points, which is what it would actually take for them to win back the House (the 2010 redistricting process was a disaster for Democrats). Sure, that’s hugely unlikely, but it’s not impossible. Maybe there’s a Silent Majority in this country that yearns for Democratic Socialism, but never turned out before because they just couldn’t bear to settle for plain old liberalism.

Yes, that strikes me as a bit ridiculous, but I’d certainly like to believe it, and I’m willing to concede this premise in order to finally get to why I don’t think American Single-Payer is a goal worth pursuing in our era.

So let’s say that we get Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and President Sanders rallies the troops to pass his “Medicare-for-all” plan. But let’s stipulate that we’re still operating in this universe, not some utopia where conservatives don’t exist and Bernie Sanders is not just President of the United States but also an immortal pop star astronaut who can cure diseases with his mind. Regular president, modest Congressional majorities.

The Democratic Congress – which of necessity still includes conservative Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – wants to pass Medicare-for-all. The law is projected to eliminate the entire health insurance industry, end employer-sponsored health insurance, etc, and by cutting out the middlemen, save taxpayers money. Yay! As Bernie’s platform states, the law will cover everyone for everything.

But again, the Republicans haven’t disappeared, nor is every Democrat in Congress a Sanders clone. So let me ask a couple of questions that they will inevitably ask too.

Will the law cover undocumented immigrants?

Will it cover abortion?

There’s two poison pills right there, and I’m not some Machiavellian genius like Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz. The law that covers everyone for everything can’t pass, even with improbable Congressional majorities. For goodness’ sake, the abortion issue almost derailed Obamacare, even though the law left the odious Hyde Amendment intact and basically didn’t change abortion law at all. If you don’t believe me, go look up Bart Stupak.

I have a friend who insists that Bernie Sanders is a pragmatic politician, and that while Medicare-for-all is a strong opening bid, it should not be taken as evidence that Bernie Sanders is a rigid ideologue. So let’s game through the possibilities here.

A) No compromise. Democrats put their necks on the line to pass good, proper, Northern-European-style Single-Payer without any yucky compromises, and they fall. Hard. The cause is set back a generation.

B) Democrats agree to throw women and immigrants (and who knows who else) under the bus, and the bill fails anyway because now the liberals in Congress want nothing to do with it. Not only is the liberal cause set back a generation, but the Democratic party loses the trust of some of its most important constituents.

C) Democrats agree to throw women and immigrants (and who knows who else) under the bus, and bill actually passes. Now there are zero health insurance plans that will cover abortion, and the medical system basically locks undocumented residents out. The law saves taxpayers money by greatly reducing hospital payments, so hospitals can no longer afford emergency room care for insurance-less people, forcing the ones that serve higher numbers of undocumented immigrants into bankruptcy. Now people can’t even get emergency room care anywhere near their communities, and they’re dying in the streets. Oh, and when the next tax-cutting Republican wins the White House, we hand over our entire medical system to Rand Paul, Secretary of Health and Human Services. Or to Michael “Heck of a Job, Brownie” Brown, or some other outrageously biased and willfully incompetent anti-government crusader. Congratulations! Isn’t this so much better than just trying to build on Obamacare?

Look, Obamacare is a kludgy, inefficient way to get people covered while controlling costs. I get it. It would be great if we could tear the whole system down and build something better. I mean, all these other countries did it, right?

Actually, no. The Northern and Western European countries that have universal health care all built their systems upon pre-existing systems that lent themselves to specific types of improvement. And they all had political cultures that made the whole thing sustainable. The European right wing is predominantly racist and nationalistic, not inherently anti-government. Think Donald Trump. Mister Mexicans-are-rapists still says “we’re going to take care of people that are dying on the street.” That’s the European Right. They are not against the very notion of universal health care.

The European Right isn’t full of Evangelical Christians either, nor do they have a whole lot of anti-science Creationists and Second Amendment militiamen. They’re not climate change deniers. Every country has its idiosyncrasies, but ours is especially unusual. In England, half the Democratic party would be Tories. Half the Republican party would be institutionalized.

But you engage in politics in the country you have, not the country you wish you had. And even if you concede every electability argument, every numbers-based economic argument, you still end up with a set of choices that make Single-Payer look no better than the messy system we already have.

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N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.

Isaiah and Jewish Oppression

This past Saturday, our rabbi asked the congregation what message they were taking with them into Yom Kippur this year.  An elderly lady said, “the memory of our oppression.”

The rabbi was surprised: “Is the memory of oppression something we’re trying to hold onto, or to let go of?”

“To hold onto.”

Naturally, this got me thinking about the role oppression plays in the Jewish psyche.  We are commanded often, by sources both religious and secular, to remember our oppression.  “Never forget.”  But why not?  So that it won’t happen again…to whom?  To us?  Have we come then to blaming the evils of the world on forgetfulness, and specifically the forgetfulness of the victims?  Surely not.

To me, dwelling on past and current oppression is itself oppressive, an affliction of the soul.  It makes sense to do it on the Day of Atonement, when we are commanded to afflict our souls and deprive ourselves of comfort.  But that’s what brings us to Isaiah.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, after the Torah portion, we will listen to Isaiah mocking us for how bad we are at repentance. “Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it?” Isaiah paraphrases the people (us) in his best whiny-voice. “We afflicted our souls, and you took no notice!”  He answers,

Because on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.   Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

(The latter half of this translation is from the New International Version, and it’s Isaiah 58:3-7, for those who like to follow along.)

Isaiah has a message for us: we’re doing it wrong.  Fasting and otherwise afflicting ourselves is meaningless if we do not change our ways. Change our ways how?  Take it away, Isaiah:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

“Okay, Noah,” you say, that’s a pretty great message, but what does it have to do with the oppression of the Jews?  I say this: there are two ways our culture can use the memory (and the continued existence) of Jewish oppression.  We can see it as a get-out-of-jail-free card, using it to justify our actions and blind us to the suffering of our friends and enemies alike.  Or, we can make explicit that never forget means never let it happen to anyone else ever.  We can loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, and set the oppressed free.  We can march with Black Lives Matter, we can stand with Ahmed, we can support the Syrian refugees and the Honduran and Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees.  We can support the Palestinians too and not just Israel.

Then shall our light break forth like the dawn, and our wounds be healed.

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N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.