“H.G. Wells once said, coming out of a political meeting where they had been discussing social change, that this great towering city was a measure of the obstacle, of how much must be moved if there was to be any change. I have known this feeling, looking up at great buildings that are the centres of power, but I find I do not say ‘There is your city, your great bourgeois monument, your towering structure of this still precarious civilisation’ or I do not only say that; I say also ‘This is what men have built, so often magnificently, and is not everything then possible?'”
-Raymond Williams, The Country and the City
Ever since becoming a graduate student, I’ve slowly forgotten how to alchemize thoughts into an intriguing set of words. This is troubling given the nature of my obligations, and I’m grateful I can still submit crap to my professors that entails a deceptive gloss of accomplishment. But when it comes to my extracurricular scribbles, I’ve descended into a state of confusion. It’s as if my head has erupted in civil war, where all parties are desperate for an armistice or ceasefire, and yet the hostilities endure. I’m still not clear as to the cause of the conflict, but I have my suspicions. Consider this reportage from the wreckage — a kind of gonzo journalism as applied to a warring mind.
I enter that grotesque simulacrum of society known as Facebook about four thousand clicks a day. This is largely due to my study routine, which involves hours on end cozying up to three to seven books a week. My laptop is my portal into the effects of reality, where reality is now defined by the anxious escape from reality, a virtual stage crowded with digitally cropped anthropoids performing various boasts, vents, and poses. I occasionally take part in the mad rush, because I’m just as implicated in the lonely sociability as everyone else, but my regular preference is just to sit still and watch. (Lately I’ve been participating beyond my comfort zone.) I have a hunch we’ve always been escaping reality, and the most updated medium for doing so only makes the point as sharp as a blade. After all, my reality of three to seven books a week can scarcely be deemed more real.
Since Sandy Hook, my feed has been bombarded with pro-gun propaganda, as well as a variety of other right-wing hysterics. About a third of my friends are Marines, most of whom I served with in Afghanistan. They’re not happy. President Obama is compared to Hitler and Mao. A few push a website that encourages active-duty personnel to stop obeying orders from a tyrannical regime. Proud visuals of personal arsenals come to the fore, along with tips on where to acquire the cheapest or most badass AR-15, presumably before the liberal junta rolls in with the tanks. One posts a link implying the shooting was a hoax, a government “false flag” operation intended to muster the emotions required in order to pass more aggressive gun laws. Someone “likes” it, and then someone else “shares” it. Comment threads are born, and fresh paranoia is exchanged.
While I normally avoid engaging in such fare, I feel a responsibility to talk it out with my erstwhile comrades. I really do like these guys, and I don’t want them to waste their energies aiming for red herrings, especially since most of them are working-class. I can’t stand seeing them obsess over modest gun-control regulations once supported by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, just as they buy into plutocratic lies blaming liberals, union members, and poor people for our nation’s dearth of employment and educational opportunity, not to mention their increasing sense of disempowerment. (Although the Democratic Party is no doubt complicit in the arrangement.) I so want to leap over the electronic canyon and share a pitcher with them on the other side. I want to shoot the shit like we did in the Helmand a couple years past. I want to complicate their prejudices while prodding them away from a politics of resentment to a politics of thoughtful resistance. I want them to recognize the inextricable link between economic power and political power, and the necessity in attacking (and claiming) both, not through a naive and escapist libertarianism but by way of the kind of workplace democracy and community autonomy put forth in Gar Alperovitz’s America Beyond Capitalism or David Schweickart’ s After Capitalism. In other words, I want them to read what I read, and I want them to think what I think.
Instead, I spend hours dissecting each and every claim made by a Sandy Hook “truther,” a young man who once served as one of my top sergeants. Every time I knock down an absurdity my interlocutor replaces it with another. Despite the effort, nothing is conceded. I remind him I’m a gun-owner, something I originally avowed in Afghanistan, before we set off on a mission. (My Marines always enjoyed hearing I owned a gun. Or rather I enjoyed telling them.) Since I’m a Connecticut native, I’m asked if I knew anyone involved in the massacre. I tell him my mother’s co-worker lost a son, and another acquaintance a niece. He proceeds without acknowledgment. My final words are conciliatory. “I get it,” I say. “It’s very hard to trust anyone these days. Everything is MASS — our government, our corporations, our media.” I go on to attribute the distrust more to technology, inhumane scales of social interaction, and anomie than to Hollywood-style villains. “But you’re right,” I say. “A lot of people in power get away with a lot of terrible things. I feel ya man.” He responds in kind, thanking me for a worthwhile debate. In the weeks ahead, he stops with the conspiracy theories. The fury persists.
In late January 2011, I find myself back in California, after nearly a year’s duty in Afghanistan. That summer, I return to the northeast as civilian, for the first time in five years. I am disillusioned from the war and my service more broadly, but I’m also just beginning to recoil from an upper-middle-class milieu that strikes me as self-satisfied and clueless. I realize the self-importance in the reaction, but I can’t help it. I attend a high school reunion, and while I drink myself to a state of ostensible equilibrium, I’m pissed. There are a handful of confidantes who know what’s up, but the bulk of the young professionals saunter across the marble as if the world were as deep as their pockets and as wide as their gaze.
That fall, Occupy erupts. I’m not an activist, but my sympathies have no doubt shifted to the left. The slide began at boot camp, when I learned what social inequality means. Its meaning is ugly and angry, and not the stuff of a sustainable republic. I’m already on amiable terms with left writers involved in the Wall Street protests, so I make my way to events in the city. I donate multicolored duct tape for the occupiers, at their request. I write a couple pieces online. I debate right-wing friends from college to the point of exhaustion. That’s the extent of my activism.
Now I’m too busy in school to do much of anything. I maintain a blog, just barely, and follow up on the latest from periodicals like Dissent, The Baffler, N + 1, The New Inquiry, and Jacobin. I even have a Twitter account, which I sometimes scroll when Facebook’s procrastinatory utility is expended. I follow a handful of radicals. They’re brilliant, and there’s a contingent that’s serious about reaching larger audiences. But a greater part of the tweets make me nervous. There’s a 140-character limit, and a recklessness of cool pervades every syllable, replicating the capitalist status anxiety they’re so intent on subverting. Though I agree with eighty percent of what they have to say, they’re not saying it to America. They’re saying it to themselves. And if they say it to America the way they say it to themselves, they might as well not say anything at all.
There’s a small town an hour south of Atlanta. I know it well. My grandmother had twin sisters who slunk below the Mason Dixon after World War Two. They fell in love with returning sailors in Manhattan, both of whom were southerners. The twins exchanged their Jewish tenements for the Bible Belt, and never looked back. One of the two couples ended up in Williamson, Georgia, and one of the daughters from that marriage stayed in the area, married a soldier, and raised two sons of her own. She also reconnected with her relatives up north. When I went to college at Emory University, I savored weekends and holidays with her family. I fished with the neighbors, partied with the young adults, and frequented events at the local church. I even got invited to the “Caboose Club,” comprised of a group of older men (including the mayor) who meet once a week in the abandoned car of a freight train, to nibble on eggs and sip on coffee at the break of dawn. A confederate flag presides across one wall, and an elk head obtrudes from the other.
This past visit I go horseback riding with a gentleman who recently lost his wife from cancer. The two of them, close friends of my family in Williamson, attended my boot camp graduation at Parris Island back in 2006. They greeted me with photographs of the husband as a recruit on the same island, right when Vietnam was trudging along. He won the company’s highest shooter award then. I hardly passed the minimum requirement, and the three of us chuckled about the disparity. In the pickup truck, on the way to the campground and park, with the horse trailer rumbling behind, I nervously deliver my condolences. “I know she always wanted to teach me how to ride,” I say. “I’m just grateful you’re going out of your way to fulfill the promise, especially at such a difficult time.” He nods his head. There’s a moment of silence. “No,” he says. “This is exactly where I want to be.”
About an hour later, on the trail, after a good forty-five minutes of traipsing through rolling woods, he turns back to me. “Hey young man, you ready to run?” “Yes, sir,” I say. “All right, hold fast to the bridle with one hand and grip the back of the saddle with the other.” “Got it, Sir.” “And watch your head.” And then we’re off, cutting sharp turns and ducking hanging limbs. (On Facebook, later that day, I’m quick to brag about it as my CLINT EASTWOOD MOMENT.) We stop at a burger place on the drive home. “Sleepless in Seattle” booms from the television. Plaques adorn the restaurant, mostly replete with religious aphorisms. My elder reads off one of them. “Love is the key to happiness.” He grunts. I take it as a cue. “I tend to think life is about something more complicated than happiness,” I say. “If I’m forced to say what that is, I guess I’d say it’s about struggle.” He seems to agree. We finish our burgers.
That evening, I attend a birthday party at the church. It’s for another one of my dear friends in Williamson, an 87-year-old man who taught me to fish my very first stay. The space is packed with over 170 people. I’m situated across a garrulous schoolteacher who discovers I’m a PhD candidate. He asks me what I study, and I tell him American history. He lights up. He says American history is his favorite subject, and we Christians ought to cherish our national heritage, especially now that it’s under attack by a Marxist president. I try to meet him halfway by waxing romantic about community. Meanwhile, dozens of lively personalities ascend to the stage to reminisce about the honored guest. They speak in thick drawls, stringing one charming colloquialism to the next. I’m overwhelmed by their ease of speech and theatrical force, as if they were all studied actors or comics. On the other hand, there’s a sincere flood of emotion.
When I climb up to the platform with my cousin, she’s already in tears. She had it rough through the years, with dysfunctional parents and drug addicts as brothers. The birthday boy served as one of her great ballasts as she established a glowing clan of her own, like an angel dispatched from the heavens. This is a running theme with a number of the speakers. I follow her moving words with Jewish self-deprecation, which half the room seems to appreciate. I talk about the city versus the country, and how Williamson taught me about the virtues of the latter. I tell the audience I love my family down south and that I love their town. I tell the celebrated octogenarian, just a few feet below me, that I love him too. I almost cry. He beams. Everyone claps. I return to my seat.
-Lyle Jeremy Rubin, guest contributor