Bringing It All Back Home

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Following is the text of a talk Ethan Casey gave at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on September 18, 2013.

In February 2011 I was in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. I’ve visited Pakistan many times since 1995, and I find it a very interesting country, for many reasons. My purpose in being there this time was to visit communities affected by the severe flooding of the previous summer, 2010, when twenty percent of Pakistan had been underwater and some two million people left homeless.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned over two decades as an international reporter, it’s that as soon as you focus your attention somewhere, something is bound to happen somewhere else. Our world is perpetually distracting. So it was that suddenly, when I was in the capital of Pakistan, I learned that a great deal was at stake in the capital of Wisconsin. Scott Walker, the Republican governor, had attempted to ban collective bargaining by teachers and other state employees, leading to one of the most dramatic confrontations in recent American political history: the weeks-long occupation of the state capitol building in Madison by upwards of 80,000 protesters, in sub-freezing weather. To read in Islamabad about upheaval in Madison felt odd. And I took it personally, because I grew up in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And it was somehow in that moment that my inchoate notion of one day driving around America and writing a book about it began coalescing into an intention.

*

Many years earlier, when I was sixteen, my father had thrown me in at the world’s deep end by taking me to Haiti. Everything that that first international adventure led to is a long story. But for present purposes let’s just say that by 2011, at age 45, I was too set in my ways to buck my longtime habits, which is how I came to find myself in Pakistan, wondering from afar what exactly was going on in Wisconsin.

The uprising in Egypt was also going on then, and the New York Times was tossing off glib and patronizing headlines about Madison like “Cairo in the Midwest.” Some of the Madison protesters, for their part, were encouraging parallels, and the magic of social media was also somehow supposed to be part of the change for the better that was felt to be in the offing. But I had made a personal byword of something a journalist friend in Thailand had said to me: “There’s no substitute for the sniff on the ground.” Ideologies and theories and scholarship and digital media are well and good, but what you know is real is what you see for yourself. No single traveler can see it all; in fact, you’re bound to miss most of whatever is going on, regardless. But if you show up, pay attention, and take notes, you can at least sit down later and stitch together a story that rings true.

This is what I had been trying to do ever since the mid-1990s, when I lived in Bangkok and traveled all around Asia, witnessing and writing about events in every country from Pakistan in the west to the Philippines in the east. I had done it at book length about Pakistan, and about Haiti. When I returned to the U.S. in 2006 and settled in Seattle, I thought that I was coming in from the cold. I even tried going straight and cashing in on the tech boom with a soulless but well-paying office job. But Microsoft Corporation and I didn’t get along very well and, to be honest, I also discovered that I was set in my ways. Having lived and traveled overseas for so long, I found that I couldn’t just live in America again, in a straightforward way, as if I had not been away. For one thing, my eye had changed. I now saw the world and my own country differently. The quality and extent of the change were not easy to define, but what I knew I could do was what I had learned to do overseas: show up, meet people and take an interest in them, ask questions, take notes. So, to make a long story short, I set off last fall to drive around America.

As my friend put it back in Thailand, there’s no substitute for the sniff on the ground. Over three and a half months, between early September and mid-December 2012, I put more than 18,000 miles on a rented Prius and met and listened to a wide assortment of Americans, in every region of the country. And I started in Wisconsin because Wisconsin had been my home, and because the occupation of the state capitol building in early 2011 seemed to illustrate or express something significant about contemporary America. And because the controversy in Wisconsin centered on the actions and decisions of Scott Walker, the state’s Republican governor elected in 2010, I asked an assortment of Wisconsinites to tell me whatever they had to say about Walker.

“I tell ya,” said Barry Ott, a farmer in the town of Marshfield, “my wife’s a schoolteacher, so she hates Walker. I think what he’s doing is just fine. Everybody’s gotta pull together and sacrifice. I’m not a big union guy. I think they protect the people who are poor workers. I tell my wife, ‘You stick with me, and I’ll bail you out.’” He laughed. “She says, ‘You wait and say that when we’re not gettin’ my salary.’”

“They don’t know the man that we know,” said Cathy Waller, the executive director of the Republican Party of Waukesha County, the county I grew up in. “He truly is good-intentioned and means so much.”

By contrast Elisa Miller, a Democratic Party activist and former schoolteacher, told me: “I’ve never heard such horrible things. I’ve never seen such hatred. Every week I get harassed in my car. People will honk their horns and go, ‘Fuck you.’ And my stickers are Obama ’08, [Milwaukee mayor] Tom Barrett, [former Wisconsin senator] Russ Feingold, and Jimi Hendrix: ‘When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.’ And I literally get harassed. One guy stuck his head out and said, ‘Fuck you! Scott Walker!’ Another guy pulled up and said, ‘Are you okay?’ And I’m thinking it’s my gas cap or something. And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m okay.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I don’t think you’re okay. I think you’re the reason the country’s going down the hole,’ and whatever. I’m afraid. I actually am afraid of the world we live in. We’re at a very pivotal moment. Whatever road we choose sets us up for decades.”

A couple of weeks later, in Detroit, I told a Methodist pastor named Jeff Nelson that I had been in Wisconsin. Jeff had grown up in Wisconsin, and he said: “Man, that state’s got a story right now. What a story that state has been. My brother’s a public school teacher in Rhinelander.” Rhinelander is a small town in northern Wisconsin. “Wisconsin used to be known as the nice state. Whenever you had a character in a movie who was a naïve rube, he was always from Wisconsin.”

I remembered Wisconsin that way too, but times had changed. “It feels like we’re at each other’s throats,” I told Cathy Waller, the Republican activist. “And it doesn’t feel good.”

“Yep,” she agreed. “Definitely in the state of Wisconsin we are.”

I packed a lot into two weeks in Wisconsin last fall. And I left feeling confirmed in my premise: that my nice home state is a medium-cosm of America, America writ medium-sized.

*

We all know that the polarization I found in Wisconsin is hardly unique to that state. We can trace its source, if we choose to remember, to Florida in the year 2000. In Provincetown, Massachusetts I met Shawn Nightingale, who owns a chain of stores and a strip mall in Florida. Shawn told me that he had been living there in the year 2000, so of course I had to ask him about that year’s presidential election.

“It was like a really, really bad movie of the week,” Shawn told me. “Starring Valerie Bertinelli as [Florida Secretary of State] Katherine Harris. I was thinking, ‘All this, but of course Gore’s going to win.’ And then the political machine, the juggernaut – it was like being punched in the gut. And Gore was weak in the fight. And that’s when I started thinking that we were going to lose. How can you let a mechanical error, and all the proof of the uncounted votes, and the snowbirds, and all that, determine the outcome of a presidential election? It definitely took away my belief in our system as being practically flawless.”

But the weird thing, Shawn said, was how oblivious most people had seemed to be to what was happening, even in Florida. “Besides the local coverage, which was all you heard, you wouldn’t know,” he said. “None of my clients knew, and they couldn’t have cared less. It was talked about on the street a lot, but a lot of it was, ‘How could this have happened? And how could this have happened in our country?’ You know what I wanted to do? I wanted to go there and have a gymnasium full of ballots, and count every fuckin’ ballot. It took away our democracy, as far as I’m concerned.”

I myself had been in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, on U.S. Election Day 2000, which kind of drove home to me the point about the way the election went down. Haitians were surprised, and a bit amused, not that that sort of thing was happening, but only that it now was happening in the United States. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the U.S. election campaign that autumn, because I had other things on my mind, and I assumed that the differences weren’t very great and that the stakes weren’t very high. It turned out I was wrong about that.

Twelve years later not much had changed, except that many of us Americans had struggled part of the way up a steep learning curve. Three days after Election Day 2012, I had lunch in Miami with the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat.

“Part of it was these attempts to disenfranchise people who were voting at one a.m. Wednesday morning,” she told me. “I think they said the last vote was cast at five a.m. on Wednesday morning. That’s why they’re still counting. You should have seen these lines. And this is the basic thing you want the world to have, right? They’re always telling the Haitians …”

“Well, they can’t really tell the Haitians anything anymore,” I ventured. “Part of the working premise of my book,” I told her, “is that the U.S. is not distinct or different from Haiti or Pakistan or any other Third World country. It’s subject to all the same human nature and political bullying and whatever. People out in Middle America don’t perceive that, or maybe they’re beginning to perceive it, with the economic crisis and all the political stuff we’ve been going through. As one of them, part of my job is to take this message to them.”

“Because you’ve seen the other side,” said Edwidge.

“Right,” I said. “We’re not so different from Haiti, but that’s okay.”

“That’s the first thing that people always say,” Edwidge said. “Like in Katrina, what did you hear? ‘This is not Haiti,’ or ‘This is not Africa.’ And even people who are standing in gas lines, they’re saying, ‘This is not a Third World country. This is America.’ … It’s the greatest shame to be this other thing, to be this Third World country.”

Later in my trip, in Houston, I had breakfast with Sherron Watkins. Sherron is the former Enron Corporation vice president who blew the whistle on that enormous corporate scandal, with her August 2001 memo to Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, and she was one of Time magazine’s People of the Year for 2002. The Enron scandal was a very big deal. As Rachel Sehgal, a woman I met in Orlando, Florida, put it to me, “In 2001 a lot of people remember 9/11, but what they don’t remember is Enron. And Enron was so evil. They were so evil that the people at the top got taken away, like they should’ve, but what people don’t realize is that the people who actually did the really bad stuff, they didn’t; they went to work on Wall Street.”

Sherron Watkins told me that she had read the Hunger Games series of young-adult novels, whose premise is, I gather, a sort of blend of the dystopian visions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, with an emphasis on a heavily enforced inequality between rich and poor in a future America. “I couldn’t help wondering,” she said, “when I was reading it, ‘Wow. This is so much the rest of the world and the United States.’ We’re not thinkin’ about the folks in Haiti livin’ in those little tents, or in Nigeria. And why not?”

Sherron turned out to be a movie buff, and one movie she brought up in our conversation was The Matrix. Characters in The Matrix have a choice between taking a blue pill and living happily in a fake world, or taking a red pill and knowing what’s really going on, what the world is really like. I told Sherron about the commencement speech that Dr. Paul Farmer, the celebrated physician who works in Haiti, gave at Harvard Medical School in 2003, which he titled “If You Take the Red Pill.”

“That’s an awesome college address!” Sherron gushed. “I do firmly believe that it won’t be long before there are a lot more opportunities for people to take the red pill, and more people will be taking it.”

*

What I’m trying to say is that what we used to call, tactlessly and indelicately, the Third World is actually the real world, and that America is part of it. America is not separate, different, or exceptional. Not even Wisconsin, the nice state where I grew up, where the naïve rubes live, is immune or isolated, much as I might wish it were. That might sound scary, but I’m here to tell you that not only is that okay, it’s actually a good thing. It’s not only healthier to live in the real world than in a bubble or a pod like some of the characters in The Matrix, it’s also more interesting. The real world is an interesting place. In the real world, we’re obligated to be aware and involved, and we’re not entitled to be safe or secure. And we’re not safe or secure anyway, regardless of whether we feel entitled to be.

The real world, formerly known as the Third World – the world from which we Americans have made such a point of keeping our distance, the world of poverty and violence and insecurity – is not only overseas in countries like Haiti and Pakistan; it’s right here at home. The poverty is in Harrisburg, where I was yesterday. The violence is in Washington, D.C., where I was two days ago. But we Americans have trained ourselves to avert our eyes from reality, even when it’s right in our face, and we’ve become very good at explaining it away. A good example of this, newly timely again this year, is a book published in 1990 by journalist Ze’ev Chafets, titled Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit. Chafets asserted, in 1990, that Detroit had become

not merely an American city that happens to have a black majority, but a black metropolis, the first major Third World city in the United States. The trappings are all there – showcase projects, black-fisted symbols, an external enemy and the cult of personality.

Chafets was right, sort of. But it’s that caveat – “sort of” – that we should take care to notice. To be sort of right usually means to be pointedly ignoring some important aspect of the full truth. The full truth is that the Third World – the world of economic insecurity and political instability, of violence both random and political – is the real world. And it’s not only impolite, but self-excusing in an ugly and dangerous way, for a white writer like Chafets, who grew up in what former Detroit mayor Coleman Young called, dangerously but all too correctly, the “hostile white suburbs,” to write so insinuatingly about black Detroit. Detroit’s story is America’s story, and it behooves us to understand it properly, because we’re all involved in it. And it’s a much longer and more complicated and more interesting story than we tend to allow ourselves to know. It’s a real story.

On my last day in Detroit last October, I visited briefly with Sister Mary Ellen Howard, executive director of the St. Frances Cabrini Free Clinic in Corktown, the Detroit neighborhood that I lived in way back in 1991 and 1992. I told her that Detroit had made quite an impression on me, letting that inadequate conventional expression stand in for a very long story.

But Sister Mary Ellen understood what I meant. “Detroit gets ya,” she agreed. “The young people who come here to work for a year all end up coming back.”

I then went, with my dear friend Kate Conway, who had introduced me to Sister Mary Ellen, to Nemo’s Bar nearby on Michigan Avenue for a bite to eat and to say goodbye, before I got back on the road en route to Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and points east. At Nemo’s, Kate told me about a woman she had met at a conference in another city, who had felt at liberty to say something disdainful about Detroit, on the basis of having driven through it on the way from Columbus to Buffalo. “I didn’t have the presence of mind to say, ‘How dare you say such a thing to me,’” Kate told me.

That is indeed the question that Detroiters, including white Detroiters like Kate who have lived the city’s history and not turned their backs on it, are entitled to ask: How dare you? I asked a version of that question myself in July 2013, when I couldn’t bring myself to read the New York Times coverage of the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. How dare you tell me what to think about Detroit? I asked the Times rhetorically, in the privacy of my own head. If you think for yourself, you don’t need to read the New York Times. This July, I didn’t feel I needed to read the Times because it was retailing the same old tired cliches and recriminations around the American mediasphere, while meanwhile the Republican governor of Michigan was saying he didn’t want the federal government to bail out the city, but plans were apparently still on track for some $283 million in public money to be spent on a new hockey arena in Detroit. And I was remembering something a white Detroiter named Randy Westbrooks had said to me way back in 1991: “They’ve never been here, they don’t know what we’re about, and I just think that we’ve become the whipping city of America,” he said.

For my part, I can say at this point that I have been there. I’ve seen the other side, as Edwidge Danticat put it. And, having seen the other side, I feel prepared – not fully prepared, but as prepared as I’ll ever be – for whatever is coming next. That other side is where this country is headed. The Third World is the real world.

In May I returned to Detroit for a speaking engagement, and I caught up over beers with Pastor Jeff Nelson. He asked me how my book was going. I moaned and groaned about how little progress I was making, but I told him that I was determined to publish it this fall. He endorsed that schedule. “You gotta ship,” he said. Jeff was right. The idea of my trip and my book was and is to catch history on the fly, and to trust that whatever happened to be happening while I happened to be driving around America will not only be timely on publication but also echo forward in overtones that will remain interesting and meaningful. And indeed in June, when Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s program of mass surveillance, I could already hear overtones in the title that I chose long before I began the trip: Home Free.

*

Having made my trip and written my book, I felt ready to sit still for a while. But history doesn’t sit still. In early July, when the unresolved revolution in Egypt erupted in fresh spasms of repression and violence, my father sent me an email. He remembered: “This all started in January 2010, when I was having a cup of coffee in a McDonald’s in Fort Worth while waiting for you.”

“Right!” I emailed back. “Except it was January 2011.” Just before I went to Pakistan, just before the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison.

One of the premises of my Home Free project is that America is not separate or different from the rest of the world, not exceptional. I proved that, at least to my own satisfaction. And I saw for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center will hold is an open question. And maybe it shouldn’t hold, frightening as that thought might be. As things got uglier in Egypt this past summer, with an abrupt military takeover and then hundreds killed in raids on encampments of ousted President Morsi’s supporters, I remembered the patronizing “Cairo in the Midwest” New York Times headline about the Madison capitol occupation of two and a half years earlier. And I remembered the defiance and hope expressed by both the citizens who challenged Governor Walker and those who overthrew President Mubarak. And I wondered: If things are turning out this way in Egypt, how can we expect them to turn out in Wisconsin?

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