Tag Archives: Missouri

American Impunity Abroad and at Home

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A university in Texas has asked me to speak to students in January on the subject that we’ve come to call by the shorthand “Ferguson,” and I’ve been wondering what to say. It’s a topical and rhetorical landmine. But the world today is one giant minefield, so the only way to avoid the risk of stepping on a mine is to acquiesce in silence and paralysis. I’m not willing to pay that price for safety, because both personal freedom and the fate of American society are at stake.

Part of the problem with “Ferguson” is precisely that we’ve hastened to make it a shorthand term, the better to pigeonhole it or explain it away, not unlike “Sandy Hook” or “Katrina” or “9/11.” The truth is that each of those events is connected to every other; everything is connected to everything else. The source of our self-induced perpetual confusion is our stubborn insistence on slicing and dicing events, then filing them severally in convenient pigeonholes in order to forget about them, because we find connecting and remembering too painful and demanding.

These musings are on my mind now, because of the long-awaited release of the report detailing just how viscerally and morally disgusting has been the CIA’s torture regime worldwide since 2001. I’m appalled, of course, like any right-thinking person, and ashamed, as every self-respecting patriotic American should be. But to say that is very far from sufficient, and the fact that so many of us “like” each other’s well-meaning, self-satisfied liberal pieties and commentaries on Facebook is actually part of the problem.

But what does torture of terrorism suspects by the CIA have to do with “Ferguson,” anyway? All too much. The connection lies in the demonstrated fact of impunity for those who hold brute power. How is it that CIA interrogators on one hand, and urban and suburban police officers on the other, can intimidate, brutalize, and even kill hapless and/or innocent unarmed civilians, and get away with it? The answer in both cases is the same: because we, the innocent bystanders, are afraid of what will happen if we hold them to account. We’re afraid not only for our own physical safety, but also of what we would learn if we admitted that the state under which we live has squandered its moral and political credibility.

Consider all due caveats about the honest service and good intentions of most police officers and even CIA agents duly inserted here. But those are irrelevant, because the reality of severe abuse by at least some in both categories is too obvious to ignore. The men with guns and tanks and riot gear know that they can misbehave with impunity because – to articulate our situation with brutal candor – they have guns and tanks and riot gear, and we don’t. That is the case both overseas and in nondescript Midwestern suburbs, and therein lies the connection.

If what we really want is to understand, then what we need is to find the courage to face the reality of what the state is and does. There are real terrorists in the world who commit real, despicable acts of terrorism. But what the CIA torture report lays bare is that the American imperial state, under the feckless ostensible leadership of any president, considers a terrorist anyone it sees fit to consider a terrorist, and that it considers itself and its personnel entitled to mistreat such people any way it sees fit, with impunity. Meanwhile, on the home front, as a friend of mine remarked recently, “The line between a long march or protest rally and an urban riot is drawn by the state, and enforced by the police.” Impunity is what makes the state the state.

What this means is that none of us is either safe or free, except to the extent that we are willing to be free in our own minds and spirits. Necessary to maintaining personal freedom is accurate awareness. One thing that’s accurate to say is that those of us who are white Americans have enabled the American state’s impunity, by mumbling to ourselves and each other that the terrorists are Muslim and brown and the urban rioters are black. We’ve averted our eyes because we have not personally been on the front lines, and we’ve drunk our own Kool-Aid. Others don’t enjoy such luxuries. But there is an upside to living life on the business end of the state’s bootheel, as James Baldwin knew circa 1963:

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that.

It’s human nature to want to believe in the rightness of our own actions and intentions. But it’s precisely human nature that is the problem; the fact that human evil is predictable does not make it excusable. Nor does fobbing off the evil on singularly evil individuals like Hitler or bin Laden or Cheney. We must be willing to consider ourselves culpable, and to put ourselves at risk.

Innocence insisted on too strenuously is tantamount to guilt. Graham Greene depicted the sinister aspect of American innocence abroad with exquisite insight in The Quiet American, his novel of Vietnam published in 1955. At home in the same period, no one saw America more clearly than James Baldwin: “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know and do not want to know it. It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”

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Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America

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CarsickEvery American road trip is different; thus every American road trip book is, and should be, different from every other. The beauty of such books done well has much to do with the nature of the country itself: so enormous and diverse, and so (if we’re honest) contingent and arbitrary in its history and geography, that any trip across or around it is bound to have as much to do with the personality of the road tripper, and the happenstances inherent in the act of traveling, as with any putative qualities of the vast abstraction that we call America. This is as it should be.

Still – and regrettably –  any of us who drive around America and write a book about it do so in the long shadow of a very famous writer’s very famous book. Reflecting on his own planned trip in his prologue, John Waters makes the requisite reference, though he makes it with an admirably critical eye and purpose:

Or could I just make up the whole book and say it was true? How would anybody know? It took years for scholars to figure out that John Steinbeck’s supposedly nonfiction Travels with Charley: In Search of America, a well-reviewed bestseller published in 1962 (and still in print), was in fact total bullshit. Instead of driving cross-country in a pickup, staying in campgrounds, and chatting up the locals, as the author claimed, he actually had company with him, stayed in motels and luxury hotels, and made up the conversations. According to writer Bill Barich, quoted in a recent New York Times article, Steinbeck was “discouraged by everyone from making the trip.” He was too old, “trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of knight-errant.” Uh-oh. Could that be me?

But – before I tell you how wonderful Carsick is, which it is, I’m compelled to take Waters to task for a sloppy reading of the New York Times coverage of the unmasking of Steinbeck’s fraud. Bill Steigerwald, the man who busted Steinbeck, is a friend of mine. And the reason he’s a friend of mine is that, after reading the same April 2011 Times article that John Waters read, I was so impressed that I made a point of stopping in Pittsburgh and taking Bill to lunch on my own drive around America for my book Home Free. Bill deserves credit for a genuine mighty feat of reporting, and he rightly seizes every opportunity to claim the credit that he deserves. It wasn’t the New York Times, and it certainly wasn’t the cozy coterie of scholars Bill dubs the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex, who painstakingly read the original manuscript of Travels with Charley at the Morgan Library, then doggedly drove around America and documented Steinbeck’s specific failures and evasions in a wonderfully entertaining book aptly titled Dogging Steinbeck. It was retired Pittsburgh newspaperman Bill Steigerwald who did those things, and no one else.

So I hope that Waters sees fit to give Bill due credit in future editions of Carsick. That said, Carsick is a wonderful American road trip book in its own right. Apropos the passage quoted above, it really is three road trips in one: two fictional, one real. The book’s first section imagines “The Best That Could Happen,” the second “The Worst That Could Happen,” and the final section relates Waters’s actual trip. Waters would no doubt be amused to learn that a friend of mine (who is gay, which is relevant to much of the sometimes profane subject matter) read the prologue inattentively and got almost through the first section before realizing – or rather being told by me – that it was made up. The first two-thirds of the book is no less enjoyable for being fictional; in fact, both the “Best” and “Worst” trips are jaw-dropping, page-turning exercises in imagination (sexual and otherwise).

After all the shocking and appalling made-up misadventures, it’s a relief to read about Waters’s actual trip, which was plenty adventurous enough for a man of sixty-six, especially when you remember that Waters didn’t even drive but hitchhiked. Bill Steigerwald traveled at a similar age and also, as he puts it, doglessly. I agree with Steigerwald’s dictum that, if you’re planning to make an American road trip and write a book about it, you shouldn’t take either your dog or your wife (or, if we must be explicitly gender-inclusive, your husband/spouse/partner/whatever). What Steigerwald means is that traveling alone helps you stay alert. Steinbeck took both (though only his talking pedigree French poodle appears extensively in his bad book). The journalist and novelist Philip Caputo, well known for his classic Vietnam book A Rumor of War, took his wife and two dogs in a vintage Airstream trailer, and the effect in his 2013 book The Longest Road is of spending a very long evening at the senior center watching the vacation slides of a kindly but self-involved and dull retiree couple.

Caputo’s whole conceit is that the same flag flies over Key West, where he and his wife and dogs started their trip, and Nome, where they ended up, and isn’t that swell, with precious little reflection on how that fact illustrates that the United States of America is, effectively, an empire. My own very different summing-up at the end of Home Free  is 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 would hold was an open question.”

Caputo’s book is not fraudulent like Steinbeck’s, but it is dreadful. Both show that being a Famous Writer doesn’t suffice to write a great, or even good, American road trip book. Carsick is a triumph because Waters had sufficient humility, sense of humor, and perspective on his own fame to turn it from an obstacle into a literary device. Throughout the book he frets alternately about whether he will or won’t be recognized, and he carries – and once or twice makes use of – an actual “fame kit” that he had his staff put together for him. “I just signed a book deal resulting from the shortest pitch ever,” he informs us at the beginning. “I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens. Simple, huh?”

The happy paradox is that it’s precisely by maintaining a light touch and not taking himself or his quixotic project too seriously that Waters has written what might well be something of a minor masterpiece. “The CHECK ENGINE light continues to add a touch of anxiety,” he writes somewhere in the desert in Nevada, near the end of the real trip, “but we’ve risen above that – just that we’re still moving is proof we’re okay.”

I could quote endlessly from Carsick, which tells you something. Enjoy it for yourself. Among its greatest pleasures are the many paragraph-length gems of narrative whimsy, so true to the reality of American road-tripping (and so very different from anything either Steinbeck or Caputo offers). Here’s just one from Waters, temporarily stranded in Bonner Springs, Missouri:

I see the dreaded Holiday Inn but don’t go near it. I stumble into a convenience store and buy two giant bottles of Gatorade and another bottle of Evian. Exiting, I spot a Taco Bell, the only fast-food joint I’m ever tempted to patronize in my real life. I enter, plop down my even heavier bags now that the liquids are inside, and get in line to order. I flash on Lana Turner, who, her daughter Cheryl Crane once told me, was an early financial backer of Taco Bell, and think how I couldn’t be any further away from Hollywood glamour than right now. All the normal people on their lunch break look like aliens to me. I’m almost jealous of their lives. I order two tacos and sit by myself in a booth awaiting my number to be called, hoping to be recognized, but customers just stare back at me blankly. I guzzle down an entire bottle of Gatorade, then another. I feel like sobbing as I walk up to get my order but control myself, sit back down, and eat my tacos. With lots of hot sauce, they’re pretty tasty. I hope Lana Turner’s estate made a small profit.

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Why Bother Trying to Change the World?

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ImpossibleCoverSmall(Read more about The Impossible Will Take a Little While in the text of my speech delivered on the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado on October 17, 2014. I gave the speech the same title as this review: “Why Bother Trying to Change the World?” – EC 10/18/14)

I spent this summer building a patio, something I had never done before. I had to imagine it, then haul out a lot of dirt, then build a retaining wall and haul in crushed rock and sand. I couldn’t have done it without my friend Pete, who has experience and tools that I lack. The surface is 2,000 reclaimed bricks: assorted antique pieces of Seattle history (some  from the original harbor steps dating to the 1880s).

I could get run over by a bus tomorrow, or an earthquake like the one that just hit California could destroy my house, or rampaging condo developers could devour my quaint neighborhood. And anyway, ISIS is overrunning Iraq and Syria and police in armored vehicles have been terrorizing residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and I’m told radiation from the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan has reached the West Coast of North America, which is where I live. So why bother building a patio? My answer is that, regardless of all the bad things happening around the world, my wife and I and our friends and relatives will enjoy it for years to come and, I hope, eventually pass it on intact to others to enjoy. Like establishing a garden or writing a book, building a patio in an uncertain world is an exercise in enlisting the passage of time to advantage: an act of faith.

“Faith” is a widely and glibly abused word, but the sense in which I use it here should ring true to anyone, religious or not, who lives in our world as it is and wants to do what he or she can to make it better. If you’re going to bother getting out of bed in the morning and doing anything at all, you have to believe that life is worth living and that human beings are meaningfully connected through time as well as across space. Needless to say, that can be easier said than done. As Paul Farmer has said, depression is a rational response to the state of the world.

But over 30 years, Farmer and his Haitian and international co-workers have achieved remarkable things in a certain very poor region of rural Haiti, as I’ve seen with my own eyes. They couldn’t have done any of it if they hadn’t started doing it 30 years ago. Farmer and Haiti aren’t featured in Paul Loeb’s wonderfully encouraging revised collection The Impossible Will Take a Little While, but they could well have been. And that’s part of the book’s beauty: Loeb could have conveyed essentially the same message with an entirely different selection of specific material.

The Impossible Will Take a Little While is a judicious selection of writings, grouped thematically and with section introductions by Loeb, by contributors involved in public activism past and present, from South Africa (a compelling excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and Desmond Tutu’s “No Future without Forgiveness”) to Chile (“The Black Hole” by Ariel Dorfman) to Nebraska (Mary Pipher’s “Reluctant Activists” on the remarkable story of how broad-based local citizen opposition arose to the Keystone XL pipeline).

Also included are poems and reflections on the personal costs as well as enrichments of political action. Loeb is clearly a very literate and humane person, and the book’s greatest value is that it addresses, implicitly and at times explicitly, the question of why we should bother in the first place. As Loeb writes in the introduction to the section titled “Beyond Hope,”

Sometimes we achieve the impossible sooner than we expect. Knowing that can stiffen our resolve. But relying on quick victories can also tempt us to place too much emphasis on outcomes; it can cause us to become unduly impatient, brittle, with our will easily broken by setbacks. A deeper, more farseeing hope, by contrast, combines realism with resilience, acknowledging suffering and despair without giving in to them. … By letting go of impatient hope we can persist no matter how hard it gets.

Loeb quotes his friend Abe Osheroff, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and was still politically active when he died at age 92: “When I was younger, I acted because I hoped to achieve a certain something. Now I’m path-oriented. I act to get in contact with the best part of who I am. I do the work whether we win or lose.” Loeb rightly emphasizes that it’s both permissible and necessary for us to live with paradox: “If we let go of consequences altogether, we can delude ourselves into thinking that critical life-and-death outcomes don’t matter. Yet if we base our commitment solely on whether we’ll prevail, we run the risk of giving up before the full promise of history is fulfilled.”

The Impossible was first published ten years ago, and the new edition is a substantial revision, with a number of additions and substitutions to cover more recent events, such as “We Are All Khaled Said” by the Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim. For some reason to do with rights or whatever, Loeb wasn’t able to include Rebecca Solnit’s powerful essay “Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage,” written in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but he points out that you can read it on the Internet. As a Wisconsinite, I wish that he had included something on the historic citizen occupation of the state capitol building in Madison in early 2011, but you can (and should) watch the excellent documentary film We Are Wisconsin.

Activism by its nature is about current events, but – another paradox – we can’t act effectively in the present without knowing and understanding history. Hence, post-Ferguson, the exquisite timeliness of Loeb’s pre-Ferguson inclusion of Martin Luther King’s classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “I must confess that over the last few years I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Loeb juxtaposes King’s piece with “The Real Rosa Parks,” a memorable excerpt from his own book Soul of a Citizen, because he wants to bring home a crucial point: “She didn’t single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts, but she was part of an existing movement for change, at a time when success was far from certain. … For only when we act despite all our uncertainties and doubts do we have the chance to shape history.”

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Ferguson: We Are All Missourians

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SEATTLE, August 18 – I began Home Free, my account of the 3 1/2-month driving trip I made around the United States during the 2012 election season, with an entire chapter on Wisconsin for three reasons. One was topical: the then-recent occupation of the state capitol building in Madison, by tens of thousands of citizens opposing the policies of Governor Scott Walker, and the seemingly intractable polarization of the state that that expressed. Another was geographic: Wisconsin was on my way from Seattle, where I live, to points east. But the overriding reason was personal: Wisconsin had been my home. I grew up in Oconomowoc, an all-white town of 15,000 at the western edge of suburban Waukesha County.

Oconomowoc is where it is, thirty miles west of the largely poor and black city of Milwaukee, for a reason: it’s near enough that you can get to Milwaukee for, say, a Brewers game or Summerfest, but far enough away that you can ignore and disavow the things and people there that you find frightening or distasteful. There are towns like Oconomowoc in suburban counties all around America, and in those towns live white guys who grow up to become cops.

As I write in Home Free, I made a beeline for Wisconsin because it was available to me personally in a way that Missouri or Indiana would not have been, yet I also felt it was thoroughly representative: middle-class, middle-western America, writ medium-sized. And, after two weeks in Wisconsin in late September 2012, I found my hypothesis vindicated. As lifelong Milwaukee resident Moshe Katz told me specifically about my hometown, “There’s a side of Oconomowoc that is the wonderful beauty of America. But then there’s another whole side of it that’s more than scary.”

Which brings me to Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve never been to Ferguson, but it’s part of the same world as Oconomowoc. And I don’t mean, in some high-minded way, the world at large, but the particular regional world – at once wonderful and scary – of the provincial Midwest.

Elisa Miller, a Democratic Party activist in Wisconsin who chose the largely thankless task of working in heavily Republican Waukesha County, told me, “You have this white horseshoe of racist crap, and that was my area. People were afraid to put yard signs in their yards. A volunteer was driving on a rural highway, and she saw a children’s play set with a noose hanging from it and a sign that said, ‘Obama’s Play Set.’ This doesn’t just affect Obama. This is domestic terrorism.”

A reviewer of my book on Goodreads named Lori complained that she “just couldn’t get past the fact that it was mostly a book about politics. I would not have read it if I had known.” Another, Earl, griped  inaccurately and tellingly that most of the people I interviewed were “either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” I actually bent over backwards in Home Free to avoid “being political” but, I’m sorry, the world we live in is political. And, again, I mean not only the world at large, but in particular – whether we like it or not – the world of provincial America that most of us call home.

Being political means acknowledging that we all live here together, that every citizen and every community has standing. And it means that, as the Midwesterner John Mellencamp puts it, you gotta stand for something or you’ll fall for anything. What I stand for is an America where police are not entitled to execute an unarmed teenager, regardless of whether he stole cigars from a convenience store. But as horrible as the shooting itself was, even more ominous for all of us is what we’ve all seen, and residents of Ferguson have experienced, since: the militarization of law enforcement. In the America that I want to live in, it’s not all right for police to intimidate entire communities with automatic weapons, riot gear and armored vehicles.

It may be, though, that we already no longer live in the America that I want to live in. Events like those unfolding in Ferguson happen when societies fail at being political. As a journalist living and working overseas in the 1990s and 2000s, I witnessed the specific and predictable consequences of the failure of civilian politics in Burma, Cambodia, Haiti, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Military occupations and dictatorships occur in such countries not only because generals are ambitious and power-hungry, but because the factions and communities of civilian society have proven unable to live and deal with each other justly and peaceably. Something similar is now happening in Ferguson.

 

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