I was in the fifth grade when the Twin Towers fell. Living in California, I had never been to New York, nor had I even heard of the World Trade Center prior to that Tuesday morning. Before the start of school that day, I walked around the blacktop with my two best friends. A kid ran up to us and blurted out, “Did you guys hear what happened?” I think it was Jack who replied, “Shut the fuck up.” National tragedy would not occasion reprieve from our manly forbearance. Perhaps, as young kids with a penchant for cruelty as well as compassion, we did not have the combination of empathetic rationale required for processing such an event. Despite how cognitively, relationally, and socially removed we were from across the country, it may still sound blasphemous against the cause of humanity to admit that I don’t remember feeling emotionally upset. I deferred to Jack, keeping the pact of nihilistic silence–there’s nothing we can do, so who gives a fuck?–but internally my response was a single thought. What the fuck did you expect?
As a 10-year-old boy, I was not particularly versed in world politics, but nonetheless I believed that our imperialistic nation had bought this fate a long time ago. I remember being surprised that this had not happened earlier, and more frequently. At the time, my direct reasoning was something like this: if your nation does enough fucked up shit–from slavery at home to unnecessary invasions abroad–you’re gonna get attacked sometimes. I still see a truth in this cynical response, but looking back on my young perspective now, I am puzzled. At such a young age, I wonder, where did I come up with this political perspective? And, perhaps more importantly, how and why did I lack basic empathy for the people killed?
My intellectual position may have assuaged some larger political truth regarding the failures of our country’s foreign relations policy, but underneath such theory lay, I think, a much darker nihilism. It is difficult to discern then, what was my emerging political perspective, and what was merely a cover up for, well, some other part of me.
By discussing the intricacies of my 10-year-old emotional life, however, I run the risk of offending those readers who do not believe such subjective depth exists in elementary school kids. Or perhaps you do not believe that young perspectives merit the kind of thoughtful considerations such as those afforded here. Perhaps 50 years ago you also found yourself in the medical majority, who did not believe that infants required general anesthesia during surgery, because babies were not seen as beings capable of pain. Fair enough. I will drop the matter of childhood subjectivity for now–putting a footnote for another date on the issue of how morality and empathy are constructed differently across cultures and time–fast-forwarding to the political and moral dilemmas that plagued me as a young man.
In my final years of high school, I was very concerned about trash. I started a recycling club at my high school, which was novel in rural Arizona, sorting through trash cans to save the recyclables. Soon walking to school was an occasion akin to Easter–I was on the hunt to fill my pockets with the various scraps of rubbish, found everywhere in the desert. If I passed by a piece of trash without picking it up, my throat would swell, and I would feel knots in my stomach. (It never occurred to me that a trashcan is merely the place rubbish goes before being transported to landfills, dumped into the ocean, or otherwise incinerated in a cloud of greenhouse gas.) I also became very concerned seeing dead animals; passing by roadkill on the highway, I would knot up knowing that the squirrel had not received any observation prayers, nor ceremonial burial. Believing that my bodily discomfort was a sign of some moral or cosmological trespass, I was like the liberal version of a guilt-ridden, God-fearing Catholic.
Within a few years, my beliefs about food also became more extreme. Critical of our country’s food infrastructure–which is stamped with the carbon footprint of shipping and other evils–I dutifully avoided buying anything wrapped in non-recyclable plastic. I also began experiencing intense allergies to certain foods–wheat, dairy, and sugar. Since I avoided internationally and even transnationally transported foods–especially when produced under social duress by exploited workers–and given that I was mostly vegetarian over the years, my diet was primarily limited to carrots, egg, and yams. I felt empathetically attuned to the foods; if I ate food that was produced by evil means, I felt sick. Yet it seemed that no matter how many pieces of trash I picked up, and no matter what I ate, I was always suffering, still. There was so much that remained undone, and by not righting the world’s clear wrongs, I too was culpable.
In the specific case of food, no matter what I ate the associated bodily pain could not be abated, so I eventually gave up the idea that I was allergic to anything after all. It seemed more likely that feeling anxious and knotty, while also being constantly bloated with an acidic and gaseous stomach, was just a fact of life. It was simply that I paid attention to these life-facts, while the rest of the country used alcohol, video games, reality TV and other petty bullshit anesthetics to remain oblivious.
No longer allergic to anything, my diet changed drastically when I discovered the bounty of a local Whole Foods dumpster. It was an incredible lesson in food politics, and about the waste inherent in capitalistic society, where even basic goods are withheld in the name of profit. Food that was on sale at 9:58 was no longer fit for consumption come 10:01 (and thus could not be donated to local food banks, goes the old corporate reasoning… the food obviously soured in that five-minute closing-time window, and now must be thrown away). On a good night, the dumpster served apple pie, rotisserie chicken, those expensive ass pita chips, and enough pastries to make the Pillsbury Doughboy cum. It was not unusual to take home 30 pounds of food in a night, and that’s not even including the weekly visit to the donut shop, bagel shop, and chocolate factory dumpsters.
Picturing this kid wandering around the desert with pockets full of trash, staying up late until stores closed and then digging through their dumpsters while praying over animal carcasses, you might imagine me as a musky scavenger, obsessed with manhandling discarded and infectious bacteria. Certain liberal types will grant, however, that I still fit socially, albeit somewhat radically, within a substantiated subset of the general population, the crafty dumpster divers. Given that I spent some months, however, going beyond the call of mere dumpster divers–supplementing my dumpster diet by fishing out half-eaten leftovers from downtown public trashcans–I identified most strongly with a different social milieu. Sharing that Whole Foods dumpster with a lovely raccoon family, I felt us to be on a similar mission, living in the cracks left not just by the food producers, but in the cracks left by the whole fucked up system that institutes such companies in the first place. I was the loophole, refusing to buy into the environmentally and socially destructive corporations, while simultaneously living off that very system’s so-called “waste.”
Looking back on those years, while I felt personally vindicated sometimes, it occurs to me now that I did not change much. I was ostensibly very concerned with issues related to food production, capitalism, globalization and social stratification, and that all seems legitimate still. I think I was mistaken, however, in my belief that somehow the world would be affected, in a significant way, by me simply imposing limits and restrictions on my own self. I did not learn how to grow my own food, I did not campaign for any real economic change. I didn’t really work toward social change in any meaningful way. I was pissed off at the world, and implicitly acted as if somehow my private anger and my private suffering would be significant to the larger world–if not directly, then in a cosmic albeit mysterious way.
The issue at hand relates now to the distinction between activities and mental functions (i.e. thoughts and feelings) that are important on the personal/private level, and ways of being that actually relate to the larger social world. While I am hesitant to assume that my personal experience can be easily subsumed into larger universalizing generalizations–because such presumptions may be associated with exactly the reductionistic thinking I am now re-considering–my own attempts to change the world strike me as being very white. A pinnacle of whiteness, of course, is the story of Jesus (naturally, literary-inclined readers are cued now to the fact that I am speaking of Jesus as a metaphor…because only Evolutionists can think so literally about the skin color of a Middle Easterner). Jesus, we know, is that dude who was so cosmologically important that his personal suffering was amazing enough to redeem the whole world. (Or depending on your theological perspective of the ransom, perhaps Jesus died only for the sins of those who believe, in which case I too could suffer only for my kin, the world’s progressives, and their neighborhood racoons.)
Despite the seeming strangeness of this idea–if I just suffer enough personally, I can change the world–it seems like a pretty popular assumption, at least anecdotally, underlying many of the social change “efforts” afforded by white, college-educated liberals, for instance. (I speak of this population partly because it is one of the socially-concerned groups I have relatively in-depth personal experience with.) Associated with this ideal of redemptive suffering seems to be the the ideal of redemptive hatred. Like, if I just talk enough “critical” shit about Miley Cyrus, or Monsanto, on Facebook, well, that’s really gonna change the world. I must stop and wonder… when I get so worked up about the Illuminati connection between Miley and Monsanto, when am I actually concerned with the social issue at hand, and when is my personal intention more motivated by an exhibitionist urge to just spew hatred out onto the world? (More on my personal spewing later.) Likewise, when I am becoming consumed with a topic as an attempt to work out some weird self-hatred and shame, thinking if I can somehow correct all the wrongs in the world, then I will stop being so goddamn miserable inside?
Now before you accuse me of simply reaffirming the power elite’s agenda by falsely dismissing revolutionaries as merely fucked up, delusional people, let me say this. There are plenty of people who work toward real social change (most immediately, Michael Meade and Luis Rodriguez come to mind as real badass revolutionaries working related to one of the ostensible topics at hand, white-dudes-stop-fucking-up-the-world). Some people may have different ideas about how change is effectively accomplished, and folks may even disagree with one another about what kinds of change are necessary. That is all great, and necessary.
What then do I think differentiates idiosyncratic and isolated self-indulgence from more socially constructive and productive means? In my own white man Jesus-complex, I wonder whether my own experiences and failed attempts at social change may have any bearing on the conversation. To discuss this, I must deal in generalities, and yet I do not intend to speak as if from some place of universalized/objectively true knowledge to which ironically only I have been hitherto privy. (This problem inherent in how we go about deducing universal truths from any specific individual narrative, and how we may likewise attempt to fit a given individual narrative into the framework of universal truth, is ripe with epistemological implications related to reliance on first-person narrative within the academic postmodernist branches of social justice theory.) Rather than propose definitive conclusions about anyone’s experience–including my own–if I raise questions that are worth thinking about, I will have succeeded in my task of writing.
In my own raging against the world, I believed–and still believe–in the validity of my general concerns about this country’s economic as well as environmental systems. And while I know some facts and stats about these matters, when it really comes down to it, I don’t know shit. As I said earlier, I once believed that it was very important to pick up litter and throw it in the trash. Once I learned how landfills work, however, I realized that it really doesn’t matter where you put your litter. Either leave it scattered in bits and pieces about the desert, or combine all the shit together and throw it in a big hole, also out in the desert (the landfill). I was putting a whole lot of energy into this activity–and trying hard to sell others on the cause too, by way of starting a recycling club–without really knowing anything about what I was doing. (What’s more, when I was throwing food scraps into the trash, such scraps would not be able to decompose naturally under the weight of all that other landfill garbage, and instead contribute to the creation of greenhouse gases a la the the phenomena of “landfill gas.”) If my personal experience is indicative of any larger social trends, we might wonder how much of what passes as white people espousing “social change” is actually just solipsistic wheels spinning in the mud? When the primary function of my social change efforts are lecturing uninterested peers, and posting critical analyses on Facebook, is this helpful, or is it just actually just mindless regurgitation of some new and sexy white people rhetoric?
How does we assess whether a person is actually thinking, or merely mimicking thought? Given the ultimate isolation between individual psyches, this is not a simple question. Nonetheless, if we do determine, somehow, that there is enough mindless regurgitation going on so as to be socially significant, what are the possible ramifications of such a thing? Rather than being so openly fucked up, isn’t it better for white people to at least pretend to be civilized? Different people will have different opinions on the matter, but I am wary of corking old wine in new bottles. As so many college-educated white people learn to superficially parrot a pseudo-rhetoric of politically correctness–whilst simultaneously persecuting all those who do not join up for this cause–what if all that gets achieved is a new normative society wherein old forms of bullshit just get sold as new forms of righteousness (now protected from plain view under the guise of great big delusive lies)? This is already a problem, I think. Perhaps this is why there is nothing harder than getting an educated white person to take responsibility for their own bullshit–because even their admission of being “wrong” can become an attempt to show how great they are at being self-reflective and humble.
Let me state again that I am, by no means, suggesting that real social change work is the cause of this problem, of white people pretending, badly, to be righteous. Quite the contrary, I think that the whole attempt to cork a new bottle–putting a bowtie on a box of shit–is inherent within the white sickness. Since this is a blog post and not a book, anecdotal thinking will have to suffice: this country was founded by people who thought they could escape their shitty past by moving somewhere else, across the Atlantic. Around the same time, with the renewal of Renaissance and Enlightenment-era humanist values, white-on-white slavery was ending right when we discovered the so-called New World, and we figured, hey, I mean, these new folks aren’t really people after all… enslave away! This gave us the opportunity to pretend like white people have always been one big happy, Christian family, attempting to forget the centuries of ethnic and religious Old World conflict. Whiteness, it seems to me, is predicated on a codified lie of cosmic proportions, which is the notion that it is possible to have no past (including having no ethnic intricacy, hence the appearance of whiteness as a homogenized identity). You can murder, rape, plunder, and torture, but because there is no past in which these events occur, you can still live happily ever after… the only prerequisite is having no conscience.
Now, say I come to you as a 21-year-old college student who feels an existential sense of social guilt for the past. In order to cope with this, I took a class on social justice in America–I even read a couple of the assigned books!–and now lecture everyone I meet about the subject, in person and online. Say I just wrote a great essay about the racism inherent in Lorde’s song “Royals.” Because, you know, 17-year-old New Zealand girls are totally at the vanguard of evil when their songs about class disparity fail to address racial politics in the United States. From there, my essay somehow relates this international pop song to the American prison industrial complex. Inasmuch as I do not really know what the fuck I am talking about–because since when does reading a book mean that you actually know about hard time?–I am just mindlessly espousing an ideology. Despite the fact that my ideology is aligned with some morally just causes–like the international end of systemic forms of oppression–I must admit that I am still just a sucker for fitting in. Now, our country is already held together by scores of people complacently believing that we are the greatest place on earth, because our values and global actions are so amazing. So what if we turn away from the rhetoric of liberalism, or even conservatism, and begin giving lip service to more progressive politics instead? Does this actually achieve anything? This is a question related to the importance of believing in a righteous cause, versus thinking independently about the matter. I suggest that when person not only believes something but also espouses it, based solely on social pressure and peripheral evidence, this is stupid. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on what he called a sociological-psychological problem, existing people independent of education or intelligence:
In conversation with [a stupid person] it is felt that you are not dealing with the person himself, but with cliches, slogans, etc., that have gained dominance over him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, he is misused, mishandled in his own being. Thus having become a will-less instrument the stupid person becomes capable of all evil, and at the same time incapable of recognizing it as evil. Here lies the danger of the diabolical abuse. In this way men can be destroyed forever.
In thinking of evil, we return to the topic of hatred. I mentioned briefly my own nihilistic perspective as a young kid. Discussing nonviolence in an undergraduate class, I once said, “If someone walked into this room and started shooting people, I think it would be my responsibility as a man to get up and fight back.” Someone in the class then responded, “I think what you meant to say was your responsibility as a ‘human'”–which is not what I meant. As a kid, I was covered in piss by another boy, I was often called a faggot and a bitch, I had shotguns pointed in my face. When I was thirteen, five strangers beat the shit out of me late one night, just for sport. These experiences engendered in me a kind of violence, and I have always felt it was my duty to use this violence toward the cause of righteousness, if necessary.
The first problem with this, of course, is who made me the arbitrator of righteousness? Is ISIS not also acting under the banner of what they perceive as righteousness? Is this not another misguided brand of Operation Iraqi Freedom, albeit with new, and far more twisted, ideologists at the helm? Alas, I cannot pretend to understand group psychology, nor international politics. In my individual experience, however, I think there was a formative link created in my developing mind, between the alleged cause of righteousness and the pleasure of sadism. That is to say, what I once thought of as being righteous was more an extension of enjoying my own hatred for the people I consider stupid (and evil). As a kid who was often the butt of other people’s sadistic games, I also learned to appreciate the subtle joys of being mean.
I began to reconsider these sadistic values in my early teens, however, seeing my friends get involved in some serious, no fucking joke, violence. By and large, I did not grow up to be like my friend and early role models. Yet to this day, when I rant against the evils of the world sometimes upon closer reflection I realize that more than anything else, I am just getting off on talking shit. This troubles me. I think again to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, referencing now the blaring silence of German complacency during the second World War:
There are two ways to consider this sentiment. The first is as a rhetorical happy ending, a come-to-Jesus epiphany about the sins of cynicism and the virtues of optimistic perseverance. That is likely the perspective of a charlatan, the bait-and-switch just before I sell my magic cure for all the modern ails. Alternatively, we could take Bonhoeffer’s question as an open one. Bullshit is a popular currency in this world; it sells. Cynicism seems a reasonable response to the world’s stupidity, because fuck this injustice that seems so easy to remedy, if everyone would just open their eyes. In the case of evil, I for one have responded with indignant rage. Is this enough? Will cynicism and rage change the world, or is that just part of the original problem? If other means are needed, are there even other ways of being–strong, resistant and honest–that will suffice? In history’s high stake experiments, the questions are still open.