Sep 21, 2009

A few words on an American rabble

I wish they did seem alien. I wish I saw them and was startled, not knowing what I was seeing and assessing it immediately as freakish, strange, maybe funny and most certainly unserious. Green with two heads. Alien. Having nothing to do with me. Instead I feel like I know them. I feel responsible. I feel like a man watching his mother wander around senile, without clothes. I feel like an older brother, moved out and on, whose family is now in the news as a deprivation case, or an immigrant always feeling like he has to explain why his people are "like that." They are my people, even if I never wanted it that way. And now I'm overwhelmed by this: I couldn't protect them.

I spent a good portion of last week depressed. I watched the 9/12 marchers, like I watched the birthers and the tea baggers, the town hall shouters and take-our-country backers, and I was depressed. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to sit somewhere silent, sit for a long time. I saw wave upon wave of fear, and a froth of anger. I saw paranoia, hysteria, and hatred. I saw history perverted and misinterpreted, conservatism and Christianity warped with ideology and politics and power. And mostly with fear. I saw a lot of fear, fear that foams up in panic, fear fed on whispers, fear that fuels a hysteria that knows no doubt and is raving, raving, raving.

And I feel responsible. It's insane to think I could say anything, but I feel like I should have walked up to the marchers to say something, waded in to where they were making signs or stood up in some meeting before the march and said let us not succumb or be overcome with fear. I imagine it, though, and I know I would have to convince them I was them and they wouldn't recognize me, couldn't recognize me and I would want to say we must be calm, we must be charitable, we must be better but instead I would stutter listen! like the owe me that. But they don't, though. And they won't hear, and don't have too, and just because I feel some connection to them doesn't mean they don't see me as alien. Or a traitor.

Maybe I'm just remembering things, the scenes of signs connecting to a past that still lingers like guilt. Maybe I made up this responsibility. No one gave it to me. Maybe I'm stuck with memories I should have disowned instead of letting them fester.

A scene I remember: It's 1992. October or maybe November, Fall but before Thanksgiving. I am 11. We are in Texas. The Christians are very conservative and also apocalyptic. A woman in a denim dress says to another woman (both of them with their hair in buns and also, I think, one was holding a hoe): Well, she says at least when Clinton's in the White House maybe all the Christians could be jailed together.

I remember this like a New Yorker cartoon. A single panel. One woman speaking to the other, and it's not funny, but I wonder if maybe it was intended that way. The more I consider, the stranger the statement seems.

Another scene I remember: 1999. Fall again. It must of been, or maybe early winter. Washington. The convention hall is filled with guns, filled like it fills every few months for the show, guns and guns and guns and gear and flags and books, politics, and cynicism. A fear: If you sign anything, the FBI will know you were here. Most people pay with cash. A video, looped and playing endlessly in the middle of this sea of weapons, explains how to make your semi-autos fully auto. The video says it's legal if you buy it today.

I remember shelves of borrowed Bircher books and the way the snow fell on unpaved roads. I remember how Rush Limbaugh sounded at noon on the radio plugged into the outlet by the light switch in the barn, the bumper music announcing lunch, cheese and tomato sandwiches wrapped in a bread bag.

I think of John Quade, but can't remember his name. I look him up and see he's recently died. He was an actor who played very American villains who always seemed like men I knew: blue collar thugs, the bikers, hard hatters, the gruff and scary old white men who worked with their hands. He played a sheriff in "Roots," and a lot of Western heavies and bad guys in Clint Eastwood movies. When I knew John Quade, I was 16 or 17 and we briefly went to the same church. He was physically frightening, burly and bearded, and his skin was so pockmarked it gave the impression his face was deformed. He was scary, but so were most of the men I knew, and, like them too, he was soft spoken, mostly quiet, and maybe even humble. He was and they were gentle, loving children and wives and always too aware of how hard the world was out there, even if they were never really aware of how they helped make it that way. When I knew John Quade -- enough, anyway, to hear him talk -- he was closely associated with a group that believed "human being" was a secular and evil term, that last names were non-Christian, that there were no such thing as Civil Rights, that America was already under martial law, that joining the bar as a lawyer meant joining an anti-American conspiracy, and that names in capital letters in legal documents meant individuals were turned into corporation. He would talk about it. His speech was "Christianity and Common Law." The group was mostly self educated on old law books.

Self education is a very American thing. Good and bad. It means Abraham Lincoln became president. It means public libraries in every community in the country. But it also means that in America, we have a whole subculture of people sure they've debunked Einstein. It also means creationists and people who think they have disproven the moon landings. It means conspiracy theories, with the logic of if-it-could-be-true-it-must-be-true, and hysteria, paranoia, and a misunderstanding of the differences between totalitarian regimes, a misunderstanding of what's free about the free market, and history and economics and culture all filtered through a few political points.

In America, with some self education, anyone can grow up to be president, and also anyone can grow up to come up with a conspiracy about the president being illegitimate.

Glenn Beck was self educated. Which might part of why he seems so familiar. He does. With his inconsistencies and self-effacement, his rhetorical moves and YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK!, even his sound effects and defensive sense of humor, he seems like someone who would have frustrated me at Thanksgivings and Bible studies. But so does Sarah Palin. I want her to seem like a freak, to seem strange and unheard of, but instead she seems like she could be one of the women I grew up around. She's somehow sheltered from reality and untouched by uncertainty, not really knowing what she says. I do know these people. They are my people, even if they don't really want it that way. And I'm embarrassed for them, and I am silently repeating please stop, please stop, no, please, please stop.

It's not like any of them ever listened to me though: Not in the Bible study where I was told that Saddam Hussein was prophesied in Revelation, nor when a woman said Dr. Suess was about drugs; not when I tried to say George W. Bush wasn't conservative or that cutting welfare always means more abortions; not when the young Republicans argued the women and children of WIC were lazy and deserved no help and not when the College Republicans said conservatives should trust the president as he pushed us into war. Not when I tried to say conspiracy was unlikely, or economics was complicated, not when I tried to say ideology was a sin and the principle of charity was important. Not when I said wait a minute. Or calm down.

I'm not even a conservative anymore, and haven't been in some time, so I don't know why I feel this way. Responsible. And helpless. I watch those marchers, though, hear these rantings, see the signs, and say to myself, fuck. Fuck. I should've said something to save them from themselves.