Race Writings 1: The Totalitarian Playbook

Berlin Mural

A mural in Berlin, not far from the Topography of Terror

If there’s one thing I think everyone agrees on, it’s that talking about race in America right now is hard. It’s uncomfortable. Part of the difficulty has to do with the way we talk, especially when we’re all separated by a pandemic. So much of our communication is done now on social media, where brief statements, pictures, and memes replace the long-form conversations that we should be having.

Obviously, I’m not good at social media. I rarely engage with it. I haven’t taken the time to learn how to communicate through it effectively. Still, I don’t want to say nothing in the middle of this massive moment in the history of social justice. So I’m going to pretend it’s the early aughts and use my personal website to post several essays, columns, and book reviews that I’ve written about race over the years. I’ll post one or two of these a week for the next couple of months. Here’s the first.

This essay was originally published on Morpheus in November 2017. I think it’s as relevant today as it was then. It’s long, but I also think it’s engaging and some people might find comfort in it. I hope you enjoy it.

Topography of Terror

Topography of Terror in Berlin

The Totalitarian Playbook

1.

An exhibit called the Topography of Terror stands in front of a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. It’s longer than a soccer field and it details, step-by-step, the rise of the Third Reich. In June, 2017, I traveled around Germany with my father and uncle. Berlin was our last stop before returning to Bremen, the city where my uncle lives. It was blistering hot out. There’s no real shade at the Topography of Terror. We baked in the sun and took our time with the exhibit, reading all the text, checking out the pictures, watching people around us doing the same.

Afterward, we grabbed lunch and talked about what we’d just seen. My dad said, “I can’t imagine how a guy like Hitler gets so much power.”

I pointed out that the Topography of Terror details exactly how Hitler did. It’s an old totalitarian playbook. First, you marginalize dissent by attacking the free press, intellectuals, and academics. Second, you find a scapegoat—typically a religious minority—and craft a narrative that details that scapegoat’s plans to destroy your society. Third, you redefine what a real member of your nation is. You usually do this on racial or ethnic terms. Then, you take what’s left of the populace, the ones who don’t question you, the ones who hold the same religious beliefs as you, the ones who look enough like you so you feel pure, and you start picking fights and building walls.

I said this to my father and uncle because, among other things, they’re Trump supporters. To his credit, my father had the decency to keep his Trump support to himself during the trip. My uncle did not. When faced with the opportunity to educate me—who he saw as a real life liberal university professor from California—he went for it. He baited me a lot on politics. I mostly wouldn’t take the bait. I’ve had decades of experience of political disagreements with my family. What all those conversations have in common is that everyone leaves believing the same thing they started the conversation believing. All of us, everyone, not just my family, develop complex patterns for seeing the world. We hang all of our beliefs on an ideological framework, whether we articulate that ideology or not. The only way to genuinely alter someone’s beliefs is to alter the framework they use to hold those beliefs. That’s a tough thing to do, and not a project I wanted to undergo on my trip around Germany.

Still, our political differences were heavy in Berlin. The whole time I walked through the Topography of Terror, I couldn’t ignore that Hitler’s not the only one to use the totalitarian playbook. Tyrants did it before him and after him. Right now, I live in a country where the president is trying it out. The Third Reich used the term lügenpresse, which literally means “lying press.” Trump supporters used this term until a more dynamic phrase meaning the same thing, “fake news,” caught on. The first budget cuts Trump attempted were to the federal funding for intellectuals. He went after the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. He went after funding for climate research. He attacked the very cornerstones of institutions that produce our scientific and cultural knowledge. In particular, Trump and the American right have been attacking universities and academics. Entire think tanks have been built and supported just to demonize academics (e.g. Turning Point, Texas Public Policy Foundation, which are just two of many). Republican governors and legislators in Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and Utah have crafted bills to attack academics. All of this has happened subtly and been mostly overlooked in news cycles that tend to chase after the more spectacular and outrageous stories.

The second and third parts of the playbook are more obvious. Instead of the Jews, our current administration is banning Muslims, acting as if all 1.8 billion Muslims in the world are terrorists, ignoring that, if all 1.8 billion Muslims were terrorists, they would’ve won by now. And, while we don’t have a myth about an Aryan race (not much of one, anyway), we do have a myth of Making America Great Again, which means characterizing Latinos as rapists and murderers, kicking out immigrants, jailing African Americans, using a twitter war with Kim Jong-Un to reintroduce the myth of the Yellow Peril, and basically defining “a great America” as a white America.

I want to be clear that, by pointing out these similarities, I’m not saying Trump is the next Hitler. He’s not. He’s a buffoon, a lousy president, and an even worse human being, but he’s not Hitler. Still, he’s following the totalitarian playbook. When I was in Berlin with two of his supporters who just walked through an exhibit that details the playbook, and they didn’t make the connection, things got heavy.

 

2.

In October, 2017, I did a reading at the Avenue 50 Gallery in Highland Park to celebrate the 100th issue of Razorcake. I co-founded the magazine with Todd Taylor back in 2001. One hundred issues of a punk rock ‘zine in the twenty-first century is no small landmark. I worked day-to-day on the magazine, doing close to half the work to create, publish, and distribute the first twenty issues. I can’t take much credit for the eighty issues that followed. Even so, I got to be one of the readers at the celebration.

Chris Terry opened things up by reading passages from his essay “One Punk’s Guide to Rap Music.” He told a story about hanging out in a parking lot, waiting for his dad to come out of the store, blasting A Tribe Called Quest on the car radio. His dad got back to the car and turned down the music quickly. This was right around the time of the beating of Rodney King. Racial tensions were high. Chris describes his dad as “the only black man in sight.” Recognizing this, Chris had to confront the dangers inherent in his biracial identity.

The next reader was Donna Ramone. As you may have guessed, Ramone is not her real last name. She introduced her reading by saying that she wished she could read fun stuff about gross Oreo cookies, but, as a Muslim woman in America in 2017, she felt like she had to use every platform she had to speak out. Her story was about being targeted and harassed at an airport, and about how that target and harassment was indicative of an overall trend she, her family, and the Muslim community faced increasingly. Amazingly, Donna made the reading funny.

Up next was me: a white guy. I read a story about skateboarding. Talk about white privilege.

The final reader of the night was an eleven year-old poet, a member of the Puro Pinche Poets collective. She performed in front of a crowd of rough-looking, heavily-tattooed punk rockers in their twenties, thirties, and forties. She read a bilingual poem that ended with a condemnation of Trump. It was amazing and touching. I couldn’t imagine doing what she did when I was eleven. But when I was eleven, I didn’t have to deal with the problems she has to deal with. Unlike this poet, my dad wasn’t swept up in an ICE raid. The totalitarian playbook never separated my family across two borders.

Berlin Wall

The ruins of the Berlin Wall

3.

When I was in my late twenties, I worked construction. I daydreamed a lot about a novel I would write. It would be about a construction worker who decides that, if he’s still working the same job at age thirty, he’ll kill himself. As that birthday approaches, he decides to enter into a life of crime instead, figuring a cop or another criminal would polish him off and he’d have some fun on the way out. I never wrote the novel. Instead, I asked myself two hard questions. First, why was I thinking so much about a main character just like myself committing suicide when he reached the age I was about to reach? Second, instead of a life of crime, why didn’t I find a better way to get out of construction?

So I made a plan. It started with scraping together enough money to allow me to change my life. Though I was already working 7:00-4:00 in my regular construction job, I took on a side gig renovating a dentist’s office. I worked there evenings from 5:00-11:00 for the length of the job, which was about three months. It was exhausting, but I figured that I’d be a few grand ahead of the game at the end. While it mostly worked out, I did run into one real snag.

Every night when I finished, I had to drive past the police station to get home. I would have all of my tools in the back of my truck. I knew going into this and I learned again the hard way that, if you’re driving a truck full of tools and the sun has set, a cop will pull you over. Not every time you drive that truck at night. Just every time a cop sees you driving that truck at night. Over the course of that three months, I got pulled over six or seven times. I wasn’t violating any traffic rules prior to any of those traffic stops. Once, I got a ticket for not wearing my seat belt even though I was wearing my seat belt. Once, I got a ticket for listening to headphones while driving though I wasn’t wearing headphones while driving. Every time, I was asked if I’d been drinking. I hadn’t. Twice, I performed field sobriety tests. I passed.

I thought about these traffic stops when I read an open letter that Derrick Estrada wrote for the website Morpheus in 2017 (which, sadly, is no longer available on that website). On the one hand, I know the anger, the suffocating disgust that comes from being hassled and bullied so much by cops. On different occasions, I’ve had cops punch me, crack me with a nightstick, jab a gun barrel into my sternum, and slam my head against the hood of his car while I was handcuffed. In all of those cases, the cops were in the wrong, acting because they saw me as poor white trash, an easy target. So when I read that piece from Derrick, I knew somewhat where he was coming from.

But there’s one big difference. Derrick’s black and I’m white. Derrick will always be more vulnerable in a traffic stop than I ever was.

And also this: I’m not poor any more. My plan worked. I scraped together money and moved to California and started a punk rock magazine and published some books and got a doctorate and got a job at a university and even got tenure at said university. Now, I have gray hair and all the signifiers of a middle class white guy. I drive a Prius or an old BMW motorcycle. Cops never pull me over, even when I drive past them going eighty. If I talk to a cop these days, he usually calls me sir. He never sees the poor white trash, the easy target, that he would’ve seen when I was driving a truck full of tools at night.

Derrick may accomplish all I have. Full disclosure, I know Derrick and I fully expect him to be more successful in life than I’ve been. But even when Derrick gets gray and cops have to call him sir, they’ll still see the black. He’ll still be an easy target.

 

4.

Lately, these three memories have been grouped in my mind. I’ve been thinking that, though I’m not a Muslim, Donna’s problems are my problems. Though no one sees me as black, Chris’s problems and Derrick’s problems are my problems. Though the new ICE gestapo isn’t going after my family, the Puro Pinche Poet’s problem is my problem. I don’t mean this in a Je Suis Charlie kind of way. I’m not going through the same shit that Donna, Chris, Derrick, and the poet are going through. Donna, Chris, Derrick, and the poet aren’t going through the same shit as each other. All of our problems are individual, but all of our problems are connected.

In some ways, this connection is literal. Chris, Donna, and the Puro Pinche Poets all write for Razorcake, the magazine I’ve poured so much of my heart and soul into. In no small way, my hope for the future of the world is tied to the continued existence of Razorcake. And Razorcake is dependent on arts grants to survive. When the arts are no longer funded, Razorcake no longer exists. When the voices of African Americans, Muslims, and Chicanos are attacked, Razorcake—a ‘zine that provides a platform for those voices—gets attacked, too. Also, the university where I work services mostly working class students: white kids who know what it’s like to be called “trash,” Dreamers, first-generation kids who will have to raise their younger siblings because their parents are being ripped from their family in ICE raids, black kids who’ll have to drive home through white neighborhoods where cops will see them as an easy target, Muslim kids who are just holding on, trying to weather this storm of religious ignorance and intolerance. When academics like me are attacked, the one institution that gives these kids a chance is attacked. When these groups are marginalized, the job that I’ve dedicated my life to, the one that services these groups, is marginalized.

In their 2004 book Multitude, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri outlined their hope for a revolution. It began, they theorized, with a multitude of people recognizing that a single, networked power structure is leading to massive injustice and global devastation. Later, the Occupy movement gave us the term “the one percent” to understand what this power structure is. For the multitude to be successful, they have to join to fight against this power, but they have to maintain their singularities to do it.

So, for example, I can read Derrick’s piece and recognize that I need to help the Black Lives Matter movement. I need to help them because institutional violence against African Americans and particularly African American men is out of control. I need to maintain that singularity. But I also need to work with Black Lives Matter because if black lives don’t matter, then brown lives don’t matter and Muslim lives don’t matter and white trash lives don’t matter. And when I see a Muslim ban that keeps Donna’s overseas family from being able to come the her wedding (if she decides to get married), I need to fight against that because a Muslim ban is seriously fucked up. But also because a Muslim ban is part of the same totalitarian playbook that marginalizes academics like me and defunds arts programs like Razorcake and supports institutional violence against Derrick and Chris and lets ICE kidnap a Puro Pinche Poet’s dad and put him on the other side of a border from his family and tries to build a wall between an eleven-year-old poet and her father.

A Lure for the Devil

I wrote a piece on one of my favorite forgotten crime novels for the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can read it here.

Gunn_Deadlier Than the Male cover

The novel is bonkers (as you can read about in my article). French philosopher Gilles Deleuze named it as one of his favorites in his incredible essay, “The Philosophy of Crime Novels.” I talk about both of these things, plus femmes fatales, truth, sex, murder,  and all kinds of interesting stuff.

Doc, the Dude, and Marlowe

Lebowski screenshotHave you ever watched The Big Lebowski and wondered to yourself, where does the Dude fit in the spectrum of constructed masculinity from Philip Marlowe to Doc Sportello? Have you ever wished there were a Pynchon scholar who could explain to you the ways in which writers rewrite famous texts, and how they revise them? Have you ever wished someone would really explain the specifics of how our culture teaches males to act like men? If so, you’re in luck. I just did all that.

Of course, I know most people don’t really ask those questions. But I do. I do a lot of scholarship. The University of Georgia Press published my book on Thomas Pynchon last summer. I’ve had a handful of articles in peer-reviewed journals lately. I’m proud of all that stuff, but there’s a downside. It’s hard to share it. Most of the peer-reviewed articles are behind a paywall. Only students and academics can access them. And my book on Pynchon is really important, but it also costs $60. I wouldn’t spend sixty bucks on a scholarly tome on Thomas Pynchon. Actually, I would. I have. Many times. But I have a hard time asking others to do that.

Anyway, bringing it all around, I’ve recently published an article in Orbit: A Journal of American Literature. It’s on all the things I wrote about up in my first paragraph. And Orbit does things right. They don’t charge people to read their journal. They don’t charge scholars to make their work open access. And still they find a way to get the top scholars in the field to vigorously peer-review everything they publish.

So long story short, if you want to read my article on masculinity in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, you can read it here.

And, while you’re there, you can read the review that one of the top Pynchon scholars in the world did of my book (it’s the fourth review; you have to scroll down).

The Totalitarian Playbook

Morpheus Totalitatarian PlaybookThree incidents in my life had become linked in my head. I felt like they were connected, but I couldn’t explain why. Whenever I talked about it, I ended up rambling. At the same time, the editor at Morpheus asked me if I’d written anything recently he could use. So I sat down and wrote an essay that allowed me to clear my head, articulate my thoughts, and get something over to the editor. I’m pretty pleased with how it came out. You can read it here.

Liberal University Professors

Holocaust Memorial BerlinMy university has a running column in the Ventura County Star on Sundays. Our public relations person asked me to contribute a column recommending books for the summer.  She also wanted me to make it newsy. So I did what everyone in the news is doing. I started with Donald Trump. This was my original first paragraph:

Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Starting tomorrow, see how long you can go before encountering a reference to Donald Trump. After the first, time how long before the second comes along. You’ll be stunned by how incessantly everyone talks about Trump. It’s like we’re all in a room with a small child wielding a knife. We know he’s just a narcissist trying to get us to pay attention to him, but we still have to pay enough attention to not get stabbed. We keep thinking someone is going to take the knife out of his hand. But, no. That’s not going to happen any time soon.

This situation can cause anxiety for anyone. Perhaps it’s causing some anxiety for you. If so, I can help. I can’t take the deadly weapons out of the narcissist’s hands, but I can help with the anxiety.

I sent it off to the PR person. She liked the column, but she didn’t like the part about Trump being a small child wielding a knife. She feared that some of the university’s donors would be offended. So she rewrote the first paragraph for me. This was her version:

Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Starting tomorrow, see how long you can go before encountering a reference to Donald Trump. After the first, time how long before the second comes along. You’ll be stunned by how incessantly everyone talks about Trump. For or against Trump, it’s a continual topic of conversation.

Those against him may feel like we’re all in a room with a child who has a knife and we must pay attention or be stabbed. Those who support him may feel they are constantly under attack themselves.

Either situation can cause anxiety for anyone. Perhaps it’s causing some anxiety for you. If so, I can help with the anxiety.

Not to be a prima dona, but I couldn’t let this opening stand. This tone isn’t me, and I wouldn’t let my name be associated with these ideas. I disagree with the whole idea of “for or against Trump” being equally valid positions. Trump is following the playbook for establishing a totalitarian regime. He has scapegoated an entire religion and tried to ban members of that religion from entering the United States. His nationalist rhetoric has led to unconscionable attacks on immigrants. He has marginalized academics, intellectuals, and the free press. These are the first three steps that every totalitarian leader takes: scapegoat a minority population, heighten nationalist feelings, and silence opposition.

The next step is to push for a war to solidify this ideology.

It’s personal to me. My wife immigrated to this country. I’m an academic. Trump’s stances are stances against me and my wife personally. I teach at a university that is largely comprised of white women (another group he has attacked) and Latinos. His attacks are directed at my students. The guy even took my sister’s health care away. Her premiums went from $190 a month to $1300 a month when he insisted on trying to repeal the ACA, then refused to fund parts of it.

None of this is okay. If you support Trump and you feel attacked for your support, that’s a good thing. I honestly believe most Trump supporters are better people than Trump is. If you’re one of his supporters, I hope you do feel attacked and this leads you to rethinking your attack on politically precarious populations.

I didn’t say all this to PR person. Instead, I wrote a compromised third opening. You can read it and my five recommendations for good books here.

My Next Book

I’ve spent the past few years working on an academic study of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, the systems of power in those novels, and his depictions of resistance to that power. I started the project as my dissertation, which I finished in late July, 2011. As I was wrapping up the writing of it, global events like the Arab Spring, the revolution in Tunisia, and austerity protests in Greece and Spain started to occur. In September of 2011, a handful of activists set up camp in Zuccotti Park in NYC, and the Occupy Movement was born. Occupy’s ideas of participatory democracy, their strategy to forego protests and instead develop alternative societies (even if they were just a demonstration of a genuinely democratic society) matched a lot of what I’d read in Pynchon. At this point, one would think that I may have participated in the demonstrations. I didn’t. I’m the worst about attending rallies, even if I’m sympathetic to the cause.

What I did instead was look deeper into the political and economic theorists who provided the foundations for both Pynchon and Occupy, and I wrote a book about it. The book is called, appropriately enough, Occupy Pynchon.

occupy-cover

I index and proofed the typeset version of the book just as our nation descended into the madness which resulted in the one percent taking over every seat of power in the US and unapologetically working to make this a nation by, for, and of the 1% (to borrow Joseph Stiglitz characterization). I took a little comfort in knowing that I’d at least written a handbook for resistance to this takeover. It may be an academic text geared largely for literature scholars, marketed to university libraries, and costing $60, but at least it’s out there. Or it will be this coming May.

So that’s been my rabbit hole. If you want to see more about the book, here’s the page from my publisher’s web site.

Bumbling Sexual Predators

Sutherland in Animal House

I’ve often wondered where fictional English professors get their awful clothes. Donald Sutherland gives me the name of his tailor above.

I’m a little obsessed with English professors in movies. I don’t care how bad a movie is, if there’s an English professor in it, I watch it. Even if that movie is Some Kind of Beautiful, which takes bad film-making to the point where it’s almost so bad it’s good, but not quite. It’s just so bad it’s bad.

Most films with English professors are lousy. I watch them because I have this sick fascination with the cliche professor in movies. He’s almost always a white man, slovenly, flighty, and sleeping with a student. At the end of every movie, I daydream about writing a book about these slanderous portrayals and calling it Bumbling Sexual Predators.

I was talking about this with a buddy of mine, Mike Plante, a few months ago. Mike published the long-running film magazine Cinemad. He still does a Cinemad podcast. A couple of weeks ago, Mike interviewed me about being an English professor and films about professors for his podcast. You can listen to it here.

While you’re at it, spend a little time on the Cinemad site. There’s a lot of good stuff there.

And, for what it’s worth, my award for the best (and most realistic) English professor in a film goes to Regina Hall’s character in People Places Things.

Love and Gravity’s Rainbow

Gravitys_rainbow_coverFor the past several years, I’ve been working on a book about politics in Thomas Pynchon novels. It’s been a hell of an undertaking. I’ve reread all of Pynchon’s works several times. I’ve read hundreds of books and academic articles about Pynchon’s novels. I’ve studied economic and political and literary theory. I’ve written several drafts of a book, published a few chapters in peer-reviewed journals, found a publisher, and finished one round of edits. The book is under contract right now with the University of Georgia Press. It should come out sometime next year.

In the meantime, I wanted to do something lighter, something that reminded me why I was first attracted to Pynchon’s novels a couple of decades ago. I wrote an essay about the love stories in Gravity’s Rainbow and how they helped shape my own real-life love story. The folks at The Millions were gracious enough to publish it. You can read it here.

A Punk’s History of Howard Zinn

 

Illustration from Razorcake #55 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #55 by Brad Beshaw

Celebrity deaths elicit some strange reactions. I sometimes get wrapped up in mourning the loss and forget that I didn’t know the person. I was hit pretty hard by the deaths of Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone, even though I’d never met them and had no intention of meeting them. I have to remember that the things I love about those guys still exist very much in the present. I can listen to them sing any time I want to. And, let’s face it, the grand productive days were over for those two. As decent as their final releases were, neither of them was going to produce another Give ‘Em Enough Rope or End of the Century.

Maybe the fact that three of the original Ramones are dead and all of the original Eagles are still alive is proof that, if a god does exist, he’s a bit of a dick. Nonetheless, the point remains that celebrity deaths need to be taken with a grain of salt. But I’m struggling over this most recent one.

On January 27, 2010, we lost Howard Zinn. Among other things, Zinn is the author of A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, which is probably the most comprehensive history of Americans who fought against racism, sexism, imperialism, and classism; of Native Americans who refused to be annihilated, of African Americans who refused to be dehumanized, of women who refused to be the second sex, of citizens who fought against wars rather than in them, and of workers who fought against exploitation. I remember my first time reading A People’s History. It was about a dozen years ago. I was living in a small town in Florida, working as a construction supervisor. The eight-hundred page tome rode shotgun with me as I drove my truck from jobsite to jobsite. I read snatches of it during breaks, eating lunch, waiting for subcontractors to show up, or sitting in my thrift-store recliner in my one-bedroom apartment. It was a time in my life when I felt particularly powerless. Although most of the construction workers viewed me as a boss, I had no real authority. I made less money than most of the skilled workers (many of whom were less skilled than me), and it was becoming more and more clear to me that I was just fuel in a generator that powered the banking and insurance industries—the ones who really make the money in construction. I’d spent a decade trying to get out of these kinds of jobs. I’d gotten two college degrees (a bachelor’s and a master’s). I’d published my first novel. And I still found myself in a low rent apartment in a white trash neighborhood, living a life that most of America feels comfortable calling white trash. Amid this atmosphere, A People’s History was empowering.

Zinn, like all historians, tells history from his point of view. His values are reflected in whom he chooses as historically significant and what events he chooses to focus on. Unlike most histories that I was familiar with, though, Zinn focused on people like me. He was less concerned with presidents, generals, and leaders of business (unless he was knocking them off their pedestals). Instead, he acknowledged that real change comes from the bottom up. While Abraham Lincoln may have signed the bill that freed the slaves, he didn’t do it out of a deep-seeded belief in social justice. He did it as a response to an overwhelming resistance movement that fought against slavery, be it through the dozens of violent slave uprisings throughout the South, the Quaker network of safe houses for escaped slaves, the challenges to the Fugitive Slave Act, or the narratives of writers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. In most cases, politicians don’t act. They react. And their reactions are often based the uprisings and resistance movements of ordinary people.

Think for a few seconds about how significant this perspective is. In the American educational system, we’re taught to look for heroes. Christopher Columbus discovers America. George Washington wins the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln frees the slaves. General MacArthur leads the Good War and defeats fascism. Martin Luther King gives a few speeches and ends racism. This type of mythology pervades our national consciousness. It is manifested in our movies, where the action movie genre is dedicated to promoting the myth that a single man (with the right amount of firepower and a few inhuman stunts) can simplify any complex concept and solve it himself, while we get to sit idly by, eating popcorn and drinking soda. And we believe it. Sometimes, we even elect one of those action heroes as governor. Or we elect Obama president and expect him to give us jobs and money, take on the health care industry, and end two wars by himself. And when Schwarzenegger proves to be exactly the idiot he sounds like, and Obama demonstrates that the president of the United States can’t solve all our problems, we blame the men themselves without questioning the underlying myth that enabled us to place these unrealistic expectations on them.

We also ignore our personal responsibility.

So for me, reading A People’s History a dozen years ago hammered home the point that I had to take responsibility for my own actions. I couldn’t just sit around my low rent apartment and complain about the system and its injustices. Or I could. It just didn’t do anyone any good. What I needed to do, instead, was get off my ass and fight for what I believed in. And I had to do it as a lifestyle change—something I could do every day.

I looked at how Zinn fought for what he believed in and noticed that he stuck with his strengths. He worked for social justice as a historian, as a speaker, as a writer, and as a teacher. And I thought to myself, what are my strengths? Well, both of my degrees were in writing, so I needed to stick with that. And I was an excellent student and researcher. I was comfortable talking in front of a crowd, and I could articulate my ideas verbally. In short, though history isn’t my discipline, many of my strengths were similar to Zinn’s. So I could use him as a role-model.

I picked the issues that were important to me to fight for. I wanted (and still want) a free media, and I couldn’t just kill Rupert Murdoch like some action film hero would (and even if I could, I’d have to remember that his real power comes from his legions of followers, not from Murdoch himself). But I could co-found this here punk rock magazine. I could write hundreds of essays and stories for dozens of independent magazines. I could write books that dealt with American classism and get them published on indie presses. And so I did. My writing may not have the impact that Zinn’s has, but I’m doing about as well as he was doing at my age. If I stay on his schedule, I have twenty-one more years to come up with my equivalent of A People’s History. I have forty-eight more years to become the cultural force that he is today.

The second issue I chose to fight was this creation of the Superman myth that enables us to deify men like Washington, Lincoln, and Obama while ignoring our own personal responsibility. Because the second really significant thing I got out of A People’s History was that, historically speaking, people like me have mattered. I do matter. I don’t need a hero to free me or a politician to give me hope. I can take care of these things myself.

One thing traditional histories do is make people like you and me feel insignificant. In all likelihood, second graders of the future are not going to be learning about us. Punk rock probably won’t even be a footnote in texts in fifty years. But we can ask, whose traditions guide these traditional histories? How can we change them? How can we write a history that defies the myth of super humans and empowers those second graders?

So, along these lines, I’ve spent the last six years at a state university, developing my own personal pedagogy of social justice, one that explores the literature of writers who resisted the powers that were. About twenty-percent of my students will go on to be K-12 teachers here in California. Hopefully, by learning to question some of these myths that continue to be perpetuated in our public school system, my students will decide to stop perpetuating them.

 

Of course, here I am at the end of my column, one which started out seemingly eulogizing Howard Zinn, and I’ve hardly talked about the guy at all. I haven’t talked about his amazing career, his wonderful books, or so many things that made him great. I haven’t even talked about the time I spent with him—because I actually did meet him and spend time with him. He was nice enough to stay in touch with me for a little bit after that. He even blurbed one of my books for me. He was a great human being. But, first of all, I’ve already written quite a bit about Zinn in Razorcake (see, for instance, the interview Todd and I did with him in issue #6, my story about that interview in issue #31, plus the multiple reviews I did of his work in other issues). And, second of all, it would be contradictory to write a eulogy that puts Zinn on a pedestal while I compliment him for teaching me that no one belongs on a pedestal. So, instead, I just want to take this moment to thank him, a couple of months too late, for teaching me that I have the power to change my own life.

Thanks, Howard. I miss you already.

Author’s note: This is the nineteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #55.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Hoodlebugging

Illustration from Razorcake #41 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #41 by Brad Beshaw

I rode my bike down the Hoodlebug Trail in western Pennsylvania feeling like I was stuck on both sides of a time machine. The trail itself was paved over an old commuter railroad line that started in the Pennsylvania town called Indiana and ended in Blairsville. Little reminders of the old days still ran along the buried tracks. Groundhogs stood to peer across a fallow field, chipmunks scattered away from my shadow, a buck paused on the trail before racing down to a creek to drink. The ghosts of nineteenth century industry—coal mines and iron furnaces and the young growth of a clear-cut forest—floated around me. The trail also intersected little reminders that I was very much in twenty-first-century America: the wastewater treatment plant; the baseball field with a painting of the nuclear power plant below the scoreboard; the actual nuclear power plant behind the baseball field; the freeway that ran sometimes dangerously close to the trail; the iPod I had plugged into my ears, blasting the Descendents. As I crossed over Two Lick Creek, I caught a glimpse of a billboard through the trees. It showed a picture of a freeway and said, “DNT TXT N DRV.”

It took me a few minutes to figure out what the hell it meant. I kept trying to figure out what DNT stood for. Descendents Nuts Transfer? Donuts Next Town?

You, on the other hand, if you have a cell phone, if you’ve sent a text message before, if you don’t have the Descendents and donuts on the brain, probably knew right away what the sign said. You are one up on me. I was a mile down the Hoodlebug, thinking about something entirely different when suddenly Don’t Text and Drive popped into my head. Perhaps because this revelation hit me right in the middle of the song “Hateful Notebook” in the middle of the Trail That Is Twenty-First-Century America, my brain started reeling.

Earlier this past summer, I read a book called Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. It’s the kind of book that you only read if you’re a geek or an English professor. Since I’m both, I loved the book. I won’t bore you with all the details, but what you need to know about it is that Ong discusses the ability to write and read as a technology—which it is, though we’re so accustomed to it that we don’t see it that way—and it’s the technology that made Western Civilization what it is. Ong says that in cultures that have never been exposed to reading or writing, thought patterns are completely different. Cultural mores, laws, traditions, etc., are all memorized in the form of an epic poem. Because there’s no dictionary, people’s vocabularies are only a few thousand words. People living in oral culture are no less intelligent than people living in a literate one, but they do think differently. Writing and reading changed the way people think. For one thing, when we are able to write, we can literally take thoughts out of our heads and store them somewhere else. In other words, I don’t have to allocate any mental space to, say, avocados when I’m hungry for guacamole. Instead, I can just write a shopping list and put avocados, jalapeno peppers, garlic salt, tomatoes, tortilla chips, and beer on it. That way, I can forget about those items until I get to the store and read my list. In the meantime, my mind will be free to wonder about things like the Descendents song “Hateful Notebook.”

It’s on perhaps the most underrated Descendents album, Everything Sucks. In short, it’s a song about a girl who writes all of secrets into her notebook and the narrator of the song wants to know what’s in it. More than that, though, the narrator wants to read what’s in it. Because there’s a difference between knowing what’s in a notebook and reading what’s in a notebook. When you know what’s in a notebook, your mind assimilates the information into your thought processes, changing exactly what is written into your vague conception of what is written. When you read it, though, you know exactly what is written, exactly the thoughts that she had in the way that she wanted to express them with all the complexity, innuendo, and nuance she used. He can go back and read and read that notebook and what he knows will grow. More meaning will come out of those words. He’ll think about it as “reading between the lines,” but he’s not reading between them at all. He’s just gradually coming to a better understanding of what they say. And that’s one of the really amazing things about reading and writing: meaning grows as you continue to reread. Even the simplest diary will become more complex, more elucidating the more you read it. Words and sentences carry a lot more information than we usually give them credit for.

In a way, that works in oral cultures, too. I’m sure when those poor Athenian bastards had to memorize The Iliad, the meaning grew with every recitation. In their minds, it probably started out as a war story, morphed into a gay love story, and eventually became the law of the land. It’s not all that different from me listening to that Descendents album a hundred times and singing along to all the words until the meanings grew and grew and eventually led me to thinking way to hard about it while I rode the Hoodlebug and creating a whole scenario about this sad little goth girl and her black and white composition notebook, using a nubby pencil to write all about how 45 Grave really gets her, and the too-skinny dude with his horn-rimmed glasses and DIY buzz cut and huge internal desert of insatiable longing.

But I have time to think about these all of these ridiculous things. Why? Because I come from a literate culture that allows me to take most of my thoughts and store them on paper somewhere, or allows me to borrow or access thoughts that other people put on paper so that I could use them when I want to.

And since I had this time, I used it to wonder what the fuck DNT TXT N DRV really means? I mean beyond “don’t text and drive.” What does it really mean?

One of the things that Ong talks about is the turning point of literacy. Originally, people used writing just as a way of counting money or storing stuff. Want to know what’s in that basket over there, look at the picture of the olive on the side of it. Want to know how much money you got for those olives, count the number of vertical lines you drew on that piece of bark. From there, the circles and lines got more advanced. They started to mean more. But what really changed everything was the vowel. Before the vowel, the circles and lines couldn’t be read the same way by everyone. Where one person sees an olive, another sees and orange. Where one person sees DNT and reads it as don’t, another person reads it as donut. What separates the don’ts from the donuts? The vowel. Put a vowel in a word and anyone can learn to read fairly accurately. And once anyone can read, everyone is able to take thoughts out of their heads and store those thoughts in a way that’s accessible to a broader population. Laws, mores, and traditions don’t have to be memorized. Just write them down and look them up if you need to. Free up your mind to invent new stuff to maybe make life easier.

When you consider this, you realize that everything we have in this culture of ours—from bicycles to baseball games to train tracks to blacktop paved over train tracks to nuclear power plants to iPods to aging punk rock bands—can be traced back to one single technology: the vowel. And now we send text messages that treat the vowel like it doesn’t even matter.

But that’s not my point. This isn’t just a long rant to say that text messaging sucks. I have no idea whether or not it sucks. I don’t have a cell phone. I’ve never sent a text message. Hell, it usually takes me anywhere between a week and forever just to answer an email. There’s no way I’m going to walk around with some little machine that lets people send little vowelless messages about the minutia of their day. I’d rather ride my bike and listen to the Descendents.

At least that’s where I am right now. I’m very happy that I don’t have a cell phone, just like there was a time when I was very happy that I didn’t have an email account. And it’s not because I’m a Luddite. I love a lot of new technology. I was listening to an iPod while I Hoodlebugged. Sure, the music doesn’t sound as good as it does when I play it on vinyl, but it’s a hell of a lot more convenient than riding a bike with a record player on the handlebars. The bike I was riding was pretty state-of-the-art, too. I don’t know what kind of metal it was made of, but it’s a lot stronger and lighter than the steel that they used to smelt in those huge old furnaces that still dot the western Pennsylvania landscape. Even when I type this, I’m using a laptop and Microsoft Word. I may not be a fan of Microsoft and Word may have its own problems, (what with all the changes it makes to words while you’re typing them; you can hardly even type “teh” anymore without the program changing it to “the.” You can hardly type Hoodlebug without a red squiggly line underneath, even though I know it’s a real word and I’m spelling it correctly). Word freaks me out sometimes, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than the old Smith Corona word processor that I wrote my first novel on. It definitely beats the shit out of the electronic typewriter I used to write essays in high school.

But because I’m of that generation that grew up from typewriter to word processor to Word, I’m even more aware of how this technology changes our way of thinking. When I used to write on a typewriter or use a pencil (like my imaginary Hateful Notebook girl), I really thought about what I wanted to say before writing it down. I mean, I really thought about it. I didn’t want to have to type out a whole new page just to fix a sentence. I didn’t want a page full of crossed out or erased words. The word processor changed that a bit, but it wasn’t until computers got cheap enough for me to be able to afford one and I started to use Word that my method of writing really changed. Now, I write as a think. I type sixty words a minute. I keep about forty of them. I use the backspace key more than I use the letter “e.” And there’s a fuckload of “e’s” in this column.

Getting back to the Hoodlebug and the DNT TXT N DRV billboard (a phrase which, not so incidentally, does not get a squiggly line under it when you type it in Word), it was at that moment that I realized just how significant all these little insignificant things like cell phones and iPods and laptops are. When the railroad tracks are paved over to make a bike path or when the clear-cut forests grow back everywhere but where the nuclear power plant is, those are just changes to the way we get around or the way we get energy. When groundhogs gaze across fallow fields, it’s just a different thing for me, a guy who lives in California, to look at. Their part of the change that is all around us and perpetual and part of the normal human experience. The actual things, like my bike and the power plant, may be unique to our time period, but they’re just part of the chain of creation and destruction that have surrounded western civilization for a few thousand years. But that little computer chip that was sitting on my hip, mainlining punk rock tunes into my ears, or the computer chip that connects careless drivers passing out essentially meaningless and vowelless messages to one another, and that chip in the laptop that helps me to write this all represent something much larger than a change in our environment. They represent a change in the way our minds are working. It’s a change in the way that we think, a change bigger than anything humans have undergone since they first came up with the vowel. And, goddamn, none of us knows where this is going to take us.

 

Author’s note: This is the twelfth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #41.  For more information about the collection, read this post.