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Fall

Fall, once a time of renewed promise and fresh hope, for the last several years has been an acrid-tasting period of transition: leases always seem to be ending, relationships need to be renegotiated, wardrobes must be swapped out, and all the compartmentalized elements of one’s life are ready to be reevaluated. As the dog days of August (when the heat makes work impossible) slowly fade out, a sinking feeling sets in as Fall-proper is slated to begin. Perhaps due to some global-warming-related temperature variation, in recent years in my home state of North Carolina, summer seems to draw itself out as long as possible before making an abrupt transition to winter; Fall, that magic and subtle in-between that I used to know, now feels like a faint voice on a warped record, warbling out of existence.

September is a month filled with birthdays: parties must be attended, presents must be bought. My own rolls around at the end of that month, forcing me to reckon with my own ‘life progress’ in this already tenuous period—Am I ‘better’ than I was before, or have I regressed? The body has certainly regressed—bones crack when I get out of bed, more stretching is necessary. Birthdays, like all annual holidays, are a truly awful mile marker, making one remember the mediocrity of years passed and the swiftness with which time devoured them. Only the excrement remains, the rabbit-pebbles of memory.

The last time Fall felt magical was, probably not coincidentally, a year I spent a lot of time outside. Since joining the ashen-faced ranks of white-collar culture workers, the seasons have tended to blend together, to be something that’s happening outside the window behind the glow of my computer screen. That last magical Fall, I lived in a small Southern town and worked in a bakery at the edge of town. I wasn’t in love but I rode my bike around alone or with friends. I was happy. I spent my days scooping cookie dough onto sheets and listening to either affiliate NPR or the Silver Jews with my Gen-X co-workers. At night I would take long solitary walks down the train tracks through the quiet town, where the crisp wind carried the reassuring fall smell of fire. My comrade-at- arms Rita and I would range around town at night on our bicycles looking for grad-student parties to crash—the kind of parties where you could grab a bottle of wine and down it without anyone really noticing. We would bike all over the deserted town at night, often not seeing a single car, and often end up at a lonely railroad bridge hidden away in an old money neighborhood downtown. When we happened to have a mass of bikers with us, on a Friday night, or after an art opening, we took them to the top of an empty five-story parking lot: the best view of the ever-expanding fall landscape of the Piedmont/Triad area. On other nights, I would drive to Borders and drink refill after refill of their pumpkin coffee, flipping idly through books that I still haven’t read.

In this metallic-tasting future of windows that you can’t open and climate- controlled air being pumped into dwellings and offices by massive physical plants, does the season matter anymore?

In New York, where most nature is a simulacrum, the season change primarily indicates a change of wardrobe and comfort. Thank god it’s Fall, no more excessive sweating and a great chance to show off my new coat. But in cities like New York where there is no nature that isn’t planned and groomed by designers, some biological element of the seasons is missing.

And yet, even here, old sensations have been washing over me for the past couple of days. Last night, while finishing beers in the backyard of a friend’s house after a hot thunderstorm, the way the moon framed the big hammock- slung oak tree and neon grass, the backyard floodlight hitting the vinyl siding reminded me of Halloween approaching and of the time when the growing-cool nights were pregnant with anticipation of bike rides through piles of dead leaves, pumpkin cappuccinos at the all-night gas station and the prospects for new romance with a good-looking hoodie.

The old zeal for life that comes in with the arrival of the crisp months has faded over the years down to where it is just faint-burning light—we have to blow on the coal and ashes to bring the fire back to life.

What is to be done?

Hotel Lux Moscow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This essay was originally published as "The Specters of 1917" in The Towner.

I read Shklovsky’s A Sentimental Journey in the depopulated far north of Sweden, amidst a silence so total it made my ears ring. In the mornings, we gathered berries and in the evenings we fished, eating what we found. Shklovsky’s account of the privation of the civil war years in St. Petersburg was harrowing, but something about the terse, fractured quality of three lines of the last paragraph struck me—Now I live among emigrants and am myself becoming a shadow among shadows. Bitter is the wiener schnitzel in Berlin. I lived in Petersburg from 1918 to 1922. I tromped around the primeval bogs and meadows of Västerbotten, rearranging the sentences in my head, like a mantra—I lived in Petersburg from 1918 to 1922. Now I am a shadow among shadows. It is strange when the bulk of a book’s narrative slips away immediately, but the last sentence sticks, like Bolano’s and then the storm of shit begins.

In Moscow, I read Stephen F. Cohen’s biography of Bukharin and Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary, while staying in a statue-topped Stalin-era apartment building in Arbat, not far from the Gothic, red-beaconed Ministry of Foreign Affairs skyscraper. Stalin’s hand is still visible all over Moscow—from the ornate, beautiful skyscrapers, built to compete with the West, to the museum-like metro with the revolutionary mosaics and stately art-deco light fixtures, still a “palace for the people” after all this time. On my first night, my hosts—an artist couple in their mid-thirties— took me down to the marble steps of the Moscow River. We drank beer and looked out on the metro trains rumbling over the neon-lit Smolensky Bridge, and the floodlit White House beyond, the flashpoint of the coup attempt twenty-five years ago. They were not particularly interested in talking politics, Hillary and Trump, or the Duma elections in September. They had a start-up I didn’t quite understand, assembling little crowns and tiaras for children. Their friends helped them assemble the crowns, but the business model was lost in translation.

During the day, I wandered the city, through the endless repaving and reconstruction. It seemed like Moscow will have entirely new sidewalks by the end of the year. Walter Benjamin came to Moscow for two months in December of 1926. He spent most of his time worrying over a strange ménage à trois (with the Latvian actor/director Asja Lācis and German critic Bernhard Reich), going to movies and plays, and trying to get steady work at the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. There is something pathetic and mopey about Benjamin in the Moscow Diary—one wants to shake him and tell him to toughen up. Still, his struggle with Russian grammar and travel-planning are charming. Comforting to accidentally find yourself walking in his footsteps, arriving at the same sea foam green Belorussky Train Station, wandering down streets like Smolensk Boulevard and past the little markets of Arbat that appear in his account. “Should I ever return to Russia, it will obviously be essential that I bring some previously acquired knowledge of the language with me… At the very least, there would have to be very solid literary and financial arrangements before I undertook a second trip.”

Willi Münzenberg, the interwar head of the Comintern’s Western propaganda apparatus, hated going to Moscow. He usually ended up staying with the other German and foreign communists from the apparat at Hotel Lux, which his civil partner Babette Gross, described as a place of “constant intrigue where everyone spied on everyone else.” In the mid-thirties, Hotel Lux became an oubliette that devoured foreign communists. The Old Bolshevik, Karl Radek, was arrested in 1936, shortly before the official adoption of the new Soviet Constitution he helped write. Nikolai Bukharin, who had once been the party’s leading theorist, allegedly turned white as a sheet when he received the call to return “home” while in Paris. Some comrades begged him not to go back. He went anyway, and was broken at theTrial of the Twenty-One and purged. On their last trip to Moscow in ‘36, Münzenberg and Gross found the former KPD leader Heinz Neumann living a spectral, pariah existence as a translator at the hotel; he embraced them both and cried, knowing that it would be the last time he would see them (he was purged in ’38). Münzenberg and Gross spent a long night awake, waiting for a knock on their door from the NKVD. The next morning, Münzenberg made a big scene to retrieve their passports and exit visas, and they fled back to Western Europe. In 1940, after trying to flee France on foot in the company of a mysterious “red-headed youth” who nobody knew, Münzenberg was found hanging in the forest near the French-Swiss border. His death remains a mystery, painfully unresolved in Gross’s excellent biography of her late husband. The former Hotel Lux in Moscow, filled with so many ghosts of murdered foreign communists, remains shuttered today, hidden behind a canvas construction facade on Tverskaya.

I met up with a socialist scholar named Ilya under the statue of Mayakovsky. We got ice cream and walked around Patriarch’s Ponds, Moscow’s answer to the Upper East Side. He had written some great articles for Lefteast and Jacobin and was working on a project about the anti-populism of post-Soviet Russian intellectuals. With his boxer’s mug and kind, intelligent eyes, I liked him immediately. Chain-smoking on a bench we talked about our shared admiration for Maxim Gorky: Gorky’s depoliticization in post-Soviet Russia, his erasure in the United States, his four-volume opus The Life of Klim Samghin, and Ilya’s love of his novel The Artamonov Business, which charts the degeneration of a rich industrialist family over generations, as each heir becomes less invested in the perpetuation of privilege, until the last son is possessed by revolutionary ideas. Ilya took me to a well-hidden little radical bookstore where the shelves were filled with biographies and scholarship on Yevno Azef and other obscure Socialist Revolutionaries and Narodniks.

After we parted, I made my way to the Gorky museum. When he decided to return to the Soviet Union under Stalin’s tutelage in 1931, Gorky was housed in an expropriated art-deco mansion belonging to a former industrialist family. Gorky had never owned property. He worried that upon his return he would be placed in a huge manor that would make a “justifiably negative impression on people working like hell, eating in cattle sheds.” The Ryabushinsky Mansion served as his home, and the de facto headquarters of the Soviet Writers Union, for the last five years of his life. I paid my 100 rubles and the security guard instructed me to put on little hospital booties over my shoes before entering the house. Motes of dust swirled in front of the swirling art-nouveau windows, and the grand marble staircase looked like it was sculpted in cake frosting. All of Gorky’s books lay untouched, as was the big wooden table in the living room where the writers would meet and pound out socialist realism. The house had good energy, it felt comfortable, one could imagine living there among the ghosts of the future lost in the past. On the third floor, there was a little exhibit to the Ryabushinsky family, with some religious people selling icons and Orthodox paraphernalia in their former “prayer room,” which had been shuttered after the revolution.

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Moscow and Petersburg: the endless discussion of their differences, like DC and New York, dual power centers, one a center of state power and the other a center of culture built on a swamp. Muscovites give as little thought to Petersburg as New Yorkers do to DC, but Petersburg constantly compares itself to Moscow. I took the speed train to Petersburg for an international conference on what could be rescued from the legacy of Soviet politics, hosted by the Marxist art and critical theory collective Chto Delat. The group’s name—What Is To Be Done?—comes from Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel that served as a handbook for generations of Narodniks and populist revolutionaries. Chernyshevsky wrote the book while imprisoned in Peter and Paul Fortress, before being sentenced to penal servitude and exile. Lenin later used the title for his famous 1902 pamphlet, but the group identifies more with Chernyshevsky.

The impact of certain collective experiences can be so transformative that it becomes almost ineffable. There is a mysterious social alchemy of being there with others: you try to communicate to those that aren’t present, to touch a thing’s fundamental obscurity, and eventually throw up your hands and give up: I lived in Petersburg from 1918 to 1922. At the conference, I presented some research on religion and socialism. The Russians were well-familiar with Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, but were also very immersed in Lacan, Rancière, Wilhelm Reich and Jean Luc Nancy. The Europeans knew Rancière, Lacan, and Nancy, but were less familiar with the heretical Bolsheviks. An international group of about twenty artists and researchers from twelve countries showed up, and we lived together for a week, trying to dredge what was worth preserving of Soviet life and thought.

The brilliant professor Oxana Timofeeva gave a presentation on the ghosts of communism based around the five-part children’s TV seriesGuest from the Future, which aired in 1985—the first year of perestroika. The show was about a boy named Kolya, who explores an abandoned basement in Moscow and finds a time machine, which transports him to the utopian Soviet future of 2084. There, he meets a Young Pioneer named Alisa and finds that Moscow has flying cars, good weather, an ocean, and automats with endless free food. “The future is a paradise, but a very special paradise of full communism… Communism was conceived as a utopia of the future that would finally arrive after that long postponement of the socialist state… So-called simple Soviet people thought that communism would be rather like a shopping mall where everything would be free… actually a perverted fantasy of nowadays’ capitalism.”

Alisa has a mind-reading device, and after reading the minds of several animals, returns with Kolya to 1984 to tell his fellow Young Pioneers what they will be when they grow up. After Timofeeva showed a clip from the final episode where Kolya and Alisa stood in a basement before the closing portal to the future, she wiped away tears. “It gets me every time.” The end of communism, the death of utopia. “The specters of the future whose time never came live in the past like in this empty deserted house… In the actual future, nobody invented a time machine, nobody became a poet. The guy who played Kolya—who we were all in love with—died very young. He took drugs and alcohol and was actually burned alive in his house. He is buried in some godforsaken small village cemetery.”

The next day, the Russian cyber feminist scholar Alla Mitrofanova gave a lecture on mid-1800s egalitarian collectives in Petersburg, and the major advances in gender equality made by the Bolshevik Revolution. “After the [October 1917] revolution, a few very important decrees were proclaimed. A decree on peace, a decree on land, then a decree on marriage and divorce. So, it was easy for women to be married and divorced… homosexuality and abortion were decriminalized. These laws gave a lot of space for the reinventing relationships. If a situation does not destroy gender, society cannot reshape itself.” Exactly one year after the passage of the laws on marriage and divorce, a body-positive movement called “Down with Shame” emerged and held a massive, nude demonstration on Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect. While the Bolsheviks didn’t explicitly endorse the movement, some high-ranking figures, like Karl Radek, got involved and walked through the city in the buff. Alexandra Kollontai, the leader of the Bolshevik women’s organization, was tasked with spreading the revolution in gender relations, traveling to the local Soviets and setting up kindergartens, abortion facilities, and feminist organizations.

Our little congress kicked off every morning with “body training” at a dance studio near the group’s space in a gentrifying warehouse corridor off of Ligovsky Prospect. The body training was led by an bespectacled, Emma Goldman-looking collective member named Nina, whose stated passion was making sure that theory was applied to the body. Mostly this meant playing all sorts of group games—forming statues, watching each other jump for four minutes, walking around in a circle and touching a neighbor’s shoulder. At first, this seemed ridiculous, but after a couple of sessions, it seemed superior to my typical socially-atomized and vaguely fascistic exercise regime of running, the gym, and hot yoga, always struggling on a treadmill, alone and against yourself, inside your own body. The games opened up psychic space, were gentle on the body and mind, and strengthened group bonds and a sense of togetherness.

The Winter Palace was larger than I imagined, and the Field of Mars—with the revolutionary dead of 1917 interred under a plaque comparing them to the Jacobins and the fighters of 1848—much smaller. The poet Alexander Skidan gave a walking tour of the landmarks of Crime and Punishment, through the lens of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. We did a Situationist-inspired dérive of the old working-class neighborhood Narvaskaya Zastava, home of the enormous Kirov Plant, which was a hotbed of radicalism in both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. Amidst all this reconsideration, it was hard not to think of the approaching centennial of the “bourgeois” February and “proletarian” October revolutions. The international Marxist superstars will descend on Petersburg to continue their work of rebranding communism—Zizek, Negri, and Alain Badiou—while Putin will find a way to negotiate the cataracts of historical memory, commemorating in a way that denounces Lenin, “Trotkyism” and refracts political revolution through the nationalistic lens of the Great Patriotic War. The Western commentators will remind us of the gulag and Brodsky but won’t mention the 1917’s major advances in women’s and abortion rights.

On the final night of the conference, we took a boat ride down the glittering canals of the Neva. Drunk men in Speedos stood on the quays and laughed and jumped into the polluted river, and Chto Delat yelled to their friends as we drifted past their houses, and everyone screamed and touched the masonry of every low canal bridge. A 19-year-old Swedish poet in black sunglasses read a poem in which Stalin featured prominently, while the poet Roman Osminkin—who looked kind of like Russian Eminem—heckled him for his “avant-garde poet” look. Petersburg is beautiful on the white nights, even more beautiful seen from the canals.

If we look into enough empty, deserted houses, as Timofeeva said, maybe we could discover the ghosts, the specters of the blocked future whose time never came. “To forget the hope of communism is to close that door of the house once and for all.”

How Dallas’s Black Revolutionaries Feel About Micah Johnson (Vice)

In the fall of 2014, I traveled to Dallas to report on a new armed militant group that called itself the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. It had formed as a coalition of smaller, local black power organizations like Guerilla Mainframe, the New Black Panther Party, and the Black Riders, with the intent of getting black people armed and exposing the racial double standard in Second Amendment expression. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown had all recently been killed by the police, and members of a huge, mostly white grassroots movement called Open Carry Texas were hoisting long guns at Walmarts and Chipotles across the state; Gun Club members wanted to appropriate the rather depoliticized Open Carry Texas strategy to the more militant ends of taking a stand against police brutality by conducting armed patrols.

As should be obvious from history—and as the horrendous video of Philando Castile's death clearly illustrates—it is a fundamentally different thing to carry a firearm while black than while white.

Read the rest at Vice.com

Sweden’s PEGIDA Problem

This article has been republished at The Towner.

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I arrived in Stockholm’s chambered, gorgeous Central train Station in the early morning. For weeks, Swedish papers had been running increasingly shrill articles claiming that gangs of North African migrant teenagers had “taken over” the station, and were stealing, drinking, and groping with impunity. One Stockholm cop told the Daily Mail they were “on their knees.” I expected a scene from the movie Over the Edge, but the station was quiet and peaceful as usual, with just the familiar handful of friendly, shambling Roma panhandlers working in front of the T-Bana gates. As I reached to gently mock Swedish friends about their country’s panicky reaction to the influx of refugees, the texts started rolling in: “Watch out for the Nazis, they’ve been beating up people with brown eyes and brown hair!”    

The night before, sixty to one hundred black-masked thugs had rampaged through the Central Station and nearby Sergels Square, threatening and beating up migrant teenagers, Roma, and eventually just people who didn’t “look” Swedish before they were subdued by the police. The previous afternoon, a group of nationalists had stood at the entrance to the station distributing an anonymously authored leaflet titled Enough is Enough! that fulminated against the refusal of the police to deal with unaccompanied refugee teenagers. “We refuse to accept the repeated attacks and harassment of Swedish women. We refuse to accept the destruction of our once safe society… 200 Swedish men have gathered today in order to stand up against the North African ‘street children’ who rage around our capital’s central station…the legal system has given them a walk over and the social contract is broken.” It ended, “We are not politicians, journalists, or cops. We are your father, your brother, your husband, your colleague, your friend, and your neighbors.”

Initially, the attack was suspected to have been organized by the Swedish Resistance Movement (SMR), a marginal, but highly visible neo-Nazi organization, with a base of support in the skiing area of Darlanda, led by a skinhead ex-con named Klas Lund who was convicted in the 1986 stomping death of young anti-racist organizer. A week before, 38 SMR members—who often march dressed like Mormons—had been arrested after allegedly charging the police at a demonstration in central Stockholm. It soon emerged that the vigilante action was orchestrated by a rare alliance between members of two of Stockholm’s most prominent football hooligan firms, The Fine Boys of Djurgården (DFG) and the Firman Boys (AIK). Usually the two firms are mortal enemies, only coming together to fight in massive nighttime street brawls—which are quickly uploaded to YouTube—but many members have longstanding links to Sweden’s far-right, criminal gangs, and Hells Angels and have periodically dabbled in this kind of anti-immigrant vigilantism. Although in 2005, the firms officially expelled their neo-Nazi members and established a consensus of “no politics on the terraces,” in 2013, some members formed “citizens guards” during the 2013 Husby riots that shook the Stockholm suburbs—these patrols were quickly appropriated and publicized by friendly neo-Nazi organizations. After leaks from anti-fascist sources in the football scene began to point the finger at the firms, Firman Boys posting a brief and cryptic transmission on their website: “Firman Boys don’t do politics, end of message.” One leading member of the neo-fascist group Nordic Youth told me the attack on Central Station was mostly the work of the firms, “but there might have been some others.” Mats Jonsson, the head of security for Stockholm’s Djurgården club (which is completely unaffiliated with the hooligan firm, the Fine Boys of Djurgården), told me, “We don’t know who the firm members are because there are no memberships. That’s why its tough to say how big they are… There’s usually not a political agenda with the firms, its usually simply violence and territory and standing up for each other … [but] I think we have to have things under strict observation in the coming months, to see what direction it’s going to take. It would be a big issue if we had a political agenda.”

The thwarted pogrom is only the most recent escalation in an increasingly malignant atmosphere of anti-migrant xenophobia in Sweden. Last year, the country accepted nearly 160,000 asylum-seekers—more than any other Western country, and a startling figure even for the world’s humanitarian power. This has met with an intense mobilization from the far right. Last August, the Sweden Democrats (SD)—an extremely popular, young, button-down “immigration critical” party who emerged from the bog of the far-right and skinhead scene in the 80s and 90s around Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish) and Nordiska Rikspartiet (Nordic Reich Party)—unveiled a controversial ad campaign in the Stockholm subways, targeting Roma panhandlers with English-language murals targeted at an international audience, with messages like: Sorry about the mess here in Sweden. We have a serious problem with forced begging! International gangs profit from desperation. At another, where Roma were known to camp: Sweden should do better than this!

 

The Sweden Democrats have spent the last decade severing their neo-Nazi and hard nationalist associations and rebranding themselves as reasonable, fiscally conservative parliamentarians who only want to limit immigration to clarify the budgeting priorities of the welfare state. Though the Sweden Democrats have tried to drown their past, incidents and statements crop up over and over again, sometimes even with senior leadership, such as the 2013 scandal when three high-ranking party officials were revealed to have threatened a popular Swedish-Kurdish comedian named Soran Ismail with an iron pipe, telling him he “behaved like a Paki” and calling a young bystander a “whore”—two of the officials resigned. This fall, the party had to sever ties with their large youth division, the Sweden Democratic Youth (SDU) over a row with the militant young leadership over their frightening direction with their videos like “Salute to the European Youth!” and their growing connection to European identitarian and neo-fascist parties.  The Sweden Democrats meteoric rise to their current poll position as the country’s second most popular party—and the most popular in regions like Skane, in the South—has clearly been fueled by the governing Social Democrats open-armed but ultimately opportunistic waffling during the refugee crisis—they permitted asylum-seekers to come when public opinion was with them, but then signaled they would reject half of the applications and instituted an expensive ID check on the border from Denmark, when the winds shifted after the Paris attacks.

The migrant crisis has also provided a situation where the Sweden Democrats are simultaneously distancing themselves from and mobilizing their extreme fringes and local leaders when it suits them. In November, Kent Ekeroth, a leading Sweden Democrat parliamentarian, told a rally in the South, “You are the spearhead we need to take our country back.” Local Sweden Democrats took to publishing maps and addresses of places where asylum seeker homes were being built in local municipalities. Last fall, fires on asylum-seeker homes spiked in Sweden, with 30 being classified as suspected arsons. In September, at the peak of asylum-seekers pouring over the Öresund Bridge from Denmark, a local Sweden Democrat councilwoman in the South tweeted, “Can’t someone go stand on the bridge with a machine gun?”

The day after the Central Station attack, a new PEGIDA-like umbrella coalition composed of the discharged flotsam of the Sweden Democrats rallied under the banner of the “People’s Demonstration” in Norrmalmstorg, Central Stockholm—the birthplace of the term “Stockholm Syndrome.” Polish nationalists wielded flags beat three anti-racist organizers, two of them immigrant women. The officially apolitical “People’s Demonstration” brought together all the fringes that SD: SMR, Nordic Youth, Polish nationalists, football hooligans, and anti-migrant nationalists around websites like Avpixlat and Right On, rallied alongside SD parliamentarians. The carefully culled image SD has built once again unraveled, with Sweden’s largest evening paper Aftonbladet running the headline, “Nazis and Sweden Democrat Politicians Demonstrate Together.”

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A week after the People’s Demonstration, about two hundred feminists and antifascists gathered in Medborgplatsen on a frigid Friday night, carrying torches and banners. They came from groups like Feminism Underifrån [Feminism from Below], Allt åt Alla [Everything for Everybody], and Stockholms antifascitiska tanter [Stockholm’s Anti-fascist Grandmas] chanting, What are we gonna do? Crush racism! When? Now! One of the women who was beaten the week before, an activist named Tess Asplund, spoke into a microphone: “I’ve been fighting this battle for 25 years. I’m used to fascists and Nazis calling my house threatening me and telling me they’re going to rape me. But what’s frightening is there are so many similarities between what is going on today and back in the time before the murders in Malexander [referring to the 1999 murder of two cops by neo-Nazis]. We were attacked last weekend at the ‘People’s Demonstration.’ They claim that they’re protecting women, but they attack women. The Sweden Democrats are the same idiots who attacked my friends in the 90s, screaming, ‘Keep Sweden Swedish!’”

After Cologne, it was revealed that Swedish police had been tamping down similar group sexual assaults by North African men in Malmö on New Years Eve and at a Stockholm music festival in 2014 and 2015. The January stabbing death of a 22-year-old Lebanese woman named Alexandra Mezher at the unaccompanied asylum-seekers home where she worked by a Somali teen provided a martyr. It was fairly common practice, until recently, for the Swedish mainstream media and police not to mention the ethnicity of individuals involved in crimes, out of liberal good intentions of not fueling racial profiling. The safety of (ethnically Swedish) women has now become the right-wing rallying cry, like a cudgel to be wielded against young, male asylum-seekers. The ultranationalist Sweden Democratic Youth have been actively courting ethnically Swedish women for a while now with flashy videos like “Young Swedish Girl” where blonde girls ride bikes, swim, and enjoy life to jangly indie-pop as a voiceover intones: Sweden is turning into something unrecognizable. We are ordinary young Swedish girls and we say enough is enough! In our country, you should be able to feel safe, even if you are a young girl and out late at night. The video has half a million views on YouTube. The left has responded with the popular hashtag #inteerkvinna. [Not your woman]

“We’re here to show the racists we’re bigger than they are! We’re here to fight for the right to our bodies and to speak for ourselves!” one of the speakers at the rally yelled. After the rally dispersed, I spoke to Carol on the stone steps of Medborgsplatsen—a Chilean-Swede, and the other woman who was beaten by the Polish nationalists. “Three guys beat us with their sticks and flags. When we were on the ground, they were kicking me in the legs and my friend in the head. He went to the hospital. When I was 15, places like Gamla stan and Slussen were off-limits to immigrants like me. I think we’re going back to the 90s, but this time its worse.”

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The following afternoon, a ragged collection of nationalists and Nordic Youth with ties to the “People’s Demonstration” gathered in Björns trädgård, directly in front of Stockholm’s oldest mosque. A group of about a dozen tough, skinhead nationalist guys kept a lookout on a balcony in front of the mosque, looking for anti-fascists. They’d been coming every weekend to feed the Swedish homeless since the summer—like Generation Identitaire’s infamous pork soup homeless feedings in France, the feeding was explicitly meant for Aryan blondes. “The thing here in Sweden right now is you’re only supposed to hand out the good things to the immigrants, not the Swedes.” a ripped, middle-aged bald guy named Chris told me.  “And whatever people do to counter violence is racist,” he added. I asked him who was starting violence. “The leftists!” his friend hissed.

“We get lots of threats here because we’re only helping Swedish people,” one of the organizers, an elderly pensioner named Magdalena told me. She pulled out her phone and showed me a picture of her face in crosshairs covered in paintball bursts, with a caption: Aim at that face, don’t miss the fucking shot. “Here you have a mosque. But there are a lot of people there. We don’t have much money. If you have ten crowns you have to decide who you help.” I asked her if Roma people were welcome to eat. “If someone wants to eat, they can ask. Many people are rude and don’t know how to behave. If you’re rude, you don’t get anything.”

Thirty seconds later, a brave middle-aged Roma couple tiptoed up through the gauntlet of toughs towards the coffee. A bald guy in sweatpants muttered, Nay, Nay, brusquely turning them away. I spoke with Roger Sahlström, a nationalist-friendly photojournalist who was milling about in the crowd. “Right now I’m working the hate site…. uh, the site with a not-so-good reputation, Avpixlat,” he said. “It’s a site where we write about issues of migration. There are a lot of assholes there, but I’m trying to clean it up… We see our own society crumbling before our eyes when it comes to school, healthcare and jobs. Old people and handicapped people don’t get help. But then we have loads of money for other people.”

One of the leaders of the neo-fascist Nordic Youth, named Christian Matteson, had showed up to be part of the security detail. “We give food and clothes to homeless Swedes. Specifically for Swedish homeless because there are different other organizations that give it to Gypsies,” he told me. “I think it’s obvious if you look into history that there has never been a multicultural society that really worked out. We have weak people not standing up for themselves, dependent on the government. I think a lot of it is about immigration, but I also blame socialism.” Nordic Youth describe themselves as a “metapolitical” organization, subscribing to a Huntington-ite worldview, and are known for their frequent protests and actions against migrant homes, as well as their connections with the Polish and Hungarian far-right. I asked Matteson what he had thought of the beatings at the Central Station. “I think it was good. There are lots of criminal elements in Central Station. The police told the media they couldn’t do anything about it. Somebody had to put their foot down and show them.”

++  

After leaving Björns trädgård, I took the T-Bana directly to see Mathias Wåg—Sweden’s most famous and knowledgeable anti-fascist, who runs a thinktank called Research Gruppen. A veteran of the violent battles of the 80s and 90s alongside Stieg Larsson and Expo, Wåg lives with his partner and infant daughter in a pseudonymous apartment, with a protected identity—he is routinely threatened by neo-Nazis as a result of his decades of activism and information he provided that led to convictions in the 1999 murder of beloved syndicalist Bjorn Söderberg. “That murderer guy is still threatening me. If I go to the dentist, they say, we can’t see your last name—we just call you Mathias X,” he said. Wåg writes for Sweden’s large newspapers and also edits Brand—Fire—the world’s oldest continuously-published anarchist journal, started in 1898. A gentle redbearded giant, he catalogs the strands and ranks of the individuals, groups and parties of the far right with taxonomic meticulousness.

Wåg wanted to make sure I clearly understood the ideological distinctions among the diffuse elements that make up Sweden’s far right. “The Nazis—the former white power scene—are quite small. But we have a huge network of extreme right around the Sweden Democrats, who call themselves the ‘Sweden-friendly Movement’… They don’t speak about race. They talk about the Swedish—‘Swedish culture, we love Sweden, we’re against political correctness and cultural Marxism.’ They’re the ones who organized the People’s Demonstration, the soup kitchen, and Avpixlat. They’re looking at PEGIDA and English Defense League. This big wave of violence—we don’t connect it to Nazis. We connect it to the PEGIDA area. Breivik, in Norway He came from this area, not the Nazis or the Nordic Resistance Movement. The man who killed a lot of people in Malmö? The so-called ‘Lazer man’? —he came from this scene. The guy who killed people at the school in Trollhättan? He came from this scene.” 

Sweden is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of the images of Alan Kurdi this fall, the pro-refugee public opinion has now inverted into vigilante rage. There is a massive housing crisis, identity checks on the Oresund Bridge from Denmark, and the country’s Migration Agency has signaled that they will likely reject half of the asylum-seekers presently in the country—a difficult task for any country, but a nearly impossible one for Sweden. The governing Social Democrats, who returned to power with a weak coalition in 2014, are polling at a historic bottom, widely considered short-sighted, opportunistic, and rudderless. The fear is that victory by the insurgent Sweden Democrats will turn the political landscape upside down in the 2018 general election. Outrage over crime and sexual harassment and assault allegedly committed by migrant youth is building with enraged citizen outbursts at neighborhood and city council meetings and conspiracies, such as the one that was uncovered last week, by fourteen Swedish Poles to attack asylum homes. After years of complaining about how the country’s feminist policies have gone too far, the Sweden Democrats are trying to rebrand itself as the party that values the safety of Swedish women. All of the parties, even the Sweden Democrats, favor a strong welfare state—though the Sweden Democrats want the welfare state to work for ethnic Swedes, not immigrants. The underlying fault line over the soul of the Scandinavian welfare state is whether its true roots lay in the brilliantly organized labor movement of the 20s and 30s that brought forth the welfare state, or the ethnic homogeneity from whence it sprung.*

Book Review: The Little Sanskritists

 

anti-education_cover_image_2048x2048

 

Anti-Education by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Damion Searls. NYRB Classics, Dec. 15, 2015.

One would have to be going about with eyes sewn shut not to see the unfolding crisis in American higher education. The structural issues are by now rote and familiar talking points—rising tuitions, student debt, the obscurantism of much academic research, and the glut of qualified graduates fiercely competing over diminishing resources. The accelerating contradictions around the objective value of a degree are often acknowledged by administrators who talk about the perils of “reproduction” and urge students to diversify their expectations after years of acclimating them to life within the guild. But the dry-rot can be seen in the spreading cultural revolution around issues of race on campus; in all the pained and mechanical dissertations; in the 90 dollar academic books no one will read and the exposure of certain publishers preying on academics;  in the bottomless stream of “why I quit academia” think pieces; but most of all in the silent desperation on so many faces of researchers and professors. They sought out refuge from the brute struggle for survival in the place that seemingly offered the most freedom and the least compromise to capital, but there are fewer and fewer places to hide.

In 1872, a twenty-seven year old professor of philology named Friedrich Nietzsche gave a series of lectures to a packed audience at the regal city museum in Basel. Three years earlier, he had received a prestigious appointment at the university there, but despite his early success, he had become increasingly disillusioned with academia. The elite German gymnasium system was undergoing a profound change. Germany had birthed the modern research institution and research seminar. Its universities were world-renowned for the academic freedom afforded to students. But as Prussia industrialized and consolidated, and more people enrolled, the universities were becoming increasingly commoditized, careerist spaces. The Prussian state began to see universities as an incubator from which to harvest useful citizens. In his lectures, Nietzsche rages that the academic specialization of the “gymnasium-nurseries” was creating “little Sanskritists” and “wanton conjectural textual reconstructors.” The academic was becoming “a factory worker who spends his entire life doing nothing but making a single screw, or a handle for a given tool or machine, a task at which he will become an incredible virtuoso. Students were “au currant, the same way a coin is courant, valid currency… the goal of the modern educational institution: to make everyone as ‘current’ as it lies in his nature to be, to train everyone to convert his innate capacity for knowledge and wisdom, whatever it might be, into as much happiness and income as possible.” 

The lectures were recently released as Anti-Education (NYRB Classics, 2015) in a fine new translation by Damion Searls and an introduction by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon. As the introduction notes, the writings have been largely ignored, perhaps because of their experimental literary form. It is a kind of lush Bildungsroman that turns into a Platonic dialogue. As with his future work, the prose is ecstatic. Nietzsche intended to collect the lectures into a book called  On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, but couldn’t manage to finish the final lecture.

The story begins with two old college chums wandering along the Rhine, waiting for members of their secret literary circle to arrive. They shoot rifles and find an old pentagram they carved into a tree and reflect on how little they learned in school. The narrative is laced with the beginnings of the polemic. “It was thanks to our club, we knew, that we basically never thought about a so-called career back then. All too often, the state tries to exploit those years, luring civil servants it can make use of as early as possible and then securing their unconditional obedience with exaggeratedly strenuous exams.” The two boys run into an old philosopher and his young companion, who are also meeting up with someone. After the philosopher’s dog bites Nietzsche, the two groups part ways, but the young graduates eavesdrop on the philosopher’s conversation, forming the bulk of the rest of the book.

Nietzsche heaps contempt on the burrowing, endless-research instinct of the academics of his day. “Is that not true happiness for them, to lead the underground life of an ant, buried under dialects, etymologies, and conjectures, miles away from true culture.” He is also disgusted with the emerging culture of print journalism, which he saw as spreading shallow thought and degrading the language into “Newspaper German.” Nietzsche rails against “hasty overproduction driven by self-regard; the shameful churning out of books; the complete lack of style; immature formulations that miserably sprawl or lack character altogether,” reaching a crescendo with lines like “the premise now accepted everywhere, and resisted nowhere, is that people should be exploited to serve science and scholarship. Does anyone ask whether a scholarly discipline that consumes its creatures so vampirically is worth it?”

In his view, the German educational institutions had become institutions for the struggle to survive. Of course, by present day standards, the nine-year classical education of the gymnasium would be considered the height of antiquarian luxury. But “true” education for young Nietzsche meant complete immersion into Greco-Roman antiquity: no picking and choosing based on subjective interests, no personalizing, no obsessing over a single atom or phrase or what Odysseus represented. No winnowing down into a speciality. The important thing was total submission and to lose oneself, as well as to have a mastery of the “mother tongue” to communicate one’s findings and insight from the depths. If the growing “surplus of schools” created a “surplus of teachers” with “no dowry of natural talent”, well, that was just too bad for them. What insights could the average researcher offer on “the very same ancient authors who have never made the least impression on him”?

Unabashedly elitist and antiquarian, against mediocrity and the state, Nietzsche offers a vicious and prescient critique laced into a beautiful story. While Anti-Education is fundamentally anti-academic, it was not a 19th century “quit lit” think piece. The old philosopher specifically warns against young people “fleeing into solitude” before they were truly ready—without structure and discipline they would be destroyed. Nietzsche kept his position at the University of Basel for another seven years, where he was, by accounts, a good, respected professor. As the introduction notes, it was not until The Birth of Tragedy made him a pariah that he left Basel to ascetic solitude in Sils-Maria, and even then it was with a stipend. Far from believing in “academic freedom” or independence, there is a persistent obsession with discipline and obedience, and Nietzsche makes repeated veiled references to the need for an intellectual “leader.” Of course, his many exhortations to the “true German culture” are hard to read in light of subsequent German history.

Taken as a whole, the story offers an important critique against a rapid, commoditized system of higher education, where both students and administrators are prioritizing money and status over the long, hard work of the antiquarian. In his preface for the never-published book, Nietzsche said it was for “calm readers, those who have not yet been caught up in the dizzying haste of our hurtling era and do not feel an idolatrous pleasure in being crushed under its wheels—in other words, it is a book for the few.” It should be required reading in the humanities. The takeaway could be summed up in the famous Dryden line: “none but the brave deserve the fair.” +

DOROTHEA DIX

originally published in Big Hands #9

My mom has gone to sleep after a bottle of wine shared with church friends. After putting my brother to bed the house grows still and evening-quiet. Something about the quality of these suburban nights–low cloud cover, soft breeze, like a ghost wafting through. I take my mother’s little Subaru out onto the dark empty highways. Islands of civilization, floodlit parking lots pock through the impenetrably dark wilderness of central Carolina. The quiet, moisture-filled air whispers through the country’s empty corridors, nature slowly retaking what once belonged to it. I drive through Cary, past the mall, past my old high school, under the harsh glow of the big Carolina moon, the lush green landscape of meadows and evergreen trees like a plush mattress to sink into; the wrought-iron town clock at the edge of town by the highway on-ramp, always keeping time. Orderly, everything in such perfect order! a network of sprinklers set to come on at night and keep the patches of astroturf grass by the sidewalk fresh and neon green. All the lights of the stores on hours after the employees have left–squares of illuminated blues, pinks, yellows like a Mondrian painting. The moon bright and clear and in the distance and the white monolith of an Embassy Suites like the Arc de Triumph shaded back in the pine trees. The trees shake in the wind, making wispy noises in the friendliest way. The employees are shutting down the glowing Starbucks across the street, the windows all fogged up, a girl with a hat and apron standing out on the curb shaking out a rubber mat. I drive down the Beltline and park my car in a gravel lot set back in a student-housing neighborhood, the houses partitioned into ramshackle apartments. Somewhere downtown, a lonely train whistle. I have been coming to this spot for a decade now, like a Christian to the river, to dunk my head and be reborn into new life. I make my way into the thin copse of woods that divides the gravel lot from the hidden world of the train tracks below. The woods have grown wild in my long absence, and are now choked out in kudzu. The clay looks blood red, everything looks bigger and more fertile now. Prehistoric-looking neon vines climb up to my waist. Looking down at the tracks, I regret all the time I’ve sold away—all that invaluable, irretrievable youth, given away at bargain basement prices. So many things have happened over the years—the negative, cyclical patterns repeated over and over while the worthwhile potent memories recede until they become foggy and shadow-like.

 

The train tracks remain a hidden world, persisting quietly in the 2001: Space Odyssey future—a wayside relic from a time when iron behemoths carved through the inky black primeval wilderness on a diesel-stained voyage through the night. The world of the train tracks is completely different from the world seen through the window of a speeding car—this network of disused lots, shadows cast from backyard floodlights, stray dogs howling, underpass bums drinking, concrete monoliths and telephone poles engulfed by kudzu. A string of rusted old freight cars sit off to the side, like a commuter waiting for a bus that will never come. Walking alongside the forsaken string, I find a grainer with a porch and pull myself up on the cold metal latter and sing a little song to myself, Johnny Cash. Then I jump down onto the rocks and do a kind of a jig, The rock island line is a mighty good road the rock island line is the road I ride, and hope that no one is watching—some hoboes were probably laughing at me from the bushes. I feel the leathery exoskeleton that I show to the world, all wrinkled and blanched from years of waste, begin to crumble away and reveal the smooth untouched thing underneath. The blood pumping through my veins feels warmer, more full-bodied. Then it all floods back—the early years—the broken glass, burning sunset, the hope that slowly boiled down to a simmer. I lay down on the gleaming quicksilver tracks in the moonlit Southern night, and remember…After a while I get up and march towards the emerald-lit skyscrapers of downtown Raleigh. Down the line, a wide-open empty junction—the dusty little five corners is a kind of stage set, the trash and gloom coming together to form a shanty city in the nook of the overpass. The kudzu and graffiti have grown wild over the years, fed by moonlight. The old central prison has been replaced by a shiny, sterile new white structure.

 

The NO MORE PRISONS graffiti piece that once faced the structure has since been removed. I hear the sound of a train horn blaring and then see the light plowing down the track and jump out of the way as a bullet-like Amtrak barrels past—I look in the windows of its bright lit-up windows of its cars, people inside clamoring for their luggage as the train pulls into Raleigh. They look out the windows at me, lonely figure in the littered Golgotha switchyard, as the train speeds past, Afterwards it becomes silent again. I look around and see the tracks splitting off in several directions. I ask God for some sign of which direction to go. He said nothing—he no longer spoke to me. The silence in my head is deafening. There was a track that went out under a crumbling stone bridge, and in that direction were clouds, white in the dark sky, that looked like snow-capped Northwest mountains risen on the horizon—those mounds looked so beautiful, so perfect and picturesque framed underneath the green ivy and the stone, like a portal to a different world. I headed that direction. The air smelled like honeysuckle. I walked under the old stone bridge feeling possessed, my feet no longer my own. The damp underpass was filled with abandoned shopping carts and mattresses and red clay like giant anthills. On the other side of the bridge, the landscape opened to reveal a garden of hidden verdure—vines hanging from trees, a freshly mowed meadow, streetlights and a cabin against the track gravel. Continuing, the track eventually came to a long trestle bridge over Western Boulevard. The headlights of vehicles passed underneath, where were they all going? Stepping forward to cross a bridge I looked down and felt dizzy. Wasn’t I too old to be tempting fate? The safe thing to do would be to walk down to the road and cross. But a hidden voice told me to dare. So I started across the creaky, tar-smelling bridge—the maw of asphalt yawned between the irregularly spaced rail ties. And as I crossed I looked down at the cars passing below and the rows of quaint little shotgun-style houses, and dreamed about how nice it would be to live in one of them, to settle down in a place where you would always knew the river was flowing right outside, a river that would carry you across the country—so nice to know that you could leave anytime. And with the option to leave always there, you could just stay put forever and savor it all. How nice to buy bookshelves and accumulate cats and finally have a place to put all my books and records and art that has for years been gathering dust in a shed behind my mom’s house! I tiptoed across the bridge, praying and mumbling the entire way. Upon reaching the other side, I felt unabashedly proud and alive, as one does when one tempts death and emerges unscathed. The big pine trees swayed gently, as if congratulating me, and there were fresh cut meadows and cicadas all over. The air above my waist was hot and humid, while the air below my waist was cool. The landscape eldritch—Fireflies swarmed all around me, little neon lights and sunset lit up red clay hideaways.

 

Up the track a bit, a wooden sign swung ominously–“Welcome to Dorothea Dix”—Dorothea Dix, a century-old baroque mental institution that had recently closed down due to patient abuse. The inmates were shipped to a number of satellite facilities and there was a heated debate over what to do with the land (naturally, developers wanted to put in condos and pedestrian malls, while the citizens wanted it to be a dog park) The state government dragged their feet and delayed, so for now it was in limbo, a vast swath of fields near downtown. Up on the hill, a couple of abandoned dormitory-style buildings loomed in the dusk. The well-maintained road led deeper into the vast estate, much of it dark, except for a few flickering streetlamps left on to deter trespassers. At the top of the hill, Dorothea Dix dead-ended in an enormous field that stretched as far as the eye can see, as if the city ended completely and all that was left was unbroken nature. Walking among the structures, illuminated by greenish streetlamps, I found myself in a large parking lot. State-owned cars sat unused and the fluorescent bulbs buzzed. A great air-conditioning unit rumbled out behind one of the buildings, like some dying god. Not knowing where to go, I started walking into what looked like a little park that surrounded by huge Van Gogh bushes that seemed painted onto the night in thick oily impasto. Moving through the bushes, I followed a little path into a graveyard, the final resting place for the mental institution dead. Hundreds of scary movies flashed through my mind and I ran screaming out past old paint-peeled buildings that rose to menace me as I passed. A streetlight flickers on and off in a strange syncopated rhythm as I run out of the estate, coming to a little dirt path in the woods beside Western Boulevard. I follow the path toward some distant glow and the dirt slowly turns into fresh asphalt. Car headlights zoom by in both directions and I see the whites of drivers’ eyes staring out at me like a fugitive or hitchhiker. The road comes out of the dark woods—a bright fluorescent blooming BP gas station sign is lit up like a green beacon—I stumble up into the parking lot, drawn like a moth to incandescence. Dark green wilderness and trees surround the light green and white BP plastic. Soft radio muzak plays from hidden speakers. I walk in through the automatic sliding glass doors. Inside the gas station, the air-conditioner freezes sweat to my skin. The lights perfectly illuminate the products in the aisles, each of them appealing and necessary in their own way, each designed to be desirable. A tired-looking attendant slouched behind a digital screen, fiddles with his iPhone, looking bored. I shuffle over to the cooler, lit up with appealing blue lights, and open the case. I look over the dozens of beverages and grab a bottle of Sprite. The attendant rings it up, not looking—both of us lost in our own heads. Back in the blanket-humid Southern night, drenched in fluorescence, I open the bottle with its perfect carbonated hiss and gulp it down, satisfied to live in no other place than this one, no other time than right now.+

 

The American Puritans

“Hawthorne and Melville, unwitting founders of the dark hours of the Art Of The No, knew each other, they were friends, and expressed mutual admiration Hawthorne was also a Puritan, even in his violent reaction to certain aspects of Puritanism. He was also restless. He was never one to go to church but we know that during his years as a recluse he would approach his window and watch those making their way to church and his look is said to have contained a brief history of the Dark Side in the Art of The No. His vision was clouded by the terrible Calvinist doctrine of predestination. This is the side to Hawthorne that so fascinated Melville, who to praise him spoke of the great power of blackness, that nocturnal side that we find in Melville as well."

 -Vila-Matas, Bartleby & Co

 

Wolf Law

This essay was commissioned and paid for by a journalism 2.0 start-up that originally hoped to cover controversial domestic issues but never quite lifted off the ground. The piece, which I spent weeks reporting and writing in Montana and Wyoming, never saw the light of day. It is reproduced in its entirety here.

Today, with our semi-automatic weapons, cars, and bright electric lights, it’s hard to imagine the anxiety predators evoked in the precarious populations of earlier times. Until they were substantially culled by killing and trapping, they were one of the most widely distributed animals on the planet, found from Finland to India, and blanketing the island of Manhattan. Since ancient times, they have been a morbid vessel for human fears. In Medieval times, landlords and cancer were both referred to as The Wolf. In early Puritan New England, the threat of wolves was so omnipresent that the colonial government paid 20 shillings to any pilgrim who brought the head of a wolf to a magistrate. There are reliable accounts from 18th century France that wolves came out of the forest and ate dozens of children. During the Civil War, they were often spotted at twilight, feasting on the battlefield dead. They have also been known to dig up graves and eat cadavers from time to time (until 6 foot burial became the norm, stone slabs called ‘wolf stones’ were placed over gravesites as a last line of defense.) In the late 1800s, frontiersmen and trappers swept across the American West and extirpated wolves in a vicious campaign of strychnine poisoning. In 1893, Theodore Roosevelt penned a dark chapter in his book Hunting the Grizzly and Other Sketches about wolves in the American West, in which he called the animal a “beast of waste and desolation.” Roosevelt hated wolves, but the chapter possesses a certain head-shaking melancholy at the abrupt extirpation of his favorite quarry. “The slaughter wrought by man seems insufficient to explain the scarcity of wolves throughout the country at large,” he wrote. And yet, the campaign to exterminate the wolf intensified. In 1905, Montana experimented with an early form of biological warfare, passing a law that allowed veterinarians to infect wolves with mange and then send them back in the wild to spread the disease. An early 20th century wolf hunters guide literally froths at the mouth, calling the animal “an enemy of the state.” “What greater enemy can the state have than one who is able to wage war on his chief industries day and night?”

After having been vanquished from most of North America, the animal was placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The National Park Service concocted schemes to reintroduce wolf populations back into the American West. In an effort to preempt the concerns of ranchers, who were worried about wolves preying on their livestock, a group even set up a “wolf compensation fund” to pay ranchers the market value for any livestock that were killed.

In the mid 90s, the federal wolf reintroduction plan reached fruition: 66 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park and a barren wilderness area in Idaho. Montana politicians, angry about the Eastern influence, angrily fired back with legislation proposing for wolves to be reintroduced in Central Park. Idaho threatened to call the National Guard to have the animals removed from the state. But in the end, the reintroduction was successful—like a chapter of the Old Testament, the wolves went forth and multiplied, and now there are about 1,700 animals today. The Rockies have become a fault line for a bitter, politicized battle over the wolf that is really about states’ rights. The wolf is seen as a livestock-drain brought in by hippie wolf-hugging Eastern bureaucrats. The hatred and fervor is such that you practically can’t get elected to public office in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming today unless you make at least passing reference to hating the wolf.

After four decades of protecting the wolf and paying to have it reintroduced into the west, last year, Congress caved to pressure from Western politicians and took the unprecedented step of removing the animal from the Endangered Species List—the Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf can now be freely hunted in Idaho and Montana as well as three other states. The wolf remains somewhat protected in Wyoming, despite vigorous efforts from that states’ legislators to have it removed completely. Budd Betts, a Wyoming outfitter who’s had several of his dogs killed by wolves told me, “Everyone in Wyoming hates them, outside of Jackson Hole. Our forefathers hated this animal. We’ve spent 75 years trying to get rid of them.” Jackson Hole remains an island of Eastern money and liberal wolf-sympathy in the vast sea of predator hatred that is Wyoming. Why had the debate over wolves become so contentious out in the Northern Rockies? In other parts of the country like North Carolina and Arizona wolf reintroductions were carried out with relatively little ire or controversy. I headed out west to find out.


The sprawl of Denver gave way to the sad, treeless subdivisions that flow over the lumpy bare mountains around Colorado Springs. I drove up over the high-altitude desolation of the Front Rage until I reached the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center. Inside, I found Darlene Kobobel, a blonde woman in her early 40s, who had moved from Los Angeles to start the sanctuary. She explained that the center is home to 17 wolves and wolf-hybrids, most of which have been rescued as abused pets and from for-profit wildlife parks. Nearly twenty years spent dancing with wolves seemed to have soured her on her own species. “Wolves have more feelings than people. My motto is that if people could be more like wolves, it would be a better world. Look at humans: they’re disgusting. Some of them shouldn’t even have the gift of life. All they want to do is destroy.” She said she had to rescue one wolf from a dorm room, where college students were keeping it alive on pizza and Cheetos. Kobobel saw wolf opponents and ranchers as complainers who had unwisely set up their livestock operations in what was naturally predator country. When it was time to feed the wolves, Kobobel, lugged a wheelbarrow of meat out through the snow, flinging huge slabs of venison over fences. I couldn’t help think but Kobobel’s wolves exist in what must be a strange purgatorial state for an animal: not domestic, but still totally dependent. We went cage to cage and Kobobel introduced me to the different subspecies. The massive regal gray wolves, bigger than mastiff dogs, who like humans go gray as they get older; the pure little arctic white wolves; and the straggly, skinny Mexican gray, naturally camouflaged. As we passed, the animals ambled over to the fences and poked their faces out, looking out with intelligent eyes.

Kobobel jumped into a pen with two wolves, one gray and one black, and they nudged her around, playing with her roughly. When I asked her if she had ever been bitten, Kobobel gave me a tired look that seemed to indicate it was a question that everybody asked. “Yes. It’s something you have to deal with. But you live by the gun, you die by the gun.” Back in the center’s little gift shop, I perused the rows of paraphernalia and thought about the fetishization of the wolf–All the indie bands with ‘Wolf’ in their name; all the ironic Native-American-dream catcher airbrush shirts. all the people in New York and LA who love the wolf and ‘the wild’ but live in the city—and for a moment understood the resentment of rural people who lived the life while others just pretended and postured.

Why do people love the wolf so much? Kobobel’s tough exterior suddenly fell away, and her voice became high-pitched and feminine, like a six-year-old girl describing her favorite plaything. “You just watch them run and interact and play and love their young. They’re just so pure. There’s going to be people on both sides who will fight until the end. It just depends on which side you’re on.”

Which side are you on? Is the question that the world asks every day. Like any person with a conscience I hate the thought of animals being killed and tortured senselessly—but does that hate overpower the contempt I have for educated Eastern bureaucrats and urbanites in distant air-conditioned office buildings, who, in their eternal rightness earned through an expensive liberal arts education, love to tell rugged and independent people what they should and should not do to protect their land and their livelihood? I drove through the empty lunar landscape of Wyoming at night—nothing to look at for miles—and when I almost ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere learned the important Western lesson that one must always stop for gas even when you’ve got a quarter of a tank. Late at night I approached Casper, a ghostly bright little orb in Wyoming’s otherwise impenetrable darkness. Casper is spooned up against the mountains, notable only for being an oil town and the home of Dick Cheney. It’s central location on a major highway makes it the de facto stopover spot the state. For this reason, and on account of the brutal, wind-lashed winter, Casper hotels have amenities. The first place I looked was a hotel called The C’mon Inn that looked like an REI sporting goods store from the outside and an Atlantic City casino on the inside—just past the lobby was a huge courtyard filled with hot tubs, each surrounded by a little scenery of fake trees and rocks, burbling away waiting for a swinger’s convention to show up. The late-night receptionist was a twenty-something girl and I stood chatting with her for a while. When I asked her why no one was in the dozens of hot tubs and she shrugged, “I don’t know, but I would get in one right now if I could.” I smiled and said it was nice chatting and went out into the iced-over parking lot to get in my car and drive to another hotel, the Ramada Plaza, near the center of Casper’s tiny downtown. As I was checking in, I poked my head into the wood-paneled hotel bar. There was a lingerie show going on—scantily clad women gyrated and spun and danced on laps, trying to evoke a reaction from the statue-like Wyoming cowboys, stock-still leathery flacos with boots and moustaches. By the time I got settled into my room and came back downstairs, the bar was empty. I took a seat at the bar across from the bartender and ordered a beer. I told him I was writing about the wolves and he instantly knew what I was writing about. “Everyone has an opinion about them around here,” he said. Wolves, he told me, were the hot-button political issue in the region. “They’re trouble,” he said, “You’re going to find a lot of people around here that don’t like ‘em.”

In the winter, locals have no problem careening over the icy permafrost-coated highways of Montana and Wyoming at breakneck speeds, turning what could be a beautiful drive into a harrowing, white-knuckle experience. The next morning, I veered into Montana over snow-covered two-lane roads, buffeted by the Paramount-pictures-cinematic-looking Crazy Mountains, and met a rancher named Sven Svenson at his home near Reed Point. Svenson, a rotund middle-aged man with a mustache, was out in his garage skinning sheep when I arrived. His overalls and shoes were covered in blood. He led me inside his ranch home and put some coffee on. Animal heads—moose, deer, and elk with blank eyes—filled the walls of the den. In 2008, Svenson began to find his sheep brutally slaughtered, with bloody wolf paw prints around the carcasses. When he put out guard dogs, they got torn up too. Svenson and his sons took turns staying up all night to keep watch for wolves. But when they left in the morning to get some sleep, the wolf made his move. “He was watching us watch him. Wolves make coyotes look stupid.” As part of their wolf compensation program, a group called Defenders of Wildlife paid Svenson market value for the 35 sheep he officially lost—around $5000. But Svenson estimates that his real losses were actually closer to a whopping $80,000. On his kitchen table, he laid out an extensive itemization; “I’ll provide an analogy for you: It’s as if the New York Police Department said when you got mugged, they’ll pay you for the $7.50 the wallet cost, but not the $500 that was inside of it.” I felt a tinge of sadness as an image of a slaughtered sheep, containing a stack of green bills, splayed open like a wallet coalesced in my imagination. Svenson’s itemization seemed like a reach, but his indignation seemed genuine. “They shoved this wolf introduction down our throats” he growled, “After what I’ve been through, I’ll shoot a wolf on sight if I ever get a chance. If they throw me in jail, the rest of the county will be right there beside me. There’s a certain bond among agriculture and we’re done—we’re tired of it—and we will rebel.”

Most of the entrances into Yellowstone National Park remain closed throughout the winter, accessible only by a small fleet of futuristic looking snowplows and snowmobiles. To get in, one has to come down through the tiny town of Gardiner at the northern end of the park. Locals told me that in the summer, Gardiner was a tourist zoo, with Los Angeles-like bumper-to-bumper cars stretching into the horizon and hordes of Japanese tourists taking pictures of the elk that roam through town. In the winter, I found Gardiner dead and Lynchian. The ominous, spindly mountains inside of Yellowstone seemed perpetually covered in swirling gray snow clouds. All the restaurants were eerily empty. Driving through town, I spotted an adolescent kid leaning over the railing of a bridge looking down at the swift-moving river like a character in a Dostoevsky novel, preparing to jump. Even the entrance into America’s heralded national park was surreal—a huge brick arch plopped down on an empty plain, with Soviet-intentional words seared into the masonry—

For the enjoyment and benefit of the people.

From the park’s entrance, I drove for an hour down a tiny, precipitous road, trapped behind a lone loping buffalo, until I found Rick McIntyre, Yellowstone’s resident wolf guru. He stood beside his car at a snow-blanketed siding looking like Benjamin Franklin, pointing a huge handheld antenna in the direction of the valley plain. McIntyre, 61, had thin graying hair and wore a worn-in Death Valley cap. He wore lightly tinted sunglasses and spoke in the preternaturally calm, prescriptively non-oppressive voice of a new age golf instructor or a family therapist. He has no interest in talking about the partisan politics of the wolf debate, but is instead only interested in delving into the ongoing soap opera of the wolves he’s been watching for over ten years, stories that he compares to the Old Testament. Though he’s had opportunities to be promoted, McIntyre has voluntarily chosen to stay in the lowest position in the National Park hierarchy. “Have you heard of the Peter Principle?” he asked me “The idea that in any organization you rise to a level of your incompetence?” The antenna, he explained, was used to pick up signals from the wolf radio collars. If he got a strong signal, he pulled out his telescope and watched the wolves, narrating their every negligible movement into a portable Dictaphone—“Wolf number 361 has lifted its hind leg. Wolf number 962, straying off to the north alone.” If McIntyre is unable to get a signal, he drives to another spot in the park and tries again. This is what he has done continuously, every day, since the year 2000. In the summer McIntyre he gets up at 3:45 in the morning and stays out until its dark. He packs all his meals and stays out in the cold for nine hours at a time. At night, he returns to his small cabin at the northeastern edge of the park and transcribes the day’s notes, trying to find patterns, adding the notes to his Wolf Bible—a document that has grown over the past ten years and is now 8,200 pages long, single spaced. Wolves are his driving passion—they are his life. Needless to say he is single. McIntyre said there was a woman for a while, in Phoenix. “I thought she cared about wolves. In the end, I was wrong–she cared more about her job.” McIntyre hopes to one day format all of his research into a Bible-like series of books that will tell the entire saga of the wolf reintroduction. “It’s kind of like how if you were a novelist and were to write a novel about American life right now, you’d want to create characters that were representative of society.” Tagging along with McIntyre is an enthusiastic college kid named Joe, a former ranch hand home for winter break, trying to get as much wolf-watching time in as possible. The kid’s initiative and drive to watch wolves is impressive—he gets up before dawn to drive into the park to stand out in the cold all day for the nebulously-satisfying reward of getting to spot a wolf through a telescope. We spend the first day in relative silent on a snowy hilltop, standing there like monks for hours, looking down at the valley. At different points McIntyre beckons me over to his telescope—there are the gray wolves with their tongues lolling out, perched in the snow, guarding a carcass.


All of McIntyre’s wolf stories start, “Well, I’m going to have to give you a short version here” and stretch out into an hour-long retelling of a three-generation-long Shakespearean saga of genetic inheritance, warfare, love and murder. McIntyre’s wolves, as he anthropomorphizes them, come to have individual human personalities, with individual charismas, birthrights and hubris. Individuals are always splitting off to form new packs—tribes are warring with each other, dynasties are built, lone wolves set off away from society. Why is it that the pack refuse to follow the alpha male, but are willing to fight for the alpha female when she gives the signal? Charisma is not usually a characteristic afforded to animals. McIntyre loves the Tao Te Ching-inspired wolf leaders who govern effortlessly without ever resorting to cruelty or fear.

When I asked McIntyre if he had a favorite wolf, his tale is somewhat heartrending. “Wolf #8 was one of the first pups born after the reintroduction in 1995. #8 was one of the smallest and was picked on by everybody. He had no natural physical advantages—he wasn’t a good hunter, he was clumsy, and in a culture where dominance means physical ability, it didn’t seem like #8 had a great chance of survival. But after the death of several dominant wolves in Eight’s pack, he became the unlikely heir of the alpha position. As alpha, #8 was benevolent and compassionate—he adopted a number of wolf pups and raised them as if they were his own. He was a great foster father. Having had a difficult time growing up himself, he taught his pups compassion. He taught them to show mercy to the enemy, and not to kill in battle. #8 went on to be the mentor and foster dad for a very important wolf–Wolf #21, who would go on to become the most famous wolf in the park. #21 was born with every physical gift imaginable. This may sound like an exaggeration, but seriously, #21 was like a superhero. His concept of a fair fight was six to one and he would always win. He was the undisputed champion. He was the ultimate tough guy, but he would always play and wrestle with the younger wolves in the pack and let the young wolves win. I watched a documentary about Muhammad Ali, and he would do the same thing. That was his idea of a game. #21 learned about compassion from #8. When he grew up and became a strong alpha, he always spared his enemies in battle, just like his foster father taught him. The best analogy I have is that #21 was like Superman—he was this child with super powers, who never knew his biological father, but was adopted and raised by this compassionate foster family who imparted him with strong values.

Barry Lopez, in his indispensable book Of Wolves and Men pointed out, “We do not know very much at all about animals. We cannot understand them except in terms of our own needs and experiences.” Despite centuries of research and human experience, the true nature of the wolf remains steeped in mystery. We still know almost nothing about the “rules” that govern wolf behavior. Sometimes they go after prey that is sick and old. And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they kill just what they need to eat, and are compassionate to their prey. Other times they slaughter ruthlessly, almost as if for fun. Wolves are hated because they are smart and because they are elusive keystone predators that seem to serve no other purpose in God’s Great Plan other than to muck things up and do whatever they want—that is, they are hated because they are too similar to humans. A common mantra repeated by wolf supporters is that no healthy wolf has ever killed a person in North America. This is probably not true, but was definitively disproven last March when a young special education teacher working in Alaska was found mauled to death on the side of the road. Bloody wolf prints were found all around her body. She had been going on a run and listening to her iPod. Wolf attacks on humans, though very infrequent, read like a collection of humankind’s worst fears: a young kayaker sleeping in the open air wakes up to find himself being dragged into the woods. Children in Alaska and Ontario have been grabbed by the head when their parents aren’t looking. In the 1940s, a railway worker in Ontario was ambushed by a wolf while he was on the train—he grabbed an axe and clubbed the animal to death to save himself. However, the special education teacher in Alaska is today the only recorded person in North America ever to have been killed by non-rabid wolves. But when her father was interviewed by reporters, he didn’t sound consumed by the kind of face-reddening, mouth-breather hatred that is widespread in Wyoming and Montana. “They’re just doing what wolves do.” He sighed to a local paper. “Their nature happened to kill my daughter, but I don’t have any anger towards wolves.” The young wolf victim had kept a blog documenting her interesting life as a teacher in small-village Alaska. In it, she comes across as very preoccupied and concerned about the threat of bears and various wild animals—a chilling reminder that sometimes your worst nightmare can come true. In one entry, she posted a picture of a stuffed wolf in a glass case, that seemed to eerily presage her death: “Chignik Lake’s mascot is a wolf and it sits in the lobby of the school,” she wrote, "It's a great reminder of what lurks outside in the wilderness and to be on the alert at all times."+

OBLIGATION

Obligations to others
shunned or left unfulfilled
Brings shame and anxiety
Alcohol and exercise help dull the pain
Late night comes
and the world heads off to sleep
you finally have an excuse
To climb inside that coffin
That you call a bed
and go to sleep
Not to rest yourself
but from exhaustion with the world
you are in hot pursuit of non-existence

AWAKE

Awakening
from a night of disturbed sleep
all my troubles so distant now
covered over by the green moss of days
generally content with the passage of time
and the early morning Brooklyn trees budding and birds chirping
a kind of joy here sprouting forth from concrete
a resigned religious passage to the days
I think of Peter Taylor
that 35 year old Tennessee bachelor in NYC
and all the others who hated their provincial small towns
stomping through the endless smoggy Brooklyn night
defectors
eternal exiles
lost
a little bit of concrete having been soldered onto their hearts
in the morning light there is a glimmer of hope
for the damned like myself
showering is so pleasurable
the breeze through the open bathroom window
memories of Portland ten years ago–different coast, different bathroom window
dead times I never recorded
so many dead times that will fall away into oblivion when the bodies that experienced
them die
memories like the black boxes
of slow-crashing passenger planes