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The Medicine

This essay was published in a print fanzine a while back, as Big Hands #9. I figured it was about time—time past, passed, passing—to put it up online.

We strap my brother into the back of the handicapped accessible minivan and the door telescopes closed with a satisfying pneumatic whoosh. Cliff, Ben’s caretaker most weeks, paid hourly to hang out and play video games but also to help develop basic life skills, jumps up in front of the wheel. Cliff is a big teddy bear of a guy with a thick Southern accent, built like a linebacker, but with a gentle and compassionate spirit. He’s from Rutherford County, largest town Rutherfordton, up in the North Carolina foothills. Like so many young people from the rural edges of the state, he came to the metropolitan Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area to go to college and stuck around to suckle at the cash teat of the Research Triangle Park. Metica, the company that Cliff works for, employs college guys with Medicaid money to work in home with the disabled throughout the area. Cliff gets assigned one or two clients, like my brother, and sticks with them for years at a time. The caretakers assist with basic physical needs like helping the clients eat, go to the bathroom, get out of the house—they use small steps and a goal-based, familiar routine to march toward the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency.

Inevitability personal relationships and preferences develop. Cliff often talks about how lucky he is to have gotten Ben as a client, telling horror stories of the other folks who came before—kids who threw up on him all day, autistic youth who would scream and punch him. While Ben, 22 years old, was born with cerebral palsy and is physically handicapped (he is always in a wheelchair) he is relatively well off on the spectrum of disabilities because he is high-functioning and his intellect is fully intact. He’s also more optimistic and hopeful than most able-bodied people I have met, who tend to be preoccupied with their own petty misfortunes. I often wonder if his emotional life and the sense of native wisdom he possesses is a byproduct of his physical disability—like how the blind have a more refined sense of smell and character judgment, an ability to wholly assess the feeling of the person that approaches them. Ben is a movie and pop culture buff, able to reel off actor’s filmographies, entire oeuvres, always able to identify the directors of photography and gaffers in the credits. He looks on the bright side—major surgeries, unemployment, the uncertainty of the future, it all seems to roll right off his back.

Take for instance, a conversation I overheard in the kitchen between Ben and Cliff while they were making pizza. 
          “Cliff, aren’t you excited for our trip?!  Come on, get excited!”
“I am excited, buddy.  But I think it’s going to be stressful.” 
         “Why don’t you just hope for the best? Try to have a positive attitude.”
“Well buddy, I’m a realist about things.”
         “Why are you a realist?”
Cliff pauses for a moment, giving the question serious consideration.
          “Well, it’s probably so that when things don’t turn out well, I don’t get so disappointed.”
Ben looks at Cliff compassionately, and without speaking exudes a sense of peace. If anyone needs to be realistic, it would be Ben. But he manages to hold onto his hope, joy and enthusiasm.

In his sweetness, Ben manages to charm every person that he comes in contact with.  Like how in the business bestseller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the author says you have to be a golden goose to lay golden eggs. You can’t just buckle down and push yourself hard to be something that you are not—you have to embody it, to possess the purity of spirit within you. Ben lives it and the energy he has irradiates the world—enduring positivity and joy in every interaction with other people. He’s a magnet, drawing the good, the desirable, the ever-smiling toward him. He can’t go through the mall without girls and old friends saying rushing up to say hello. 

Cliff spends more time with Ben than I do, his own older brother. Every afternoon Cliff drives over to our house and sits at the bottom of the cul-de-sac, waiting for my brother’s school bus to roll in from community college. Because of all the stops and the time it takes to drop off other kids in wheelchairs, it is usually an hour and a half ride. But still, life takes on a Sesame Street quality—everyone knows his name. All the red carpets roll out, the bus driver smiles and says, “Have a good day, Ben!” assuring him that he’ll be there early the next morning to pick him up again. Cliff opens the door of his old clunker and shuffles over to meet him. They wheel over to the mailbox and it’s Ben’s job to reach out and open it. His right arm is folded up like a birdwing, but his left arm, the dominant one, unfolds as he reaches out to pry open the mailbox door. Cliff helps him lift out the stack of mail and catalogs and sets them in his lap. Then Ben mashes his wheelchair joystick forward and charges up the steep hill. At the top of the driveway, he comes to the screened-in porch, and plows into the screen door, pushing it open with the brunt force of his chair (The doors don’t last long with this kind of daily pounding. The last one collapsed in on him one afternoon, like a pre-broken piece of movie set furniture.) 

Inside the house, the air-conditioner runs at full blast. Ben whirs past his window to his world, a large flat screen loaded down with all the most recent satellite equipment and video game systems.  Cliff ushers him into the kitchen to place the mail on the kitchen table. As Ben reaches out with his dominant arm, a couple of pieces of mail drop out onto the floor. Cliff sighs reassuringly because pieces are always getting dropped like this, and it just can’t be helped. Patience, patience.  
            “It’s alright, Buddy.  Let’s just feed the cat.”
Cliff picks up the cat food dish and puts it up on the kitchen table for Ben to reach. Cliff roots through a drawer to find a can opener. He then struggles to get the black can-opener to grip onto the lip of the can. Once he’s done he hands the cylinder of compacted meat to Ben to finish, like a mother bird chewing baby’s food.
           “There you go, Buddy”.  Ben gingerly grasps it in his left hand and presses it toward the plastic cat dish, dumping the mushy meat in.
           “Good job, man,” Cliff smiles wearily. Cliff has just graduated college and seems preoccupied—a post-graduation slump, perhaps troubled by existential questions of what to do with the rest of his life. Ben has noticed his ennui. But Ben has worked with so many caretakers that he is learned how people are and how to treat them, and knows its better to just not say anything. Maybe it will just go away. Maybe they can just be friends and have fun. 

Cliff careens down US-1, that little half-mile stretch of well-maintained highway behind our house that goes out to Goldsboro, Pinehurst, Siler City, and Wilmington. A stretch of highway like any other but somehow syrupy sweet and comforting, having carried me to all the places that made up my life. The road our bus would go down to get to elementary school. The road to the neighborhood where my girlfriend lived; the road I drove down when I got my first car; The road we would take to go to the grocery store, to get ice cream, and rent movies at Blockbuster on a Friday night, before the Redboxes came and shut down that one gathering place in the suburbs where people could browse George Clooney movies while voyeuring other people in the store from behind the mattress of geographic isolation. Then in the later years, the highway I took to dumpster dive at the Food Lion, dredging expired birthday cakes, half-rotten veggies, and packages of mashed potato flakes up from the Stygian depths of the bin to take back and feed to my friends. I stare out the window as Cliff drives past the dead memories, the futuristic, EPCOT-looking strip mall Waverly Place where we used to skateboard and ride the plaza escalators up and down. We crawled all over the bronzed statues of white-collar businessmen on benches at the shopping center, giving them kisses, grabbing their crotches. And late at night after the roving security patrol left, we put detergent in all the fountains, and then went around to the Whole Foods dumpster and had massive food fights with rotten tomatoes and fruit. We were just teenagers wasting time in what seemed like a life sentence. No respect for anyone or anything that had come before or that had been built by money or human sweat. The suburbs were our playground.

“I’m glad you’re coming with us Brother!” Ben shouts, high-pitched, his excitement unrestrained and honest. I used to get excited like that. I used to dance around in the living room just to expend the nervous energy. I used to feel unconstrained by the expectations of the world that now weigh me down like bricks on my ankles. The world wants you to be poised, to be cool, to not get to excited. The world wants you to walk tall, wants you to always smile, wants you to be friendly, wants you to be a charming and awake and playful. But at the same time, the world doesn’t want you to step out of line—it wants you half-dead, shambling to some job, it wants you to want to afford things you don’t need. And finally, when you’ve given up completely—when you’re crumpled up and your spirit is broken, the world welcomes you back with its cold, clammy embrace.  Late at night, in moments of despair, it whispers its soft refrain into your ear: Do what everyone else does, talk like everyone else does, interact with people like everyone else does, suffer like everyone else does. My brother, being born different, was never quite beholden to their strange expectations—not expected to grow up, to be mature, to ‘make something of himself.’ And having been exempted, I am happy to report that his zeal for life has remained intact.

“I’m glad I’m coming too, Ben!” I smile, sticking my hand out the minivan window to feel the breeze.
            “Man, getting outdoors …” Cliff seems rejuvenated to be outside, out of our house where he’s cooped up five days a week. We coast through the leafy spring overgrowth, passing fields and valleys, cows, and emu farms. Cliff’s inner country boy is showing now that we’re out in the country, and he starts talking about where he grew up in Rutherford County.  
              “Grandma had some debts to pay back and without thinking too much about it, she clear-cut her land. Those were woods that her and me used to walk through just about every day. The earth doesn’t just magically grow back what you cut away. Half of what she cut was taken over by kudzu before she could even replant. The other half, she replanted with just regular pine trees; The pine needles were so acidic that when they dropped they made it so no other species of plant could survive on the forest floor; So that was the end of the ecosystem—if you go there now it’s just these mechanically spaced rows of pine trees. Sad part is, most people don’t even notice that there’s something lacking. There’s no biodiversity anymore, we’re missing all kinds of plants and animals. That perfectly sustaining, diverse natural ecosystem is now pretty much gone around here in the South, except when you see it at on a nature preserve or on some private conservation land.” 

I can’t help but imagine how wonderful the land we’re driving past used to be: hidden away in the glorious full-grown backwoods, old ivy-covered barns that smell of tar slowly decaying back to dirt.

In elementary school, we would go on field trips out to the nearby Sharon Harris Nuclear Power Plant. I found the place fascinating—it was packed with glossy cardboard cutouts of atoms and clear vacuum tubes. Our class would sit up on the carpeted steps of a little theatre and watch flickering propaganda films about the incontrovertible good of nuclear energy. The company even built a park beside the nuclear plant for the community.

Harris Lake Park is set back behind several gates that creak open and shut at sunrise, some distant bureaucracy regulating the open hours of what was once-wild. Cliff parks in a handicapped space. With the press of a button, the ramp gracefully unfolds out onto the pavement. We’re going to take Ben off of the familiar asphalt, down an unpaved trail. I don’t doubt that his wheelchair can handle it—its built for rugged durability, with gyroscopes and rubber tires, but the pavement has always been his river. 
                     “Time to go off-roading, Boy!” Cliff harangues him and puts him in a headlock. Ben gets riled up and excited with the roughhousing. As he motors forward onto the unfamiliar terrain, he tenses up, unnerved by going off the sidewalk. We meander slowly down the trail, Cliff and I on either side of him to stabilize his chair if he hits a rut. We are all grinning at his first encounter with the raw world of nature—that world that in the recent past would have been off-limits. I think about how, in all the eras of history, how lucky it was for him to be born after the time when people referred to the disabled as “crippled”, in the spring-bloom of civilization and technology and great society programs like Medicare and Medicaid. I also think about how in this new era of austerity, how devastating it would be to handicapped citizens if these programs were systematically dismantled. Medicaid helped him along, paid to have his wheelchair modernized, paid for physical therapy, got him the leg and back surgeries he needed, and provided daytime caretakers so that my mom could continue to work.

And the fact that my brother was born in the late 80s, right when disabled people were  engaging in the direct action that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991, also seems fortuitous. To be born in a time when a culture of acceptance and assimilation was on the rise and disabled people had choices and could determine the course of their own lives. 1991 wasn’t that long ago. The rise of consumer electronics has provided unprecedented access to worlds previously inaccessible—Nintendo Wiis, iPads, a whole array of new tools and accessible entertainment. The world of nature is janus-faced and cruel—its beauty is thorned, its gift is also its curse. Until the discovery of fire, life was a short, cold brutal affair. Nature has not been so good to us. Like Prometheus, when humans finally wrested control from nature, they took their revenge on God—they penetrated his dark starry night with electric lights, they paved over his naked soil with our roads and cities, they hunted down the predators that attacked and intimidated us for thousands of years. We saw to it that this violent thing called Nature was tamed, left as only a shadow of it’s former self. I often wonder about people I have known who have advocated some half-baked theory of “primitivism” and hold a utopic vision of the return to some ideologically perfect pre-industrial society—these warm-hearted souls who earnestly believe that living in tree houses, shitting in buckets and printing our own pamphlets could ever be enough to rectify the human. Their ‘community’ is a niche undertaking, a youthful art experiment. Their better world isn’t for everybody. King Kong will remain shackled and caged.

We continue through an opening in the trees. There is a wide clear-cut of high-tension power-lines receding into the distance. From there, the colossal gray, cooling towers rise in the distance, big puffs of steam spilling out into the blue sky like a mushroom cloud. Nuclear power—dark nature, yes, but oh how dark is Prometheus! Still, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.  There is a placard sign there in front of us, put up by Sharon Harris to reassure a skeptical public. It reads something to the effect of, “Don’t worry! That smoke coming from the reactors is just steam–totally natural and healthy!”
                    Cliff and I talk suspiciously, wondering why, if it’s so healthy, they built it so far away from the city. Ben motors out onto a scrubby little isthmus that juts out into the lake. The further we get away from asphalt, the more nervous he looks. But still, he’s Christopher Columbus—probably the first disabled to come this far. Cliff and I are chatting away when we hear Ben shouting for help. We rush over. We find him stuck, wheels of his power chair spinning futilely, flinging mud everywhere.
                    “Don’t worry, we’re not going to let anything happen to you, Bud,” Cliff reassures him. We push with our shoulders to pry him out of the rut. When his chair finally gets some traction, he immediately zips off back down the trail to the comforting asphalt of the parking lot.

Like polar magnets, nature and civilization repel each other with a strange, unknowable force.  Nature cuts him off, saying “no more”, as if unnerved by how close he has come. As we walk back through the beautiful woods, I think about how the cool breeze is no more natural than the billowing chill of an air-conditioned indoor mall. Human adaptability is the great engine of our power, but also the source of our tragic fall. There’s nothing to be done when things get too far off track, no one to press ‘stop’ on this life when things get to be too much.

Later that night, I put Ben to bed. Wheeling his cybernetic wheelchair into his bedroom he sits there, looking uncertain, waiting for me to move all the clutter from his bed.  We both know this is an important moment and that it needs to be treated delicately—since I’m not home so often, he prefers my mom to put him to bed. I have to feign confidence, act like I know what I’m doing in order to make him feel comfortable.  I pull the harness out from under a pile of clothes and slide the big nylon belt around his waist. He’s gotten so used to being manhandled by strangers—big college guys who come over every day and put him on the toilet, lay him on the floor to exercise, more his big brothers than I am. I unstrap his seat belt and wrap the harness around his waist gently and pull the motorized pulley system along the ceiling. I press the button and the pulley magically lifts him up in the air out of his wheelchair. He dangles in mid-air over his bed. 
                 “You look like Peter Pan!” I smile.
He laughs, weary-sounding.
                  “Has anyone ever told you that?” 
"Yes” he says, curtly.  I lower him onto a towel and undo the straps and slings. Success! Ben’s bed is still outfitted with the same racecar sheets as it was when he was 10.  Take off his shoes and socks.  His cute little gnarled hobbit feet—I pull off his gym shorts and grab the adult diaper from the pile in the corner.  Rip the plastic and pull out the adhesive wetness protector and affix it inside the diaper. Then rip the sides of the diaper he’s wearing and yank it off, urine-soaked. Whenever I do this, I think about—most parents have to change diapers for a few short years. She’s had to be the evergreen mother, doing it for over 20 years. My mom still looks like she’s in her 40s. Has having her youngest son so close, so dependent, kept her young, kept her from stagnating? Is the key to not getting old having a purpose and knowing that people need you? I brush away unresolvable thoughts and pull out the box of WetWipes.  I wipe around his crotch and he looks away ashamedly, seeming to like it even less than I do. I make small talk about what he wants to do the next day and wheedle the new diaper on him, careful, careful not to rip it. Then throw away the dirty diaper and pull the towel out from under him like a magician pulling out a tablecloth. Voila! Arrange the pillows around the edge of his bed, a clock nearby so he knows what time it is, put a single pillow on his head.  I get everything just right for once. I kiss him on the head and say goodnight.  Goodnight Ben, my eternal brother, cozy and comfortable in your little nest. Something about my mother shepherding him through life, protecting his innocence moistens my eyes. Just the way it is. Happy families are all alike, Tolstoy wrote. For the rest, not necessarily something therapy should fix.  

The rides at Disney World develop cracks and tears, metal rusts and colors fade.  VHS movies and cassette tapes sit in dumpsters and on spider webbed driveways across the country.  Sitcom characters dance around all night on turned-off flat screens, recorded by TiVo.  Malls slowly crumble to dust, their Coptic exteriors pulled down by kudzu. My brother’s room remains the same after all these years—a museum piece where time stopped in the mid-90s. This is the best way for life to continue—laden with mystical layers and coincidence–cryogenically frozen in the comfortable and familiar.  A librarian who works for 30 years in the basement of the same building. My grandfather built his own house with his bare hands and spent fifty happy years there. His cells bound themselves up there, and the day it burnt down a part of him died. He passed away just over a year later. Everything is constantly re-shaping everything else, like a lathe—consciousness melding to cells, bodies melding to geographies and locations, people melding to one another. The cocoons that we build around ourselves are time warps to the future—when one day they break, we wake up, as if roused from a long slumber. The world chugs forward, in its harshly, mechanistic way. The near past is gone, the future is here, and the person you thought you were has gone missing.   

Posted above the coffee maker, on the kitchen cabinet, my mom has affixed a little poster printed out on computer paper that reads: Don’t Worry Be Happy! Take Your Medicine! Just Wait And See What Happens! Love and The World Will Love You Back! The very need for a poster of this kind, a cheery reminder with the morning cup of coffee seems like an intimation of warning. Yet, when I hesitantly ask my mom if there was something wrong that warranted putting up the note, she just smiles and says  ‘You know, your brother likes it—and I like it too.’ We live in a topsy-turvy world in regards to mental health—it seems like those with the most to lose are also the most upbeat and optimistic—they are like surfers, gliding on the briny wave of the world’s misery. Upbeat, smiling people, so locked into their situation and their lives that they don’t have the time or the luxury to get depressed about it. They listen to inspirational music, they try to stay busy, they smile and look for the positive and the life affirming in the day-to-day. They go through life cultivating a well-maintained mental landscape, pruning out grim thoughts like stray weeds. Conversely, middle-class suburban white boys tend to form the primary listenership of aggressive, ‘depressing’ music and the most steadfast producers of dark, contorted postmodern literature. 

It’s easy to be preoccupied by the emptiness of existence when you don’t have to concern yourself with day-to-day survival. Perhaps suburban youth love aggressive, depressing music so much because they have so little to lose by letting darkness into their lives. It’s fun to splash around in pain when all you have is a shallow wading pool, rather than a dark substantial reservoir. I often find myself often thinking about those people whose experiences have inspired horror and suspense-movie plots—like the ‘73 Uruguayan rugby team whose airplane crashed and ended up having to eat the bodies of their friends; or the Chilean miners trapped underground for weeks; or Aron Ralston, from 127 Hours, who sawed off his own arm with a pocket knife; I’m talking evening-news blunt force trauma. It’s a testament to the human spirit that people can recover from this stuff. Strange too, how the near-death sometimes can clarify your priorities—after you’ve survived a plane crash or have dashed out of a collapsing tower as your co-workers are incinerated, you realize how much is at stake in this life and start treating people properly. You reunite with estranged family members. You stop going to bars. You pursue your dreams. With the adrenaline shot of a little death, you remember that you are alive. 

I fidget and count the seconds as the Target register lady scans my socks, toothpaste, and floss, and puts them in a bag. To this twenty-year-old cashier with tattoos and lip piercing and a faded 21st century demeanor, I’m just another indistinguishable adult man, 18-40, no history, no context, no personality. The possibility of friendship—that possibility offered by every interaction—dissipates with every passing second like a shot clock running down as I stand there sweating and frowning, anxious for her to bag my products so I can leave as soon as possible. Oh well—no human warmth, no human connection, not today. Life gets repetitive—friends, relationships, parties, jobs all begin to resemble the ones that came before. And it just goes on and on, but not forever—a limited time offer. And the need to get excited about the conversations–
“Have you seen that movie?”
 “Have your read that book?” 
“Have you heard about what happened between those two?”
 “Well let me tell you…” 
Endless shit flowing between endless mouths. And the time just rushes by unabated.

Getting older, preferring isolation, building up walls against the world. The process of aging, “growing colder and less and less warm” as Stephen Merritt put it. The last reserves of magical youth energy are fast dissipating. I’ve been seeing the world as if behind a mattress, looking out onto cultural events, parties, and potential new friends with the dull ache of loathing. I’ve been noticing myself holding my breath when I’m put in situations where I have to interact with strangers—at a cash register at Target, my heart pounds out of my chest as the cashier looks up at me and says, “How are we doing today?”
Beads of sweat coarse from my forehead…”I’m doing fine…how are you?” Nothing comes naturally anymore—I have to remember to smile, to put ‘good vibes’ out there in the ether. Humans are great mimics, like parrots, and when you smile they always smile. Smile—try it sometime–mild conspiratorial human connection established. When you frown your way through a conversation, people leave you feeling ill at ease. Smile. Use exclamation points in text messages. Stay upbeat—talk about the ‘good things’ happening for you. Discuss movies and plots to books. Avoid dredging up the unresolvable. Old pains. But still, even this measured positivity can’t quite bridge the distance gaping distance between these bodies moving through the world. 

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. 

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 Indian 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.
Nightshade, my face buried in neon roses, dark green twilight all around, the sound of insects buzzing around the closed-for-the-summer elementary school. Security floodlights illuminate the schools tiled hallways, a large bulletin board decorated with tissue paper shaped into little flowers, and those metallic string-up craft letters “WELCOME TO MS. KELLY’S 3rd GRADE CLASS!” There is the smell of azaleas in the night, as if the breeze was blowing through some giant sheet of fabric softener at the edge of town. Walking in the dark past all the little garden cottages set behind white picket fences, I feel like a drifter prowling. Their windows of the cottages are lit up and familial warmth radiates out from inside–Wooden bookshelves and pianos and antique lamps. Moss and ivy covering the roof and the smell of burning wood coming from the chimney—a fire in the hearth!

In front of one house with a long stone porch and two wobbly porch fans, through the half-drawn shades I spy an old man standing beneath the fluorescent kitchen sink light, looking down at his old hands. Deeper in the womb neighborhood, I come to a massive cul-de-sac—homes draped under trees and in the center a green lawn, like The Shire–two men who look like grad students walk through the park absorbed in a conversation about institutional grants. The City of Oaks—majestic trees and churches with white, paint-scraped steeples. Coming out from the neighborhood, I emerge onto Hillsborough Street, the spine of Raleigh’s college district. All the buildings and commerce looks industrial and faded, trapped in the 90s. Ramshackle bead stores and independent record stores and an old comic book store. There’s even functional factory, noises of industrial saws and radio blaring from inside. The Cup-o-Joe, that stalwart coffee shop—open late and filled with conspiracy theorists and goths and punks and weirdos of every stripe—its glowing sign is a flypaper beacon for anyone looking to loiter. It’s 2011, but the windows of Cup-o-Joe are still filled with photocopied fliers, for house shows and parties. There are Elvis posters on the wall, a Mrs. Pac-Man table in the corner, an old guy reading a book about Maoism. Raleigh remains a kind of atomic fallout shelter for genuine freaky weirdness, a place where subculture and an authentic way of life have been exquisitely preserved. This is what I’ve searched all over the country for and have not found—oh yes, the real thing. As Billie Holliday sings, back home in your own backyard. 
Tornadoes have been sweeping through the South for the past week, killing hundreds, nothing like it seen since the early 1900s. People sit at home in their living rooms watching TV then the sky glows green and out of nowhere, like a stray bullet from God, they are crushed and killed. Homes in rubble, pets missing, weeks on the cot at the shelter, all of them saying, “It was so unexpected, I never saw it coming.” The ongoing lottery of suffering—the dice fall where they may—natural disasters, metastasized tumors, abject failure. There’s no choosing, only getting chosen. Until the time when you’re picked out of the line-up, all you can do is go through life with the serene self-confidence of the righteous. There is a look on the face of a person who is in love with life and knows they are living on borrowed time. It’s been storming day and night, the clouds moving swiftly over the little roof of my mother’s house. I open the screen door and step out onto the back porch—the faded white deck is bathed in golden sunlight. Inside, Ben sits in his power wheelchair in the living room, in front of a fold-out table littered with Playstation and television controllers, watching Boardwalk Empire.
              “Do you want to go for a walk?” I ask. He readily agrees, seeming eager to get out of the house. I open up the screen door and he powers out onto the porch. All of a sudden he is zooming down the driveway, spinning around in circles, his wheelchair making little pneumatic sounds. Venturing down the steep driveway, I keep one cautious hand on his chair the entire time. When we get down into the bottom of the cul-de-sac, Ben shifts into a faster speed and drives up the green, suburban street.

“Stay on the right side,” I say, having a horrible vision of some iPhone-wielding teenager driving down the road and plowing into him, the wheelchair and the car, both machines smashing into each other, Ben caught in-between. This haunts my dreams—his wheelchair falling off a cliff, or getting caught on something and tipping over, or the two of us getting separated in some vast public transit system and him being trapped alone down there with no way out. As we head down the street, our neighbor Mike is getting up into his boxy SUV. His wife has just recently been diagnosed with cancer. Mike, who before always seemed so lively and excitable, looks tired, his hope for a happy endless future dashed up against the rocks. Still, he manages to summon his reserves of enthusiasm and shout down from the top of the driveway.
                  “Howdy, Ben!!!” he shouts down.
“Hi Mike!” Ben waves and smiles. 
The sky has opened up and a soft spring wind blows. The only clouds in the blue late-afternoon sky are three-dimensional and scenic looking, like in a Charmin toilet paper commercial. Occasionally, I tense up at the sound of a car coming—but as the cars approach, one by one they slow down to a crawl. I look in the windows and see that they’re driven by elderly suburban couples, a population subset extremely cautious and sensitive to safety of individuals in wheelchairs. They smile and wave as they pass. As Ben and I wave back, I think about how funny it is that nobody ever waves or smiles at me when I am alone, but when I’m with Ben, the world opens up and becomes generous and friendly. It’s as if with the absence of physical mobility, Ben has developed an excess of charisma and social grace, like tree roots growing inexorably around objects in their way. 
“Beautiful out here huh?” Ben grins up at me. 
“It sure is.” 
“It’s like we are in France or something.”
“North Carolina is at least as pretty as France. It’s kind of the France of the United States, really.”
“We are really lucky.”
“Much prettier than New York. And sure is prettier than Mississippi.”
“New York smells like a sewer. And it’s too damn hot in Mississippi.”
Ben is wearing a white V-neck t-shirt, khaki shorts and cute little clunky brown shoes that are strapped into the legrests of his wheelchair. I look him over approvingly. He is strong and healthy, his arms big and muscular. I can’t help but think about how if he had been born without a disability, he would have been taller, more athletic than me. 
“How about we go to the new park?” I ask. 
“The one up on Debra?” 
Ben cruises down past all the familiar houses and blocks. 
“There’s Ryan Whalen’s house.” Ben points, “And down there…Eric Krauss’s parents still live down there by the pond.”

I look towards Ryan’s house and nod, pretending that it was the first time I had considered it. In truth, I thought about him and his mom and dad every time I rounded the corner. Young couples with children tucked into car seats sit staring at flat screens in cumbersome SUVs—vehicles purchased with the same mentality that drives the nuclear arms race—that one can’t go around in a violent world defenseless.

“Do you think people should get married?” I ask Ben.
“When they’re in love, I suppose…” 
“And have kids?”
“Mmmmm,” he demurs, “Already so many kids in the world.” 
“But part of getting married is the having of kids. Even if the couple doesn’t want kids, they eventually give in to social pressure, right?”
“I hope one of us has kids.” Ben says indignantly.
 “What about a dog?” 
“I want a dog too!”
“Yeah, why don’t you get one?”
“Mom doesn’t want me to get a dog. She says she’ll end up having to take care of it.”
“One of us has to have kids. To carry on the legacy.” He says.
“What legacy?”
“The blood legacy.”

I furrow my brow and look over at my brother in the wheelchair. Same blood, same veins. Same hawkish yet handsome features. The blood legacy. What’s his is mine. A vision comes to mind of the happy ending: cute kids and a wife who smiles and hugs my brother. She wraps her arms around his neck and ruffles his hair in a playful way, “Oh, Ben!” The kids call him Uncle Ben and hang out all day grilling out and playing Nintendo Wii. Strange future, not-so-distant future. The real “community” we talked about building so many years ago comes about eventually through an organic process. And after so many years and all that we’ve been through, staring down the rifle of the rest of my life, I now know the only legacy is the blood legacy, the only community the giving-in. Everything else is so much selfishness, the soon-to-be dust of accomplishment, the coffin-smell of worldly ambition.

We reach the park as the sun is going down. All the curbs are perfectly molded, handicapped accessible. Ben checks out the lift of a handicapped van, comparing it to his vehicle. The lot where the park stands was a chemical storage facility when I was in elementary school, but it burnt down one night. Everyone in the neighborhood came out to watch the flames leaping into the sky. After years of sitting abandoned and dusty, the town decided to build a park there—everything in the park was state of the art shiny plastic, fresh astroturf, gentle, ergonomic playground equipment. It was nothing like the parks I went to as a kid where everything was made of metal and the swings creaked and kids broke their arms on merry-go-rounds and got their fingers smashed between links of chain. 

Going down the park’s fresh, yellow-brick path, up ahead I see a young-looking girl in an electric wheelchair and an older middle-aged woman sitting on the bench beside her. From the way the little girl lolls her head around, it looks like she might have an intellectual disability. As they see Ben and I coming up the path, the girl straightens her head up and her caretaker beams at us with a warm smile. One of us. A barely-audible frequency transmits openness and warmth–Friend. “Good afternoon, young man!” the caretaker says to Ben as we meander past. “Good afternoon to you!” Ben says. Blood warming up in the veins, human interaction killing the cancer of loneliness. Everyone is searching for some commonality, some connection and friendship in this endless sea of humans. 

A leaf rolls down the street, making crackling noises as it flips headlong into the trees. The sounds of birds pouring in through my open windows, blue-dark out on the lawn, dew reflecting off the cul-de-sac; I rise from bed and brew coffee. When Mr. Coffee hisses to completion I pour it into a Thermos, adding a dash of organic milk, blooming through the blackness—and then leave the house and go out into the front yard where the moon looks down in the ever-blue sky. I kneel and give thanks for such a beautiful day, after having for so long been imprisoned in cramped apartment in a cramped and overcrowded city, after having been shuttled back and forth from work to home in claustrophobic underground subways, after having spent my days in temperature-controlled cancerous offices in a place where no birds sing and no grass grows. 

I hear the pitter-patter of my feet down on the quiet dark road, past all of my neighbors mailboxes, their little daffodils planted below the mailboxes and their trucks parked out on the road; their old dusty boats parked up at the top of the driveway; freshly-tilled vegetable garden beds with the red clay dirt bunched up around young tomato plants; little pewter bird and little-girl lawn sculptures; American flags hanging from flagpoles; senior citizen joggers, running by in the morning light and waving and smiling—and I hold up a salutary arm to them and smile like a Folgers commercial, steam pouring out of my aluminum coffee mug. I veer through a little copse of trees down into a green-smelling gully. There the grass is lush and thick like a shag carpet and I go up on the mossy banks of a little stream. There in the gazebo in the back of the woods are the flowering bushes and the wooden swing. I jumped from one side of the stream to the other and don’t feel the least bit upset when my shoe plunges into the water and gets soaked up to my ankle. I just shake it off, laugh at myself, and move on. 

The Antifa Whisperer

Its no secret that the taxonomical spread of the American right is longing for an apocalyptic confrontation with antifa. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, like Louise Mensch and her agents of Russian influence, they see antifa everywhere. This is developing into an obsession. They think about antifa at the shooting range. They think about antifa at the gym. The nazis overestimate antifa, the antifa overestimate the nazis, and a general ratcheting up occurs until some moron fires the first shot. Large scale conflicts and civil wars often creep up this way, insidiously, everybody waiting for John Brown to pop out of the bushes and “accelerate the contradictions.” Fire the first shot of the race war, BABY! 
It has been bizarre to watch the American right discover and latch onto antifa in the past two years, as if they actually understood it or its premises. To hear Trump shout Aunttttieee-fa! with stank on his breath at a Phoenix rally and listen to the crowd of several thousand previously-normal suburban Republicans go wild, it’s hallucionagenic. For most previous presidential administrations, anarchists were a mosquito-like annoyance to be left to the police, but the Europe-watchers at Breitbart have imported that most "cosmopolitan" of European phenomenons across the pond and now Trump is talking about “black clad goons.”

Antifa as a thing on the US left is also a relatively new development. In the long hangover between the WTO riots of Seattle and Occupy, only a small clique talked about antifa; those that did were largely expats returned from extended European squatter vacations with mullets and St. Pauli t-shirts. Last August, 350,000 people signed a Whitehouse.gov petition calling for antifa to be re-classed as a terrorist organization. Politico has published a report citing anonymous sources that claims the Department of Homeland Security quietly put antifa on a domestic terror watch-list during the 2016 presidential campaign. About a year ago, a monument in Wisconsin to the republican volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, was graffiti’d with Antifa Sucks, Trump Rules and swastikas. 

Antifa has no reliable social base. In spite of all the videos and memes and the suddenly-fascism-obsessed Trump Resistance, they are self-marginalized, making them an easy scapegoat for an administration that has fought an uphill battle in their efforts to squeeze other groups.

Since Trump’s victory, we live in a golden age for totalitarianism experts. Previously-hermetic fascism scholars and commentators have been mainstreamed as sought-after public intellectuals and cable talking heads. Liberal commentators now casually debate the Weimar Republic and the abortive Spartacist uprising with red-rose DSA avatars on Twitter. 

Into this sewer, this state of social sepsis, enter Dartmouth antifa scholar and former Occupy organizer Mark Bray. After the riots in Berkeley and Charlottesville, the liberals badly needed someone to explain antifa for them. The antifa, of course, were unwilling to do this themselves. As a telegenic young lecturer with Ivy credentials and a perfectly timed book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, he was tapped by the producers to be the Official-Antifa-Whisperer. As both an ethnographer of the faction and a true believer himself, he offered a glimpse into the thrilling subculture of masked heroes, ‘brickbats’ and rationalized nazi-punching. He took on the unenviable task of explaining the motives of a media-allergic tendency to the liberal commentariat.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single expert appear and debate and be interviewed on such a wide range of media platforms in such a short amount of time. Bray performed his duties as unofficial antifa-spokesman admirably, sparring with skeptical magazine editors and pundits. The discourse around antifa’s tactics has been predictably binary, basically a re-hashing of the “black bloc anarchist” debate under a new names. Now that we live under “fascism” there’s a bit more public sympathy for “resistance.” Still, little interesting gets said and the bulk of commentary falls into two categories: condescending liberal pedantry (There’s no excuse for violence, the Civil Rights movement is a preferable model, these people are not representative) or dyed-in-the-wool triumphalism (brave antifa! brave nazi-punchers! Remember the Battle of Cabal Street!) “No platforming” is what the most vocal and angry ultra-radical faction are into, so who the hell are we to criticize the stupid things they do? Diversity of tactics!

There is nothing liberals like more than being explained a previously-unknown underground culture or tendency by an insider; they feel like they are getting in early on the Next Big Thing. And liberal public opinion compulsively assumes that whatever the telegenic young ultra-radicals have coming down the pipe must be cool new thing, must be correct, because its new and exciting. The ultras, being the youngest and farthest to the left, and most vocal, are automatically assumed to have the coolest and most exciting analysis.

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook is intended as a breezy historical primer for the uninitiated, who want to brush up on the origins and rationale behind antifa. Anti-fascism before 1945 is given a quick gloss, while the bulk of the book is dedicated to a lower-frequencies oral history of the subcultural skirmishes between the international, mostly Western-European antifa and neo-nazis since the 1970s. Even for someone familiar with the concepts and history, it is interesting to watch and read Bray, for how he so studiously toes the antifa line. There of course is no “official” antifa line, but you basically already know what it is: present antifa as a “self-defense” vanguard for marginalized people (using the relative diversity within coastal, insurrectionary anarchist circles to claim antifa speaks for the subaltern),  explain and rationalize their tactical decisions or lack thereof.  If there is an argument to be had, it is probably with a strawman non-violent liberal rambling on about Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and democratic norms. When all else fails, just shrug and say: its autonomous, no one is in control, mistakes get made because people are angry. 

Bray claims that antifa’s hyper-vigilance springs from the fact that they’re aware that many leading fascists started out as laughable, marginal figures and they want to to reckon with them while they’re still in utero.

He also fetishizes the noble left-wing failure: Occupy, Paris 1968, Italy’s Autonomia, the banlieue riots, the periodic militant solar flares bursting out from Athens’ anarchist-controlled neighborhoods. The anecdotes and stories all follow a similar utopian story arc: some brave, autonomous souls in Italy, Germany, Utah, or Indiana anti-racists got together in their city and violently resisted fascists in the streets. By putting undecided local people into a polarizing situation, they even garnered a modicum of support from local shopkeepers and youths, who joined in the throwing of cobblestones and dumping of chamber pots. Then, they melted back into the alleyways and punk clubs, having driven the neo-nazi scourge back into their hives of villainy. Like a good movie plot, it pulls the heartstrings and checks all the boxes that make you feel good. 

Then, a brief, muttered footnote, like the ultra-fine-print at the bottom of a contract: The far-right actually temporarily harvested political gains from the aforementioned action or endeavor. The aftermath and success of these fleeting nazi-bashings isn’t seriously analyzed or reflected upon because the unpleasant truth is that it made fascists stronger. Oh well, onto the next barricade.

For many people with faith in antifa and nazi-punching, there is a premise that reactionary hate is a nearly protean force—it periodically rises inexplicably in society, like a malignant tumor, and the job of antifa is to be the white blood cells that put it down before it spreads. “How many murderous fascist movements have been nipped in the bud over the past seventy years by antifa groups before their violence could metastasize? We will never know,” he writes, with enviable optimism. This argument smudges and blots out the fact that reaction can be spurred forward by the political and strategic failures of the left.

Small groups of punks and skinheads beating and stabbing each other outside of Utah punk clubs in the 90s is interesting to me personally, but in this time of great political earthquakes and re-alignments, should the small and obscure be focused on and reified in such a way? The little skirmishes between pro-nazi punks and anti-fascist anarchists of the last 30 years are the faint burning embers and smoke in the aftermath of a great conflagration. It is unfortunate that Bray breezes so quickly over the most important period of anti-fascism, the 1930s and 1940s—when the stakes were the highest and anti-fascism ascended to the level of mass armed guerilla resistance and in certain countries was made official state ideology.

Fascism emerged in direct response to the tsunami of revolutionary ardor after the success of the Bolshevik revolution. All roads to fascism lead back to a panicked desperation of desiccated old regime elites, nationalist veterans, and industrialists as they struggled to contain the Soviet bacillus to Eurasia. Its hard to overemphasize the impact the Bolshevik revolution had Western European and American revolutionaries and the fear that must have gripped the hearts of elites when they realized that this problem wouldn’t go away in six months. The Bolsheviks were gambling and spending heavily so that Germany, Italy, Poland,  China, Hungary would all overthrow their regimes and the world revolution could link up in the rubble of empires. In 1920, Lenin wrote to Stalin that the “revolution in Italy should be spurred on immediately… Hungary should be Sovietized, and perhaps also the Czech lands, and Romania.” 

As Russia fought a grinding civil war and made pushes into Poland and Ukraine, a wave of strikes and uprisings tore across Europe in 1917-1919—the Spartacist uprising, Bienno Rosso in Italy, civil war in Finland, Hungary—it was precisely in this moment that what we know today as ‘fascism’ was born. The Bolsheviks were waiting on German revolutionaries to take over, opening the door to the rest of Europe. Armed young Great War veterans threw themselves into desperately snuffing out their local revolutionists, making inroads with old regime conservatives and industrialists; Social Democrats sold their erstwhile comrades down the river in an attempt to maintain order. Even after the German and Hungarian revolutions were put down with the help of proto-fascist World War I veterans, Lenin kept looking for a door or a window to ignite the Soviet wave in Europe. 

Just as there could be no Civil Rights Act without the black power movement, there would be probably be no modern European social democracy or its perverse doppelgänger—corporatist fascism—without the implicit threat of armed communists linking up with the Soviet colossus and taking power. Modern social democracy as we know it emerged directly from big bad Bolshevism banging at the door—suddenly, the industrialists and bosses were willing to share profits, make a class compromise with workers—it wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts, it was heart-rending fear.

Strangely, Bray claims that left-wing violence played no part in the rise of fascism—this is a kind of whitewashing to make the modern antifa a bit more palatable to the faint of heart. Embedded inside of the communist risings was, of course, violence, the threat of violence, expropriation, armed communist bands and reactionary bands were in the streets. Fascists preyed on widespread desire for law and order. When push comes to shove, most average people want peace and stability and aren’t ready to get totally on board with revolutionary left-wing risings—they turn back towards moderates and reactionaries, back toward the warm embrace of comforting stability. Bray claims it wasn’t about left-wing violence, it was about communist electoral success. But fascists fed on both real and perceived fears of armed left-wing violence like yeast feeds on sugar—it was their central plank, their raison d’etre. Desiccated old regime elites and industrialists made a devils bargain and were ultimately outmaneuvered, blackmailed and won over by populist-fascist outsiders. Our populism is your best bet for survival. This was the reasoning and the implicit threat, and its not much different from the way the “good Republicans” are presently being held hostage by the Trump base.

Accordingly, the first partisan fighters and first victims of fascists were not just random citizens, they were communist party members. Other groups were smeared and subject to hate, but weren’t directly targeted and hunted until later, and at first for the reason of being potential communist collaborators. 

Fascism and communism were and are bound together in a cycle of action and reaction, that reached its Wagnerian crescendo in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a bloodbath unlike any the world has ever seen. Bray seems to think that part of the image issue antifa face is that people don’t understand they are socialists, communists, and anarchist revolutionaries. This doesn’t give people enough credit. People know what antifa is about behind the “anti-fascism”—they just don’t like it. 

Bray’s argument is at its weakest when he mounts a lengthy defense of “no platforming” fascist free speech and against legally restricting hate speech: Why be all worked up about antifa restricting nazi free speech, he seems to be saying, when American history is a history of speech denied to the marginalized. In the space of a couple of pages he goes into a relativistic rabbit-hole of American horrors: COINTELPRO, slavery, Dred Scott, the genocide of Native Americans, the Palmer Raids, Guantanamo Bay, Citizens United, Facebook, corporate control of media…did these not restrict speech? Its not that Bray is wrong. It’s that this argument is as politically unconvincing as going after Christopher Columbus. “America was never great” is almost as bad a rallying cry as “America is already great.” 

As Joseph Goebbels’ Brunhilde Pomsel said in a documentary just before she died in 2017: “People nowadays… say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.” Despite its shortcomings and an overall sense of whitewashing antifa as a knight in shining armor, Bray has done good yeomen work as an educator and popularizer with his books and public appearances. It is all food for thought, and given that the tit-for-tat media and street war between the left and the far-right in America is only growing more polarized, these are important questions to mull over. But the elephant in the living room is avoided: Did it actually do anything or did it just make people feel good? Did it build anything long lasting? ​Does this hurt or help?

In Sighisoara

I had finished reporting in Bucharest, and in the familiar anxious dance—like a prissy dog looking for the perfect spot to piss—was looking for a place to hole up and crank out a draft. “Why don’t you just write it here?” the people at the journalist collective in Bucharest where I was staying on a mattress by a big window in the attic said. The three-story house was cozy and familiar, like a big wooden pirate ship swaying in the waves, and each night in my weeks there I fell asleep comforted by the sounds of people living their lives below—smoking and drinking downstairs, the smell of food wafting up, sirens fading in and out of the open window. It was tempting to stay. I have long dreamt of being a mouse in the collective house, surrounded by but seperate from nearby human beings living their lives in common.

I wanted to see Transylvania. “Transylvania?” the Romanian journalists rolled their eyes. “Whatever you want to do, man.” I had never had any interest in going to Transylvania before, but a visit to the museum of medieval maps—most of them depicting the vast swaths of forest villages that made up Transylvania—piqued my curiosity. In his book In Europe’s Shadow, Robert Kaplan described spending a night in a 12th century clocktower, in a village called Sighisoara—it wasn’t as touristy as Brasov or as bleak as Sighetu Marmetei.

It sounded peaceful and quaint, a functional medieval village on an ancient hillock. I pictured myself there on top of the mountain, in some cheap garrett under the clocktower, my face glinting beatifically in a mote of morning sunlight like that painting “Wanderer in Sea and Fog.”

In the collective’s smoke-filled kitchen, Valentina advised against it. “It’s a weird medieval tourist town.” I asked her where I should go instead. “Sibiu,” she said. But Sibiu sounded to me like the constellation of a bear, and in Google images it looked surrounded by snow-capped mountains of madness, while Sighisoara looked peaceful and quaint, and I loved the way the name sounded in Romanian, soara, Schwaaaaraaaa, rolling off the tongue, lacivious, like an old rug. In Sibiu, I imagined checking into a pension on the industrial edge of town with a grumpy old man—I imagined him monitoring my comings and goings and yelling at me about how to properly drain the water from the tiny plastic shower. I would end up in some cool little bar with strange but friendly young people. I wanted to hole up against the world, shield myself from the world, not meet anyone.

Sighisoara it was. It was cheap, hidden, and exotic-sounding, like Fes, Cipango—I wanted to go to those places too. When travelling blind, you make spur-of-the-moment decisions like this, based on ridiculous illusions and intuitive caricatures. I left Bucharest’s Gare du Nord on an old, half-empty train at noon. The seats were blood-red and stained, and the only other passengers were elderly people in a kind of fugue, as if in suspension fluid. The gray early spring flew by out the window—shacks, cloddy flat fields, and one-eyed factories. We pulled through Brasov, a depressing-looking too-large town, and then left the mainline into alpine wilderness, where the escarpment of the mighty snow-covered Carpathians rose like the Paramount Pictures logo, behind the wooden Transylvania-style houses. At each village station we passed a handsome train signalman standing stoically in white gloves with his colored-paddle, like in the movie Closely Watched Trains. Transylvania really looked like Transylvania. Like a Hollywood sound stage of Transylvania, the Carpathians as awe-inspiring as the Rockies.

On trains, you often know you’re arriving at the destination by the stirring sense of anticipation that rises from the other passengers. We chugged into Sighisoara’s four-track canopied station. There is something eternal in it, the weary traveler arriving in the provincial train station at dusk, carrying a heavy backpack. Locals streamed onto the platform, the old train wheezed and croaked, and the fading light illuminated the dome of an Orthodox church set back in a fallow vineyard in just the right way. As Vasily Grossman wrote in Armenian Sketchbook:

Your first minutes on the street of an unfamiliar city are always special; what happens in later months or years can never supplant them. These minutes are filled with the visual equivalent of nuclear energy, a kind of nuclear power of attention. With penetrating insight and an all-pervading excitement, you absorb a huge universe—houses, trees, faces of passerby, signs, squares, smells, dust, cats and dogs, the color of the sky. During these minutes, like an omnipotent God, you bring a new world into being.

The journey had been long, and I felt tingly and expectant. I was relieved that it seemed to be a town of substance, with real neighborhoods and a river, not just a one-horse village. To get from the platform to the train station, I walked through a dark underpass that reeked of stale piss. This was the first thing I found strange about Sighisoara—in a provincial village, surrounded by eldritch woods and mountains, why did the tunnel reek of piss?

The tunnel came out in front of the stolid neoclassical little train station, like Jefferson’s Monticello. I set off walking, magnetized towards the mountain at the center of town, through empty neighborhoods where teenage boys stood on street corners, an old man bar, a sad little in-between graveyard, eventually arriving at a plaza and church by a reedy brown river. Parents pushed strollers and morosely watched their children stomp around. A footbridge went across the river and at the sheer base of the mountain, I found the little crumbling staircase up to the fortressed old city, passing by several empty tourist restaurants. Painted plastic waiter figurines were posted outside all the restaraunts like sentries. 

At the top of the fortress, I caught my breath. The center of town was completely empty. There was a BMW parked beside a wide-eyed statue of Dracula’s father, Vlad Tepes. There was an empty bar with a neon red sign. It was a tourist town I suppose in the summer but everything was closed down. When I did stumble on a resident opening or closing the door to a 12th century home, they averted their gaze, and went about their business—there was no provincial friendliness, no curiosity, no ‘are you lost.’

It is rare that one gets to experience UNESCO heritage completely alone, with no signs and audio tours and museums and guides and touts. The bells of the clocktower, an incredible gothic structure with painted figurines, rang out across the smoky valley. I wandered the perimeter of the fortress, inspecting the old walls and wooden guard towers at its corners.  I felt lucky and happy to see it, if a bit ill at ease. It was too quiet. 

As night fell, I wandered the entire old town as a completionist, feeling like I needed to cover every alley, every inch of its four corners. When I was done I stepped into the creaking wooden floors of the one open hotel, Hotel Sighisoara, and looked into its restaurant, considering having dinner—it was completely empty, all the tables perfectly set with glasses and silverware, but nobody was there. I have a phobia that there should really be a word for—“fear of empty restaraunts.”

Certain places all of a sudden become frightening—while technically you could adapt and stay put, you ache to leave immediately, to be someplace more soothing, if not some place more soothing, then on a train, that beloved in-between neutral place.Having seen the entirety of the old fortress in an hour and not seeing a soul I had to admit to myself that there was no way in hell I would stay for one night, let alone several days. I hate rural emptiness—empty restaraunts, empty plazas, the freezerburned bovine Midwest of the sol opening up a void of dread inside. The stone walls of the buildings would be unable to keep out the emptiness outside and the emptiness would slip in and overtake me. I realized that Valentina was right, and reproached myself for not knowing myself better, for leaving Bucharest, where life had been warm and interesting and had a point. 

 I descended the steps back to the new town, thinking that it might be better down there, hoping to find some more energy, more life. The new town below was completely different—cars, pedestrians, restaurants. Life, culture! There were glitzy pizzerias and patio bars with outdoor couches and firepits, provincial nouveau-riche spots, where bald men in track suits tried to impress their girlfriends. Through the windows of a business hotel, middle-aged men ate steaks and grew red-faced. But the whole place eaten through with a why-would-you-come-here-I’m-trying-to-escape-this-place attitude. Without my input, my feet started carrying me back towards the train station. I didn’t know where I would go or why.

The little white train station, which had seemed neutral at dusk, took on a more sinister look in the dark. The dimly lit marble lobby was empty except for two stone benches by the door, the kind of benches they have in graveyards. On each bench was an old person—a man and woman—in the fugue who stared into the nothingness and silence. The monitor displaying the train times was broken and flickering. The eyes of the old woman and old man followed my every move. I went over to the ticket window and tapped on the glass. A woman in her thirties or forties was sitting back on a couch in an office doing her nails. There was a train to Bucharest at two AM she told me, and a train to Budapest in a couple of hours. I thanked her and walked away to think about it. Overwhelmed by the empty strangeness of the room, I walked over to the train station bar, where I thought I might find some clarity.

The bar was a kind of still life, an Edward Hopper painting. There was no music. The woman behind the counter stopped polishing her glass and glared. A beaten down traveler sitting with a bottle of beer and a shot jerked his head up. There were three video poker machines all turned off. 

At a table littered with empty bottles and half-smoked packs of cigarettes were a rail-thin young Roma girl and two menacing-looking older provincial Romanian men, who all looked fucked up and had the eternal air of petty criminality about them, the bad guys in the Goonies—they were not travelling anywhere, just hanging out. They stepped out onto the patio to smoke. I went outside to smoke as well. The girl started talking to me in Romanian. “I don’t speak Romanian,” I told her. “Ah,” she wobbled, “English…Where you from? Cigarette?” she smiled, putting her hand to her lips. 

I gave her one and she turned back to her guys, who eyed me suspiciously, and the three of them went back to their table. Back inside, I sat down and nursed a bottle of beer, trying to decide what to do. I wanted to go back to Bucharest but the shame of having come all the way out to Sighisoara and going back in the same day seemed like too much—no one would say anything, but it still struck me as wrong. The beaten-down traveller and the bartender kept looking between the table of three and me with disturbed looks on their faces. They looked scared of them.

I went out for another cigarette. The night was dark and the train station was set back from the road. Everything seemed moldy. A middle-aged man and an older man came up a staircase from town to the train station. The young man was berating the older man. Then they both disappeared. I looked inside the fluorescent grim little train station bar from outside. The three sketchy individuals were whispering to each other around the table, it looked like a painting.

From the trees came an insane racket of night birds, birds with a horrible cackle unlike anything I have ever heard before. It was like a foghorn ringing out, saying leave this place, leave this place. Sighisoara had been normal in daylight—what happened? Now it felt like a strange noir, the provincial fear of an eerie little place where children sit around decapitating butterflies. I did not know where to go or what to do but I felt a strong urge to flee—new town was too far of a walk, I had a terrible feeling at the bar, so I went back inside the main train station, taking a seat on one of the benches beside the elderly woman, who hadn’t moved.

The light was very dim and it was quiet. The old man stared at me and I stared back and he turned away and when he turned away I stared at the huge purple scar running from his temple to his jaw. The older woman seemed kind—she chattered to me in Romanian and I shrugged my shoulders. She made more space on the bench, but I waved her away, no, no, I don’t need more space, thank you so much. I lay my head against the wall and she moved further, making space for me to lay down, then came over to me and tried to say something I couldn’t understand. The old man watched. 

She got up and walked around then came back and tried to show me something, then seemed to ask me to watch her bag that she had hidden behind the bench, and I nodded yeah, I’ll watch your bag. A middle-aged man with dark hair and black circles under his eyes came into the station with his suitcase and sat beside the old man. All of us stared at the old woman who was pacing the floor and muttering to herself, then she came back to sit beside me—she pushed her bag into my face then pulled it away. I shrugged and made my best, “I’m a stupid American,” face, but she seemed to want to explain something very urgently. The middle aged man made eye contact with me from the bench on the other side and indicated, with the universal hand symbol, that she was “crazy” or not well. This made everything make more sense. 

The middle age man and elderly man began gesticulating and waving to me that I could come join them on their bench, but I waved them away, staying with the elderly woman but looking away as she talked to me. After a while, I got sick of this and paced the hallway, then went into the bar where the criminals glared, then went back outside where the evil birds mocked me, round and round in this circular round until I felt I couldn’t wait until two AM and had to leave as soon as possible and that Sighisoara was against me. I bought a ticket to Budapest at window. 

When the headlights of the train came out of that misty Eastern European darkness, I jumped aboard and settled in, grateful for a neutral place to exist for a while even if it was under bright fluorescent lights, and fell asleep. But all night, every hour or two, ticket controllers came by and jabbed a finger into my shoulder to check and recheck my ticket, even after it had already been scanned. They seemed to take a perverse pleasure in shaking the passengers awake, the way sadistic security guards do with homeless people sleeping in public places where you’re not supposed to sleep. People by and large do not want the best for one another.

The lights in the train wagon were very bright and it was hard to see out the window, but I drifted in and out of sleep, the landscape outside a kind of empty Martian landscape of a few dim bedraggled lights of factories or houses in the distance. It was misty and sad, the central European blood lands, the in-between zone of empires.

The train arrived in Budapest at 10 AM. The temperature but also the ambiance was much colder than warm, Latinate Bucharest. The coffee was four times the price of coffee in Romania. I hadn’t been to Hungary for years. I had fond memories of spending a night in a grand old worn-down hotel at the center of town, with a wonderful wood-panelled newspaper room in its lobby. I decided to go there. It was familiar. 

I arrived to the lobby under a slate grey sky and got a room. My room was not so different from the room all those years before, but as I got in and lay down my bag, I looked out the window, which looked on a concrete cornice of a nearby building that blended with the sky, and felt sad and ridiculous. The bathroom faucet sputtered brown water. A couple of gnats circled by the headboard of my little single bed-tomb. I lay down on the bed and watched the circling gnats. I pulled out my tape recorder and notepads and started the familiar work of composing a draft.

The Red and The Brown

On Saturday December 8th, as the Minion-like yellow vests began to congregate around the Arc de Triomphe for the fourth Saturday of nationwide riots, masked French authorities surrounded and pulled over a car in Northeast Paris. The two men in the car had just bought croissants and were headed to the demonstration. One was the well-known French ultra-leftist Julian Coupat. In the trunk—the agents obsessed with tailing Coupat likely already knew—were two yellow vests, ventilation masks, saline, and some paint.

The authorities have long considered Coupat to be the “leader” of a mysterious publishing collective called the Invisible Committee, which defected from Paris and took over Tarnac, a small village in central France, over ten years ago. He came to national prominence during a legal spectacle known as the Tarnac Affair, in which members of the milieu were labeled “terrorists” for allegedly sabotaging nearby high-speed rail lines. The evidence wielded against them was the anonymously authored 2007 text The Coming Insurrection (La Fabrique/Semiotext), a sleeper hit among New School-grad-student-types heralded by the who’s who of academic Marxist celebrities. Coupat was exonerated this March when the state’s ramshackle prosecution finally came apart, ending a ten-year legal ordeal.

The state never forgets a slight—especially not in this case, where the elemental rage of the yellow vests movement had shaken them. The Invisible Committee, for its part, has long called for a generalized insurrection springing forth from rural France, and their texts have been prophetic in diagnosing the shape of things to come. Take, for example, this passage from the 2017 tract, Maintenant (Now):

What is really occurring, under the surface, is that everything is pluralizing, everything is localizing, everything is revealing itself to be situated, everything is fleeing. It’s not only that the people are lacking, that they are playing the role of absent subscribers, that they don’t give any news, that they are lying to the pollsters, it’s that they have already packed up and left, in many unsuspected directions. They’re not simply abstentionist, hanging back, not to be found: they are in flight, even if their flight is inner or immobile. They are already elsewhere.

The Parisian left have been caught off guard, scrambling to position themselves in relation to a movement they don’t feel entirely comfortable with, the Invisible Committee-affiliated organ Lundimatin (“Monday Morning”) has been steadily promoting and analyzing gilets jaunes—getting in while the getting is good.

Coupat and his friend were taken into custody and questioned about their involvement. Clearly, the authorities were paranoid that he would come striding back onto the scene. After his release, his friend was interviewed and asked what he would have painted on the Champs-Elysées, had he gotten the chance. His answer captured a depth of loathing more suited for the Arab Spring and Maidan revolution than neoliberal France. “You will not even have the right to St. Helena.”

That Saturday, they missed one for the history books. Paris is a city of riots, where a procession of new movements roll through like storms, but nothing like the recent unrest has been seen since 1968. The most jaded Parisian speaks about it with awe. I woke up that day to a boarded-up, empty, and unreal city, one that looked as if a hurricane was about to pass through.

What followed was a classic riot. Classic in that, as some commentators have noted, it was about scarcity and rage—not labor organization. Even with the exaggerated police presence with armored vehicles and numerous checkpoints, it felt wild and unpredictable.

While some of those who gathered around Gare Saint-Lazare and Arc de Triomphe were the usual suspects in yellow vests—antifa, black-block, queer activists—the majority of participants fit a different profile, rougher provincial people, gawking their way around militarized Paris. There were middle-aged women who didn’t flinch at the tear gas, trash can fires, or flash grenades. For hours, the police pushed the militants eastward out of the city, from Saint-Lazare down Grands Boulevards, in an squid-like motion—barricades, fires, and rocks, then huge crowds of people running from water cannons, gas, and flash grenades. I saw innocent bystanders caught up in the melee in Bonne Nouvelle, old men on crutches trying to get home, a mother cleaning the tear gas from her children’s eyes.

There was no central meeting point or route but many police checkpoints. Everything was diffuse and confusing. I followed a big crowd of people into a narrow passageway trying to get around a police barricade, before they stampeded back out when they saw the cops were there, too. The crowd was pushed to Châtelet-Les Halles, where it melted away into casual groups. These groups walked past the Louvre into posh, shuttered Place Vendôme, just behind the Élysée Palace, where they reformed and started rioting again. It was later revealed that Macron had a helicopter waiting for him at the palace in case things got out of hand.

In Place Vendôme, the yellow vests were in full control of a six-by-six block section of the neighborhood. The police were kept at bay at little fronts with bonfires, barricades, and smashed up stores. Walking around the historic neighborhood were yellow vests everywhere, filling each street. Jugs of whisky were passed around. At the lone open store, a guy offered me a bottle of water, free of charge. “Just take it!” I saw luxury cars punched, cobblestones and grates ripped up. The exclusive penthouse apartments above were all bolted and shuttered, no one looked out from the windows or the balconies—were there people inside, huddled in fear of the mob?

As with most protests, I assumed there were just one or two decent-sized groups of rioting yellow vests in the streets, buffered by a much larger mass of peaceful protesters. But as I walked east, the Minions multiplied, militant yellow vests everywhere, in control of large swaths of central Paris—at Place Saint-Augustin, around Gare Saint-Lazare, bombardiers rushing to put out massive bonfires, people looking at the spectacle through the windows of packed bars. I got on the subway—Opéra and Havre-Caumartin stations closed—an announcement over the intercom that there’s tear gas in the station at Réaumur –Sébastopol. Coming up under the impressive arch at Strasbourg — Saint-Denis, there are two huge bonfires. Yellow vests on every street roaming around, trash fires in the streets, several upscale boutique stores smashed. At the opposite end of the city, in the Upper East Side-like 17th arrondissement, I saw a gaggle of shell-shocked looking videographers from TV5Monde, standing outside the broken windows of their offices. A hurricane still seems the best comparison. And Paris is not the worst. Reports have shown intense street fighting in second-tier cities like Toulouse and Bordeaux. Those leaders who have sought to “reform” the deeply ingrained structures of provincial life have done so at their own peril. Macron has pressed hard on the rural mayors. The association of rural mayors has responded by opening up 33,000 town halls to the gilets jaunes.

The next afternoon, I visited an old activist friend in the 20th arrondissement. He was at the riot as well. He’d also just returned from Moscow, where he participated in a public debate with Russian National-Bolshevik philosopher and organizer Alexander Dugin, who has long cultivated ties with the international far-right and is often accused of being Putin’s “destabilizing” agent in Europe. Dugin has been prescient about the seismic ideological and geopolitical shifts underway.

“Dugin did say the way we’re going to deal with France is a red-brown alliance, Mélenchon and Le Pen. I thought it was kind of crazy a month ago, but now maybe it’s going to happen,” my friend told me. “He’s the smartest right-wing guy I’ve ever met. The left has no answer to Dugin. The only person who has an answer to him is Abdullah Öcalan,” he says, handing me a copy of imprisoned Kurdish leader’s pamphlet Democratic Confederalism.

Dugin’s daughter, Daria Dugina, has been in Paris for the gilets jaunes protests, organizing with the French identitarian far right. A doctoral student in neo-Platonist philosophy at Moscow State, she followed in her father’s footsteps and now runs the Breitbart-style Duginist website Geopolitica.ru. When I reached her, she told me, “I don’t think you can call gilets jaunes left or right, I don’t believe in this division, I think it’s over. This is the populist moment brilliantly described by the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe . . . what we see in world politics is this growing intense battle between globalists and anti-globalists. . . . A coalition of the left and right is one of my political dreams.”

Dugina argues that Macron is basically finished, that the future belongs to someone like Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the young rising star on the French right, niece of the elder Le Pen. “She’s setting up a ‘metapolitical’ school in Lyon. She’s criticizing the split of right and left. I think she’ll have success. She works for the future, not today.”

Everyone speaks with pseudo-mystical reverence about Le blocus—the blockade. The blockade is not rocket science. It simply means small groups of people congregating at logistical chokepoints to ground the economic system to a halt. On the southern periphery of Paris, I attended a late-night blockade of Rungis market. The area felt like a special economic zone. Rungis is the second-largest wholesale food market in the world, of vital strategic importance to Europe. It keeps Paris daily supplied with fresh food. A group of eighty yellow vests showed up and fanned out across the toll plaza—there’s weren’t enough of them to fully halt traffic, so they settled for slowing it to a trickle. A detectable ambiance took hold—the truckers honked and seemed supportive, French rap blared from a boom box, and a soccer ball was kicked around.

I talked to a yellow vest named Vincent, who chatted amiably with the supportive truckers. I asked him what he talked to them about. “We ask them if they’re with us or against us. We explain what we’re about. About 80 percent are with us.” His name is Vincent, he works as an airplane inspector at Paris Orly. He used to vote socialist, but three years ago turned to the extreme right. The reason? Immigration. Now his favorite magazine is Daily Stormer. He said if Macron went down, he wanted him replaced by “the most extreme person possible.” Perhaps Hervé Ryssen, author of books like The Jewish Mafia. I asked if there were many nationalist organizations in gilets jaunes. “There are, but we don’t talk about it. When we come, we leave our other identifications at home and give ourselves over to the gilets jaunes movement.” I asked how it had gone, working with the far left. “Today, we’re all together—nothing much sets us apart. We find ourselves with the same objective, to get rid of Macron,” he said, giving an exaggerated impression of someone being hanged.

Another yellow vest sauntered over and inserted himself into our conversation. He introduced himself as Matthieu, “Communist Party, PCF. Far left.”  Vincent stuck out his hand. “National Front, far right!”

The communist seemed caught off guard, but they hugged, awkwardly. “We’re citizens, all the same,” Vincent said.

Matthieu lived nearby and worked as communist party functionary. The area around Rungis is one of the last communist strongholds in France. I asked him about the French media, who have been heavily targeted during the protests.

             “The French media, they all belong to the . . .”

“To the jews!” Vincent interjected.

            “No, no . . . to the big capitalist trusts.” Matthieu corrected him.

I asked Vincent what would happen if Macron were no longer in the picture. The far-left and far-right would eventually have to reckon with each other.

            “We’re friends. For now. But not later,” he laughed.

Once the neo-nazi walked away, I asked the communist the same question. “Maybe I would leave my country if this happened,” he said. “I don’t want to go to the concentration camps.”

I arrived at a packed anti-capitalist meeting in the formerly working class neighborhood of Montreuil. The event was called “Yellow Vests: Is an anti-capitalist turn possible?”

The usual suspects stood up and spoke about whether the yellow vests should be supported. They referred to them as “they.” There was a sense of jealousy about not being the history-makers, the revolutionary subject—the gilets jaunes are driving events, not the left. There was one yellow vest in attendance. A young working class guy, a riverboat marine and CGT unionist named Kleber. “I hesitated to put on the yellow jacket for a few days, but only for a few days, because what I saw and heard convinced me. I heard anger, I heard an egalitarian point of view that had been forgotten even by the far left, and a revolutionary will. Sorry, but the wish to storm the Élysée, the National Assembly, the dissolution of the parliament . . . if that’s not revolutionary, what is?”

Afterwards, I sat down to talk with him. “The far left is destroyed by the intellectual petit bourgeois, which forces its preoccupations upon us . . . at the Saturday mobilization, we were singing the Marseillaise, and the far left said ‘aha, that is the hymn of the French imperialism’ . . . the exploited people of France hear in that song something revolutionary. It helps them in a certain way. There is this obstinate refusal of being part of a French revolutionary tradition. When the gilets jaunes speak about uprising, when they speak about revolution, when they speak about cutting the head of Macron, that is the continuation of a revolutionary tradition.” The more we spoke, the more he got riled up. “If I have to have a beard to help the liberation of the workers, I will have a beard. If I have to wear a cassock, I will wear a cassock. If I have to pray in a church I will pray in a church. If I have to pray in a mosque or a synagogue I will pray in a mosque or a synagogue, I don't give a fuck!”

Many protesters I met in Paris bristled at the question about whether gilets jaunes is left or right—they prefer not to speak in those terms. So extremely French that they preferred for it to be framed as “alienated” and “apathetic” vs. “activated.” They rushed to add that banlieue immigrants and high school students are getting involved as well, as if the presence of brown people papers over the underlying issues.

I attend a nighttime neighborhood committee at the Parc de Belleville. Thirty or so people shifted uncomfortably in the frigid cold, the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the distance. A police van circled the block every five minutes. The meeting was about meetings, the debate was about “the blockade” as opposed to a more welcoming and open strategy. “Do we really have to meet out here in the shadows, in the cold? In Montreuil, they have their meetings at a bar with drinks, and more people show up,” one speaker huffed. It seemed this would go nowhere—I thought about my old friend’s analysis of gilets jaunes. “I suspect what’s happening is a kind of weird delayed French version of the wave of Occupy to some extent, but also related to the right-wing populism which dragged Trump and Brexit forward . . . all this kind of anti-elite stuff . . . we just don’t know if it becomes an entry to fascism or left-wing [politics], it’s really hard to say.”

The French far left are not naïve about the risks of the ideological brinksmanship they’re engaged in with the far right. In a lengthy analysis, Lundimatin forthrightly admits neo-fascism as a possibility. “We are at a crossroads in France, in Europe, and beyond. In critical times, history is always uncertain and molten; the purists and the hygienists of the mind and of politics are at a loss. If they are not yet illiberal, the ‘yellow vests’ are already anti-liberal. But who can say whether they wish for new liberties?” The international populist right has shown itself to be adept at pursuing a hybrid strategy of mobilizing in the name of “the people” while concealing their long-term goals.

In late December, the gilets jaunes mobilizations became smaller and more diffuse. Macron’s administration hoped that the movement would run out of steam at Christmas and disappear in the New Year, but as the Invisible Committee predicted: everything is localizing, everything is revealing itself to be situated, everything is fleeing. Yellow vests have learned to melt away one week, only to reappear in force the next. To dupe the police, those in Paris have taken to announcing protests in one part of town only to gather in another; blockades have appeared on major highways all over the country, and on the Franco-Spanish border. Militant, confrontational mobilizations of thousands of people have cropped up in unlikely second and third-tier cities like Caen and Montpelier, while continuing in movement strongholds like Boudreaux and Toulouse and Rouen. In Rouen, militants set fire to the wooden doors of the Bank of France. In Paris this weekend, they drove a forklift through the gates of the state ministry, forcing the evacuation of Macron’s spokesperson.

Regardless of what happens, something has changed—the axis of ideologies has tilted. Macron won’t ever have the same authority within the EU as some centrist bulwark against the “neo-populist” tide. When Merkel goes—if he’s still around—he’ll be the one left responsible for holding the EU together. New political formations and alliances—even if they are pacts and alliances of convenience—are arising. The neoliberal center is weak, it won’t recover, and the vultures are already circling.*

Bog Person

saw my first bog person on the windswept, rocky West Coast of Sweden.  Inside the white walls of a candleabra-filled, Valhalla-like bastion where Swedish kings had duked it out with the Danes for hundreds of years, I stumbled on Bocksten man.

He died sometime in the Middle Ages. The first thing you notice is his hair—lush, curly red locks on a skull, preserved as in life. Like most bog people, he suffered a gruesome death. First, he was killed by a blow to the head. Then, a stake was driven through his heart. Then someone impaled him so he would stay at the bottom of the lake.Thats right, they had gone through the effort of impaling him with spikes so his body would stay at the bottom. The reconstructed wax model of him was the spitting image of Frodo Baggins—the hooded cloak, the sheathed dagger. His brown, hair-shirt cloak survived in perfect condition. He was about six foot one and probably thirty five years old when he met his ignominous end. The idea was clearly to double-kill him so he wouldn't come  back to life and haunt or take revenge on his killers.

You respect him more when you think about the lengths they went through to keep him down even after death. A massive piece of building timber juts out of his exposed ribcage. And that beautiful hair. I wanted to break through the glass case and run my fingers through it.

Poor Bocksten man. What did he do? Why go through all that? Was he some kind of witch and they were worried he was going to reanimate if they didn’t fasten that body down with spikes? If you had stumbled onto this scene, you would have asked: What exactly is going on here? 

Bocksten man was discovered in 1936 by a Swedish scholar on his way to a midsummer party in the seaside village of Varberg. According to the Danish scholar P.V. Glob—whose name is so perfectly suited for his authorship of the seminal monograph The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved—he could have been a rabble-rouser killed by local peasants for trying to agitate against the Danish king. “The bog is the meeting point of four parishes and according to old beliefs he would not be able to escape from such a spot to revenge himself on his murderers,” Glob wrote.

After that I was hooked. In this time of Jamal Khashoggi, it is not hard to find oneself musing on the permeability of the human form. One day, you leave your wife and walk into the Saudi Embassy to deal with some bureacracy. Several hours later, you leave in the back of a black van, entirely reconstituted. Horrifying. Unconscionable. But real. Without the benefit of time travel or an Encino Man scenario, what other opportunity do we have to see a person from two thousand years ago in the full? For the body to survive almost totally intact over the centuries, tanned by bog acids, seems almost like a miracle of permeability. As the sweet, ever-sensitive and curious Glob wrote, “Death is the inescapable lot of man, and it comes in many guises. Among the Iron Age people from the peat bogs we have seen the signs of death in its grimmest forms… Yet these are the ones the bogs have preserved as individuals down to our own day, while all their relatives and contemporaries from the eight centuries of the Iron Age have totally vanished or at most only survive as skeletons in their graves.”

Bog people have been found across a broad swath of Northern Europe from 1450 to present. Many were discovered during the years of World War II, when the war-exhausted populations in Northern Europe were forced out into the bogs to cut peat for home fuel, like their ancestors from the Middle Ages.

Bog peoples hands and feet are delicate and smooth—they were unaccustomed to labor. The last meal found in their stomachs is often a specific combination of spring grains and seeds, lending support to the hypothesis that they’re sacrifices to spring. Many also have a special twisted noose tied around their necks, which serves no clear function.

The ancient historian Tacitus, in his writings on the Germanic tribes, suggested that bog people were human sacrifices. The victims were possibly chosen by drawing straws. He added that, according to Germanic law, “traitors and deserters are hung from trees; cowards, poor fighters, and notorious evil livers are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads.” This theory was taken up and utilized for other purposes by nazi antiquarians.

The most stunning of all bog persons is Denmark’s Tollund Man—his perfectly marbleized form, his serenely sleeping face, his well-kempt fingers and toenails, the delicate bit of stubble on his chin, the perfectly preserved noose around his neck that was used to strangle him. Nothing compares to him in terms of sheer preservation of an ancient person—not Pompeii, not the Egyptian mummies. At 2,300 years old,  the bog acids have made his head the best preserved in the world. 

I wasn’t necessarily seeking them out, but the bog people found me again in a dimly lit corner of Dublin’s National Museum.The Irish bog people were a different breed altogether. They were also around two thousand years old. But many had suffered unfortunate encounters with peat-cutting machinery or been otherwise decapitated or rearranged before their discovery. This has left them undefined and protoplasmic, chunks and sections of person, like grindhouse horror, or the thing coming out of the TV in that David Cronenberg movie.

Still, what is human is still discernible—Clonyclaven man’s flattened face is as immediately shocking and horrifying as coming upon a person who has just been hit by a car. You are hit with an immediate wave of empathy and worry for a fellow human. And that striking pile of beautiful red hair on his head, undying and ageless, not so different from our president’s. Researchers have found that he was wearing imported hair gel at the time of his death.

Old Croghan man too, reduced to just torso and arms. And yet, the arms are held out and flexing in a power pose of defiance—the skin is deflated and leathery, but you can make out all the strength that was there in life. There is even a lovely woven band wrapped around his left bicep.

I stood in the little altar-like nook with Clonyclaven man for a long time. Onlookers and children streamed past, each group shocked and awed. I felt like I was paying my respects to a dead relative. Reluctantly, indecisively, I exited the chamber and went to find my girlfriend. As soon as I left, I heard a little whisper over my shoulder. Thinking it was her, that she had gone in there and was looking for me, I went back into the prayer nook. It was empty aside from the man lying there in the glass case, mutely crying out, trying to send some message from across the millenia

That Cat

I believe that cat came into our family sometime
after my dad died and I had left home
after my mom started smoking again
and the grand old cat Simba died
and the brief fall months of the South disappeared into a kind of extended summer

A big-paw brawler and a stray
I was gone in those years
On an aimless journey towards oblivion
seeking approval in the world

My mom and brother kept on keeping on
with the routine
getting my brother out of bed at 7 every morning
putting him to bed at 11 every night
After a glass of wine
and as they still do
the TV shows they watched in separate rooms

They stayed in this spirit-haunted house
Living their lives
Like clockwork enough to make you cry
Living with that thing I was running away from

When I came home here and there
For the holidays or to watch my brother
That cat hissed at me when I walked by
Like I was the interloper and the outsider
Like he was protecting them from 
this stranger in his home
 drinking a six-pack late at night and watching old movies

When the cat attacked my shoes when I walked by
And my brother shouted, “you live differently than us, you stay up too late!”
I didn’t know that cat and he didn’t know me
It went on like that for ten years
It hurt me and made me sad
And made me feel more foreign and estranged than I already felt

And all the new young people pouring into my hometown
Moved from whatever hellholes they came from
In search of good weather and “quality of life”
Acting like they had discovered BBQ and Cheerwine
Sauntering around like they owned the place
Like they had discovered some diamond in the rough

That stupid animal showed me I didn’t belong
And would never belong
That I had shirked my family and obligations
To hang out in strange cities in towns across the country with a ragtag collection of freaks, fanatics and losers

My family pretended this wasn’t true
To be polite
But the cat knew the truth
he just hissed and glared
And bit and scratched at my arm
Like he was my dead father reprimanding me
For running

But I kept showing up
Year after year
Trying to show I was responsible
And could be there

One night after the season closer of my brothers Miracle League baseball game
After dunking his coach and eating some Chick-fil-A at picnic tables
the parents of special needs kids
Their hopeful tired weathered faces

We drove home and watched A Streetcar Named Desire
By that scab Elia Kazan
I didn’t pay much attention
The scary thunderstorm rolled in
That cat started following me around
As I went to get another beer from the fridge
Seeking my approval and affection

“You’ve passed his test,”
My brother said, with a grin 
As I changed him and tucked him into bed
“Goodnight, I love you”
Lo and behold
That little brat
with his big stupid cat head
Was in bed waiting for me

I’m staying up late
Drinking a few more warm Bud Lights
Editing a friend's article
Finally feeling at home in the thumpy-walled haunted house
Because that thing is up waiting for me in bed


I went to the Roerich museum in Moscow
Inside a big yellow cupcake mansion across from Gorky Park
I walked around in there for hours
I had always loved the landscapes he painted 
so bright and uplifting and simple
He painted Altai and Tibet and Arizona
On a grand caravan trek across Central Asia 
He was an explorer and a painter who brought his family along on his journeys
He was also a mystic and the head of a humanist spiritual movement for World Peace
The part of the museum dedicated to world peace and spaceship humanity
Was so sad
Because it contained the hopes of that broken dream 

The countries he and his family trekked through
were in a fix in the 1920s and 30s
Deciding to stand for independence or have limited autonomy as Soviet satellites
Stalin was the head of nationalities before he became general secretary
He was a swarthy man from the periphery who spoke Russian with a thick accent
But made himself the most indispensable bureacrat in the metropole
Like a Puerto Rican becoming Secretary of State
He had thought about and lived this question more than anyone

Walking around Gorky Park I wondered what the Chekhists and Comintern people 
Thought of the Roerich family
They had a lot of agents mucking around in China and Mongolia and Tibet
Trying to tamp down on the independence movements
Which whatever their true aims were perceived as icebreakers for the imperialists and white guard

Gorky park was filled with hipsters and families with strollers
And among all the old Soviet statue heads
An agitated looking Russian woman came up to me and asked where’s Stalin?
I said huh?
She said where’s Stalin, in English
I said I hadn’t seen him but I was looking for him too

In New York years later, I was walking uptown and the sun was shining but feeling a little blue
I went up to the Roerich museum 
It was in an old mansion by the Hudson River
I recognized the flag with the three dots wafting outside the building
Flag of his world peace and love movement
You have to get buzzed in but its free to visit

Maybe it was being in a creaky 19th century wooden house
But the pure landscape paintings there are even more stunning and beautiful
Just mountains and light
Or shards of ice with ice wind blowing through
Churning and elemental

I skipped all the ones about religion and prophets and the Middle Ages because they looked like fantasy nerd fan art
There was one of Madame Roerich I had never seen before
She looked like a very interesting and warm person
A Russian woman on the top floor was filming a documentary and asked if I wanted to be in it
I said no
I have a lopsided face and don't like being on camera

Stalin had a withered arm
And a bad limp
And a face cratered by childhood smallpox
But didn’t mind being on filmreels
And loved when handsome actors played him in the movies
But he wrote himself out of the history books  
I've read biographies by Stephen Kotkin and Robert Tucker and Trotsky 
They called him the Russian sphinx, his true character still remains elusive 

Me and the filmmaker talked for a while
She said Roerichs trips were sponsored by the United States and England
I had always thought he had the backing of the Soviets somehow
Why would they let him and his group go otherwise?
They could just be imperialist spies
Disguising themselves as mystics and artists and travellers
She said no
He was hated deeply hated and blacklisted until 1990
Her Russian assistant listening chimed in no
“Khruschev had a good relationship with his son so he came off the blacklist and was permitted during the thaw. But Brehznev put him back on.”
“Yeah, Brehznev put him back on the list,” she nodded

I walked around looking at the beautiful paintings another half hour 
The sun was setting when I let myself out the big wooden door
I had no one to meet and nowhere to be
I didn’t feel good but at least when I closed my eyes I saw those beautiful colorful landscapes, 
and I thought about his two year journeys across the steppes
Who they must have met what they ate 
the loneliness the strange food the smell of all those fires 
and all the Central Asian herdspeople in the midst being Sovietized

Breitbart for the Left – Jacobin

The Weimar-era communist media mogul Willi Munzenberg.

The Weimar-era communist media mogul Willi Munzenberg.

Every political movement has its hidden architects, those unscrupulous tacticians who shun the limelight, preferring to shape public perception from behind the curtain. In the United States, these imagineers work under many titles: key adviser, chief strategist, head of communications. In today’s Russia, they are referred to as “political technologists.”

The Right tends to be less squeamish about their necessity, and accordingly, has frequently outmaneuvered the Left in the battle for hearts and minds. Teddy Roosevelt had Hearst, Hitler had Goebbels, Putin had Surkov, and Trump has Steve Bannon.

It is unfortunate that the Left and liberals have yet to reckon with or learn something from what Bannon built quietly over the years with Breitbart. With little more than a snuff right-wing news website and some DIY documentaries, this “Leninist” nobody assembled a coalition of resentment that turned out to be crucial for Trump’s victory. Bannon climbed directly from tracking social media analytics and Youtube documentary rentals to the apex of state power. It is our failure if we don’t take the example and seize the opportunity that to do the same.

Bannon’s one little alchemical trick was to simultaneously cultivate Trump and blow on the damp ashes of the Tea Party until they caught fire — moderate suburban Republicans were gently molded into born-again rebels, raging against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, NATO, and the globalists, a bloc that could be easily harvested by candidate Trump.

The various agitprop stunts during the campaign — like bringing Clinton’s accusers to the third debate – were like playing a medley of the greatest hits, songs everyone already knew, firming up the base. The Clinton campaign and most leftists were deaf to the music, the passion. Countless Trump voters told reporters “He says the things I’m thinking, it’s like he’s inside my head.”

The Clinton campaign responded by shaming deplorables, fact-checking statements, serving only to embolden and reinforce this newly constituted public. After the election, the Democrats and media activated a new lexicon to explain away their failure to form a constituency: “post-truth,” “alternative facts,” and “influence campaigns.” The Democrats and the media continue to present themselves as the non-ideological custodians of fact, decency, and reason, and honestly still believe that if they gather enough unsavory details about Trump, they can take him down. This remains a long-shot possibility.

But structurally, the media has learned little from their failure to see Clinton’s weaknesses. The supposedly unbiased and non-ideological media could not defeat an emotionally powerful strategy. A legion of Washington Post fact-checkers aren’t going to change anything.

Objectivity, decency, and crypto-elitist shaming are like tried and true antibiotics that suddenly no longer work. The bacterium has developed resistance. Ideology hummed in the background of both campaigns, but only Trump’s camp could admit it. A crypto-ideological left media is needed that does more than chip away and hold power accountable. It also needs to catalyze and create new space, slowly pushing liberals, the independents, Trump voters, and others to the left to create a new coalition by attrition.

The problem is that precious few publishers or media entrepreneurs have sturdy populist-leftist values or goals beyond reproducing their organizations and garnering media-bubble social and economic capital that can later be harvested. Even fewer have risked leveraging their organizations toward mass organizing or pursuing concrete political goals. It’s easier to criticize and comment on power than it is to build political hegemony.

The fact is despite a plethora of suitable media 2.0 sites that could make a serious gambit, its hard to imagine a Breitbart or Bannon emerging from the East Coast liberal media world — like the NFL, the media bubble is a league where players are traded from team to team, and as Colin Kaepernick shows us, the unspoken rule is don’t rock the boat. The right-wing media has a weaker, less-ingrained meritocracy with fewer prospects, making the risk-reward ratio more palatable. At this moment, even if some publishers had a burning ideology, there are few incentives for Shane Smith or Ben Smith or Rachel Maddow to turn their organs into an actual living hive of political resistance.

It is easier for the media to continue doing things the way they have always done, with surface declarations of resistance and a minor shift in tone and fervor to accord with the ruptured political situation. As a rare positive example of how the mass media can be weaponized to build a mass movement, we should revisit the life and efforts of the Weimar communist media mogul Willi Munzenberg.

Germany has experienced a recent renaissance of interest in Munzenberg, but he remains a relatively obscure figure in the United States. The slim shelf of English-language scholarship on him is eaten through with reactionary Cold War platitudes about communist spies, “front organizations,” and “useful idiots”: this is a strange fate for a man who allegedly orchestrated the international campaign for Sacco and Vanzetti, who struck fear in Goebbels’s heart, and appeared to some in Stalin’s apparatus as a more troubling renegade than Trotsky. Trotsky and Munzenberg died within months of each other, and Munzenberg’s mysterious death in a forest on the Franco-Swiss frontier remains unsolved to this day.

Read the rest of the essay at Jacobin Magazine.


He took a job at Mashable. She got a book deal from her blog. He stopped playing in his band and got a masters degree in Philosophy, and is now an adjunct professor. She’s a bartender. He works in food service. He works at a hip used bookstore. She set up an unemployment march and was so well connected that it turned into a job fair—everyone got hired at places like The Center For American Progress and The Nation. He got married to a pretty girl with lots of tattoos and moved back to Little Rock and had a baby and the last time I saw him he was working in one of those fake open air markets that try to be like the Paris Arcades, organic food shopping for bourgeois people. She works as a second grade teacher. She works in the field of public health. He kept doing a zine and eventually alienated all his old friends. She moved to Murfreesboro and bought herself a cute little house and is working on becoming a midwife. They’re still straightedge and still living in a crummy punk house. His band is doing really well and he travels the world and is about to get married. She’s still playing in her high school punk band and inherited a bunch of money and is a self-satisfied anarchist. He stopped making his zine and now he’s a really great union organizer. He went back to school to get his Masters degree in Economics. She moved to Louisville and manages a restaurant. He died of an overdose. She took a job as an anti-war organizer and still goes to queer dance parties on the weekends. He had a baby and works part-time at the library now. His book flopped and he moved to New Orleans and I think he’s a DJ now. She closed down her feminist zine distro. She became a commercial artist. He got Crohn’s disease and spent a lot of time on Internet message boards. He killed himself. He’s dead from an overdose. He wrote an essay against Vice and later started writing articles for Vice. He kept putting out books on a small indie publisher and self-promoting and no one cares. She is still on unemployment, still hanging out and dating a number of dudes at the same time. He quit his band and moved out to work on an animal sanctuary. He went crazy and moved to a commune up in Vermont. She used her brother’s fame as a springboard to her own fame. He blew his inheritance on a record label. She’s not playing in any bands right now but people say she had a baby and is doing really well. 


Paris airport at dawn. Somehow possible due to the cloudy morning light and the forests at the edge of the Tarmac, Paris feels more American than Chicago. People smile at me, perhaps because it’s morning time and beautiful. The customs official, the guys at the magazine stand. I like it here but immediately realize how expensive it will be with my weak American dollar. I jump the 8 Euro train fare, nearly sixteen dollars American. On the platform, the European automated noises and recorded warnings sound much more menacing and futuristic than their American counterparts, like something out of an X-files episode. The buzzer that announces my trains departure sounds like a fire alarm going off. When the train comes out from the clean tunnels, a landscape of gray flat buildings, sanitized and cleanly, like Washington, DC. Strange because Washington, DC was built and planned on Paris. France as a country with an individual identity is gone; replaced by big empty fields and silent, sleek Eurotrains, periodic gas stations that look like something out of Back to the Future and shiny unmarked buildings, just a state in this united EU of the future; one united currency, one bland technocratic appearance. Not at all the Paris of the American imagination—the Moulin Rouge and Montmare that lifestyle tourists seek in cheesy, expensive cafes and tourist shops now, can only be found in dingy hidden squats now.