By Dan Kervick
Driving home from work last night here in New Hampshire, I ended up behind a man in a tidy red pickup truck. The man had written a very elaborate message on the back of the truck, carefully arranged with block letter decals of the kind you use to put a name on a mailbox. I couldn’t read the entire message without tailgating, and some of the letters toward the end of the message were smaller, but here was the part I could read:
Obama … attacking white people … Marxist ObamaCare … destroying white DNA … miscegenation … drug addicts and venereal disease.
And there was a lot more after that. But as I said, it was too small for me to read from a safe distance. The man in the red pickup truck must have spent a good deal of time purchasing the correct letters, thinking out his message and then affixing the letters carefully to his truck.
The truck had a New Hampshire license plate, but I never recall seeing anything remotely similar, and so stridently and brazenly displayed out in public, not in the 23 years I have lived here. I passed the truck to put it behind me. I had only seen the back of the man’s head, which was ordinary and unremarkable, with close-cropped gray-blonde hair. I was afraid to look at his face as I went past.
Some disturbing things are happening in this country, but it is hard to distinguish them one from another, because the many different kinds of angry thinking overlap with, and bleed into, other kinds.
I know some self-described Tea Partiers. They usually claim to be libertarians now. But when G.W. Bush was President most of them were enthusiastic defenders of John Yoo, Dick Cheney, waterboarding as needed, and the internal suppression and persecution of Muslim-Americans.
One of these Tea Partiers told me that on a business trip to New Orleans, he had panic attacks because “there were so many black people there.” He was convinced they were all looking at him funny and were out to get him. I mean “panic attack” quite literally. He had to go to a doctor fearing he was having a heart attack, such was the degree of his panic.
A friend I know, who is a university professor, recently had a conversation with an academic colleague at his school about various political issues, and in the course of the conversation the colleague asked, “Aren’t you concerned about the future of your race?” This was a person he had previously taken to be a fairly ordinary, middle-of-the-road academic. In my own 18 years as an academic earlier in my life, I never once heard a colleague express such views.
Two emotional issues that I recall from the very earliest days of the growth of the white populist reaction movement that took shape in 2008 and 2009, and now seems to dominate the Tea Party, were the flap about ACORN and black voter registration, and a spreading rumor that Obama was going to let all of the black people out of prison. There was also the one about Obama passing slavery reparations.
There is something really evil happening in this country. The election of Obama seems to have unleashed every kind of white racialist nightmare and persecution complex. Bircher and KKK views have become frighteningly public and mainstream, and have spread beyond their traditional social and regional enclaves.
But let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Resisting evil begins inside the individual human heart. All of us might ask ourselves from time to time whether our political actions are being driven by compassion, fraternity and good will, or have their seat instead in terror and paranoia, and in the nightmares that feed on wayward, fear-driven fantasy.
My own nightmare fantasies ran free for a bit after seeing that red pickup truck: fantasies about enraged, angry people buying guns; about vengeful rebel militias scouring the countryside targeting people they regard as subversives and traitors; about a national political community descending into misery, anarchy and failure; about noble institutions of self-governance and cooperation falling into decay; about brothers and sisters, friends and countrymen, former partners in a common life, lost in whirls of suspicion, mob resentment, recrimination and hatred.
What degree of reality is represented in those fantasies? That is hard to say. But what is not hard to say is that such fears are paralyzing and self-perpetuating. Whatever is happening in our world, we need to find ways to live with courage. It is easy for us to be overwhelmed by the feeling that we are under attack; that our personal existence is threatened; or that the existence of some of our loved ones, or of some group or project with which we strongly identify, is threatened.
And in a way we are always right. We are finite and mortal. We don’t have a long time on this Earth, and the older one gets the more obvious that fact becomes. We experience many pains and agonies in the course of nature, and fear the pains and agonies others can inflict on us. We try to protect ourselves; acquire and horde the physical, emotional or intellectual materials for a self-sufficient life; barricade ourselves from society; aggrandize ourselves and buy insurance policies for our personal egos against the need for trust and dependency.
But it’s futile. The world will defeat us as individuals. Mortality always wins. Everything that is born on this earth is impermanent, and dies eventually. And the world we have dreamed is almost never close to the world we get and have to live in. All we can do is try to live so that the larger world that goes on outside us and without us is better for our having been here, and hope that when we die, we die well. As Hamlet realized toward the end, “The readiness is all.”
We can also seek out and emulate the good, strong and compassionate hearts who live among us. And if we know good people who are dying, we might think about what we can do to pick up the torches that they are releasing, and carry them forward for our own brief time. I know a man who is dying now, waiting with his wife for the end. He once told me that he was sad that he had not done more to end misery and injustice. But whether he his right or not doesn’t really depend on him, but on how much inspiration others resolve to take from him.
With courage, real life can end up finer than the finest dramatic art. Martin Luther King Jr. famously approached this realm of artistic perfection when he spoke prophetically to an audience on the eve of his assassination in 1968 at a church in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support the city’s sanitation workers in their strike against the city government. After telling the congregation that he would not want to live in any other time than the late 20th century, and asking them to preserve unity and focus in the cause of justice, he famously concluded:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
Last night, I handed out Halloween candy to this year’s troupe of costumed children arriving at our door. One boy appeared with a shining hood and cowl of silver mail.
“What are you?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t figure that out.”
“I had a sword, but I accidentally left it at school,” he said despondently.
“What about your shield?”
“I didn’t make a shield.”
And two sisters came to the door, the older one gently leading the younger one by the hand. And a number of very friendly and happy parents were with the kids, complimenting my jack-o-lantern, striking up cheerful conversations, snapping pictures of their children. The youngest children always instinctively want to pet my dog, Rico, and he always lets them.
To each group I said, “You can take two.” And every child took just two, and none fought with the other kids over what to take, or tried to sneak three or four pieces from the bowl. And then they said “thank you”, although sometimes their parents had to remind them.
One little girl, who couldn’t have been more than three, came as a vampire with blood dripping down her chin from her little fangs. On Halloween, children often dress up as their nightmares, so they can rule over them. Or they dress up as heroes, and play out their heroism.
The man in the red pickup truck probably thinks of himself as a knight, courageously defending the biological phantom he calls his “race” with the sword of truth. But I know he is also surrounded all about by his nightmares, and right now is drowning in them. He has been demented by them as he attempts to shield himself against them. I know the maelstrom of his fear can easily feed and bleed into my own fears, and consume me in a compensating terror or rage.
But I am happy tonight, and not fearing any man. I would not want to live in any world but the early 21st century. This fraught period of ruthless individualism, lonely competitiveness and cowardly self-preservation cannot last. Perversity and avarice are not that powerful, and we are on the edge of something better. The coming of the Lord is in the hearts of those children at my door, and they will still be beating no matter what forces destroy me, and no matter when those forces come – as they inevitably will. Inside our little bodily vehicles and the locked doors of our manically self-aggrandizing egos, the knowing and humble human heart repudiates paranoia and greed, cowardice and injustice. It cannot tolerate for long the limits of the single, small individual life with its futile personal minutes of triumph and domination. It always finds a way to expand and connect with other hearts, and to surrender its burden of fear.
Cross-posted from Rugged Egalitarianism