By Leif Waller
It’s early, again. Or maybe it’s late…perspective has a subtle way of sneaking up on us. The air is crisp and the wind, although slight, is full and certain. There is a strange electricity that would be savage if only it weren’t so sparse, and you can feel it course around you, sometimes through you, and fall into cracks. It is like neglected potential energy, being lifted and pulled in preparation, waiting to be nudged or shaken loose if only someone had the time and energy to notice. I’m afraid of that odd power, afraid of the unpredictability and weird uncertainty of this waiting time, this dead time, between when the people completely stop and the sun begins. And so I leave it alone as best I can, letting the world settle for a few brief moments before that huge nuclear ball rears its violent head and wakes up the echoes.
There was a moment like this before, although then a wholly unnatural one, when I sat on the stained brick walkway in the middle of campus and watched a small group of students scream and chant through megaphones and across a void of faceless onlookers. That was energy too, funneled into flyers, narrowed to rhyming word games and a march towards the ROTC building in protest of our invasion of Iraq. I remember watching them disappear around the corner, their voices pulsing off of the brick, and wondering, secretly, ‘Is that it?’ The demonstration was like a bumper sticker, “No War for Oil,” death reduced to four words as if that somehow captured it, precisely. Some looking on seemed annoyed, others amused, but I just felt sad and hollow. With roots that tend towards the liberal, I probably should have agreed with those voices, those chants, but somehow they instead reduced all the passion I felt, all the injustice I hated, to a spectacle, to words that faded quickly as the rest of the world moved on with a chuckle.
In these early morning moments I wonder what potential there may be hidden in the fading shadows, and as the moment passes and the cracks reveal nothing but dirt, that same disappointment begins to swell in my gut, the voices echoing again into the distance as all that energy dribbles and twitches like worms on cement dying in a first rain. There is a certain impotence about my generation, a strange inability to push buttons that really matter, or even push anything at all. Our attempts feel weak and half-hearted to me, like a joke with no punch line or a meaningless wink from across the bar when you know deep down inside that you will never, even with the right kind of sedatives, ask her name. Others have made that trip, we are taught. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Benjamin Spock, Mario Savio, Muhammad Ali-they stood to the wink and with abandon walked to face her, and they struck up a powerful conversation.
It is a different kind of dating game today, though, and maybe I would do myself a service by remembering that. Our momentum fails against a powerful machine we are intrinsically plugged into, unwittingly perhaps, but one we depend upon nonetheless. And our failure is failure indeed, seemingly unlike the failures of our predecessors which appear in the remnants of our culture as relics of martyred success where to fall indicated resistance rather than weakness. I suppose all of my misgivings rest on a basic assumption I’ve carried with me, its roots obscured in the often glorified leftovers that dribble in through movies, books, and the b-sides of history classes: the machine won against that incredible movement years ago. It defeated the rebel by redefining the terms of victory, by co-opting the ideals of the opposition in order to win the war at the cost of the battle. And perhaps, in this mechanistic evolution, it always wins. Our failures, therefore, are actually no more and no less than those of the generations that came before us. They achieved through their failures a new world built on the foundations of the old power…a power that we, the people as a whole, still have yet to harness. Certainly, important change has been obvious: segregation was visibly deconstructed, the more overt sentiments of racism and evil have been smuggled underground, and we pulled out from Viet Nam blushing and shaking our heads with strange muddled excuses and ideological victory on the tips of our tongues…and yet it feels so hollow, a systematic addition of some brand new factory machine, run on the same filthy fuel of its predecessor. Our cities are more violent and polarized than ever; we still define evil in terms of a faceless monstrosity poised to take down our wonderful flawless system; the racial disparities of the workplace, the streets, the prisons, although completely under the letter of the law, continue to grow, and our own Vietnam rages on in the East. These edges to a vaster, uglier reality, should be enough to force us to wonder what exactly has changed in America.
“Cynicism and disappointment are the laziest forms of resistance…”
When Vietnam protests began to swell near the end of that last poetic tragedy, after the numbers began to make moral sense to Nixon’s “great silent majority,” it joined a list of grievances in convincing far too many citizens that our way of life was flawed and hypocritical in the light of an “ideal democracy.” The war in Viet Nam, fought over such terms, punctuated the discrepancies quite clearly: to kill for “life”, to force “liberty”, to expand “the pursuit of happiness” to Southeast Asia while, depending on skin color, such an ideal was not yet implemented here at home. But while the people’s voice was wrapped in the jargon of this specific moment, it was projected in a pitch and timbre aimed directly at that timeless social and political machine:
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda…You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on the steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. 1
The decision to flee came suddenly…or maybe not. Perhaps it wasn’t a decision at all. It seems that when one is handed the very thing they have wanted for years, even decades, the tendency is to blink, smile, and run for the hills. The momentum built, it certainly was only a matter of time before it would have to come apart: all waves eventually recede.
The election of Ronald Reagan, although certainly not any breaking point, was a distinct indication that through minor victories and slight assimilation, those same vile manners of generations past had re-coupled themselves to our political and social system. Reagan’s views were a product of the Red Scare — it was during his term as President of the Screen Actors Guild in the middle of the twisted communist witch-hunt that his ideologies drastically shifted from fairly liberal to conservative. An urgency of conservative convictions ushered into the White House this figurehead similar in stature and mystique to that of the very evil the masses had risen to conquer only years before – and it scared the hell out of the fringe lower class and liberal base. This time, however, they seemed to be alone. The passion that had fueled the old uprising had been calmed by desegregation, a pullout from Vietnam, and a series of social reforms. Racism and evil, in these terms, were defeated, and our world was safe again…so long as we spent more on defense…and fought communists…and developed a laser system in space…and cut social programs back to a minimum (to keep American values of hard work and that independent spirit at the forefront of our image)…and it seems we have held such a position since.
We still rise up when there is an injustice too foul to let rot in our own house; we rise up and tell the world: we will NOT have adultery here! Not in this God-fearing country. We rise up and tell the world: No War for Oil! And keep assault weapons off our streets! We rise up against the symptoms as if with their banishment the problems underneath will simply give up and concede. Like using a band-aid for a gunshot wound, Advil for a heart-attack: you buy some time, maybe, but little else. Our resistance is convenient and easy, to chant and march, wear black on inauguration day. But such resistance is hardly the act of the rebel, hardly a break that forces change; it is instead an act of personal appeasement, a washing clean of our hands as if doing so will clean up the rest.
The true rebel, the effective resistor, always rejects the advice to join the ranks of the unbeatable momentum, on all grounds. Joining in any fashion is too simplistic for true friction; it is quite against its nature. To the rebel there is only one option when it is obvious that failure is imminent: slow the rest down as much as possible. Ralph Nader employs this tactic, chipping away at the mechanics of a system he views as vile and undemocratic. He understands fully that victory is a stupidly unattainable goal – but he also understands that his mere presence knocks the bolts a bit, wears down the gears and gums up the oil and that someday someone will have to come along and fix the damn thing only to discover something rotten had slipped in since they last checked. This, however, is not in any way a victory. He believes the problem is not the crap that fixed itself in the gears, the problem is the casing that lets the crap in to begin with, or in some cases the machine itself.
“There is a certain impotence about my generation, a strange inability to push buttons that really matter.”
Scrawled menacingly on the back of a blue stall in a rest stop somewhere between Eureka and San Francisco are words that still sting me: It is easier to accept bullshit than it is to clean it. Perhaps no one knows this better than the janitor who inches past those words every morning on his slow crawl from one end of the restroom to the other, his mop pushing around the same old filth as the day before, lifting the same waste from the same floor for his whopping six bucks an hour, no benefits. In Detroit, Michigan – as I chased a girl hopelessly around the world – I found a similar sentiment, again on the wall of a badly lit rest stop: F**k the world that f**ks back. These two rest stop artists might have an interesting conversation, and they certainly help me understand this empty hate that swells when I think too closely on both the meaning of war and the attempts we make to stop it. Our fight today is the fight of that janitor, a cleaning of the bullshit. My misgivings stem from the fact that I have accepted it. I look too closely at context, it seems, and have come to realize that for the janitor his world is the G-d damn bathroom and if he expects for one second on his morning bus ride to work that he is going to walk into the bathroom and finally, after all these years of this underpaid routine, find the floor as nice and sterile as when he left it the night before, he is absolutely insane. So instead, I’m paralyzed from action, unable to grab the mop and scrub – because I know that tomorrow it will all be back again. I am a lazy fool, perhaps, in accepting our world’s bullshit, unable to understand completely why we fight the natural tendencies of a bad system we power, while at the same time completely unable to disassociate myself with the very mechanisms I recognize as true culprits. I cannot seem to f**k back like the true anarchists or the Ralph Naders of our world. I certainly hate that rest stop bathroom, the smell and the dim lights…but when I hit mile 300 and realize that those two cups of coffee and warm beer need precious freedom, I’m damn glad it’s there, littered in a halo of sorts under some stupid street lamp that flickers in jest.
And maybe that is the problem of my generation, our moral stand against war seems stupid in the context of our monetary contributions to pop music, alcohol, McDonalds, oil, Nike, the University of Southern California, fill in more blanks. We separate ourselves from our fights morally, but not ritualistically. To a certain degree, we all accept the bullshit and raise our voices only when provoked by the most obvious of sins…and the janitor tells his boss he needs more vacation time. And that is why I stood on the fringes of protest and watched that day, slightly ashamed and slightly amused – because I too buy my t-shirts from Target, I too watch endless commercial television and drink booze and pay taxes, and most importantly I vote like everyone else and accept the terms of my boss’s world. My protest would be hypocritical with this glaring background, my resistance a resistance against the machine for which I provide power. For every step I push against it, I let it slip three the other direction. I am some type of fool, watching Sisyphus and snickering when secretly I am in awe.
This means little but that I am not a devoted rebel. Remember, the rebel slows the machine down when he cannot defeat it. Cynicism and disappointment are the laziest forms of resistance, but also seem to be the hardest to avoid – and it appears clearly to me that education performs, among its other benefits, an in-road to such tactics. Education teaches me that only truly great, inspirational human beings can change the world, that history does repeat itself, and that our problems are complex and, largely, hardly imaginable let alone solvable. But I don’t want to slip into that these days, these mornings; I don’t want to wake up the fool and through giving up let my ideals turn bitter and masochistic. What gives me pause is that when I wait for the sun, and the people are still, and everything moves as slow sequences of turn and time – the potential is still there, every morning, even if minutes later the feeling is gone. It returns, and life drifts on, and the young become old, and someday someone with the right kind of eyes and the perfect kind of timing may wrap themselves in that brief moment and change the world.
I chased a girl once from California to D.C., from Ireland to Michigan and Ecuador to Indiana. 2 It was a savage pursuit, empty hope and slaughtered ideas that hopefully I will never again have to live through…but then again, having been through that stupid overdramatic pain and narcissistic examination I realize that life in those moments of upheaval are the most pointed and perfect. Those are the parts that, although despised, remind us that living is a slow painful progress, a march toward the truth and clarity that elude us in shadows from one corner of the world to the other; and to give up on them–to stop and watch the girl drift slowly into the distance–that would be death, that would be the solipsistic atavistic nightmare we face realized and materialized inside of us.3 Some people chase the girl, others do not, but we all face the same limitations of space and ability and physics – and in this, our pursuits, however doomed a failure they may be, are a sign of intelligent pain and a slow stirring progress toward the impossible.
And every morning, for a few brief seconds, you can watch that progress fade into the sunlight.
About the Author:
Leif Waller was born in California. He is a senior majoring in international relations with a minor in cinema. After graduation he hopes to see the world. All of it.
1Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Pg. 66-68. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. The passage in full: Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era – the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run…but no explanation, no mix of words can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant… History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights – or very early mornings – when I left the Filmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightening across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles and hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket…booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change…but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that… There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda…You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on the steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
2Her name was Kate.
3Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. New York: Theater Communications Group, 2003. The idea of a “slow painful progress” is used here as it was used in describing America’s own progress with regard to AIDS in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America stage play and published book. The ideas are similar even though the context is not.