My days are probably least different from yours on occasions of special public horror: another gun massacre, a bombing on American soil, the deadly explosion of a fertilizer plant. And like nearly everyone else I was angry and upset all last week, if not always for universal reasons. On Monday morning I read testimony in the Times from one of the hunger strikers indefinitely detained, so far without trial, at Guantanamo Bay, about his painful force-feeding. A few hours later the Boston Marathon was bombed, most likely, it later emerged, by two brothers, one a permanent resident and the other an American citizen, of Chechen background. The images on TV were among the worst I’ve seen, and I didn’t even deliberately look, just glanced for a second in a bar. On Wednesday, the Senate defeated measures to mandate background checks for gun purchasers and restrict the size of bullet magazines for assault weapons, although gun violence kills about 32,000 Americans every year, a number an order of magnitude greater than the approximately 3,400 deaths in the US from terrorism since 1970. On Thursday, one of several terrible headlines in the Times read: “More Greek Children Are Going Hungry.” Also on Thursday I learned that the perfectly credentialed American economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff had drawn and over three years promoted a misleading causal inference from data they failed to release until last week: this was that a country’s high debt to GDP ratio tends to induce rather than reflect slow economic growth. Reinhart and Rogoff’s work has been basic to the intellectual armature of politicians promoting austerity in the US and the EU, Greece with its hungry children included. On Friday, I woke to find out that an American fertilizer plant had blown up, killing at least twelve people. Ammonium nitrate is highly explosive, and for this reason often used by terrorists in truck bombs. The plant in West, Texas had last been inspected for safety twenty-eight years ago. In 1977, about thirty-eight Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors were employed per million American workers; by 2007, about nineteen, or half as many. More than 4,500 American workers are killed on the job each year.
Of all these events, the bombing produced the most nearly universal reaction. Even so, solidarity went only so far. On Friday, with Boston in lockdown as law enforcement agents searched for the surviving suspect in Monday’s bombing, Nate Bell, an Arkansas state representative, tweeted: “I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine.” I was in no more sympathy with those words than Bell would be with my views. All week my natural human indignation at murder and maiming had been accompanied by anger over the generally less spectacular damage done by contemporary capitalism. My anger over the inequality capitalism causes, and the hunger, and the fatal deregulation, and the impairment of democracy, and the threat of ecological collapse, runs through nearly every one of my days, alongside a desire not too different from despair to see within my lifetime at least the beginnings of a different order. This anger, amounting at times to real hatred, together with my desire-cum-despair for something better, must have become associated in my mind with mass murder for a simple reason: I know these feelings will never precipitate me into political violence, but at the same time they’re the feelings of mine closest to an impulse to do widespread physical harm. So my worst emotions are mixed up, deeply, with my most humane ones. From the standpoint of any value of mine, the commission of slaughter would be worse than useless. Still, the attraction of violence, except for sadists, is the mirage of effective action, and I have seen that mirage shimmer in my mind’s eye. A similar illusion of efficacy belongs to most anything you or I might say about politics, our species, the planet, and the more so inside a defective democracy.
For more than four years I lived in Buenos Aires, where as it happens in 1994 a Jewish community center was bombed, probably by Iranian operatives, killing eighty-five people and injuring hundreds, and where the sidewalks of my neighborhood were inlaid here and there with ceramic memorials to Argentines, mainly young and leftwing, abducted and killed by the neoliberal junta of the late ’70s. I hated to see how the memorials were chipped, worn down, and sometimes made illegible by ordinary foot and bike traffic, and it occurred to me more than once that I or someone else should look into getting the ceramic plaques replaced by brass ones.
I didn’t expatriate myself for political reasons. But a part of my reluctance to come back to live in the US, as I did in December, was political estrangement from this country, something easier for me to deal with when I’m abroad.
I went home for Christmas to Colorado, and after my father picked me up at the Denver airport we drove past Aurora, where on July 20 of last year a gunman opened fire during a midnight screening of the latest terrorism-themed Batman movie, killing twelve people and wounding fifty-eight. (The next day I uselessly, glibly tweeted a line of Dickinson’s: “Good morning, midnight.”) Colorado is meanwhile in the grips, thanks to global warming, of a severe drought, and it seems that my memory of the landscapes I saw as a kid through the long blue twilights of winter afternoons may outlast the landscapes themselves, since persistent thirst is changing the vegetation. The ready availability, including to lunatics, of assault weapons with high-capacity magazines, and the burning of fossil fuels past the tolerance of the existing climate have to do, as everyone knows, with a congress largely populated by hirelings of the gun lobby and the oil companies. I could strangle a senator or two, if I was able. Except I never could.
Now I’m in New York City again, where I was also living during the confusion and horror of September 11, 2001, and where I spent more time than planned in the fall of 2011, partly because I was pleased by the advent of Occupy Wall Street. Here finally was a spectacle that wasn’t a violent one, and that conveyed something of what I believe. Then the mayor, a billionaire with a fortune gained through the provision of data to a thin stratum of financial professionals of little use to the rest of society, shut down the peaceful occupation of Zuccotti Park with riot police wielding truncheons, pepper spray, and handcuffs, tossing books and artwork into dumpsters. No such measures could be taken against the flood waters of Hurricane Sandy, bred on the warmed waters of the northern Atlantic, when they occupied lower Manhattan this past November.
Right now I’m spending most of my time, for what it’s worth, writing or meaning to write a book about a possible way out of fossil capitalism. I also read a fair amount, mostly history and social theory. But on certain days the news distracts me and then more of my hours go to consulting websites and following links and, for some kind of palliation I suppose, to reading or recalling bits of poetry. So it was across the five days after the bombing. I studied English at Harvard, just across the river from Boston, and, unrepresentative as that fact may be, I suspect my experience as I grow older in this society is becoming a common one: many places my life has passed through are becoming associated with flashes of horror or with drawn-out collapse, ecological and economic.
It’s a strange sensation, on the brink of midlife. I’m more than ever grateful to be alive, for the interest and pleasure I have in the people I know, in thinking about the world, in the prospect of doing good if politically unavailing work, and in little things like the sight last week of some just-bloomed forsythia. (My grandmother, in her dementia, was each spring in New Hampshire surprised repeatedly by the beautiful yellow blazes.) But whenever I raise my head from more intimate concerns there is the miscarriage of my society and civilization going on around me, robbing many people of what I still have to enjoy, and I find myself appalled enough at the gradual and sudden calamity that it seems to reveal hopes that I never knew I had, evident only in the dashing. These are hopes for this world “which is the world/ Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,/ We find our happiness, or not at all.”
Those lines come from Wordsworth, whose 1805 version of his book-length poem The Prelude I’ve nearly finished for the first time. I wish I’d read it years ago, but at least I’ll have done it once, when no long work in English has made me gladder for my native language. In the tenth book of thirteen, Wordsworth has returned to England from across the Channel, where, “enflamed with hope,” he had observed a sequence of the French Revolution and felt that “A spirit thoroughly faithful to itself,/ Unquenchable, unsleeping, undismayed,/ Was instinct among men, a stream/ That gathered up each petty straggling rill/ And vein of water, glad to be rolled on/ In safe obedience” toward a sort of oceanic universality of “equity and reason.” But then Wordsworth’s own country makes war against revolutionary France, and the reader is surprised, as the pastoral kindly poet himself seems to have been, by the antipatriotic malice this prompts in him. When French forces defeat British troops on the battlefield, “I rejoiced,/ Yes, afterwards, truth painful to record,/ Exulted in the triumph of my soul/ When Englishmen by thousands were o’erthrown.” He even sits in church among fellow Cumberlandshire congregants, listening to “prayers offered up” for his country’s army, “And, ’mid the simple worshippers perchance/ I only, like an uninvited guest/ Whom no one owned, sate silent—shall I add,/ Fed on the day of vengeance yet to come.”
Wordsworth, in other words, who as a child “with the breeze/ Had played, a green leaf on the blessed tree/ Of my beloved country,” has come in part to hate his country, and to have impulses of vengeance toward young Englishmen much like him except for their being soldiers. And then, at this knowledge, he feels hatred for the hatred bred in him, compounded with disgust at the French revolution’s turn toward terror and disgust at the counterrevolutionary alliance arrayed against it. It comes to seem, terribly, that the stream of contemporary events doesn’t at all lead into some ocean of peace and justice but deserves a different aquatic image, as if all history were “a reservoir of guilt/ And ignorance, filled up from age to age,/ That could no longer hold its loathsome charge,/ But that burst and spread in deluge through the land.” He consoles himself with the thought that even such a “disastrous period did not want/ Such sprinklings of all human excellence/ As were a joy to hear of.” But the consolation is small. Mass violence has contaminated his joy in either of the opposed countries that he loves, and twisted some of his deepest feelings, with their inclination toward beauty, into ugliness. It must have done something for him to write about all this, and it’s done something for me to read it. But what does it do, to read or write or speak about our grief, anger, and improbable stupid hopes?
In the moment an emotion is expressed or an event reported on, I don’t quite feel the emotion or the event; the names for things partially and temporarily replace their actuality. The need for this relief may explain the desperate quality of my and perhaps your online reading, and of much that is written online or said into TV cameras. Language in the utterance is some escape from what it says. But then the world that is not bits or syllables resumes its undeflected course.
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