In Search of the American Soul
I am a complicit, disappointing little asshole. This is my thought while sitting in the dirt, staring out at Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. To an African, to a Mexican, to a black kid in Newark, to undocumented workers on Long Island, to the disenfranchised and to Mother Earth: what difference is there between me and a Republican from Middle America?
I drove to Vermont in my friend’s SUV. A woman from Central America cleaned my motel room. I used the towels once and showered three times because it felt good. I got a coffee in a Styrofoam cup at McDonalds because I really wanted one and it was there. I used an American Express card to pay for dinner. I went to see 16 Blocks at the Jersey City mall the night before the trip. I watched an hour of CNN last night and read—nay, enjoyed—the hotel’s free copy of USA Today this morning. I am now staying at the Wyndham Burlington, a corporate hotel chain. I bought a Nirvana CD for the road trip with all that unnecessary packaging, printed out four copies of my reading using all that unnecessary paper, and paid taxes to the Bush administration every step along the way.
Do I think I’m better because I hang out in the Lefty section of the indie bookstore? Is it because I go to protests? Is it because I write? Is it because I read Fanon? Is it because I got arrested a couple times, work in indigent criminal defense or use words like resistance?
Proudly going into the Sonoco Gas Station with my coffee mug. This is my new thing. I felt bad about the Styrofoam cup, so bought a travel coffee mug to protect the environment. No unnecessary trashing of Mother Nature. The SUV sucks down 22 gallons of gas.
I arrive at Thomas Naylor’s beautiful country home, about 30 minutes south of Burlington. Naylor is the founder of the Vermont Secession movement. He is an elder statesman with gray hair, a good thoughtful man. We sit in his study and he tells me about the Huxwell concept— a combination of the theories of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell to explain the current situation. Huxley said that fascism would arise through pacifying people with pleasure; Orwell said fascism would arise through pain.
Naylor is hosting a dinner party for me. People start to arrive: socialist women, an anarchist who lives off the grid (in Northern goddamned Vermont), other secessionists who work at the university. There is cheese, wine, apple cider, gumbo, and seriously good conversation.
What there is not, however, is one black person in the State of Vermont. I hate to be the PC yahoo yapping about how there’s no people of color at the meeting, but here we are in this beautiful house, in this beautiful state filled with well-situated white folk—the disease-infected, starving, war-torn world coming down around us—talking about how to secede from it all so we can make our own happy little liberal country.
But then what are they supposed to do, fly in black people from Newark? Put ads in newspapers in Detroit, Philly, Newark and DC telling blacks to move up to Middlebury and Brattleboro because Vermont is seceding from the techno-fascist State?
The world sucks. I suck. “I might as well go join the fucking peace corps” (Belushi, Animal House.) What’s the right move? Dig a 3×3 foot community garden while millions are starving. Act local, think global. Fight the system. Creative resistance. Yeah, all of it. Why not. It’s about having something to do besides be a zombie, right? It’s all about I rebel, therefore I am, right? Or is it about love? Humanity? I don’t know. Probably both, depending.
I do a reading from my new novel. It’s awkward: me spewing about sex, crack rock, and resistance in a living room full of Vermont intellectuals. Naylor alone seems to dig it.
I wake up the next morning in the Wyndham, get a coffee, sit in a beige chair in the lobby and look out over Lake Champlain. I read in the USA Today sports section that the Pittsburgh Steelers lost Antwaan Randle El to the Washington Redskins. I am sad.
Pull into North Adams, Massachusetts in the SUV to check MassMoca, the big contemporary art space that everyone is talking about. Or not. The town is depressed. A 19-year old kid in a Pats jersey hanging on the corner, staring at the ground. A bar packed at three in the afternoon, dark factories, busted windows.
But then get off the main drag, turn the corner toward MassMoca and everything cheers up. There’s a cool new café, a yuppie-ish looking arts and crafts store, and a block of newly remodeled, brightly-colored Victorian homes.
And that’s the neoliberal era. No middle ground, no community. Cities either gentrified and unaffordable or sinking into depression. People either getting shut out or shutting people out. It makes jerks of all of us.
The MassMoca building itself is cool, a large factory converted into a huge art space. There’s a café, the staff looks Williamsburg fabulous. All the fixins for an art world experience, save for one. There’s hardly any art. I try to go slow and appreciate, but make it through the entire facility in 40 minutes. North Adams is in the middle of Massachusetts fucking nowhere and there’s less art here than at the Frick. If you’re asking people to drive hours, you’ve got to give us at least a half-day’s worth of experience.
I stop at the big grocery store on the way out of town. From killer Coke with the paramilitary death squads murdering union leaders in Colombia to the Monsanto apple spreading PCB’s and Dioxins around the world, everything I buy has blood on it. But what am I supposed to do, not eat? This is America, there is no way of existing without causing damage.
Back home a day early, I go to check out the V For Vendetta matinee at UA Battery Park. The theater is packed full of Americans gorging on buttery popcorn identifying with a self-sacrificing revolutionary. There’s a drunk guy in the second row who keeps yelling at the screen. “Kick his ass!” “Make out with her!” “Kiss me, baby!” Everyone in the theater is squirming in their chair. They’re praying that someone will have the balls to confront this guy, throw him out.
I think about doing it, but then picture the lack of support I would get from anyone in the theater. Chances are they would lump me in with the drunk and I’d get thrown out with him. Then they could go back to their movie, acting like they’re disturbed by a corporate state that limits civil rights.
I shoot up to the TJ Maxx at 18th & 6th after the flick. I need a new suit. The store lady is being kind, helping me go through the rack. Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, Tommy Hilfiger, they’ve got some good deals.
I try on a Calvin Klein, but it’s too modern. I explain to her that I represent poor folks in court, so can’t look like a ambulance chaser. She says that I should get it anyway—in case I ever want to work at one of those big fancy law firms.
I smile and say that it’ll never happen. I may be a complicit, disappointing little asshole. But I still hang out in the Lefty section of indie bookstores, go to protests, write, read Fanon, get arrested every so often, work in indigent criminal defense and use words like resistance.
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.
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