Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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“One Nation, Indivisible” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
Luís Rodriguez, a great writer who grew up in the gangs in the barrios of LA, wrote that every group of men is a gang. The Baltimore Orioles are a gang. The Chicago Bulls are a gang. The police department is a gang. Rock bands and rap groups are gangs. Gangs are what men do. I don’t think we can ever get rid of gangs. The real question is: “What’s the intention of the gang?”
When I was growing up in the 1950s, there were neighborhood gangs everywhere, and everyone in them was experimenting. Loyalty was one of the major experiments. You learned who was going to stand with you. Everybody could be cool when they were putting on their jackets, but it was when the trouble hit that you found out who would “take your back,” as we used to say. You also found out who and what you would die for. That’s what it came down to. That much stays the same. That’s the attraction for young people. You find a place to belong. That need for identification is deeply human, and it’s not just an adolescent need. It’s a deeply human need for kinship. . . .
Young people can’t be abandoned in those circumstances. They have to be given signals that they and their turmoil are welcome. I think that’s the job of elders in the culture. It’s not to make more laws. It’s not to make more prisons. The prisons just become a higher stage of initiation for gangbangers. There’s a fire in all people, but especially in young men, that can burn toward dominance, brutality, an excess of competition, and destruction. But when it’s engaged and welcomed and appreciated, it becomes part of the heat in the hearth of the community. The same fire that can brutally kill can also lead a young man to courageously risk his own life to save other people. Rage and outrage are the same essential energy that makes art and beauty.
“By Fire and Water,” Michael Meade, interviewed by Sy Safransky, January 1994
Let’s say I’ve lost everything, and I’m chronically depressed. My entire world has fallen apart. Then somebody knocks on my door and says, “I can help you. It’s not your fault. Let me give you my support.” Whoever extends that helping hand to me, I’m likely to be converted to their cause: If the Mormons knock, I might become a Mormon. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses knock, I might become a Jehovah’s Witness. And if it’s the militia, I’ll probably become a militia member.
If you go to a farm auction, time after time you’ll see someone crying and putting his arm around the man who’s losing his farm. Chances are, that will be a local John Bircher or a local militia member. He’s there because he lost his farm, too, and he understands what that farmer is going through. He’s saying, “It’s not your fault, man. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the evil Jewish conspiracy’s fault. I love you, and you can come with me now and fight this battle. Here’s another reason to live.” What a message!
If someone were there for that farmer with another message — and that person would have to know and care about what the farmer was going through; it couldn’t be just another urban type trying to manipulate the farmer — then the farmer might go in another direction.
“Armed and Dangerous,” Joel Dyer, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, December 1999
Historian George Fredrickson has done a comparative study of racism in various countries, including the U.S. and South Africa. He concludes that the U.S. is unique in the extremism of its white supremacy. For example, we talk about Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president. In the rest of this hemisphere he wouldn’t be called “black.” He would be called “mixed race.” But in the U.S. there is still this racist concept that anyone with one drop of African blood is black. It’s so deeply rooted, it’s not even questioned.
“Undermining Democracy,” Noam Chomsky, interviewed by David Barsamian, June 2014
We settled into our camps: the white onlookers standing in front of the firehouse, nudging each other and talking in low voices; the dozen or so hooded Klansmen on the corner, yelling insults across the street; and the African American group, swelled now to about fifty people, swaying and singing. The state police stood firmly between us in the middle of the intersection; occasionally a car drove by. . . .
The TV crews milled around. We sang our songs. The Klan yelled, sometimes at me. “Nigger lover,” they screamed. “White power for us,” they chanted, pointing at their own chests. They waved the Confederate flag over their heads. Some tried to stuff flyers in open windows of passing cars, but the police made them stop.
Most of the cars had their windows rolled up; some people drove by waving Confederate flags and cheering on the Klan. A carful of young men gunned their motor as they drove by, one of them baring his ass out the window as they went through the light. After a moment of silence, the grandmother next to me said, “Poor thing, he must not be getting enough.” And we laughed. . . .
Then, as inexplicably as spring arrives and winter departs, the Klan decided to leave. One minute they were chanting insults, the next they had turned to go.
We broke into “God Bless America,” singing, “Land that I love, . . .” as they walked away.
“Victory,” Charlotte D. Staelin, April 1993
A few years back I served time in the state penitentiary in Winslow, Arizona. My cellmate was a middle-aged man who was covered in tattoos. The first time we went to the shower, I noticed a swastika on his chest. When I asked about it, he told me he was a skinhead. He was civil enough to me but had a habit of heckling the correctional officers, especially if the name above the CO’s badge sounded Jewish. There was one CO in particular that my cellmate loved to hate: Goldberg. He would swear at Goldberg for the most trivial reasons.
About six months after we became cellies, my tattooed cellmate overdosed on heroin. I found him unconscious and not breathing, his lips blue. In a panic I started kicking the cell door and yelling, “Man down!” The first CO who showed up was Goldberg. He popped the door and began performing CPR. More COs came and watched. After a few minutes one of them said, “Hey, Goldberg, give it up, man. Let that Nazi die.”
Goldberg did not give up. He performed CPR on the man for forty-five minutes, until the medical staff arrived. When a nurse finally took over, Goldberg stood up, exhausted and dripping sweat, his glasses at an odd angle. “I couldn’t stop,” he said. “I don’t think it would’ve been right.”
I heard that my former cellmate lived, although I haven’t run into him again in the system. I wonder whether his being saved by a Jewish CO changed his mind about anything. It sure changed mine.
“Skin” (Readers Write), Yari D. Jacobson, June 2013
Unable to love themselves, violent reactionaries fall in love with something they call America. But they don’t want to share her with blacks and Jews and bureaucrats. They want freedom in terms they can understand, not in all its wild unpredictability. They want to erase what can’t be erased: the messiness and contradictions of a democratic society, the unruliness of their own lives. They love America the way wife beaters love marriage.
Sy Safransky’s Notebook, July 1995
When our beliefs don’t match up with our experiences, we develop cognitive dissonance, a kind of mental conflict. To settle it, we either have to deny our experience or give up our beliefs. In a narcissistic culture like ours, it’s a tough thing to admit that your beliefs are wrong. To say that you were wrong, that your parents were wrong, that possibly your whole society is wrong — that’s a tough proposition in any culture. It’s almost like surrendering your identity. For men, it’s like a surrender of masculinity.
“Homeland Insecurity,” Stan Goff, interviewed by Rachel J. Elliott, November 2004
In [locker rooms,] those dank spaces of metal, tile, and concrete, everything slick with steam and smelling of sweat, I couldn’t speak the language. For every rousing halftime speech, for every prayer made in a circle on one knee, I heard a hundred words that no mother wants to hear spoken by or directed at her child. (If hidden cameras were put in football locker rooms across the U.S., and the tapes were played for every mother to watch, I believe football would no longer exist.) I heard crude talk about what certain girls would and wouldn’t do and with whom and how many times. I heard the chant “No means yes; yes means anal!” and the joke “How do you make a woman orgasm?” Pause. “Who cares?” When our team was losing, my fellow captains would scream, “Are we just going to bend over and take it like fags, like women?” Fat kids and freshmen were picked on and called “bitches” as in, “You’re my bitch today, fat boy.”
I wish I could say that I told the others to stop all this talk or that I questioned it; that, having been bullied myself, I stood up to the bullies on the team; that I at least knew there was something wrong with what I was hearing. Instead I turned red, got quiet, and wondered if this was who I was supposed to be, if this was how guys were, if this was normal. It was years before I developed the courage to speak my mind without worrying about the consequences.
“Phys Ed,” Joel Peckham, September 2015
Five hundred years ago people burned witches. Two hundred and fifty years ago slavery was still acceptable. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Those are the words I come back to on the bad days, like on the morning of George W. Bush’s reelection, when I couldn’t think of anything to tell my kids, or on the morning after the Boston Marathon bombing, or any morning when hatred seems entrenched. The arc of history is so long you can’t see the end of it, so you don’t sense the movement. It’s an arc. It goes around to the other side of the horizon.
“The Moral Universe,” Barbara Kingsolver, interviewed by Jeanne Supin, March 2014