by JIM KNIPFEL
July 8, 2018
After the Civil War
I was talking with Steve Erickson recently. Along with being a brilliant novelist, he’s a really wonderful guy. Very smart, very funny, and a helluva lot more erudite than I could ever hope to be. As per usual these days no matter who you’re talking to, the conversation eventually stumbled around to the present Ugliness.
Along with singular, astonishing novels like Zeroville and Shadowbahn, Erickson’s done a good deal of writing about politics over the years. A quarter century ago, smack in the middle of the Clinton administration, he published an essay about the very real and tangible forces that threatened the future of American democracy. He saw back then that a general atmosphere of rage and an increasingly insurmountable divide between the political Right and Left could only result in a country torn in two.
Erickson traces the seeds of that sharp divide in thinking back to the Reagan administration, though personally I might trace it back to 1968, or maybe to that fucker John Adams. But that’s neither here nor there.
Whenever and however it started, exactly what he predicted would happen has happened, and how! We’ve now found ourselves, he says, in the midst of a Cold Civil War, with liberals and conservatives fighting to preserve their own vision of what America is supposed to be. The only way to resolve the conflict at this point, he argues, is the complete political annihilation of one side by the other. That is to say, by filling the federal legislature with Democrats. He’s no Democrat himself, but admits the way the system works, Democrats are the only ones who have a viable chance of rousting Republicans out of office. Protest candidates and third party candidates might be nice gestures, but they’re pretty fucking useless when we’re talking about serious cultural warfare for the future of America. He admits it’s not a very sexy solution, and a small-scale one at that, but a necessary first step if we don’t want to find ourselves living in two Americas before long. The recently announced retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy only makes a real Civil War seem that much more likely.
Now, as a card-carrying nihilist, I always find myself in a tricky spot when it comes to political discussions, particularly these days. Do I:
A) Admit that sure, I’m as dazed and mortified as any thinking person (at least those who can distinguish between reality and crazy conspiracy theory) at all the insane shit that’s gone down over the past year and a half? Christ, even Grinch left a message the other night saying, “Hunter Thompson once said things never got weird enough for him. Hate to admit it, but I think things have gotten weird enough, thank you.” And believe you me, when Grinch admits something like that, you know things are bad.
B) Express my contempt for a namby-pamby populace lacking the balls to get out in the streets to start rioting, torching federal buildings and cop cars? I mean, read your history, people! All the outraged tweets in the world aren’t going to change a fucking thing. You want to change things you need to start throwing firebombs. I’m sorry, but it’s true and always has been, ya buncha whining pansies.
C) Confess that as a spectator with no political affiliation, I have been entertained near to delirium by the outlandish, Absurdist and Surreal two-bit carnival, and the collapse of the American Empire? Hey, I’m a nihilist, so fuck you. We’ve been headed this way for a long damn time, and now that we’re here, I’m going to fucking revel in the chaos.
Or D) Do I point out that I suspect the whole thing is a grand psychological experiment designed to see how far the American people will let themselves be pushed? And wouldn’t you know it, lawdy-loo but they’ll let themselves be pushed pretty goddamn far. Does anyone else remember that ABC Afterschool Special from 1981, The Wave? Bruce Davison was in that one.
Mostly I just let other people vent their impotent outrage and keep my fool mouth shut. But this conversation with Steve Erickson had me a little worried, even though I never let on. It had nothing to do with the fate of the country. I could give a good goddamn about that—it deserves whatever it gets, you ask me. No, I was more concerned with my own situation.
Okay, I’ve written some of this before. I have neither the time nor the patience for either the Right or the Left. I hold fierce to a few notions that would effectively bar me from association with either wing. That said, when I was writing for the ultra-liberal Village Voice, I was told off the bat what I could and could not say, what words I could and could not use, and what sentiments I could not express. I wasn’t even allowed to compare a Bruce Springsteen performance to “a bucket of warm gerbil vomit,” out of fear I might offend some of the advertisers.
I didn’t last long at the Voice, and disavow every story that came out there under my name.
When, however, I wrote for publications presumed to be “conservative” given the public political leanings of the publisher or editor, I was not only never censored, I was instructed to never hold back, never censor myself in any way, even when what I wrote ran directly counter to the conservative beliefs of my bosses. They were hands-off, and by all accounts seemed to pass no judgment because I disagreed with them. They brought writers on because they were good, not because they passed a certain political litmus test.
To this day I find that it’s primarily—though not exclusively—liberal publications who will refuse to even consider a piece if it doesn’t fit neatly with their agenda. I’m sorry, but the First Amendment, when you really consider what it means, has never been way up there on the American liberal list of “Favorite Amendments.”
Although I may have agreed with the people around me when it came to a few basic social issues, when I lived in Park Slope, one of the most righteously liberal neighborhoods in New York, there was no denying I was surrounded by some of the biggest assholes on earth, assholes who could not be bothered to pause a moment to offer a blind guy directions, and in fact would knock him out of the way with their double strollers and never say a word. For all their talk of women’s rights and immigrant rights and the like—things I fully agreed with—I was less than dog shit to them
In Bay Ridge I am surrounded by Trump-loving, cop-loving, immigrant-hating, God-fearing racists and homophobes, people with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, but who are as friendly and helpful and outgoing as can be. Their minds terrify me, and if they knew how I really thought I’d likely be pilloried as a witch, but damn it they’re decent human beings. They stop to chat on the sidewalk, they shake my hand, they always offer to help whenever they can—three things I never, ever encountered in Park Slope. Racism and ignorance aside, I’ve rarely felt more at home than I do here.
So both of Erickson’s visions of a possible future leave me in a quandary. If the Democrats annihilate the Republicans, would I really want to live in Park Slope Nation? And if, conversely, the nation is once again torn in two, where would I choose to live?
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