When I was nineteen, I used to go see bands play at a small-dingy rental house across the railroad tracks from the university. In those lazy, hazy, safety-pinned gas station jacket days of yore, I used sit (gingerly) on the moldering brown sofa on the deteriorating front porch between sets, smoking cigarettes and listening to the people around me discuss radical politics in between arguments about whether charging more than $5 at the door started a slippery slope that might end in collaborating with murderous oligarchs to bring about a new age of darkness and injustice, or, as you may know it “agreeing to hear out the offer from the major label A&R guy.”
These conversations were pretty loud—they had to be to be heard over the clamorous racket seeping out from inside. I’d agree with my cynical roommate that all the self-identified anarcho-communists in buzz cuts and skate shoes were kind of ridiculous. But even as we rolled our eyes, I wasn’t immune to their charms. I was, then, still technically a teenager—and a socially awkward, annoyingly horny heterosexual one at that. Some of those boys had nice cheekbones beneath their patchy, barely-post adolescent scruffs of beard and pretty eyes under their thrift store frames. They didn’t sound like hardened men of action, but excitable, half-embarrassed boys and I was the kind of eighteen/nineteen-year-old girl who could almost always find something lovely and bewitchingly vulnerable in an eighteen/nineteen-year-old boy, even the skinny-armed, dirty ones who went to great lengths to look anything but. I figured if any of them marched off into revolution, I would probably follow along, just to see what would happen.
In my bedroom, I had a shelf of books about historical revolutions with creased spines and dogeared pages. So I knew what became of most real-life revolutions and revolutionaries but couldn’t quit the thought of a romantic view from the top of the barricades and secret fantasies about the person I might become in some shining moment of glorious and righteous rebellion. A terrible beauty, you know, but still, like, beautiful*
The myopic fog that insulates teenagers from thinking too hard about things outside themselves was particularly dense in the mid-90s. I don’t subscribe to much of the old generational cohort astrology, but those of us who stumbled into young adulthood during the Clinton administration definitely came up at a weird time. All the big stuff had already happened, we thought. The end of the Cold war left a warm, comforting Hasselhoffian lightbulb jacket afterglow from the rubble of the Berlin Wall that, even seven years later, enabled us to safely imagine, grand conflict. Hadn’t we reached the end of history? Hadn’t we managed to hit puberty without dying in a nuclear apocalypse? Didn’t that mean, as long as we recycled and went vegetarian, we were kind of off the hook?
Of course, there is a big different between things not happening and things not happening to you and yours. There were wars, several historic genocides, famine, plague, ongoing violence all over the world in the early to mid 90s. Even my immediate world was shaped by history. AIDS still ran rampant, then. There was widespread sexism, systemic racism, and plenty of violent bigotry directed at the LGBTQ community. There were a lot of things we didn’t notice and probably more we chose not to. Not just that terrible things were happening, but that weird eddies of nervous energy, boredom, and frustration would probably incite ugliness and violence down the line.
It was only a few months before I started attending those house shows that Timothy McVeigh, a twenty-six-year-old anti-government, white supremacist conspiracy theorist drove a Ryder truck full of explosives into the parking garage of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and committed the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US History. As with so much else, I barely registered McVeigh, save the peripheral headline, the word terrorism, which white Americans so rarely apply to their own. But by the end of the decade, after Columbine and Woodstock 99 , after an awful lot of people didn’t realize “Fight Club” was a satire, after a couple generations realized there was nothing more fun than stirring shit on the internet, I probably should considered that the great mass uprising looming twenty-five years in the future that would swarm the capitol and bring government to a standstill would belong to McVeigh’s heirs. I should have recognized that some of the boys I knew, boys who started exactly where I did, at age nineteen, would somehow slip into the current of history and disappointing adulthood and emerge out the other side adult men inflamed by conspiracy theory, willfully blinkered by the sputtering grievance of their oblivious privilege.
I never expected to run into those dudes in any of my circles. Not now anyway. I thought I’d done a pretty good job keeping the fascists out of my bubbles, but evidently the last few days gave new voice to the lurkers from way back when. It’s particularly jarring when someone you recall as having a conscience and a care changes into someone spewing Q Anon cannibal nonsense and defending the capitol insurrectionists as heroes, martyrs, and the only thing standing between Real Americans and deranged socialists like Joe Biden(would that it were so).
When I complained about it, in a much pithier post, a friend commented: “Fantasies of violent revolution or uprising are psychopumps for escapists on the left and the right, I suppose. Young, white men seem the most disconnected from reality by virtue of their privilege and myths.”
That sounded right. Young people can be naïve, disconnected inclined toward mythmaking. Like me watching the boys in the grass after the punk rock shows. But the it’s not just that the empty, ugly nihilism of this Trumpist rebellion appeals to young white men, but that it appeals to people my age and older, who started on the same path as I did, with all the same time to figure their shit out, with all the time in the world to know better. Yet here they arrive at the other end, so disconnected from any recognizable reality that it’s hard for me to imagine that we came from the same galaxy let alone the same shared past.
Now, on the brink of whatever we’re on the brink of, they seem to be gearing up for whatever they’re gearing up for. I grieve for the days when things felt peaceful enough that I wished for something, for anything, to happen. Now I feel old and sore. I’m tired. I’m scared. I’m frustrated. I’m stuck in my house during a pandemic, worried about everybody I love. And, like, now I have to think about this? Now? Seriously? Now?
Now, I guess.
What a total bummer.
Picture is of a wall in Genoa, circa Spring 2016. As of this writing, 67,178, 350 people have recovered from Covid-19.
*As God is my witness, I will try and stop it with the Yeats in 2021.