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Joe Cremo always showed up to practice early. Joe Cremo always stayed late in the gym. Joe Cremo never skipped anything, and that’s why he was one of the best Great Danes on the floor. He was heading into the arena for another late-night shootaround when he saw two figures fleeing from the stadium.
“Hey Joe, can you drive us to the train station?” one shouted. It was that guy on Twitter who also worked in the athletic department.
“Uh, why would I do that?” Cremo said.
“I’ll give you 50 bucks. You got this. Please, we’re running from Duncan Robinson,” said the other figure.
“Alright, it’s not too far I guess. What happened to you two?”
My plan was to head to New York City on the Amtrak. It would be much harder to find us and Ben and I could try to find our Inside NU associates in the area. I quickly purchased a ticket on the Empire Express after Joe Cremo dropped us off at the Albany train station.
But Ben Goren would not buy a ticket. He stood there, pondering, as the final calls for the train echoed through the station.
“I can’t go, Tristan,” he said. “There’s nothing for us in New York. You should stay too, you know people upstate. If you go to New York to find, I don’t know, Inside NU’s Henry Bushnell or Josh Rosenblat, they won’t be able to help you. In Albany, I can help myself. I have an apartment. I have a job. I’m done with college basketball conspiracies. Plus, as you have seen on Twitter, I hate New York City.”
“Well, suit yourself. I’m going home.”
Ben decided to leave the terminal and hitch a ride back with Joe Cremo. I would have to take the Empire Express to New York City alone. It would be the biggest mistake of my entire life.
The train fizzed past Croton-on-Hudson like an errant lob pass. The Empire Express was supposed to stop at Croton, at least briefly, where I would be able to exit and make contact with allies in Westchester. But no, there was no Croton stop, and the train hammered along the Hudson.
It was a beautiful summer night for a government to fall. No on the train, nay, scarcely anyone in the United States realized that C.R.E.A.N. had decided to overthrow the United State government. With the Super Mega Conference in place and college sports ruined, the only thing left in C.R.E.A.N.’s way was the republic itself. And so, on August 20, 2016, with the final primaries raging and uncertainty brewing, C.R.E.A.N. made its move.
The details were never released, but as the train whistled past Tarrytown, I received an alert on my phone that the Supreme Court had been “discontinued” and by order of the President of the United States. C.R.E.A.N., as I would later learn, used the age-old tactic of pinning everything onto the basketball-loving Obama administration, and the massive seizure of executive power was all in the name of the state. However, it was clear once the President went unseen for three months that something had gone wrong, and the shadow government of the C.R.E.A.N. had taken the reins of power.
The Supreme Court, of course, had recently dealt a blow to college athletics with the O’Bannon case. The dissolution of the body was merely the beginning in the C.R.E.A.N. plan to eliminate freedom. But that didn’t matter to me while I was on the train. Nothing really made sense once the train unexpectedly stopped at Yonkers and I spotted a group of ex-Iona basketball players dressed in macabre suits boarding the front car.
“We have received word that an enemy of the United States is aboard this train. Please do not be alarmed,” the train intercom said. “A few authorities will be searching the train—.”
I had already tore out of my seat once the word “enemy” was announced. None of the passengers, thankfully, tried to trip me. I quickly exited the train and ran up the stairs to the station itself. I hailed a cab and asked to go to the first place I thought of that could hide me.
“To New Jersey!” I exclaimed.
“Where in New Jersey?” the driver asked.”
“A place that can get me into Penn Station,” I said, after two minutes of deliberation.
I was slowly running out of money, but I did manage to arrive at the Secaucus Junction Train Station in one piece. At the station, you have to walk under a small overpass in order to reach the train lines. As I repeatedly checked my phone for news (or lack thereof) while the vehicles roared overhead and the trains bellowed beside me, I felt a sudden leap in my chest, as it began to dawn on me that I could be living in a dystopia.
The night permeated everything around Secaucus, the parked cars in the lot, the iron rail lines that lay a few dozen feet from me. The wind blew through the overpass— it was chillier than I’d expected— and the station, a dimly lit remnant of the old days of American infrastructure, lay ahead. As I walked forward and considered the consequences of this day, the dissolution of justice, the stench of authoritarianism, the coercion of the media, I suddenly realized that I had no idea how the agents of C.R.E.A.N. had tracked me down. I stared at my iPhone, and decided to leave it on the dashboard of a parked car at the station.
In the city, I hoped I could quickly disappear. My destination was probably a decent hotel to spend the night before I could start making some phone calls. I needed to access a public computer to find my iCloud contacts, and everything would be difficult as C.R.E.A.N.’s net tightened, but I had to find a way to warn my associates who was behind this. If it meant leaving the country in the end, so be it, but I had to figure out some way to fight.
As I trudged through miser of Penn Station, I passed by the in-station sports bar where I had once watched the Islanders play a regular season game. The television screens played Sportscenter. Kevin Durant, in a Warriors uniform, flew through the air.
Sports, what crimes are committed in your name?
There is a time and place for everything. This morning, a good friend who lives in New Jersey forwarded me an application to be the assistant head coach at Rutgers University. Strange that someone from New Jersey sent it to me considering the Rutger is at the heart of New York City. Rutgers recently lost its offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer to Texas, and the school is looking for a replacement.
WELL LOOK NO FURTHER! We’re going all the way to the Garden State!
After my unsuccessful bid to be the head coach of Wisconsin, I figure being the offensive coordinator for the Rutger football team should be an easier job to get. After all, they had the worst offense in the Big Ten and were shut out on four separate occasions. It’s Rutger. You know, the salt of the earth? The school that loses money on athletics every year?
Okay, let’s go looking for the online portal. Huh, this is confusing. What does the tutorial page look like?
Oh cool, it’s a picture of a garbage fire with the Rutgers logo on it because the page is under construction. You can’t make this stuff up folks. That tutorial page was no help, but I decided to write a cover letter and resumé anyway.
Here is what I came up with:
I think this is going to go well!
FULL TEXT OF THE LETTER IN CASE YOU CAN’T READ IT:
Dear Mr. Head Coach of the Rutger.
Hallowed be thy name. I apply for this job not out of spite or pity, but from a feeling that goes beyond spite and pity and enters the Theatre of the Absurd. For my entire life, I have observed Rutger from afar, breathing it, studying it, and failing to understand it. I have written articles for insidenu.com, an esteemed college football site, about the Rutger football boys. As a sportswriter at Northwestern, I know the B1Ggest conference in the land very well.
I have studied the tape of the Rutger’s numerous losses. I have watched the Scarlet Knights fall to every Big Ten opponent. I have seen Chris Laviano and Giovanni Rescigno fight valiantly, only to collapse under the pressure. I understand your offense has been bad. Scoring zero points four times in a season is not good. Losing the final nine games of the season is not good.
Frankly, you need an offensive coordinator who can shake things up. I have no football coaching experience and I ran cross-country in high school. I am 140 pounds and would be athletically destroyed by most of your players. But I have sat on my couch to watch football for nearly 75 percent of my life, and because I write about the sport on a daily basis in the fall, I believe I am totally qualified to become your offensive coordinator. I mean, who could do a worse job than the last guy? It’s also a chance to hire a Korean-American offensive coordinator and increase diversity.
I eagerly await your reply and for you to ignore this beneath a stack of actually qualified applicants. But just know that, of all the people who apply, I truly want to make Rutger great again.
They sent me an email already:
Albany is a silly place.
The plane landed at the Albany International Airport with no complications. I still had no idea why I had to fly to the capital of my home state, and I had no intention of staying long. I had read through the notes I had stolen from the C.R.E.A.N. agent in the airport, but the only important word was “BRAND”, emblazoned in capital letters on the side of an envelope. The envelope was addressed to the University of Albany Athletic Department.
As I arrived in Albany, I immediately made plans to take the Amtrak south to New York City. I’d meet with my sister in Brooklyn before heading back home, at last, for a surprise vacation. But the train wasn’t supposed to leave for another three hours, giving me absolutely nothing to do. I decided, on a whim, to take an Uber to the address listed on the envelope.
Albany itself is a very dull place, home to New York’s sleepy and usually incompetent state legislature and not much else. The University of Albany, home of the Great Danes, was the only thing really worth visiting. My Uber driver, a 22-year-old student at the university, took me there quickly. I did not realize that he was tipping off an unseen member of a hidden organization on his iPhone as I left the black Honda Civic.
With nothing better to do, I wandered into the Albany Athletic Department building. And then I bumped into Ben Goren. Suddenly, everything made sense.
“Hey Ben, what are you–”
“Shut the hell up Tristan, get out of my hiding spot.”
Ben Goren was a former member of Inside NU, and apparently he had chosen a job at the Albany Athletic Department as his undercover spot. He chose well. No C.R.E.A.N. member would ever bother to check in Albany.
“Juicy J, great to see you, but you shouldn’t be here. How did you find me?”
“Look Ben, I saw a C.R.E.A.N. member at the airport. He was headed to Albany to interrogate you. That’s why I’m here. They tracked your mail.” I showed him the envelope.
“Damn, it was my Tweets from the PR account. I knew the #brand would get me into trouble eventually. But you’ve stopped them, right? We’re good?”
“Far from it. I’d estimate our chances of survival match Northwestern’s attempts to make the NCAA Tournament this year.”
“The team’s been disbanded thanks to us so…that means it’s basically close to zero.”
“Yeah, I’m sure they’re following me after I assaulted that man in the airport. I’m headed to my house in the middle of nowhere.”
“Well, I’m not coming with you Tristan. If I have to flee, I’m going to a city. Our old friend Inside NU’s Henry Bushnell is camped out in New York right now. I think I’m safer there.”
At that moment, one of Ben’s coworkers rushed into the room.
“They’re here!” she shouted.
I immediately bolted out of the copy room and used the fire escape on a window to exit the field. Ben followed and we headed, in panic, but currently without any chasing agents, to SEFCU Arena, the home of Great Dane basketball.
“I know a place we can wait them out!” Ben said. “We can make a break for my car in the parking lot after they leave! My coworkers will cover for me.”
Ben’s “hiding place” turned out to be the SEFCU maintenance room, but it did the trick. To pass the time, I played Peggle on my phone while Ben waxed rhapsodically about every traumatic Northwestern sporting event since 2000. It took about 5 hours to complete.
“And finally, when Northwestern won that Wisconsin game and we had hope that Demps–”
“Ben, shut up, I think we should check if the coast is clear. Text your coworkers.”
Ben received confirmation that the coast was indeed clear. We stepped out of SEFCU Arena and realized it was a trap. The entire Albany Athletic Department staff was being held captive by approximately 35 agents of C.R.E.A.N.
“Well shit TJ, I really screwed this up. I sure hope they don’t shoot us.”
“We’re not shooting you,” said the largest C.R.E.A.N. agent, who was wearing a mask but looked eerily like Connecticut center Amida Brimah. “Take this whole lot back to the stadium.”
C.R.E.A.N.’s method of interrogation was predictably cruel and basketball-related. Ben and I were given 25 basketballs and ordered to shoot from the three-point line. Every time we missed a shot, the C.R.E.A.N. agent would administer an electric shock through the floor and demand the location of the other Inside NU members. If we made one, we’d get a reprieve.
I missed 24 of 25 shots, but I wouldn’t crack. Ben somehow made 5 and was still in decent shape.
Amida Brimah was joined by someone who looked suspiciously like Duncan Robinson.
“This is taking too long,” Duncan Robinson said. “I’m going to shoot a three. If I make it, we’ll break one of your fingers. Every three I make, we’ll break a finger until you talk.”
Duncan took the first three. He missed. Honestly, missing the shot was actually a more effective torture method than you’d think. I didn’t even know where the other Inside NU members were, but Ben thought of something mildly clever with the pressure cranked up.
“They’re with the SBNation staff under assumed names!” Goren said.
“Now we’re getting somewhere. So they’re in New York then?”
“Yes, and they record a podcast after every college football Saturday. You should find them there.”
“Good to hear. Well, with that, we’re probably going to kill you and throw your remains under the renovations for Welsh-Ryan Arena.”
“It’s fine, Morty wouldn’t care anyway you selfish, Williams-attending asshole.”
Duncan Robinson hadn’t realized I had stolen one of the basketballs while Ben was talking. In order to continue the torture method, they had untied our hands, which is always a terrible idea. I quickly chucked the ball at Duncan Robinson’s oh-so punchable face and dived for the loose weaponry on the floor.
“It’s a jump ball!” Ben said, his witty one-liner abilities kicking in at just the right moment. “Possession arrow…Brand Goren!”
He dodged Brimah and seized Duncan Robinson’s large lacrosse stick that he used to subdue us.
“If you move one inch, I’m breaking his kneecap!” Ben shouted at the other C.R.E.A.N. agents.
“Don’t listen to him. Even he does it, I’ll just come back next year,” Robinson said.
“Ha, do you really think that Michigan won’t push you out of the program once they realize your knee is busted?” Goren replied. “Once a transfer, always a transfer. They’ll throw you to the curb. Just let us leave, and you can go find the real prize at the SBNation headquarters.”
Duncan Robinson hesitated.
“Fine. But next time, we shoot to kill. C.R.E.A.N. out.”
What you have to realize is that the world is a viciously empty place…
On the Westgate River Ranch, the embodiment of a nowhere that can only be expressed in Florida, there is a walk-in chapel for vacationers hoping to momentarily exit the three-star resort/dude ranch/glamping site and make peace with the Holy Ghost. The chapel, undoubtedly constructed within the last 20 years, has nevertheless been designed to look like an old Western church building, with a faux steeple surrounded by acres and acres of other ersatz constructions of an Old West inspired by the imaginations of a few Italian film directors. It’s a dude ranch, the largest ranch east of the Mississippi at that.
Westgate Resorts owns the chapel, just as it owns all of the land and the very real longhorns that graze pensively alongside a traditional white fence. The chapel serves the temporary parishioners for free, possibly the only free service provided on the 1,700 acres of land. Apparently services are quite popular. In an example of a vacation trend termed as “glamping”, you can shoot shotguns, stay in a “Luxe Teepee”, rock climb and spend lots of money.
But it’s not really a dude ranch, because a dude ranch east of the Mississippi is completely oxymoronic. My dad says it’s a “pseudo dude ranch”, and that’s the best explanation. Of course, it’s not all-inclusive (that’s for the really rich people), and it appears that the Ranch caters toward the American middle to upper middle class. The cheapest rooms are about $55 a night, as the company expects residents to spend more on amenities. You can also park your RV or pitch your own tent, so it’s not exactly the Ritz. However, I imagine that with the right itinerary and the right people, the pseudo dude ranch could be quite fun.
The site is not one of Westgate’s most glamorous properties, that honor would probably go to CEO David Siegel’s private residence, a 90,000 square-foot house built as a replica of the Palace of Versailles. But the River Ranch exists. The Kissimmee River exists. America exists. The “Luxe Teepee” exists, even though this land was never occupied by the Lakota and the cultural appropriation seems particularly out of place. The endless paradoxes of the 21st century are the only subjects that fill my mind in the emptiness of central Florida.
At once in this suddenly deeply political age, the mind wanders. In November 2016, it’s inescapable, even while I’m on an airboat searching for alligators in the emptiness of the Kissimmee. The wife of Westgate’s CEO, Jackie Siegel (the prime mover in the construction of the American Versailles), once dated Donald Trump. The place reeks of American resort mogul-ism, a uniquely narcissistic consciousness that now (figure)heads the largest military and economic force on the planet, and a Twitter account. You can guess what candidate the employees of Westgate were asked to vote for, especially in a swing state that could be influenced by a few thousand employees of a resort company. I am not here to pass judgment. I am only here to watch the alligators.
I’m sitting on this airboat because my grandparents insisted that I should experience this experience. My grandmother, a Korean immigrant who arrived in the United States in the earl 1980s, has a post-retirement obsession with what I term “experiences”. In the past year alone, she has left Florida to travel across Europe, much of the Southwest, and to the Northeast and Midwest. She is joined in these rather remarkable endeavors by my grandfather, (step-grandfather), who leads/follows her across the globe. They are, by estimation, quite happy, and I’m rather jealous that they’ve gotten to see much more of the world, from Alaska to Hong Kong to Istanbul, in the past three years than I have.
In the aftermath of their latest trip to the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival, they’re hosting us for Thanksgiving. But because of their incredibly voyeuristic nature, they want us to go to the Westgate River Ranch, which is 50 minutes away from their residence. The plan is to take an airboat trip before heading to the Saturday night rodeos that the River Ranch hosts every week. Compared to Rome, the River Ranch is a drop in the proverbial bucket, but there was nothing better to do in the sleepy area around their retirement home, so off to the River Ranch we went.
From outside observation, my grandparents are in a nearly apolitical mood these days. In what may come as a cruel reality to you, there were precisely zero political conversations during the entirety of Thanksgiving Day. They fill their lives with experience, not talk, and although they talk quite a lot, the backdrop of the real always grounds them. Just before we leave the retirement community, my grandmother demands we stop the car to give sandwiches to my mother and father in the car behind us. She runs out and argues with her daughter, forces her to take the food, and then we depart.
Now, back on the airboat, the deafening noise of the engine makes conversation impossible. All the members of the boat are left to their own thoughts, insulated by headphones, punctuated by the occasional sighting of an alligator that has just been rudely awakened from an afternoon siesta. None of us are really having too much fun; the noise from the propeller has deafened my dad and my mom is irritated because the headphones do not fit her. The boat is silent and noisy at the same damn time.
I first think about my Korean-American grandmother, who sits behind me and tells me to get off my phone as we travel through a nondescript channel of water. She then tells me to keep my back straight. I realize that after 70+ years of surviving civil war, having three children, working as a single mother while my grandfather tried to find work in America, then watching her children go to Ivy League schools and create respectable lives for themselves, she has finally gotten a chance to experience the American Dream for herself.
Until today, she has never retreated to a “pseudo dude ranch” in her enjoyment of the American Dream. She has used the fruits of the American Dream (although, as I am contractually obligated to mention as a member of the liberal college-educated elite, she attained much of this “American Dream” through marrying a white male) to travel anywhere other than central Florida for half the year, and now, with everything central Florida has to offer, I don’t really know what she’s thinking about.
I next think about how this is all a metaphor for how many conservatives treat the environment. The boat disturbs everything in sight. Magnificent birds fly away in panic. We drive through patches of river plants and disturb all sorts of natural habitats. The noise is deafening. The airboat, sitting just on the water, isn’t as mutually destructive as a motorboat, but the fact of its existence bothers me. I start to doubt myself for even getting on this boat. I start to question my own environmental legacy. I start to think all these liberal-ish thoughts that get printed in Daily Northwestern op-eds and populate the comment sections of NPR feeds.
Then we stop to see a baby alligator. She or he moves away, not yet ready to fight anything and rather scared of this afternoon interruption. The boat operator, an older man who speaks with a thick southern drawl, gives everyone some useful information about alligators. He doesn’t say much, but he quickly steers us away. It seems he wants to get through this disturbance of the natural order as quickly as possible. The 1 hour tour ends after just 40 minutes. We see three alligators the whole time, for about 3 minutes total. I think about atoning for my sins at the a la carte church, but I think God would be fine with staying outside.
Most things, and by extension most people and most societies, are more complicated than they appear…
The boat ride ends and we are deposited on the shore to spend a few hours before the rodeo. My dad, who despises boats on principle and can no longer hear properly, staggers around and decides we should go skeet shooting. My grandfather immediately notes that this is a terrible idea and probably impossible due to the fact we do not have a shotgun, 20 cartridges, or a reservation. He’s right, but we head over anyway.
The shotgun range is everything you’d expect it to be. There’s a old white dude with a cowboy hat directing things, and a boatload of people with their firearms shooting at clay targets. Every few seconds, a shotgun shell goes off, but you eventually get used to it. My dad convinces my sister, a pretty good markswoman herself, to attempt to get onto the range. I don’t go because:
1. I’m a terrible shot.
2. I don’t have contact lenses or glasses with me because I am very forgetful.
The fancy trucks in the parking lot complete the range, of course. As I sit at the makeshift archery range for the kids, there is a black 2014 Chevy Silverado. My sister walks by, having been denied from the shotgun range due to a lack of a shotgun, cartridges and insistence, and immediately points out the “Liar, liar, pantsuit on fire” bumper sticker on the Chevy. Then she points out the Trump 2016 sticker. Then she points out the numerous pro-gun slogans and Confederate flag emblazoned on the back and sides of the truck. Pretty typical fare.
Then she points out the Pokémon Go logo that sits right at the center of the truck. It’s the logo of the red team (of course), Team Valor, with a Moltres logo surrounded by fire. I am very, very confused. Why is a logo of my all-time favorite Pokémon sitting on the back of this car? Am I really supposed to believe that this Confederacy-loving, gun-supporting, Clinton-imprisoning person from Florida also happens to be a rabid Pokémon Go player? Perhaps this person is a big fan of Pokémon 2000? These questions are all unanswered. Later that day, in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, my sister sees another Team Valor logo on the back of an SUV. My best explanation is that the denizens of Polk County co-opted a Pokémon logo as a symbol of the Republican Party. America!
“Damelos!” I hear in the distance. The family who is sharing the makeshift archery range with us is having a bit of an argument. Apparently, the makeshift archery range is actually a real archery range, with real bows and real, metal-tipped arrows. A crowd of unsupervised children, including my 11-year-old younger sister, play peacefully with the archery set. One of the children, predictably, had pointed a loaded bow at his brother, prompting the dad nearby to grab the bow and speak some commands in Spanish.
Of course, the whole family is solely speaking Spanish. In fact, as you may be surprised to hear, there was plenty of Spanish being spoken at the dude ranch, although I’d have to estimate it’s still a 80/20 split in favor of English.. There were plenty of bilingual staff and bilingual guests. It’s Florida, after all. It’s America, after all. You really thought everything could be simple? One of the kids is wearing a “Frank Underwood 2016” shirt. The family leaves and we have the archery range to ourselves before another Spanish-speaking family that walks by to take their shot, because visiting a dude ranch in central Florida does not necessarily mean you are a caricature. Maybe the person with the Trump/Pokémon Go bumper stickers is a proud caricature, but just one person cannot signify the complexities of a single county, let alone a society.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing overpriced tourist attractions, racism or pseudo dude ranches, or the fact that a caricature has in fact been given a significant part of my society’s governing apparatus. I’m just trying to wrap my head around that, outside of the Northwestern bubble, the world is a vastly complicated place. People of all political stripes live alongside one another. There is a rampant tendency by our wondrous news media to simplify America into a divided nation. Urban vs. rural. Working white vs. city minorities. The truth is, there are very real divisions, but these divisions have no borders. Just because 55 percent of Polk County, FL voted for Donald Trump doesn’t mean the 45 percent doesn’t exist. There are 15,294 minority-owned firms in Polk County, Florida as of 2012.
Hell, even I live in one of those paradoxical divisions. My home county of Orange County, NY voted 50-44 for Trump. My county also re-elected Democratic senator Chuck Schumer 59-38. Chuck Schumer will be the primary Senate minority leader for the Democratic Party. Schumer got 9,000 more votes for his re-election than Trump received for the presidency. In what world does this make any sense? And yet, in a two-party system with no readily available answers for the environment, education, race relations, foreign relations, war or justice, these paradoxes must be expected, even if the people who participate in the creation of these paradoxes scarcely understand the complexities that they construct. That includes me.
Meanwhile, my family, irritated by repetitive shotgun blasts and bored by the dude ranch, decides to go to the general store. There’s really nothing special about this particular general store. It’s clearly a pastiche of the Wild West and sells overpriced goods. My sister and I (the older, 18-year-old one), wanting to cause some pointless trouble, leave the general store with some souvenirs and unchanged bank balances. The general store sells Starbucks coffee.
No one wants to go to the rodeo anymore. I fall asleep on the 50-minute drive home.
We head home and eat at a terrible Japanese restaurant. There are no East Asians operating this establishment, and all the food is straight trash. The tap water, in particular, tastes awful. Throughout the entire meal, nobody takes more than two sips from her or his giant glasses.
As I try to fall asleep, I slowly start to formulate a vision of America. It’s a vision that will please some people, and dishearten others. A nation that looks like a pseudo dude ranch, with commodified existences, light control and lazy corporate attractions. A nation that feeds its predominantly white clientele papier-mache and more than slightly racist constructions of a past America that has faded. A nation of selfishness, a nation of cheap greed. This softly despotic hypothesis, by the way, definitely works for some people. I can see that now, while I recall the events of the day. It could be, like the Westgate River Ranch, an American Dream re-founded by a rich billionaire real estate mogul. But in my estimation, it’s paradoxical, appropriative, and a pretty crappy iteration.
I think of my grandmother, whose American Dream is to experience as much of the world as possible, to avoid the rigmarole of daily life and set herself free across the cities and farmlands of the world. I hope I get there someday. I drift off to sleep in her RV and wait for the flight home.
Just needed to write this down and publish, to be honest.
1. The Revolution and You
As with all histories of important historical events, the French Revolution in the popular consciousness has devolved into a few “highlight reel” moments: the storming of the Bastille, the execution of the King and the Terror. I can’t really dispel that belief, and as long as historical education in this country remains a bizarre conglomeration of histories that signify nothing, this idea of the French Revolution as a simplified revolt from the poor against the rich monarchy will persist.
That being said, the main takeaway you should draw from the French Revolution is the main point you probably learned in history class. The French Revolution is the start of the modern era (for the West), but the path it took to get there was immensely complicated and the upshot of the events are egregiously difficult to understand. That’s the part that I am going to write about.
The French Revolution was, at its core, a crisis of the political order. All the other distinctions–class, religion, economic etc.–feed directly into the political crisis that overtook the monarchy in the years leading up to 1789 and beyond. The political system failed, repeatedly, to solve the vast fiscal problems of a monarchy that, far from absolutist, was actually powerless in its attempts to centralize the state.
The best metaphor to describe the cause of the Revolution is that of a really bad offensive line. The O-line represents the political and legal institutions of France. The monarchy is the quarterback. The debt problems are the pass rushers. During the course of a football game, the narrative is that the quarterback has the power to change anything at will, but he is actually at the mercy of the offensive line. While the quarterback (for example, Case Keenum) looks horrible, he actually can’t control much because of the offensive line. Of course, everyone blames the problems on the quarterback anyway.
Throughout the lead-up to the French Revolution under the reign of Louis XV, the attempts to reform the government and centralize the monarchy failed. The Mopou Crisis, the failures of the Physiocrats, and most attempts to reform the state failed miserably due to various special interests, from the peasantry (in the case of the Flour War) and the nobility (the protests against the suspension of the Parlement). The only societal reform that seemed to function properly was the military reforms of Guibert, but even that reform was entirely biased in favor of the nobility.
But the French monarchy football team kept chugging along, and the debt crisis was just swept under the rug by guys like Necker and Calonne. And, in my opinion, the collapse of the political order that occurred in 1789 (and again in 1792) was not even close to inevitable. If the French had strong central leadership and a method to solving the monarchy’s problems by crushing these special interests, things might have somewhat worked out with limited reforms. A good quarterback can work with a bad offensive line. Louis XVI and his ministry just weren’t good quarterbacks. Thus, the whole team imploded.
But when the “absolutism”, which was strived to but never existed, fell apart, the factions within France took control of the Revolution. At this point, every single group leading up to Napoleon, from the Estates-General to the final days of the Directory, used the political crisis to achieve its own narrowly defined goals. You may call this tendency “freedom”, but I’d call it “inexperience” or “extremism”. The upshot of the mass “freedoms” of the French Revolution was complete chaos for about four years, and then mild chaos for the next seven.
Therefore, I agree with de Tocqueville on the basis of his argument that political neophytes really hurt the French Revolution’s attempts to modernize the nation of France. Here are a list of the problems of the “first revolution” (the more famous one) which started with the Tennis Court Oath and was run by liberal nobles.
- The Civil Constitution of the Clergy divided the nation on religious lines for almost no reason.
- The “Self-Denying Ordinance”, proposed by that greatest of political idealists with no idea how to actually govern, Maximillian Robespierre, basically doomed the Legislative Assembly to factional squabbles amongst the Feuillants, Girondins and Jacobins as the liberal nobles were kicked out.
- The failure to deal with the matter of Saint-Domingue/Haiti in a timely manner. Sugar shortages that eventually resulted from the revolt would cause some serious civil disturbances later on.
- The inability to see that Louis XVI was not really that committed to working with the Revolution.
And of course, the mistakes only continued with the Legislative Assembly.
- The War of 1792 itself was a tremendous mistake, created by lack of understanding of the European political situation amongst the Girondins and a tremendous over-confidence in the French military. The war was not just a direct cause for the overthrow of the French monarchy, but it also devastated the French economy and caused massive revolts once the central government started to conscript soldiers.
- The Feuillants’ consistent attempts to make amends with the King really stripped them of their political legitimacy due to the King’s flight to Varennes.
- The Massacre of the Champ de Mars.
- The mishandling of the situation on Saint-Domingue stripped France of its most important Atlantic colony and triggered even more shortages and economic catastrophe.
The revolutionaries were idealistic and their ideas were sound (the Constitutions of 1791 and 1793 went beyond the American Constitution in terms of equality and representation), but their inter-factional squabbling and inability to create a functioning central government along republican lines doomed the Revolution to violence and war. The decisions of the Girondin ministry directly led to the Terror and the Haitian Revolution, which is very impressive.
Of course, another massive component of the French Revolution’s inability to settle down and actually solve the problems it set out to accomplish was the city of Paris. The move to Paris after the Women’s March on Versailles had massive consequences, and the repeated influence of the ultra-radical Paris sections on the Revolution alienated just about everybody in the nation at some point. These “ultra-radicals”, first with Danton and the Old Cordeliers, and then the enragés against the Convention, constantly made their narrow and extremist positions the position of the government.
Now, were the radical sans-culottes “wrong”? No, they wanted universal manhood suffrage and creation of a social safety net for the poor, and some of their beliefs are cherished wings of modern Western liberalism in the 20th and 21st century. But they were also, undoubtedly, violent extremists. For the average French citizen in Lyon or Bordeaux, Danton’s Revolution of 1792 was the equivalent of a terrorist taking control of the central government. And although the new Convention and the Revolutionary Republic ostensibly tried to keep terror out of its government, it gave into political violence and repression within a few months. The political chaos also completely ruined the French economy (remember, the same problem that caused this whole mess), which triggered the Federalist revolts of 1793 and the revolts of the sans-culottes to ensure “the maximum” and other economic protections.
The constant overrunning of the moderate position in the French Revolution, spurred on by factionalism and extremism, essentially made the Revolution a black hole that needed a strong leader to rescue it. And of course, the utter black hole of 1793, with its long-running string of crises triggered by the defection of Dumouriez in the beginning of the year, allowed Maximillian Robespierre to believe that he could be that strong leader. It’s too bad he turned out to be a complete nut.
Say what you want about him though, he and the Committee of Public Safety did eventually stop the long-running trend of political chaos. Their attempts to continue the crackdown, however, got them run out of power.
TL;DR – Political infighting really ruined everything, but it also probably created the modern nation state in the process.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake
– Rabindranath Tagore, “Where the Mind is Without Fear”
Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.
– Rorschach, Watchmen
Write the words. Post them onto the Internet. Look into the eyes of the people you love, look concerned, look worried, think, try to sleep, try to think of your homework, try to live. Try to find where your mind is without fear. Try to live without fear. Try.
But you can’t. Not anymore. Not today. Because Donald Trump is President of the United States. And even if you support him, it is clear that that means fear has taken root in you too, whether you admit it or not. Because why else would you vote for him, if you weren’t afraid of something. Muslims, foreigners taking your jobs, never getting your job back, ISIS, gays, transsexuals, empowered women…face it, you were afraid of something. We were all afraid.
I have to be honest with myself. In a world where so many people are not honest with themselves or others, in a world now headed by a man who takes pleasure, it seems, in dishonesty, a man who won a campaign based on dishonesty against a woman surrounded by accusations of dishonesty, I think it’s worth being true to your own self, while you still can, if you still can. I probably have undiagnosed clinical depression. I probably should go to a psychiatrist. I’m amazed my life hasn’t really collapsed yet. Anyone who knows me, really knows me, probably realizes that. Anybody who’s seen me walk off into the distance, muttering things under my breath, knows that, even if I’ll never admit it to anyone vocally, not even my parents, not even my friends, not anybody, not ever.
And to be honest, I really have never had a real reason to be depressed, at least from my perspective. I’m from an affluent family. I go to an institution that only a select few can attend. I have opportunities that some people will never have because of their gender, their skin color, their sexual orientation. I didn’t have a good reason, I told myself, and yet I was sad anyway. Reminding myself that I should be happy, in some ways, made it worse.
And the worst moments were when I was afraid. When I stood on a freezing cold day on Sherman Avenue because I couldn’t face myself. When I stood over broken glass because I didn’t know what would happen. All for nothing, all for nothing, all for nothing.
And here we are. With the events of the 2016 presidential election, I might have a “real reason”. And if the people and ideas I care about start to disappear, literally and metaphysically, and this nation embarks on the path it has chosen for itself, those reasons will metastasize and crash through my mind. And I’m terrified. But that’s how America just is, now.
But you shouldn’t be reading this for my sob stories. You should be reading this because I have some analysis, because maybe some random 19-year-old Korean-American kid from Warwick, NY who has consumed more history, literature, theology, political theory and philosophy than our president-elect has something to say. And you might even agree with it, given that you are probably a liberal, young and outraged citizen of the United States.
This is a failure of the political system. You may think it’s a social catastrophe, or an economic catastrophe, or a catastrophe on so many different intellectual levels, but I consider this to be a failure of politics itself. It’s also a failure of the liberal echo chamber, the primary system, and a vast network of other things in American society.
However, it is most damningly a failure of a very specific brand of politics, specifically the “Western” liberal tradition that has existed, in some way, since the Founding Fathers signed the United States Constitution into law in 1787. It is a failure of the Western liberal tradition (both the core of the Democratic and Republican parties, in my opinion) to spread the fruits of globalization to a large population of its citizenry and retain its strength. The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. This question was supposed to be over. The McWorld had triumphed. Twenty-five years ago, if you told my immigrant grandfather that the United States would elect a racist demagogue to the presidency, he would have laughed in your face and gone back to running his small business.
But how do we explain what has happened? I look to foreign policy first, because what has occurred outside our borders is the first thing that reflects back to us.
I should explain the use of “McWorld” here. In 1995, political theorist and all-around intellectual Benjamin Barber wrote an article called “Jihad vs. The McWorld”. In it, he argued that, with the collapse of communism, the next global conflict would become a conflict between “tribalism” typified by a return to conservative values and “globalism”, a world committed to international trade, economic growth, and ostensibly committed to increasing the progressiveness of society. It was Aldous Huxley vs. A Canticle for Leibowitz. It was Fahrenheit 451 vs. “The American Theocracy“. It was the mujahideen against the Western world.
Ironically, the last 25 years of American foreign and economic policy has hinged on limiting the forces of “tribalism”. That includes counter-terrorist policy, by the way. Who opposed the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein, twice? Who fought against the tribalism that overflowed during the Yugoslav Wars? The United Nations, essentially, is a force that polices the world for tribalist activities.
“The aim of many of these small-scale wars is to redraw boundaries, to implode states and resecure parochial identities: to escape McWorld’s dully insistent imperatives. The mood is that of Jihad: war not as an instrument of policy but as an emblem of identity, an expression of community, an end in itself. Even where there is no shooting war, there is fractiousness, secession, and the quest for ever smaller communities.”
-Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld, 1995
But look at the irony of that statement. The movement to support Trump can basically be summed up in the words “resecure parochial identities: to escape McWorld’s dully insistent imperatives“. Add in the highly religious overtones of the current Republican party and, whoops, you’ve created a mutated form of “jihad”. Which is, of course, ironic as hell. What country works to destroy ISIS, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar tribalist organizations? The United States, aka, the same group of people just elected Donald Trump, partly in order to fight those jihadis. Are they that different from the conservative, religious, lower to middle class backers of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Erdogan in Turkey? Marine le Pen? I don’t know anymore.
But you’ve heard all this, I hope, in the election “postgame” and in other intellectual sources. Barber’s main point was that this conflict, on both ends, could threaten democracy, whether through rampant corporatization or tribalist fury. We have chosen the latter.
So how exactly did western liberalism fail in this instance? Through hubris, arrogance and shortsightedness, yes, but also because enough people despised the political system enough to vote against it. By the way, I’m intentionally using “liberalism” in a duality here, as both our modern left-wing definition and the classic definition, both of which have been utterly defeated. So essentially, I’m referring to everyone left of Jeb Bush.
In the end, it came down to religion, economics, gender and race, the topics that have been causing tribalist angst for half a century. It came down to a simple lack of understanding, and perhaps sympathy, I suppose for a vast part of the voting electorate. I can’t properly cover gender, because I don’t have the qualifications. I’ll take a shot at the other three.
There are plenty of people reading this who are, what I would consider, secular. There’s another large section of people reading this who are nominally Christian, and there’s a section of people reading this who are really Christian. The people in the last category should have no real surprise that rural America refused to vote for Hillary Clinton.
For the entirety of my reasoning, thinking life, all I’ve repeatedly heard about when I go to my (Protestant) church events is how Christianity is under attack by everything. The media, the government, and the popular culture are all conflated with evil. Yes, not a rationalist perspective, but the devil himself. Christians in America, and especially the ones in more rural area, quite honestly, legitimately view themselves as a persecuted group. How can this be possible, you ask?
It’s hard to compromise with faith, and the Democrats just gave up on trying to do so in this election. And while not all of the people in a congregation will agree with a strict interpretation of the Bible, enough people will. The areas that swung the vote for Trump are rural, Christian and white. We know that much. The tenets are universal and simple: Christianity is being attacked and persecuted abroad and within our borders, Christianity is losing hold over the population because the devil has poisoned our political system, the devil is taking our youth with rap music, etc. I’ve heard it all before. And, although you’d be right in considering me a pretty left-wing dude, I’m absolutely certain I can fake my way through a conversation with a conservative right-wing Christian pundit, and give textual Bible references to boot. That’s just how the religion works.
The simple fact is, the conservative values espoused in the Bible are diametrically opposed to the liberal agenda. I’m done sugarcoating it. This is the reality. I’ve sat in a church pew and heard pastors say that they simply “do not approve” of homosexuality, and would have to be disappointed in their children if they “turned out to be gay”. I’ve heard multiple sermons from multiple people stating, with few reservations, that wives should always be subordinate to their husbands, with textual evidence pointing Colossians 3:18, among other passages. I’ve heard people just outright say that Mohammed was a false prophet and that all Muslims were damned, and then give theological backing for it. And this is from a “more liberal” end of Christianity, the Korean-American communities of New Jersey, most of whom probably voted for HRC anyway.
But, you say, religion wasn’t an issue in this campaign. Donald Trump was so outlandish, so “not good” that anyone with a Christian conscience couldn’t even imagine voting for him. False (Enjoy this link of the CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, an organization my family has donated to for each Christmas for eight years running, saying that Christians should “hold their noses” and vote for him). It may have bothered people, it may have unsettled them, but since they had no option, they ended up voting for him. And thus, 80 percent of white evangelicals block voted for him, swinging the vote in multiple key states. They don’t care about what the mainstream media thinks. They don’t care about what rich, urban liberal elites think.
As someone who was raised as an evangelical Christian, this does not surprise me in the slightest. I would suspect that most of these people actually voted with their conscience, believing that Trump was better than the alternative, a political insider who had never, and would never, support them. And it’s not like the Clinton campaign hid it, either. It the end, the evangelicals were just enough, leaving me in a position where I cannot and will not defend them. I guess I’m a minority in my own religion.
The economic question is murkier. Economics is notoriously difficult to draw proper conclusions, but I will try my best. For me, the issue begins with the concentration of wealth into the hands of very few people. These people are on both ends of the political spectrum, and judging by the imminent collapse of world markets, they are not thrilled with the outcome. Globalization and technological advancement, in a situation akin to the expansion of the Roman Republic, has brought in an influx of new wealth, new people and new goods to the United States. However, like the Roman Republic, this has essentially created a pseudo-plutocracy, typified most especially in this election by Hillary Clinton. And of course, the Romans voted for every political demagogue they could get their hands on, and we have done the same.
According to news reports I consumed while panicked on my couch last night, it appears that the economy was a major reason behind the Trump base, perhaps the central reason. For people who look at the unemployment rate and the stock market, this makes no sense. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the disappearance of manufacturing jobs has led to a groundswell of Trump support. But manufacturing jobs aren’t disappearing. They have actually risen in the past decade. What’s disappearing is the ability for non-college educated people to gain a suitable method of employment. Current manufacturing jobs, with their technological precision, do not need “blue-collar” workers, and all attempts to bring back manufacturing jobs to America have not benefitted that class. Thus, I highly doubt the gaudy unemployment figures are fully capturing what is going on in Middle America. I would assume there is a lot of underemployment, people who have been forced out of the workforce due to age, and therefore a lot of anger.
I gotta be totally honest, I don’t give two fucks about the national unemployment rate either. And in the end, the national unemployment rate isn’t getting me a job out of college. The unemployment rate is a barometer of economic performance, not a reason to make your life better. Is voting for a racist demagogue the answer? Absolutely not, but it appears the McWorld was fundamentally incapable of giving these people any hope. And so they voted the McWorld out of office.
Is Donald Trump able to bring those jobs back? Probably not, and the blue-collar workers may even understand that, deep down. But he at least poses an alternative to the current political system, and the current political system definitely isn’t bringing those jobs back. In this case, the economics lined up perfectly with religious and racial sentiment, which proved just enough to defeat the presidential establishment in the primaries and the general election. Of course, the current economic system has also let down millions of blacks, Hispanics and Asians, but it appears that not enough of them were galvanized by the Democratic campaign.
I also have heard the Internet caterwauls from the Bernie supporters screaming: “I told you so! The primaries were rigged against the better candidate!” And yes, there is fairly substantial evidence that the DNC never intended for Sanders to have a chance. And the fact that Sanders provided such a challenge for Clinton in the first place, winning popularity in the Midwestern states she failed in, is concerning. The embittered now wish they had nominated their own outsider candidate, whose economic populism could have resonated with more white voters.
While that is a compelling “what-if”, I struggle to see how an elderly Jewish socialist would have managed to gain more popular support than Hillary Clinton. Maybe he could have. I know I would have voted for him. I heard many people I respect say he was a “once in a lifetime” candidate. But it would’ve been a high-risk play, and the political establishment is allergic to risk. The DNC wanted to play it safe, and I cannot really blame them for that. When you appear to have a group of religious lunatics on the other side of the fence, there’s very little that can be done about it. Of course, simply calling them religious lunatics ensured that they would never, ever vote for you, but that’s besides the point, I guess. There’s also an implicit gender bias at play here, which again, I don’t feel qualified to talk about, but probably exists.
But there were more than poor whites that voted for him. There simply aren’t enough white voters to give a presidential candidate 48 percent of the popular vote. The Republicans who wanted to “play it safe” ended up voting for him too. And it’s hard to fathom, but it happened.
Lastly, I will give my brief and incomplete analysis on the racial question, which has essentially been the “leading tone” of this presidential election. The leading tone, in music theory, is the note just beneath the tonic note that sets up a minor key. It appears that a large amount of Americans simply didn’t want to coexist alongside non-white people. Hmmm…I don’t really know what to say about that reality, as a non-white person myself.
But that’s still a vast oversimplification. Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency solely because he was racist (although, we must admit, horrifyingly, that was a major factor). He won, in part, because the Washington political base failed its constituents. He won because people assumed they weren’t being heard. He won, I think primarily, because the western liberal political system failed, not because people were racist. And you go through the arguments, and the justifications, and then you remember that a lot of what was “unheard”, was just blatantly racist, and we’re back at the leading tone, just as minor scales were designed. But that’s only the leading tone. So…
…but given everything we’ve seen in the race relations of this country for 150 years, is anyone surprised?
If there’s any consolation (or joy) to tou, it will be that the new right-wing coalition will find it extremely hard to govern. As French revolutionary and architect of the Terror Louis Antoine de Saint-Just once wrote, “no man can reign innocently”. It will be criticized, mocked, threatened and obstructed, just as what occurred to the regime before it. And sure, they have majorities, etc., etc. but Barack Obama had majorities from 2008-2010 and the Republicans still obstructed everything. If Trump suspends the Constitution, or something, all bets are off, but even then, governing is immensely difficult.