Writing this column during such a week is difficult. On the one hand, I know full well what’s happening in Baltimore; on the other hand, I only found out about it last night while I was at the gym… after a 10-hour shift at work, before making dinner and then going right to bed because I was exhausted. I’m aware enough of the facts and timeline involved, and smart enough (I think?) to understand that something needs to be done — both on a grassroots and large-scale, top-down approach — but there hasn’t been enough time for everything to settle in and, thusly, I’m not sure what to even say about it.
Events like this illuminate what exactly this task is that I do for gas money every week. I’m not a reporter — hell, I’m barely a journalist. But real-time updates don’t fall into the purview of this column; if you’re looking for as-they-happen facts or a rundown of the events in question, there are much better sources for you to consult. And you know that. At least, come on, I hope you know that.
Here’s what I’ve tried, in my now-years-long effort to bring some consistency to this space from week to week, to do with my job: absorb information, take enough time to process it and maybe add a little historical context and butt jokes, and then spit it back out laced with some semblance of critical analysis. At times, I’ve been moderately successful; other times not so much, but I can’t bring myself to care, because none of you know where I live.
But that — that right there — is indicative of the problem I’m facing with trying to write about the Baltimore situation, the Trayvon Martin shooting or any other one of the slew of racially charged acts of violence that seem to be epidemic in our country. Namely, I’m taking issue with my own work, and with the work of many, with regards to “think pieces.” There are many riffs on the old adage that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and I almost feel like a schmuck even typing that phrase. But I do wonder how true it is, especially today. We’re taught from an early age — and some of us remain idealistic enough to keep on believing it — that a sharp mind is more valuable, more nurturing and devastating, than an iron fist. In principle, I still agree, if only because I must; it’s all I have to fight with.
Here’s the problem: either force or passivity by themselves are ineffective. Baltimore stands as an example of the former; little good is going to come of the looting and rioting in that city, even if the acts themselves stem from completely justified social outrage (the Gray family themselves are horrified, angry and saddened by what’s happening, ostensibly in their name). Pure violence begets more of the same, and it gives white apologists (looking at you, Fox News) all the ammunition they’ll ever need.
The protests here in Wisconsin stand as an example of unbridled passivity. When Scott Walker abolished collective bargaining rights for unions, there was immediate outrage. And what did the outraged do? They stood outside of the Capitol with signs. They chanted. As long as two years afterward, a few ridiculous hippies gathered in the Capitol at noon every day and sang Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs. To say that this accomplished nothing is an insult to the productivity of the word “nothing.”
Lately, I’ve been listening to “Enemy of the Sun,” an early album by Neurosis. One of the tracks is prefaced by a recounting of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation. You know the one, even if you only know it from that Rage Against the Machine album cover. Duc was protesting the Vietnam oppression of Buddhists in that country; his sacrifice, if nothing else, brought worldwide attention to the issue and paved the way for the Diem regime’s overthrowing.
Duc assumed the lotus position, fingered some prayer beads and then set himself alight. This is horrific violence meets ultimate passivity, and there is no greater example. I’m not suggesting that we all set fire to ourselves, or even to each other. What I am saying is this: metaphorically, and maybe just a little realistically, something has to burn before things change.