NOTE: My brother wrote me this email back in 2017 about his relationship with politics and his thoughts on being an expat. He died that November and I only recently rediscovered this and thought it was worth sharing. I miss his thoughts.
much as I hated (and regretted, at the time) my whole experience at Dartmouth, later on I realized that it might have had a silver lining:
it showed me, up-close and early-on, how the warning signs of fascism look – and made me highly motivated to protect myself.
in other words, what I learned at Dartmouth in the 80s was what made me decide to leave the country 20 years later. I’d already “done” politics at college and I’d seen that it was a doomed enterprise – I’d already gone through all the depression and distraction and crying and post-mortems.
at the ripe old age of 22, I’d already become utterly jaded and bitter and cynical about “the system” – after seeing people like Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza up-close and personal – and I knew that “the system” would always be totally corrupt – no matter how much we tried to organize at the “grassroots” level.
my role model was Vladimir Nabokov. I’d discovered that he’d  had a comfortable upper-class life in Russia before the Bolsheviks took over – and he lost it all when he had to go into exile.
of course, with his considerable gifts as a writer, he could have become an important political voice.
but he didn’t.
somewhere in his memoirs, I remember reading his reasoning about this: he said that it was a conscious decision on his part to not look back. instead of getting sucked into politics, he devoted himself to art. I think the word “Bolshevik” is mentioned exactly one time in all his writings. everything else is butterflies and poetry and sex.
maybe some people will find that frivolous. but it can be a valid approach.
art itself does have a certain value – and it can actually implicitly counteract politics.
it’s a different kind of “fighting” – saying that your opponent is too ugly for you to even look at.
i remember all the drag queen shows I’d see in New York in the East Village. utterly frivolous stuff all the time, and supposedly utterly apolitical. but if you read between the lines, the whole thing was very political, in at least two ways:
1 – as subtle / indirect / implicit commentary deflating the “patriarchy” and
2 – simply as fun which made you feel stronger to face all the political battles around you
the last time I saw WigStock (the big daytime drag show in the East Village, founded by Lady Bunny), was when Bush had been in office for a while, and he was dragging the country into the Iraq War.
in previous years, WigStock had always been wonderful. but that year, with Bush and Iraq and oppression weighing everyone down, Lady Bunny herself was kinda “down” and political and serious during the show – totally out of character for her.
there was a cloud hanging over everything, and she kept interjecting serious stuff, which was kindof a “drag”.
that year’s “serious” WigStock was really depressing. and it was the last WigStock I went to.
little barometers like that – the “mood” among the drag queens at WigStock during the start of the Iraq War – these were major sociological indicators to me, showing me that the country was drifting into fascism, and that it could make even the drag queens in their high heels lose their footing.
Russian prison tattoos
I ran across this book on Russian Prison Tattoos once in a New York bookstore, and leafed through it. it really got me thinking, because:
of course, as we know, the USSR was a horrible place, and it was full of political prisoners, whose lives had been ruined
here was this weird undeground art form, “Russian prison tattoos”, where they had found a way to express their suffering and rebellion
we routinely treat such desperate expressions of rebellion in captivity as being somehow instrinsically noble and hence automatically beautiful, but my reflexive aesthetic evaluation of those tattoos was that they actually sucked
i realized that it was in some sense “necessary” to do those tattoos, but they weren’t the “organic” designs of Tahitian tattoos which integrated naturally with the elegant and seductive curves of the body – instead they were text-heavy, graphically clumsy “important” political messages which didn’t adorn but rather further degraded the bodies they were displayed on.
so, protest can seem “cool” – but only at some abstract, intellectual meaning, where we attach meaning to it – and where it can be what we have now come to call “virtue signaling”. but at the concrete level, protest can actually be very ugly.
I also got briefly involved with the Green Party in Brooklyn for a while. I had met one of the organizers who was this really cool woman who owned Eco-Books – where she turned me on to some of my favorite books:
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual – by Bill Mollison
Coming Home to the Pleistocene – by Paul Shepard
Living Machines – by John Todd
I ended up making a membership database in Microsoft Access to help out the Green Party chapter in Brooklyn, and hung out with some of them a few times going out to cafes.
and they were the most boring people I’d met in New York.
there was probably a kind of “racial” aspect to it for me – I had already gotten my dose of feeling “underground” or “alternative” by basically living with poor black guys all the time. all these ernest white “rebels” I met in the Green Party just did seem much like “rebels” to me after that.
they just seemed like total drips and after a couple times hanging out in cafés with them, that was the end of my association with the Green Party.
oh and by the way, now we see Jill Stein – who is just an irrelevant, ideological hack.
of course, the belief that fighting back is useless (or ugly and damaging in itself) is all just my personal opinion.
I realize that many people believe it’s important to fight back, but my personal opinion – based mainly on my experiences at Dartmouth – is that it doesn’t really lead to the results you want.
there’s simply too many of them, and the amount of effort involved in fighting back is simply overwhelming – and distracting.
I already burned-out, during my college years, before we even had Twitter and Facebook, spending all my time & energy fighting against those proto-fascists.
what i learned from that experience was:
1 – on the rare chance that you manage to “win”, you’ll have wasted so much of your existence dealing with them, that your “win” won’t really be as sweet as you hoped it would be: the struggle itself is such a big distraction, the mere fact of having to get your hands (and your mind) dirty with those people is in itself a kind of “loss”, so by merely having to engage them, you have in some sense “lost”.
this is kinda sorta related to George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant”.
the minute you have to engage in explicit argumentation that “it’s ok to be female / black / gay” – you’ve already lost.
the only approach that actually works is to simply celebrate those things – never “apologize” or even “argue in favor of” them. the minute you’re fighting for those things, you’ve lost – because you’ve accepted “their” framing, that these things are somehow questionable, debatable, something that “could be” fought over.
it would never occur to us to “fight for” food or sex, so in some sense it should also never occur to us to “fight for” people who happen to be female or black or gay. it’s just obvious that those things are all wonderful – by consenting to make them “debatable” we have in some sense already lost the argument – by accepting the “framing” of the fascists that these are legitimate things to “fight about”.
2 – the much more likely outcome is that you will “lose” – not necessarily because there are so many more of them, but rather simply because their goal (destroying things) is always automatically easier than your goal (constructing things) – and because, due to their essential dysfunction, they’re actually always going to be more motivated than you.
ie: “when you’re number two, you have to try harder” – just to be clear, in this context the party that’s number two is them – they’re inferior / defective, and they’re miserable because we’re so fabulous. we’re just going about our business enjoying life – but they’ve been in torment their whole lives, so their motivation for “revenge” (“revenge” for what? for the fact that they’re losers?) is much more powerful than we could ever imagine – the whole thing is so foreign to us.
so, my resolution was:
“I shall turn my back, and that will be my only negation.”
(I think this was a phrase quoted in some book by Roland Barthes – but I’ve since been unable to find it)
how did I put this into practice:
even now, I kick myself for spending so much time online, constantly looking back at the wreckage of “that country”
I’ve been down here for 15 years, and there’s so much that’s beautiful down here that I can easily get involved in – when I remind myself to.
(not that it’s perfect here either – now that the neo-liberals led by Temer and Cunha also staged their little “coup” to get rid of the socialists Lula and Dilma)
but really, the skill which I most need to develop, is:
hard to do, but I’m working on it.
there is a tribe of Indians in the Orinoco who have never heard of Washington or New York.
I have no idea what you can do up there. you live there, and you have a husband and two daughters up there.
I wouldn’t be able to handle it. it must really suck, because there doesn’t seem to be any really good options.
i realize that my approach (fleeing, trying not to look back) isn’t  very practical when you’re in the middle of it all, with all the crap coming at you (and your family) on TV, online, at school / work / in life.
I just see “them” as poison filling the air. i just don’t see how to “fight against” poison without breathing it in.
how can you make the best of it if you’re surrounded by it? I don’t really know.
maybe just try to get the girls involved in anything-but-politics.
treat politics like the filthy cesspool it is – something to be avoided at all costs, too horrifying and ugly to even look at. get them involved in anything else – cooking, pets, music, literature, sports – the beautiful things in life.
we don’t tune the TV (very often) in to watch belching smokestacks / gruesome murders / natural calamities.
so maybe we could just start treating Washington the same way, as simply being too horrific to even look at or talk about in polite company.
living in Massachusetts, what is even the point of teaching the kids about their so-called “civic duty” of voting – when due to the Electoral College, their votes will never even count anyways? (because Massachusetts is already “blue” anyways, so by standing in line and casting yet another vote for the Dems, they’re accomplishing precisely nothing.)
it would be perfectly legitimate to only rarely mention Washington, and always in hushed and worried tones, and say “those are very bad people. they’re theives and murderers. you should always avoid them.” and then get back to baking a quiche or playing the piano or riding a horse with the kids.
kinda the way that black people have been warning their children about cops for years.