Among the slogans I hate the most is "The personal is political," not least because the equation is easily inverted, and something happens to us when the political becomes personal. It's not always good, either:
I unfollowed a long time friend on twitter yesterday because I couldn't stand his political rhetoric any longer. He's a right wing conservative all the way, a Friend of Glenn Beck as I like to call them. How we first became friends is wrapped in the story of how I spent a few years of my life in the deep end of the mental pool. And it needs telling because every now and then people say to me "Didn't you use to be pro war/Republican/crazy?" and all I can do is say, it was just a phase.
Once upon a time, a television reporter asked me and this is how you know the world is topsy-turvy, because I was the one being asked when the Big Blog Boom came about. "September 12, 2001," I said. Not the eleventh it took time for the horrible events of that day to sink in but the twelfth, after we'd had a chance to sleep on it. And a lot of us couldn't.
People who have known me my whole life and even the people who have known me online since the very early days of 2001 know this about me: I've always been mostly liberal. Sometimes I would sit on the fence and play the middle of the road game but I have been, since a child, sometimes fiercely liberal in my beliefs. As I got older those beliefs became somewhat tempered with age, but they were still part of my core being.
And she was in New York, which meant that whatever the rest of us may have felt, it paled in comparison, because she was there. You can't shrug off something like this. Take it from someone who's four miles from where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building used to be.
Something happened. Something snapped. I was spending almost all my free time blogging. Blogging about war and terrorism and fear and death and sadness. A hatred welled up inside me. I knew what it was. I knew where the hate and blackness came from and what it was about. But in the post 9/11 world I found a convenient way to project all the bile without turning it back toward myself. I fell in step with the people who were known then as the warbloggers. I fell in step with people who knew how to sling mud and spew venom. We had our common enemy: terrorism. We had our common targets: anyone who wasn't gung ho about eradicating our enemy from the face of the earth. And all the while I was doing this, all the time I was calling for war and praising our dear leader and calling my former friends all the people who took about ten steps back from me when I fell off the ledge traitors and other horrible name, all that time I knew. I knew I wasn't being myself. I knew I didn't believe half of what I was screaming about. All I knew was I found a venue in which to scream and god damn I needed to scream.
"Scream" is the word. I myself wrote on 9/11: "So far, I've remained just as calm as can be going through the Oklahoma City bombing perhaps has taken some of the fright out of me, and gallows humor will take care of some of the rest. But somehow I can still see myself tumbling from bed at the stroke of midnight, sweating to beat the band and screaming my fear into the night sky."
I didn't slide that far to the right, mostly because I didn't have quite so far to go: in the last fifteen years or so, I've averaged somewhere around a click and a half right of center, with just enough pendulum action to sweep me leftward on a handful of issues. Before that? Maybe a tad, perhaps a tad and three-quarters, to the left.
And so it went. I went on appearing to everyone online (and at this point my blog had about 10,000 hits a day and I was doing interviews with the BBC and such) like I was some rabid warmonger and as my old friends left in droves most of my new friends proved to be nothing more than sharks who were all too happy to feed off of me.
This is a definition of "friends" I would hate to have to defend in front of a committee of lexicographers, or indeed anyone else.
I can pinpoint the exact moment it all started to unravel. I was asked to take part in an online debate with Neal Pollack. It would be about the Iraq war and the fight against terrorism. It was a disaster. Within ten minutes Neal called me out, telling me point blank that I did not believe anything I was telling him. I was a fraud. I gave some excuse why I couldn't finish the debate and spent most of that night sitting at my computer desk, staring at the screen, wondering what the fuck happened to me.
And this is precisely why I resist "the personal is political" and other such nasty nostrums. An irreducible part of the American ideal, I believe, is the notion that you go your way, I go mine, she goes hers, and the government does its best to stay out of our way. At the moment, we're having that stripped away by a band of underfed but otherwise overindulged adolescents in the emotional, not the chronological sense who bought into that nonsense about "We are the ones we've been waiting for." In terms of historical precedent, this is about as useful as Harry Truman declaring [link NSFW] "I'm a shark."
What happened between then and now is too complicated and boring to get into. It started with learning how to be honest with myself, moved on to accepting certain things, letting certain things go, making big changes and moving on. It also involved apologies to old friends, some who accepted and some who still aren't talking to me.
I didn't know her until the "insanity" had set in. But the draw wasn't never had been the idea that we would be fighting together for some great Cause. If I saw her as a kindred spirit, it was because she allowed herself enough vulnerability to let me see how her mind worked, and because, I think, she realized that doing so could be a source of strength instead of a sign of weakness. The trouble with casting your bread upon the water, of course, is that rather a lot of people think themselves entitled to sandwiches. And I have to ask myself: "Had I suddenly lurched to the left after 9/11, would she have turned her back on me?"
No, she would not have. She might have scolded me for this position, mocked me for that one, suggested I perform an act upon myself beyond not only the capabilities of my body but the laws of physics for yet another but having seen the point where the personal and the political not only meet but actually merge, she was ultimately wise enough to say, "I am so not going there."
"There," there be dragons.
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Copyright © 2010 by Charles G. Hill