I posted earlier about my experience reading Dame Veronica Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War. As the initial impetus to read it was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay Wallenstein is Dead, I figured he was up next. I’ve been following Coates’ short work fairly consistently in The Atlantic, but this was the first time I’d read him in a longer form.
Between the World and Me is about a lot of things, but what it is most about is identity, not just the construction of the self, but the lies we must tell to maintain it. I was raised to self-awareness, and a lifetime on the therapist’s couch has taught me to tune my hearing to the internal tics that sketch out the boundaries of my various pathologies. I’d always taken pride in this, thumping my chest and extolling the “hard work” that brought me to know myself in a real and honest way.
Coates sticks a pin in that. Not because he takes issue with a person knowing themselves, but because it doesn’t matter. In an ethical world, the important thing isn’t who we are to ourselves, it’s who we are to others.
I’ve often said that ethics is living your life like it’s borrowed from everyone around you. I’ve tried hard to do this, but the truth is that it wasn’t until reading this book that I realized how truly little empathy I possessed, and how the inventory and honest reckoning of my own shortcomings was so much dust. Human beings are a networked organism. Even hermits affect society in the act of withdrawing from it. We mark one another simply by breathing, whether we intend to or not. Motive is irrelevant, and acceptance of the impact on the receiver being paramount is the foundation of human decency.
My identity is built on two fundamentals: That I am Jewish and that I am a nerd. Both of these were drilled into me by my parents from my earliest days. Both were reinforced constantly and thematically by every teacher, relative and family friend in my orbit. I have talked before about the baggage of my fear, and how hard rearing (which seems soft compared to Coates’ own) sent me scrambling for anything to make myself feel safe. Denied that in the arms of available parents, I found it in the same violence used by the gangsters in Coates’ Baltimore, save that, because I am white and wealthy, the state snatched it up, blessed it, and sent it off to do its will.
I was never comfortable being Jewish. I am my mother’s son more than my father’s, and her bone-deep loathing of her cultural roots (a people she had termed “short-waisted,” as opposed to their “long-waisted” WASP neighbors and colleagues) stuck. My father confined his stories of Jews to the depredations we suffered at the hands of the Nazis, the latest in a series descending from ancient times. Every Passover, we would gather and recite the story of our bondage. Slaves in Egypt, weak and beaten, hounded across the desert and saved only by the intervention of a kind and benevolent god. I didn’t want to be a slave. I didn’t want to go meekly to my death in a gas chamber or be shot in the back of the head for not making a hinge fast enough. I never saw depictions of Jews as warriors, and it wouldn’t be until much, much later that I learned that Jews had fought like wild dogs against the Roman Legion under Silva, or that in just six days, the army of Israel defeated the combined might of 14 hostile nations.
I didn’t understand that my father was not keeping Judaism’s martial capability from me, but that he had never even considered it. Violence wasn’t part of his universe except on the receiving end. My Soviet grandparents had suffered first under the Nazis, and later under the equally anti-Semitic Red Army, who liberated them only to deny them a place in the political body they’d lionized, so that they fled to the United States, just in time to have that same political leaning make them victims of Senator McCarthy and the nascent Red Scare. Like Coates in West Baltimore, they never had a chance.
I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want to be kicked from shore to shore, never in possession of myself, and because my grandparents had suffered, I was raised in the degree of privilege that allowed me to engage in that most distinctly American endeavor, personal reinvention. I will never forget the time after my commissioning day, when I turned to my father, and without any sense of irony whatsoever, gripped his shoulder and whispered fiercely, “Our line of lambs has at last produced a lion.”
But Coates’ lesson is that this reinvention was subconscious. It was cloaked in the lie that I adhered to the original building blocks of my identity. I was, to myself, the awkward, bookish Jew. I was the slave fleeing Egypt. The nerd reading comic books in the library at lunch. I was suspended in some kind of temporal amber that fixed me in the bathroom in elementary school, being beaten up because I was a dork, because I was small, because I didn’t know the secret argot that would make the cooler kids leave me alone.
But it wasn’t true anymore, hadn’t been true since my sophomore year of high school, when, in an effort to quell fear, I had begun spending my lunch periods in the gym instead of the library. I remember it happening like a switch had flipped. One second I was the skinny nerd, and the next I had somehow accrued violent power. There was a boy I had argued with, I don’t remember about what, and he walked past me with his lunch tray while I loitered in the hall. With the kind of lightning impulse that it seems only adolescents can muster, I stepped up and kicked the tray out of his hand. It was a call to arms. He should have turned and hit me, and we would have wrestled in the hallway until the teachers broke it up. It would have made noise and drawn an audience and I would have shown everyone that I was powerful and not afraid.
But that’s not what happened. He just kept walking, with his hamburger and tater-tots raining down around him, eyes fixed forward, as if I wasn’t there. People turned my way, but no teachers came running. Nobody shouted and pointed. Everyone pretended nothing had happened. It was then that I realized what real violent power was: Not spectacle, but genuine potency. Not noisy impotence, but the silent ability to bend the world to your will. Because people would far rather keep quiet than fight, because most of the time all you have to is puff yourself up and threaten to gain compliance.
I think about that day a lot. I wish I could find that boy and tell him that I have learned since then, that I became better than that.
But the truth is, I didn’t. I stuck to the lie. I wasn’t a bravo, a sellsword. I wasn’t a marauder. I was a Jew and a nerd. We were slaves and victims. We were the bullied. And if I kicked a kid’s lunch tray out of his hands, could you blame me? I had to show the world I was tough, to protect myself. Later, I had to send a Predator drone to hit a target, to protect everyone else.
I was awkward and bookish as I loaded up a tactical-vest with 5 pound weights in the magazine pouches and ran for miles. I was a geeky outcast as I qualified on the M16, the M4, the HK416, the M9, the M11, the Glock 17 and 19, the Remington 870 (which I nicknamed “Foehammer,” because isn’t that so nerdy and fun?). I was the dork playing D&D in my mom’s basement, who collected Elfquest and X-Men as I tied quad-knots, built platter-charges, learned how to use the engine-block of a disabled Humvee as cover from enemy fire. I was that kid who never knew what to say to the pretty girl as I learned to perform the “handshake” that helps you get the cuffs on before the perp can fight you. To deploy my baton on the meaty part of the thigh. To leave my pepper spray on my belt, because odds are I’d just wind up incapacitating my team, and then the bad guys would really fuck us up.
I was these things to myself and to my parents and to my friends. But to everyone else I was a repository of violent power. I have talked in my last post about what I was to the Iraqis. To that kid in school, I was the psycho, long-haired metalhead bully, the presence shadowing the halls that he would have to navigate to the safety of the classroom. I have often joked that, before I grew out my beard and my hair, people would stop me on the street to ask me for directions at least three times a day. The investment in my identity didn’t permit me to acknowledge it beyond a humorous coincidence. Isn’t that funny? I’m a nerdy Jew. What could anyone want from me other than to share squee over the latest episode of Doctor Who?
A couple of years ago, an altercation broke out at the World Fantasy Banquet, in the middle of the keynote. The room was packed with probably one hundred people, many of whom were closer to the action than I was, but I was there in a split second to put a stop to it. I flattered myself that it was the result of training, that I had fine-tuned my reflexes to public service. But the truth is that it was a combination of compulsion and the weight of expectations. Because I was the same thing to those people asking me for directions as I was to the kids on the block in Coates’ Baltimore: a white guy with a thick neck and a crew cut. A man who carried himself like he had the backing of the state, the designee for the righteous wrath of the municipality. Authorized to “control the situation” by any means necessary.
Violence lies at the end of every chain of legal consequences.
Why don’t you speed?
Because a cop will pull me over.
What happens if you refuse to pull over?
They will chase me.
What happens if you outrun them?
They will hunt me.
What happens if they catch you?
They will take me to prison.
What happens if you refuse to let them take you to prison?
They will kill me.
It is like this, in varying degrees, for everything from getting a divorce to stealing a candy bar. Society designates its spear carriers, and covers us in glory though we follow the same impulse as the gangsters on the block where Coates grew up.
And so it feels inevitable to me now that I transitioned smoothly from the force that leveled Iraq and delivered it into the thrall of ISIS, Jaysh al-Mahdi and the Iranian Mullahs, to the force that killed Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and delivered us to Ferguson and the withdrawal of the consent that policing relies upon to be effective. No one gives a damn about the fact that you kick it old school and only play 1st edition D&D. That you can detail every pattern of Imperial Stormtrooper armor, that you spent your Saturday nights reading in the Barnes & Noble café.
You are distilled to the single element of your impact on the network: Violence. Implied or actual. The shadow that must be weathered, navigated around. Not to the handful of people who know you, but to the legions who don’t.
This is what Coates has taught me. That knowing how you see yourself is the beginning of self-awareness, but knowing how others see you is the beginning of empathy, and ultimately, of any shred of morality we can aspire to. If there is a thing that can make us good, it must be this first and foremost, and it is, like everything worthwhile, a life’s work.