And the Enemy Is…

And the Enemy Is…

Patricia Williams will be on leave for the remainder of the year, returning to this space in January 2000.


Years ago, I remember hearing a story about an extended family of Vietnamese refugees who had fled the war and ended up in a one-bath, two-bedroom apartment in downtown New Orleans. They were faring well enough, given the trauma they had been through–but for a misplaced nostalgia that had led them to improvise a thriving rice paddy in a series of large buckets, pans, pots and tubs in the aforementioned, very small, bathroom. It was the running water–rice needs constant irrigation–that led the neighbors to call the police. And when the soggy ceiling in the apartment below collapsed a few days later, they were summarily evicted.

I thought about them recently when I found myself wondering if you can grow corn in a highrise with no view. I found myself mentally homesteading space by the bookcase, imagining Rubbermaid receptacles full of seeded topsoil in that spot where a thin stream of ultraviolet rays beams in for approximately thirty-five minutes each day. And when I heard about a woman who is raising turkey chicks in a box beneath her sink, for the longest minute it struck me as quite a sensible thing.

I have been touched by millennial fever, no doubt about it. White friends in Washington State and black friends in Washington, DC, investigate home-schooling so as to protect their children from what they fear to be “the coming race war.” In Williams Bay, Wisconsin, the school district participated in what it called a massacre-prevention exercise but what looked for all the world like massacre practice. Real Explorer Scouts pretended to attack a real high school, firing pretend high-powered rifles at real teachers and real students, who were drenched with pretend blood as they scrambled to barricade themselves in real classrooms in a pretense of terror. Afterward, real police officers congratulated all parties involved on a mission well done. Or at least well simulated. A similar drill in Pittsburgh was touted by the New York Times as having “provided useful training to the police in the unfamiliar territory of a school building, while also sending a message of control to parents and teachers.”

A message of control indeed. Unless, of course, one of those nice young Scouts should go berserk–one of the neat, extremely clean, obedient ones whose control was always so exemplary he never so much as stepped on a crack in the sidewalk.

With the increasingly spectacular incidents of violence that have occurred in recent months, we as a nation seem to have moved toward institutionalizing greater control in all walks of life, however beset by contradiction. One morning recently, I heard radio pundits debating the efficacy of allowing ordinary citizens to carry concealed weapons. A short roll of the dial away, other radio pundits discussed a local school board’s proposal to prohibit any but see-through bookbags. We give great lip service to the need for greater community but seem hell-bent on locking each other out in repetitively practiced rituals of disconnection.

There’s profit in this path, I suppose, although hardly the heavenly sort that John Cotton and the Puritan fathers had envisioned. The enterprising agents of millennialist panic hawk everything from crateloads of canned peas to real estate on the moon, from stock market crashes to holes in the ozone. Chicken Little impersonators eclipse Elvis in popularity on the talk-show circuit, predicting drought, hail and boils. From police command posts to public schools, from prisons to rice paddies, we are rapidly entombing ourselves as loss and loathing tempt us to draw our wagons into unsustainably confining circles. All our unresolved histories, all the harbingers of unwanted change, congregate at the threshold of our passage into the next thousand years. The myths we bring to endings and beginnings rise like thickening smoke–our national anxieties, from divorce rates to diasporas, have coagulated into one whomping global identity crisis.

My guess is that all this is not merely fear of an increasingly unstable and dangerous world. There is also a certain eros at work–some spirit of desperate desire. It’s not all that hard to understand the appeal, actually. I too harbor a sick little longing to tuck into a nice bomb shelter, my loved ones around me, snug and protected against the drifting atomic snow outside. I imagine sleeping late every morning, free at last from faculty meetings (certain to be one of the first casualties of those four unerring horsemen). I dream of having time to read my never-sulky child all the great classics-as-defined-by-me; and I see myself lovingly presiding over candlelit dinners of Spam, dried apricots and distilled water. How grateful and warm we would be, like bunnies burrowed in for the winter. Come the nuclear spring we would emerge from our lead-lined warren into the bright, silent, decimated landscape and begin to repopulate the earth with new generations of Nation subscribers (for surely rocks, rivers and The Nation will live forever).

When I give free rein to these fantasies of apocalyptic grandiosity, what is obvious even to me is not only the nest-as-neurosis thing but also a childish nostalgia, a hope of return to an emotional womb reconfigured as a political state, a bit like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history blowing backward into the future. In these fantasies I recognize all my own disappointments and resentments; through fantasy, it is so easy to purge the world of all enemies, all debts, to say nothing of such postapocalyptic necessities as hewing wood and toting water.

It’s good to examine even our most troubling metaphors, to look hard at what such thoughts tell one about oneself. I suspect the search for high ground or a low bunker signals retreat from the complexities of community in real life. In this I’m awfully lucky, I suppose, for my sense of disconnection comes not from war or from trauma but only from great fatigue. I just need a vacation. Perhaps we as a nation need one too–a breathing space, an amnesty, a season of mourning, a month of indulgence, a year of celebration. A laying down of arms and a laying on of hands. A long, cool rain of forgiveness. A harvest of hope.

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