My relationship with running from loathing to my first marathon
Watching a child with a higher-than-optimal Body Mass Index stumble off the track in exhaustion gave me a sense of hope. I could join him. Maybe we’d become friends and make finger paintings together. In the interest of potential friendship, I further reduced my already Eeyore-worthy pace to a zombie-like shuffle. Eyes fixed on the sweet release of a run-well-quit, I sauntered across two lanes towards the outside of the track. Who was I, a fifth grader, to be running an 800 meter race anyhow? Before a single foot could escape the recycled rubber death-loop, an event coordinator blocked my route shouting encouragement that ranged from marginally-motivating to nearly insensitive. I would have to finish after all. With each step, I laboriously sucked in a sweet mix of sweat, car exhaust, and dying leaves. As the finish line neared, each clap from the crowd of coats and mittens felt less genuine and more of a plea to let them return home in time to watch LOST. My mom says I cried. I probably did. I was young, television was strange, finger painting had gone out of style, and plump kids received special treatment from race officials.
And so began my relationship with running.
Before I ever set foot on a track, my mind wandered around a religiously affiliated school. That particular stage of my formative years consisted of a healthy dose of lego bricks, bibles, and hot lunch. Later, after transferring to public school, I experienced a major shift in the form of cold lunch, evolution, and cursing. Kids swear–a lot. In my experience up to that point, the only thing scarier than Satan himself were the words he reportedly used while defecating. Over the years I grew accustomed to the vocabulary of my peers, but out of principle never joined them–that is, until one fateful day.
Jogging around the same track I had wanted to flee from just five years earlier, I now had purpose. My soccer coach had ordered the team to run eight laps around the track. While I appreciated the necessity of fitness in the beautiful game, my thighs made a strong counter argument. With labored breathing, I finished the eighth lap. That’s when things got real.
“Okay, now you will run as many laps as you can in the next twelve minutes.”
The coach added an additional twelve minutes of running. If a lion were to have sprung out of the pine-filled woods near the track and picked me for a delightfully pale snack, I wouldn’t have fought–I would have welcomed the mauling. Alas, no such ferocious feline appeared and I trudged on. As I rounded a corner, my mind reached its filtering capacity. I turned to a teammate and spouted words that cracked my filter forever. Now, I don’t necessarily endorse its use, but I have yet to find a more satisfying use of the F word in my entire life.
In theory, I should have found success in running. I had the perfect build–what my friends affectionately described as “tall, awkward, and lanky.” I simply never considered running worthwhile.
Then, things changed. Amidst the carols, presents, and lights of the holiday season, a pair of high school friends proposed that we run a marathon. After considering this proposal from the same friends who had consumed eight-patty burgers from Wendy’s just months earlier, I made a decision. My answer was a very articulate “What the hell? Let’s do it.”
The motivation stemming from my certain doom carried me for weeks. I trained, slowly losing “excess holiday cheer” and racking up the mileage necessary to complete the race.
The training continued, off and on, up to the point that my college schedule allowed. By the time my freshman year of college ended, I had completed a half-marathon. Arriving home for the summer, my training lagged. I never eclipsed 13.1 miles. Instead I sporadically ran for random distances when I had motivation. The marathon loomed. With only days left, the lack of consistent training began to frighten me.
At 4:30 a.m. on June 22, 2013 I picked myself off of a friend’s floor to the sound of an irritatingly-cheery alarm. The bags under my eyes rivaled the size of my race-issued sweat bag. More alarms blared as co-runners forced themselves awake. With little more than grunts, we overloaded a friend’s trusty–just not when it needs to start–Subaru.
After a brief car ride, bus shuttle, and shamble to the start line, reality set in swiftly.
I wish I could share details about the race itself. To be honest, however, it was as exciting as a bunch of people’s feet colliding with pavement for a long time through fog and rain can be: monotonous. Yes, I met interesting people, encouraged others, and ate my mile-17 banana with zealous. What matters most, though, is the fact that I finished a 26.2 mile race never having ran more than half that distance. Willpower, friends, and resolve carried me the final few miles. I ran a marathon.
My mother, who vividly remembers my failed attempt at quitting the 800 meter race in fifth grade, tried to reason with me the night before the marathon. She told me I didn’t “have to do it” and that I didn’t “have to finish.”
Overpacked and under-enthusiastic I hobbled toward the bus stop. The magnitude of leaving Madison, Wisconsin for a week of service with strangers weighed more than my bulging backpack.
Fathers, brothers, cousins, relatives, friends, carved into the gabbro wall. Dead. The dark stone leveled with my knees, growing with each step. Names, crowded onto the surface, reflected the gray afternoon. These men and women had families, memories, and dreams. The wall threatened to drown me, my head now below the surface. Photographs and flowers placed along the edge gave a solemn reminder of the individuals that composed the vast memoir. I stood, overwhelmed, in the shadow of the wall, gaping. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. stared back.
The permanence of ink laughed at my transitory thoughts. A half-written letter lay on the YMCA table outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. Words: meaningless. Genuine gratitude is difficult to express. A military spouse deserves more than a generic “Thank you.”
His hair, shocked gray with time, rustled when he spoke. The balcony used to be for slaves, he explained, motioning to the upper level. Much later, the congregation would help finance another church that the African American community wanted to build. Streaks from the stained glass windows painted dust particles against the wood pulpit. This circular window, he continued, was shipped from overseas, an iconic symbol of the church. His words eased out, not in the expected southern drawl, but in a reassuring tone that can only come with age.
I sat on a pew, soaking in the history. The church often invites speakers, the man pointed out. Recently, an author had spoken to the Raleigh congregation. He shifted. The writer, he said, used to be agnostic. With that statement, he paused, gazing around the chapel. Then, the man shared an observation I will never forget:
“When you stop searching, you stop being religious.”
I sank deeper into the thin pew cushion.
I woke up on a cot near Savannah, Georgia. Silence engulfed the girl scout camp, a donated sleeping place before a day of service. The smell of wood smoke from the previous night’s gathering clung to my sweatshirt. Memories snuggled into my sleeping bag. I watched my breath burst into the air for a while: rhythmic, consistent. Without a sound, I slid out of my bag and into a pair of shorts — it would warm up soon enough. Next stop: Jacksonville, Florida.
Smiles and lights flashed as “Jump Around” pounded from the bus speakers. 88 erratic feet sent shock waves through the floor and into the hotel parking lot.
Back in Madison, Wisconsin new friends shivered their goodbyes. After nine days of late nights, floors, and thankfulness I had returned home. Thinking back over the past week, weary, I smiled.
Wandering back to my dorm room, under the glow of a street lamp, I found peace in the slowness. The backpack felt lighter. There were no more strangers.
I had a flashback to the flickering Georgia campfire and burning thoughts. Life changes slowly in sudden bursts–new friends, helping hands, revelations, and reminders.
Unpacking forgotten, I collapsed onto my mattress–snapshots of shadows, a warm blanket and a cool pillow, trinkets strewn beside the bed. I grinned, closed my eyes, and slept.
Genuine gratitude is hard to express. Then again, maybe gratitude isn’t about words.
I wanted to have The Force from Star Wars when I was little. Lacking a Jedi Master to train me, I figured the best way to acquire it was to wish for it. God wisely disregarded my prayers, I was fresh out of genie-filled lamps, and I never had coins for the wishing well fountains at the mall.
In an attempt to better the odds of my wishes coming true, I came up with a plan. Hose in one hand, Mason jar full of pennies in the the other, I searched for a vesicle to become my fountain. With an excited tension, the wheelbarrow and my eyes filled with water. My dreams were about to come true. In a flick of my wrist the jar emptied and copper circles drifted to the bottom.
To my dismay, I felt different–just not the kind of different I had hoped.
I had to use the bathroom. Bad. Gurgling stomach aside, my life-savings lay drowning in a wheelbarrow in my driveway. I had to make a decision. Save some $2.39 from an almost certain theft and risk losing control of my bowels or retreat to the safety of the toilet and leave the money vulnerable.
I thrust my hand into the now freezing mixture. The shock from the icy water sent an impulse through my body, arching my back. One eyebrow raised and my mouth contorted. I stood in the driveway with an empty Mason jar, shame, and soiled jeans.
From that day forward, I loathed cold water.
It makes sense, then, that after coming across the idea of purposeful cold showers my reaction boiled down to one word: foolish. No health, discipline, or other benefits would ever convince me to partake in such a ridiculous habit.
After an academically disappointing start to my third college semester, however, I searched for a way to switch up my routine. In what must have been late night delusion, inspired by the fact that James Bond tolerates them, I decided to take cold showers for the entire month of November.
I started slow, finishing a warm shower with a minute of cold. The blast of freezing water at the end felt like a cuddle with the Grim Reaper.
Next came full-length, all-the-way cold showers. It felt weird–the knob turned at an odd angle, the lack of steam. I inched my way in for the first time and instantly gasped for air. Reeling, I snatched my body wash. In a panic, I plopped the blob meant for my hand in the drain. Failing to subdue heaving almost certainly audible by the guy brushing his teeth across the bathroom, I spun around. Shoving the curtain aside, I lunged out of the icy stream.
Suddenly, I felt different–just not the different I was expecting. My icicle-laden body began warming itself. With the normal lethargy that follows a steamy drenching absent, the day lay ahead, bright and full of promise.
After the first week, the shock of discomfort faded into normalcy. What was once ridiculous became routine. An uneasy feeling began to stir inside me.
What else am I afraid to do for the sake of comfort?
Looking back, my elementary school self never gained the ability to move things across the room like Obi Wan. As for the grades, they still aren’t great. It’s different now, though; I realized something.
Maybe wishing wells remind us that we don’t always get what we wish for. And maybe that’s okay. Instead of throwing away change in hope of reward, we can turn ourselves a different direction, the knob a different way, to realize something–just not the something we might expect.
Next Story — An Open Letter from a Black Man to His White Family in a Moment of Violence
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4 days ago5 min read
An Open Letter from a Black Man to His White Family in a Moment of Violence
To the white people I share home with,
I’ve gotten degrees. I’ve been published. I’ve spoken at academic gatherings. I’ve taught classes and workshops. I’ve built up a resume. I’ve gained employment in the acceptable fields of social justice. For years, you told me these were the things I needed to do in order to be listened to.
I’ve participated in direct action. I’ve been arrested. I’ve survived nearly three decades in a country that hates me. I’ve predicted the formation of movements, the swell of riots, months and even years before their occurrences. I don’t know what else I need to do to be legitimized, be validated, to be worthy of being heard and taken seriously.
I am exhausted from trying to get you on board with a movement–one that mirrors those from previous eras you claim to revere, and that has reignited calls for social transformation once heralded by the writers, speakers, musicians and artists you claim to hold dearest. I wonder if you understand what any of the struggles which have occurred during your lifetime were ever actually about.
I am not naive nor arrogant enough to believe my imploring can achieve in this moment what centuries of Black imploring has not been able to. I am not foolish enough to believe this letter will be the letter that changes your minds. I write because I need to speak, because I am in pain. I write because I cannot bear any more condescension, more indifference. I write to tell you I am not going to.
The cry of this moment is Black Lives Matter. If you are not involved, I assume this is a statement you take issue with.
When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean Black people are the experts in their own lives, their own history, their own struggles. We mean your opinions are not necessary, and that debating you is a waste of our valuable energy, mental health and time. We mean you do not get to speak on issues with which you have no experience, which you have not studied nor researched, but on which you feel entitled enough to award yourself authority. We mean you must be quiet and listen to Black people.
You can no longer hide behind your idealism. The very existence of this moment proves your ideals to be misled and hollow.
If legislation alone could save us, the 13th Amendment, Special Field Order №15, and Brown vs. Board would have saved us. If electoral politics alone could save us, then the innumerable Black justices and representatives elected in the last half century would have saved us. If white saviors could save us, we would have been saved a million times over. But we are here and we are dying, and you are watching from the sidelines.
You call me an anarchist. You say you fear chaos. If you knew what it means to be Black, what is happening in your towns and cities daily, you’d know that chaos and bloodshed are already here. They are visited on women, on people of color, on poor people, workers, on immigrants, on trans people, on queer people, and they are done so constantly. Chaos is our bed, our sheets, our water, our front steps, our sidewalks. The systems you insist we trust to address it, the leaders you elected, are its source. Your fear of movement, and your denial of this reality, is what allows it to continue.
This is the last time I will say this to you:
Black people are dying. Every day, Black trans women are dying. Black children are dying. Black mothers and sisters are dying. Maybe I have to die for you to understand what this means.
If the demands of our movement are unclear to you, that is your fault. We have stated them concretely and concisely, over and over again–not just at this moment, but at every time in history Black people have fought for their lives. Don’t pretend that because the sources you read don’t report it, the information is unavailable. Don’t act as though your selective hearing is the result of our lack of organizing. Don’t tell the leaders who have penned the most passionate pleas for justice in US history they need to be more articulate.
And when the police come for me, don’t cry. When I am murdered by a supremacist in the street, don’t mourn me. If I am put in a cage for speaking out, don’t call it a travesty. Because it is happening, has been happening unceasingly for the last five centuries, and you have done nothing to stop it.
Do not feign shock at the inevitable. It disrespects me, and the memory of every Black person your system has purposefully killed.
When I tell you my needs, talk of my pain, my anger, all my stories, it is a privilege and blessing you haven’t earned. It is a profound form of vulnerability I engage not because you deserve it, but because I as a Black person choose to share it with you. I do so for the sole reason that I do not wish to lose you from my life, do not want the most core parts of my existence to be hidden from you. But when you refuse to look, they remain invisible. When you resist seeing, you deprive yourself of authentic entrance into who I truly am, and what I truly need from you.
And your denial cannot protect you, just as my silence cannot protect me.
This movement is happening without you, despite you. But real transformation is not possible unless you listen deeply, sincerely, even when it is painful, and take brave action at your own risk to fight for the things the Black community is demanding of you.
When Black people speak, and you do not listen, you are creating the conditions of a riot. And when you tell us we are exaggerating, playing the martyr, making it all up, then you cannot be surprised when we elect militancy to make you comprehend what you refused to understand when we were peaceful.
A son, brother, nephew and grandson of Black, queer liberation
The current debate about fascism in America has, thus far, centered on the definition. Many publications have been musing in the same direction: “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” (Slate, The New York Times), “Is Donald Trump an Actual Fascist?” (Vanity Fair), “Donald Trump and Fascism: Is He or Isn’t He?” (National Review), etc. People want to know what to call things and that’s understandable, but I’m not sure how useful this exercise is. Fascist is as fascist does, and by the time we can agree on the exact definition it may already be too late.
When I planned to write about ¡No Pasarán!, a new collection about the Spanish Civil War edited by Pete Ayrton, I thought there might be some good lessons in there about fascism. With the Trump campaign improbably continuing and the alt-right Nazi brand on the rise, many of us agree that a solid operational understanding of fascism is increasingly necessary. Whether or not the label applies to our present situation, I’m pretty sure it’s valid when talking about Generalissimo Francisco Franco of the Spanish Falange.
I figured I would outline the historical timeline, cite a couple historical curiosities, draw some ominous connections to the election, get a check, and move on. Instead, I got stuck on a couple anecdotes in one of the pieces, an excerpt of the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga’s book De Gernika a Guernica. The first is from the village of Fuenteguinaldo, and it happened in 1936 but wasn’t revealed publicly for 70 years:
“Apparently, the Falangists asked the priest to draw up a list of all the reds and atheists in the village … They went from house to house looking for them. At nine o’clock at night, they were taken to the prison in Ciudad Rodrigo, and at four o’clock in the morning, were told they were being released, but, at the door of the prison, a truck was waiting and, instead of taking them home, it brought them here to be killed.”
The second comes from the failed coup attempt in 1981:
“I was living in a village in Castille with fewer than two hundred inhabitants. I became friendly with a young socialist who was a local councillor. When I met him one day, he was looking positively distraught. He had just found out that in February of that year, on the night Colonel Tejero burst into Parliament and the tanks came out onto the streets, the local priest had gone straight to the nearest military barracks intending to hand in a list of local men who should be arrested; my friend’s name was at the top of the list.”
Someone puts your name on a list and you disappear. And maybe all the people who care enough to look for you disappear too. And no one hears what happened until everyone you ever knew is dead. That is, if you’ll excuse my language, the fucking bogeyman. It scares the hell out of me.
There’s a danger to thinking about fascism as something other than human, not just because it is people, but because it presents a temptation to dehistoricize. Fascism becomes something existential, a tyrannical tendency somewhere deep in the character of all people or all societies that needs to be restrained but occasionally breaks free to wreak havoc. Once we start down that path it’s not too long before we get to “We’re all a little bit fascist,” and “Was Alexander the Great a fascist?” That is lazy, useless thinking, the kind of “human nature” nonsense that is the first resort of the uninformed and uninterested.
Monsters and ghouls have always been a part of human community as far as I know, but they each emerge under particular circumstances. Think FernGully: The evil spirit Hexxus is freed from a tree (where it’s been imprisoned) when a timber crew chops it down. Ancient Hexxus seeps out with the character — even the name — of modern pollution. The creature is the externalities of industrial production embodied. It moves like oil and smoke. That pollution makes monsters is not a special insight; everyone knows about Godzilla. But moral pollution, of course, yields demons as well. Monsters show up when some scale is stubbornly uneven, when karma is repressed. Toxic waste dumped in the swamp, but graves disturbed too. That we’ve always had evil isn’t a way to avoid understanding the specifics of its incarnations. Thinking about fascism as a bogeyman in this way could be more useful. What kind of monster is it?
Allow me some speculation. Fascism is a nation-shaped monster. It arises alongside the modern state, and though they share sympathies (and weapons) across borders, fascists are nationalists. One of the conflicts that feeds fascism is between 19th-century ideas about the racial character of states and 20th-century pluralist ones. Our global system is supposedly based on something like collective self-determination, but it’s grafted onto a map drawn by colonial violence and pseudo-scientific ideas about Gauls and Teutons. Fascism is a particular combination of Romantic/Victorian ambitions and modern tools that sparks to life as the two eras grind against each other. Frankenstein with the arms of capitalist industry and the heart of a monarchist. Patriotic young Hitler inhaling mustard gas in the trenches, like a panel from the first issue of a comic book.
One of those modern tools is the list. We’ve always indexed information, but our ability to do so grows in qualitative jumps. To round up all your enemies at a national level is an analytics problem, and it’s one we solved under particular circumstances. The quantitative management of populations doesn’t just happen to emerge around slavery, it emerges out of slavery. And the Civil War didn’t break the line: At the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) in Cold Springs Harbor, New York, so-called scientists of the early 20th century kept lists of the genetically (and racially) undesirable. They embarked on sterilization campaigns and lent their expertise to help halt the flow of immigrants. The Nazis infamously used IBM to manage the Holocaust; the Americans (less infamously) also used IBM to manage the Japanese internment camps. When NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute recreated an ERO office in 2014, they called the exhibit “Haunted Files.” Perhaps our filing systems are haunted too.
Modern liberal states have never truly reconciled their racial character with their democratic pretensions. I’m not clear on how such a thing could be possible; where would a truly pluralist state draw its borders and why? Flipping through a history book it’s hard to argue that the nation-state system doesn’texist for the arbitrarily divided glory of western Europeans. The official line is that we’re supposed to ignore that part, or be sad. But some people don’t want to ignore it and they aren’t sad. Instead they wonder why we have the nice borders that their conquering “ancestors” drew but all these people on the wrong sides. If taking Mexico’s land for white people was illegitimate, then why haven’t we given it back? And if it was legitimate, then what’s wrong with a wall to protect our side from a reversal? The liberal patriots, they say, are lying to themselves; there is no nationalism that is not ethno-nationalism.
The persistence of the fascist bogeyman suggests that they have a point. The beast can skulk in the basement for decades, feeding off the contradictions at the foundation of the pluralist state and its own waste. This is 2016 and we can’t claim that fascism is a birth pang of the global democratic order, an enemy defeated. (Ghosts, zombies, the terminator: monsters so rarely go away when they’re supposed to.) Fascism seems inextricably tied to what we have, like Dorian Gray’s portrait locked in a closet, consolidating ugliness.
Whether or not they could finish off fascism once and for all, liberals usually aren’t tempted to try. I don’t know if that’s because they sense something irradicable there, but liberals have historically found deals to make with their shadow. Spain is one of the more striking examples. When Franco’s insurgents escalated, the rest of the world agreed to stay neutral so as to stall the already foreseen World War II. But the war had already begun: Hitler and Mussolini flouted the agreement, intervening most dramatically with bombing raids. The Soviet Union breached as well, sending weapons to badly armed Madrid. The western democracies, however, stayed neutral. In return, Franco maintained Spain as a non-belligerent when world-wide hostilities broke out. It’s an agreement that lasted into the 80s.
Part of what makes the Spanish Civil War so important for leftists is the sense that it could have gone the other way. There’s an urban legend that infighting among leftists — communists, anarchists, and Trotskyists — caused the Republic’s defeat. ¡No Pasarán! has accounts of this friendly-ish fire, but no one thinks it decisive compared to German and Italian air power or the western arms embargo. Spanish republicans and their study abroad comrades fought bravely, but the bogeyman has an advantage at the insurgency stage. Violence is its thing.
The bogeyman makes a real offer: Delegate to me your capacity for limitless violence and together we will dominate. That they’re able to do it justifies the undertaking, and they are, under some circumstances, able to do it. A willingness to strike first, to drag your enemies from their beds in the middle of the night, to steal their babies, that’s a force multiplier, especially when combined with the right information technology. There is strength in white nationalist unity. Horrifying, despicable, anti-human strength, but strength still. The fascist image is a bundle of sticks or arrows — the fasces, harder to break. And they are.
I think of the 2015 movie Green Room, about a band of punks who get trapped inside a Nazi club and have to try and fight their way out. Joe Cole plays the drummer Reece, and he’s the only one who shows any sort of confidence, preparation, or leadership when it comes to fighting fascists. With his MMA skills he incapacitates a giant skinhead bouncer and directs the gang to make a break for it. He’s not out a club window one moment before two faceless, nameless Nazi henchmen have stabbed him to death. For me this moment illuminates a basic truth about fascist strategy: It does not matter how smart or brave or capable or strong you are. There are two of us, we have knives, and we’re waiting outside the window.
Liberal democracies are constitutionally vulnerable to the bogeyman. We civilians have already delegated our capacity for violence to the military abroad and the police at home. If there’s a threat to law and order, then the forces of law and order will take care of it. We don’t have to worry about protecting our democracy, there are professionals for that. All we have to do is vote for the right people to manage them. But that plan has risks.
America’s founders thought they could write the standing army out by fiat, and they have been proven very wrong. Liberal democracies maintain giant war machines. Within each of these war machines — as in the religious and business communities — there are cults that worship the bogeyman. Members wear tattoos, patches, insignias to identify each other. They recruit. Some of them go to meetings, most probably don’t. I imagine that many of them get fulfillment from their work. Why wouldn’t fascists feel at home in the police, the border patrol, the army? Asking these organizations to maintain anti-fascist vigilance on behalf of the whole population is a fox and henhouse situation.
If Donald Trump is a fascist — as even the liberal media is beginning to agree — and has a non-negligible chance to winning the presidency, what is the contingency plan? If a Trump administration were to flout what’s left of our democratic norms, how would our system protect itself? I don’t know how Trump polls among active-duty military, but the Fraternal Order of Police has already endorsed him. Part of me thinks “Troops loyal to Hillary Clinton,” is a phrase we could get used to fast, but I’m not sure how many of those there are. Are the Vox dot com technocrats expecting a Seal Team 6 bullet to solve the Trump problem if things get too hairy? It seems remarkable that the two 20th-century American politicians we talk about getting closest to fascist takeovers — Huey Long and George Wallace — were both stymied not by the democratic process but by lone gunmen. That’s a bad defense strategy. Thankfully, it’s not the only one available.
Wherever there have been fascists there have also been anti-fascists: Traditionally communists, anarchists, socialists, and some folks who just hate fascists. When left-wing parties have on occasion decided to stand by while fascists targeted liberal governments, anti-fascist elements have still distinguished themselves. Anti-fascism is based on the idea that fascists will use content-neutral liberal norms like freedom of speech and association as a Trojan Horse. By the time the threat seems serious, the knives are already out. Antifa seek to nip the threat in the bud, attacking fascists wherever they’re weak enough to attack. If that means busting up their meetings with baseball bats, then that’s what it means.
In America, we remember the Spanish Civil War mostly through anti-fascist anglophone writers — George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway being the most famous — who decamped for Spain. Unlike fascists and liberals, anti-fascists are internationalists, and no citizenship takes precedence over the struggle. When the call went out for sympathizers to come and defend the Spanish Republic, one young British volunteer, Laurie Lee, called it “the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which may never occur again. Certainly, it was the last time this century that a generation had such an opportunity before the fog of nationalism and mass-slaughter closed in.” Comrades of all sorts of nationalities and particular left-wing political views signed up for the motley “International Brigades.” There was and is a purity to this gesture; to go and risk your life alongside your attacked comrades is among the highest imaginable acts of solidarity. “¡No pasarán!” (They will not pass) is an anti-fascist slogan of such power that it’s still in use today, many decades after it turned out to be a lie.
Because pass they did. The righteous rag-tag army was no match for the German and Italian bombers. Spain stands for anti-fascism across borders, but also the catastrophe of its failure. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the War it’s that fascists don’t always lose. The arc of history is not a missile defense system and sometimes righteous solidarity makes for full prison camps.
For years American anti-fascists have been very effective. Up until the Trump campaign, they had largely prevented white nationalists from meeting in public in cities. It usually works something like this: Antifa finds out where the Nazis are planning to meet and they call the hotel or conference center they’re going to use and explain who exactly “American Renaissance” is, and what will happen if the meeting happens (chaos). Most reputable establishments exercise their right to decline Nazi business. This kind of tactic offends the liberal sensibility, but it’s the only choice. The least violent way to oppose fascism is to disrupt them before they feel strong enough to act in an organized way. I fear that window is closing.
I don’t think Donald Trump is going to be elected president, but the fascists who have found a vessel in his campaign have been licking their lips for months straight. Things are going better than they could have hoped and they won this round a long time ago. I have no doubt they’re thinking about how to organize their engorged base in November’s wake. Fascists aren’t democrats and they don’t need a majority.
The bogeyman is in the closet and he’s making so much noise it’s hard to pretend we can’t hear it. We have a choice to make, if not as a country, then as members of this society. We can get out of bed, open the door, and confront the social infection that is fascism. Or we can pull the sheets up over our heads, pretend history ended 25 years ago, and try to get back to sleep. Maybe the noise will stop on its own — it is possible, even likely. But maybe we’ll wake up with our throats slit. There won’t be a different kind of warning.
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