“Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic; they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.” (Victor Klemperer)
When I lived in Baltimore, violence was a reality of life. Walking to the bus stop with my mom one morning, a large man passed us swinging a metal baseball bat with a bow on it. A present, I thought, and smiled. He beat a woman near to death with it after forcing his way into her apartment on the other side of our block.
A wrong turn downtown could leave you a witness to murder in broad daylight. You want to talk about de-policing neighborhoods? The murder I’m referencing was within eyeshot of the city’s police headquarters. That’s what life’s like when they just give up. There are bodies in the harbor and bodies built into walls. An artist whose acquaintance I made one summer described the strange octopus spilling out of the garbage behind her house one night. It was a man, stuffed in there at some point earlier in the evening.
I’ve huddled on the bench of a bus stop hoping no one notices the white teenager out late downtown during their knife fight. Huddled in a storage closet with five teenage girls waiting for another knife fight to end. Huddled in the dark listening to the same hard metal my friend used to muffle the sound of him blowing his life away.
I remember the kidnap and murder of a local boy by a serial child rapist repeatedly let off for his crimes by the state. The man in front of my father at a stoplight was dragged out of his car at gunpoint and shot. The woman in front of a friend was dragged behind a car at the mall and beaten. I remember more helicopter searchlights than stars at night during my childhood. I remember wanting to be homeschooled after Columbine, and then how familiar bomb threats and active shooter threats became by the time I got to high school.
Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with the people who choose to keep living there — the people who have other options and choose life in Baltimore instead. Can’t say you weren’t ever warned, I suppose. I never felt as protective of my family than the nights I spent on the phone with my parents, eyes glued to the livestream of cars being lit on fire by rioters a few streets away. Take me to the countryside. Leave me down home in the backwoods of the people those bourgeois liberals scorn.
I remember Baltimore as a giant black and white banner spelling out “BELIEVE” across the square from the house where high school dropouts ran away from home before disappearing for good one way or another. Someone had blacked out the letters on both ends until only the middle three remained.
Believe is a liberal fantasy still painted over the reality of that city and others like it doomed by Democratic administrations who lack the acumen to govern and who refuse to treat crime seriously. I see it today in the city I’m leaving — a downtown deliberately shipwrecked by insane administrative choices and fallout from de-policed zones. My old apartment manager was shocked at my audacity to ask if some of our rent could go towards security after a woman was shot out of the window above my bedroom. Just a few weeks earlier I’d tried explaining to her what a “shooting gallery” was when the man down the hall was left for dead by his friends after he overdosed.
Where did I think I live — New York City?
There is a class of people in this society who are either entirely blinded to crime or who cannot see crime as anything other than the tragic desperation of the perpetually marginalized always deserving of our sympathy. To them the city does not need regular and uniform police enforcement, but diversity trainings, free syringes, de facto race-based exemptions from the law, race- and gender-based small business grants, representation, visibility, maybe more prayer, and perhaps a new million dollar slogan.
It’s Believe all over again. Believe we aren’t a post-textile town with tremendous class divisions over highly technical skill sets impossible for most locals to obtain. Believe downtown isn’t just an abandoned shell of historic memories. Believe banks and campuses haven’t pulled out or underdelivered on all the opportunity they promised. Believe gun violence and homicides haven’t skyrocketed over the last year. Believe we don’t have organized gangs operating in the area, hard drugs passing through the county, and a crisis of teenagers finding out that no one cares when they cross the line.
The bourgeois world is one where the symbolic — the world we are asked to Believe in — takes precedence over the one in which we literally live.
I got started writing this piece in awe at the tremendous amount of violence I’ve witnessed in my life so far (or heard about from family members surviving other such horrors abroad). It’s something I still talk about with a therapist friend on occasion.
It’s why I can’t stand the woman at the park who casually walks with a baseball bat, why I limit the social situations I’ll engage in with oblivious people, and why I’m making my home far from here in the sticks where no one from any city would dream of even pulling over for gas.
“We’re a dying breed,” a former associate once mused at the end of a story about a couple throwing a coming out party for their young child preparing to finally tell the world its gender. We were honest-to-gawd bullied in school, physically attacked, and forced to grow up out of whatever we felt about it if we wanted to survive in the adult world. No one condemned it. No one apologized for it. No one rallied to our defense.
The change isn’t generational — not directly, anyway. It’s not something biologically programmed into teenagers, twenty-somethings, or their parents. And it’s not even the by-product of gender or racial ideology, as much as I could strain myself rolling my eyes at the “serious, violent incident” of a book club mailing its members a controversial book.
It’s cultural. It’s a whole mindset that receiving a book in the mail as part of a subscription service you signed up for constitutes harm, trauma, and endangerment, both to you and “the wider community.”
It’s a mindset that empowers a teenage girl to declare herself a man, brag about bashing gays (partially caught on camera), and still remain surrounded by true believers in the asserted truth that she is the only victim here.
It’s a mindset where the White House can accuse social media platforms of “killing people” in a plain effort to justify engaging in unconstitutional suppression of free speech, and still be lambasted for not taking a hard enough stance on deplatforming dissent.
I can think of probably a dozen more examples of this mindset from belief in the debunked 1619 Project, to the myth that one or more police officers were killed by rioters at the Capitol on January 6th, belief that the Pulse nightclub was intentionally targeted in an anti-LGBT hate crime, or belief that critical race theory is not being taught in schools.
All of these things are part of the same culture permeating the operations of organizations, individuals, and the governing institutions of this country alike. Reality is devoured by the symbolic. In a sort of metaphysical way, the symbolic is at war with reality — redefining through repetition, social pressures, and actual force the very words through which we understand our lives until a sort of post-truth haze covers everything.
Bourgeois elites become the interpreter to what is “literally” happening. To the uninitiated, a book is arriving in the mail, a violently homophobic girl is assaulting someone, plainly racist material is being taught in schools, and so on. It has to be explained to us how to perceive what is “really” happening. We have to be trained to suppress our senses. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes, repeated in dozens of ways — a nudist colony of emperors where the symbolic eclipses the real, always.
The insidious end result is not just a society which views books and social media posts that challenge liberal mores as weapons themselves, but one which views the rising crime rate as a right-wing talking point and as trivial as a book fair. A society which justifies a teenage girl attacking a gay man as part of a psychotic outburst against “f*ggots” is not only a society cowering to delusion, but one which permits that delusion to entirely reverse the roles of victim and assailant crystal clear to any witness. And lest we believe these instances are too niche to deserve our attention, mind the metaphorical massacre presently threatening our constitutional rights.
When bourgeois symbolism has captured the attention of the media, every level of government, the military and intelligence community, employers, the medical establishment, schools, and religious institutions alike, who is left who will answer — who is left who can even see — the literal violence endemic to American society?
The city I am leaving is set to surpass last year’s bloody record of fatal shootings. Police are spread thin with a lack of recruits thanks to a successful campaign to conflate modern policing with runaway slave patrols. And left-wing activists are holding to an uncompromising demand for nothing less than total abolition of the city police and county sheriff’s offices — a demand to be followed by reimagining our options.
No strategy for solving active homicide cases or preventing future gun-related incidents is presented. There is never even acknowledgement that anyone is being killed, every single weekend in this city. Reimagine is this city’s Believe. Reimagine a city atop the one we are burning to the ground. Reimagine policing through an ahistorical lens. Reimagine the worthlessness of every gun-violence victim while we brainstorm ideas for what to do now that we’ve actually won. The bourgeois symbolism of “antiracism” is valued more than the actual lives of people in this city, surely, disproportionately including people of color.
Some days I am an atheist trapped at a seance.
I am thinking and speaking in a tongue that no longer exists. Buzzwords hide snares. Terms once common are reanimated with revolutionary revisions. Everyone, it seems, is a pathological hater, and everything we so much as think is literal violence.
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