June 22, 2017

Coming Apart and the Cult of Violence

Michigan militia groups have their own calendars, like the Hooter's girls

The trial of a Michigan militia group finally began this past week. The FBI seized 100 firearms, 148,000 rounds of ammunition, bomb making instructions, night vision goggles, and sniper gear.

Like there aren’t enough people wanting to start a war. Hostess is bankrupt while the FBI is getting plenty of work. I’m not sure I like a culture that’s more bullish on terrorism than Twinkies. The Atlantic has 41 photos about the rebellious mood of the people in China against the Communist government. The New York Times had an article about American companies and the State Department limiting employees from taking computers and cell phones into China. The Chinese government is breaking into everything. Criminal gangs hurt the inner cities here. Businesses and consumers avoid the high crime areas. Instead of a tour of the Pentagon, Washington officials should have given the Chinese vice president a tour of the crime ridden areas in Detroit. Companies will abandoned China as sure as they left Detroit if criminal behavior is allowed to flourish. Vladimir Putin joined China in vetoing UN action against Syria. Then he expressed concern with the “cult of violence” spreading around the world. His political cronies are so concerned, a protest with toys in Siberia was shut down. GI Joe to the rescue!

Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart is creating more controversy. David Brooks has already declared it the book of the year. The post-modern world has created social tribes polarizing the country, and the world for that matter, into winners and losers. I didn’t realize predestination has become in vogue again. If you’re born in certain enclaves and zip codes, your life is predestined to success. Inbreeding isn’t so bad, I suppose, if Harvard and Yale are the breeders. Both Murray and Brooks conclude that it sucks to be you if you’re in the wrong zip code.

There aren’t many great urban novelists remaining. They’ve disappeared from the urban scene along with the frog and family values. Richard Price has never been afraid to hang out in the bad neighborhoods to research his novels like Clockers and Lush Life. Everyone has certain books and writers they identify with and for me, Richard Price is at the top of a very short list. One of the unfortunate consequences of these social tribes forming elitist enclaves is the demise of the great novelists. I take seriously the New York Times best books of the year for non-fiction. I have a much more jaundiced view of their best fiction of the year. The novelists are all skilled in their craft but they’re far too removed from the action to write compelling stories. They’re war correspondents covering the war from their living room. Richard Price put in the man hours, as he called it, riding with cops, hanging around the crack houses. He knows where the seams in society are coming apart.

Price said he doubted he could write about his own neighborhood when he first started writing novels. He thought no one would give a rip. Price graduated from Cornell with a degree in industrial relations. My industrial relations degree is from Michigan State. Industrial relations teaches you to write about grievances. Novelists are really writing about grievances and there are a lot of grievances these days. I was certain no one would give a rip about what I was seeing and so I hid the voice. I wasn’t connected to the hip social tribes. I took pen and notebook and went into the bad areas. While everyone else was moving on up, I went down to the streets, watching the cops and detectives, criminals and victims. I saw the seams coming apart. The cult of violence grow. Everyone else was getting their bonuses. I got a gun waved in my face, with threats to shoot me. I learned the dialogue and smelled the stale sweat. I learned, unlike Charles Murray, that the zip codes between good and bad aren’t that far apart. The exclusive enclaves aren’t that far from the arena.

One late winter night in a bad snowstorm, we were going to a restaurant. A man approached us, begging for help and a ride. He said his car had broken down. It’s a common scam. The serial killer from Flint used the same scam. I asked friends to follow me in case it turned out to be a scam. They shook their heads, no way. I said okay and nodded for the guy to get in the car. I would help him. It was a scam. A mere five miles can separate a zip code on one of the best places list to a zip code in one of the worst. We went into the worst zip code, where it sucked to be me. But the guy made the same faulty conclusion as Charles Murray. He put labels on zip codes. He thought I would be an easy target because of where our little journey started. Watching his hands the whole time, I swerved through a red light and slammed on the brakes under the bright lights of a gas station. I was ready for him.

I keep going back to the 1992 Thomas Mallon essay and the graffiti discovered while researching an article in Owosso, Michigan. My point is that he found evidence of a much bigger story than what he was researching. The Michigan militia movement was just starting at that time. You learn this stuff by hanging out in zip codes where Richard Price might be the only Ivy League grad. The cult of violence is growing as grievances accumulate. Richard Price said he wants to fashion a metaphor from what he observes. His novels get nearer to the truth than the academics writing from exclusive enclaves.

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