Recently I found myself on a sojourn in a small college town in northern Arizona. There were a couple things that struck me right off about the place in contrast to the gritty town I call home. One was the weather. I walked into the kitchen one morning to my host, aware of my trepidation in the face of temperatures below 60 degrees, consoling me—“Okay, so don’t freak out but… it’s snowing.” The second culture shock about Prescott was the wholesomeness. Seriously, you know how many parties I’ve been to in NOLA that segued into an acoustic guitar circle or a game of “Nouns”? Zero. Zilch. Zippo. Zucchini.
Continuing along this tip of non-debaucherous gratification, I attended a radical conference at Prescott College. Unlike the overwhelming majority of cute students scribbling fervently, so full of youth and vitality in their little scarves, I took no notes—so my rendering is solely at the mercy of my poor lead-exposed memory that no amount of vitamin B12 can reinvigorate. Starting around 10 am, really relishing my position as scholarly outsider, I sat in on an insightful series of panels addressing topics from queer theory to coltan mining in the Congo to a critical examination of the Kony 2012 campaign. Suffice to say, it was a plethora of scintillating discourses on neoliberalism and identity politics that I’d love to talk with you about sometime, if you ever wanna. I was more than happy to spend the day indoors, considering the flurry of white outside caused my sphincters to clench up a little every time I caught a glimpse; and by 3 o’clock my brain was reeling from all the information.
Several hours later, as the day’s festivities wound to a close, we all gathered in the main room to listen to Klee Benally (singer of the Dine’ punk band Blackfire), the “keynote speaker” of the afternoon. Normally I would say the notion of such an honorary delineation at an event centered around breaking down power dynamics is a little ironic, but once he began I was rapt with attention.
The conference was intriguingly named “Rethinking Apocalypse” and after a traditional Dine’ greeting, Klee began by addressing the implications of these words. He invoked the spirit of the 200 species going extinct each daydue to industrial capitalism—because, after all, what could be more evocative of a doomsday scenario than this? “How many people in here can even name 200 species?” he asked. Go ahead. Put away that smart phone and try it. I dare you. From there he weaved a gut-wrenching tapestry of how civilization is killing the planet, from the number of nuclear reactors to the acres of rainforest disappearing minute by minute. He spoke of the forced removal of native peoples from their homelands into concentration camps and the soaring rates of diabetes among native populations following the genocidal food rations by the US government. One staple and cultural tradition those rations begat has come to be known as frybread—a flour-and-lard-based concoction so unique in its dichotomous nature, Klee explained, that it symbolizes both the Dine’ peoples’ oppression as well as their survival. Heavy stuff.
A few years ago I roadied on a tour through Flagstaff, Arizona. My friends’ bands played the indigenous-run Taala Hooghan infoshop with a band called, aptly enough, Let the World Die. I remember being so inspired that night—not merely musically but culturally as well. The place possessed this vibrancy—with no pretension like so many other anarchist scenes in North America. Children mingled with adults, conversations took on profound magnitudes, no one was wasted… I guess when you’re fighting for centuries to maintain your way of life against colonialist brutality you have your shit a bit more together than the ever-wayward defecting children of the colonizers. That’s just a theory of mine…
Klee, who is part of that infoshop and community of indigenous resistance, conjured up the memories of my time at Taala Hooghan and much more. His words hit me like a ton of bricks. From one of the back rows I found myself staring intently, brows furrowed as he illustrated our need to reconnect with the natural world and each other, head nodding vigorously as he spoke the words I so needed to hear. My arms began to tingle, my eyes moistened—the cynicism and fatalist anguish seeping out of me like poison. All of a sudden, that urgency and passion I knew at age 15 came rushing back: Yes, the world is being murdered and I personally must do something to stop it. Even after we piled into my friend’s truck to head home and decompress, my head was still spinning. It wasn’t until we arrived, rolling deep enough to evoke childhood memories of Friday nights at the Chalmette Cinema, to see the Hunger Games later that evening—a movie that makes me really excited about the subversive potential of pop culture—that the vivid emotions began to subside.
Rethinking apocalypse. I’ve spent hours pondering what this phrase means to me and the implications for my everyday life. It’s beyond difficult to immerse oneself in the horrors of this world, to internalize the complexity of the mess we are in and at the same time still identify the beauty and potential life has to offer. That’s a struggle I think any dignified depressive realist who longs for a more just world must necessarily endure. When each question bears a million difficult answers and every path that is even remotely dignified entails great tribulations, the feat is in not being swallowed up by the despair—and to remember, as Klee reminded us, that the antidote is action.
At some point he asked the audience, “Who in here has suffered from pre-apocalyptic stress disorder?”
My hand shot up. I couldn’t constrict a smile. In the face of utter degradation, what recourse is there but morbid comic relief? I imagined us revolutionaries, wounded and vulnerable as we are, supporting each other like we were part of some 12-step program. Hi I’m Derek, and I’m a recovering addict of civilization…
I mean, as I type in a friend’s room, sipping iced tea with soy creamer while the soft melodies of a Motown song float through the house, life really isn’t that bad. The sun is shining through an open window and I’m comfortable here with Angel, a big husky sprawled on the floor a few feet away. If I felt compelled to research it, I’m sure I’d find that the wall’s light green shade, adorned with pictures of smiling friends out in nature, imbues the very essence of peace and security. Of course, in the midst of this I watched a Democracy Now! segment commemorating the 2nd anniversary of the BP oil disaster. Clips of pelicans covered in crude oil and shrimp born without eyes flashed across the screen, shaking me from my pleasant reverie. But I could ignore all that if I really tried, couldn’t I? I could ride the wave privilege affords me and eek out a relatively content life as the world around me gets turned into a wasteland. It’s calm, after all, in the blue of oblivion…
One last thing before I go. Earlier this week I saw Trial, one of my favorite hardcore bands, play a couple nights in a row. The singer, Greg, works as a motivational speaker; and something he consistently imparts to his audience is the significance of suffering. In fact, he posits that it is a prerequisite for hardcore punk’s existence in the first place; shared pain is the bridge that connects us all as human beings, the driving impetus for us to jump onto each others’ heads and scream one-liners into a microphone. “Remember your suffering,” he declared at one point. Now, I have to say, this kind of pampering to a roomful of bros caused his words to ring a bit hollow for me, especially when I see their macho attitudes alienate and oppress the people who, in my opinion, need these words the most, but I won’t even get into that now. What I’ll say instead is that in years past, this statement would have been empowering, a reminder to struggle til the bitter end. Now, in my jaded early 20s—man, did I really just say that?—I felt this reactionary aversion: like, why should I defy the very basic animalistic attribute to recoil from pain? Isn’t it enough to simply live within the cages of this patriarchal capitalist regime and not be made completely insane? Can’t I just carve out a life of relative happiness while trying my best not to cause unnecessary harm? These questions speak to a general world weariness, a suspiciously individualist and narcissistic cyclical logic, not much in line with the ideals I’ve tried to live by these past years. The truth is that I’m just tired, even though I’ve hardly even fought for anything in my entire life. Seasick, yet still docked.
But the more I reflect, the more I discern another beacon in the grayish haze: perhaps Greg was telling me to remember my suffering because as long as it’s with me— that dull ache in the pit of my being—it means I have not given up; blood is still coursing through my veins and I have not assimilated. For what it’s worth, the life I’ve chosen retains some semblance of authenticity and self-determination. And that is a small comfort—meager as it is.
And with that I leave you with a few choice lines by the band that encapsulates so poignantly how I feel…
“And on the eve of the apocalypse, you can burn these words into my flesh: We are the tortured and insane, disillusioned and mundane, unknown and unnamed, desperate and enslaved…And we want something more”