Custerism (A Manifesto of Doubt)

On December 19, 2008, 27-year-old climate activist Tim DeChristopher protested a federal auction of 116 parcels of public land, including remote wilderness areas near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in southeastern Utah. The auction was arranged by the George W. Bush administration during its closing days in order to sell drilling rights to the oil and gas industry. While activists picketed with signs outside the federal auction house in Salt Lake City, DeChristopher entered the building and registered as a bidder, placing $1.8 million in bids on 14 land parcels before federal agents forcibly removed him and took him into custody. He was charged and convicted of two felony counts in July 2011: one for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act by “scheming to disrupt the auction” and a second for making false statements about his ability to purchase land.

Before DeChristopher’s sentencing, National Public Radio’s Alex Chadwick interviewed him as they travelled down the Green River in Eastern Utah—where I first heard about him. Chadwick reported that in prison, DeChristopher planned to write a book—a series of letters to his father, a retired energy industry executive, and the only family member absent at his trial. DeChristopher said of his father: “I think he comes from a genuine belief that we have a system that works and it has for him. You know, he came from a poor family and worked hard and studied hard and became an engineer. And, you know, moved up through the ranks and became secure and very comfortable. I guess I kind of view my father as a prototypical, comfortable liberal in America. And I feel like that’s the audience that I’m most drawn to addressing.”

***

Dear Dad,

I fear as we both grow older, we are becoming the same caricature. I think of Chris Cooper’s character in American Beauty, pointing at his morning newspaper and declaring, “This country is going straight to hell,” to his silent, indifferent family. Similarly, living in Western Pennsylvania—with its football machismo and casual misogyny and loud-mouthed, libertarian, everyone’s-a-jagoff ethos that continually make me confront the full extent to which I was raised within a privileged liberal bubble—I find myself constantly telling people we should “burn it all down.” Like you, I quote leftist blogs, get set off and turn self-righteous at the first mention of anything vaguely political: ALDI’s, the fact that bees are disappearing, something I construed as a comment about inequity in college sports (but actually wasn’t), because I was so profoundly bored watching the NCAA Championship. I tell whoever will listen that problem is capitalism and white men and that incrementalism is a crock: all the problems of our society are constitutive and that nothing short of total systemic overhaul—revolutionary change—will remedy them, so isn’t now the time to buy a gun, to take up arms against an oppressive government, because that’s what Karl Marx said, after all, to rally the proletariat so we can rise to the historical inevitably that will be the total destruction of class?

And then, like you, the next day, I hop in my used Honda Civic Hybrid, drive to Whole Foods to buy the good Chilean organic blueberries and donate—as we do every year—$5 to public radio, stopping to complain about how the arts are still under attack in America, thanks to the goddamn Republicans in Congress. Though neither of us really likes Obama. Or party politics at all. Mostly we’re just prone to screeds that elicit laughter and raised eyebrows. And then we go home. Even though we deeply believe what we believe.

Your lifelong imperative to me is to be educated. There is a significant part of me that is grateful for this. This is the part that recognizes almost every sacrifice you’ve made for me was in service of my becoming an educated person. This is the part that shares the beliefs on which you made those sacrifices: that education is the silver bullet, the highest intrinsic good. I occasionally tell the freshman composition students I tutor the etymology of the word—the Latin, educere, which means to bring forth or lead out, as from the darkness. I believe what Paulo Freire believes, that education is the only real defense against oppression, that it transforms the soul, that it makes people into authentic, freely acting people. I believe in Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia—that true human flourishing can only be reached through rational activity, by engaging our highest intellectual faculties.

There is another large part of me that questions the value and aims of education—at least of my education. This is the part that, at 26, after six years in Magnet school—required to read Howard Zinn at age 14, David Foster Wallace at 16, Michel Foucault at 18—four years of actual liberal arts college and one year of graduate school, feels like all I’m left with is nihilism. A sense that any philosophical or ethical system falls apart upon critical examination—and I’ve become an expert at tearing them down. I’ve also gained a great attunement to my own privilege—white, middle-class, heterosexual, thin and cisgender, which I learned about just last week—in even having the time or the words to talk about any of this. Ironically, these were the stated ends of my education: to cultivate critical thinking, to be in touch with privilege. Trying to make ethical choices in accordance with everything I’ve learned, I oscillate between total intellectual agnosticism, a skepticism so extreme that I doubt that any action matters, and an anger so deep about the way everything is constructed that I don’t think I can live.

In the more selfish moments, I wonder if this has barred me from certain conventional things, like happiness and love. One of the more lasting effects of studying second-wave feminism is that I don’t know how I will be able to live with—and certainly not marry—a man and truly believe the arrangement can be loving or equitable. And there are more quotidian things like me biting the head off of—I mean full-on screaming at—a guy friend in a bar for telling me to smile more. Everything suffers from my “critical awareness.” Have I doomed myself to a loveless life? But then the philosopher in me wonders: what is love? Does it exist? And what is happiness? Why should it be the standard by which I judge my life?

To be fair, you never supported my studying philosophy. This despite you handing me a book of “big ideas”—a Cliffs Notes-style intro to philosophy—at some impressionable age (fifth grade?). You asked me once why I chose philosophy at all, not just over the careerist majors like communications or economics, but over all the other humanities equally as frivolous to capital—English, sociology, psychology. Montaigne famously wrote that to study philosophy is to learn how to die. I think that’s what I wanted. I still want to learn how to die. Of course, he didn’t mean die in the sense of preparing yourself for the grim physical reality of death. He meant to learn to conceive of life as a continual dying. Really, Montaigne implies that learning how to die is learning how to live. Another after-effect of philosophy is that I contemplate death a lot—probably far more than is “healthy.” But in glimpsing how deficient I am at understanding and confronting it, I fear it now more than ever. And, by extension, I contemplate—and can critically analyze—my own inadequacy at living.

My dilemma, Dad, is this: my education has made me aware of these constant moral failures, and yet, has also made me see the insufficiency of any action. My college friends were all lifestylist vegans, protesting big agro and the fucked-up megacorporate farming system by gorging on soy milk and locally grown lentils and the occasional cage-free egg. While I was running our vegetarian co-op kitchen, I tried veganism out for four days before I got drunk, nearly fainted from having eaten nothing but black beans, and came to while gnawing on a block of goat cheese (which I have loved ever since). And then I thought: for whom? The 0.4% of the American population who identify as vegan? I’m sure they’ve brought the wheels of capitalism to a grinding halt—except that they’ve created a new, untapped market that will inevitably commodify their dissent. Look no further than the success of mass-produced Chik Patties and Veggie Dogs, owned by MorningStar Farms, a subsidy of Kellogg. We should burn the whole thing down.

Then there’s the Custerism problem. You know that I idolize the Weather Underground, the 1960s left-wing radical group known for bombing vacant government buildings and banks to incite a capitalist overthrow. (It’s gotten me in trouble in a post-9/11 world, by the way, to be overheard at the grocery store in the yogurt section saying, “This country could use some more domestic terrorism.”) Though the Weathermen espoused an anti-racist ideology, using some of the rhetoric of the Black Liberation Movement, the Black Panthers denounced their bombings as “Custerism”—opportunistic actions that serve no purpose beyond activists making a principled “last stand.” Fred Hampton, then deputy chairman of the Panther Party, said of the Underground’s actions, “It’s Custeristic in that its leaders take people into situations where they can be massacred and they call that revolution—and it’s nothing but child’s play. It’s folly.” I have great nostalgia for what the French call attentat—the single destructive political act that precipitates violent uprising, like the Black Hand’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand that began World War I. Historically, after 1776, America has had no taste for attentat. Emma Goldman, another hero of mine, and her anarchist boyfriend Alexander Berkman were disappointed that their attempt to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick (in whose university building I attend class in Pittsburgh) wouldn’t have resulted in revolution. Berkman was jailed—just like Tim DeChristopher. The economy collapses in 2008, renders my entire generation “lost” and throws the absurdities of capitalism into harsh relief, and my peers “occupy” the steps of Austin City Hall by having a yoga camp-out with pizza delivery. Maybe I should have brought them guns. A professor of mine told me that revolutions are not romantic events, that most of the time the people who die are bystanders who were just trying to get home—the sweet old guy selling flowers who probably didn’t give a damn about your ideals. And Americans just don’t go for this kind of thing anymore. And even if they did, coming from me it would just be Custerism.

I write this to you because I wonder if we can ever overcome what we are: prototypical comfortable liberals with radical pretensions. Or, as David Brooks called your generation after it settled down and had kids: bourgeois bohemians. I want to be a revolutionary, but I love Amazon Prime. I cried the only time I shot a gun—a Glock, on my 25th birthday. After I pulled myself together, I could barely handle the recoil. What I’ve actually become is an ornery nihilist with a crush on Leon Trotsky. I’ve stopped believing in ethics. I don’t think they can be coherent. I don’t believe in God. I don’t think there’s a reason why I’m here (do you?). You once told me that the definition of good is to push the world back from entropy. I don’t know how to do good in light of this.

I think in the end you’d be content to have me be happy and materially secure—and what parent wouldn’t? But you’ve also given me this damn contrarian spirit: the time I talked back to a teacher at 10 or 11, when Mom scolded me and you secretly congratulated me, keeping up appearances with a stern authoritarian face in the afterschool parent-teacher conference when I refused to apologize.

Tim DeChristopher told Rolling Stone that the problem with anyone born after Reagan took office is that we can’t envision a paradigm where corporations aren’t powerful and the people aren’t weak. He hoped his actions would show people “hints of shifting,” and that to continue to cause that shifting “sacrifice is necessary and effective… and something we can handle.” He wants his time in prison to be fulfilling and empowering for others—and also undermine the moral legitimacy of a government that would imprison “principled, honest people.” Is this youthful idealism? Is it revolutionary? Or is it Custerism?

I should get arrested. I should go to jail. If I can’t be him, how do I live? Would you still read my letters from prison?

A group of activist friends of mine protested mountaintop removal in West Virginia the year after I graduated college. These were the same friends to whom I used to foolishly loan my car and who got arrested a lot on principle. There were 15 or 20 of them—believers in direct action protest—who staged a sit-in at the McMansion of the CEO of a major coal company. They sat in his front yard all morning and all night with signs, calling to him to have a conscience, that he was raping the land and that it had to stop. I helped call the West Virginian Governor in protest simultaneously.

The CEO refused to call the police on them. He let them sit. A father, he came outside in the middle of the night and told them, “It’s ok, stay as long as you want. I used to do things like this too, once.”

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  • jessicapancakes

    Seriously? Nobody has commented on this? I want to book club with you, first of all, an second of all… how is that final confrontation with that CEO NOT deeply revolutionary?

    Also, well… this is just great.

  • JSmith

    This is an amazing essay. I felt this in my guts, and it doesn’t feel good, just true. This is a unique moment in history (obviously. Every moment is), in that the American paralysis and post-Reagan, crippling worldview you and DeChristopher mention are running not against but alongside an unprecedented access to radical, post-modern higher education. This isn’t as eloquent as how you put it. But the point it, I feel you.

  • Gabble Gook

    It doesn’t look like this article has nearly enough exposure. I feel and think so much like this, albeit not to this extreme, that it spooks me out. I’m thoroughly spooked right now.

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