THESE DAYS it’s not often that you see a member of the Despairing Classes being seduced by classic Communism on a city street, but it does happen.
Sidewalk Snapshot: It’s a warm Spring evening on Pine Street in Seattle. Lengthening shadows and brightening light bring everything into sharp relief including the random collection of layabouts, short-order poets, tattoo artistes, and students a decade between degrees that take up the tables outside the Cafe Laddro on Capitol Hill.
Capitol Hill is one of those neighborhoods in Seattle that compiles a mainstream lifestyle out of alternatives. Even though it is indeed a hill, it has suspended the normal laws of gravity and everything loose in Seattle rolls up to the top of it. That includes, on this evening, me.
I’m stepping out of your “one-every-block” Seattle espresso slop shop with my macchiato when I notice the odd couple at the table just outside the door. That’s not too odd since odd couples, like spiked bright blue hair, are pretty much the norm on Capitol Hill. I notice them at first because the youngest is wearing a Motorhead t-shirt with the mantra “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” on it in that faux German Black gothic font that got old when Auschwitz was in flower, and so had to be made new again back when heavy-metal was a fresh idea.
Glancing over Motorhead’s shoulder I note that the man across from him is giving him an ideological lap dance complete with a whole raft of tracts, papers, and books being brought out and waved about and placed, with a muffled thwang, one after the other on the thin black metal of the table: Trotsky’s “Marxism and Terrorism,” (thwang!); the ever-popular Marx and Engels “Communist Manifesto,” (thwang!); Lenin’s greatest hit “What Is To Be Done?,” (thwang!), Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks,” (thunk!), Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,”(clunk!).
One by one, they come out of the worn backpack and pile up on the table. All in all, a larger pile of ideological dung would be hard to imagine, and harder to handle even with meat hooks and thick rubber gloves.
The man making his pile of “roadmaps to a more perfect world” is quite a bit older than Motorhead with a slim, somewhat furtive look to him. There’s the vibe coming off him that you sometimes sense when someone old is trying to pick up somebody far too young for him.
In the intense light of the evening, you can see a faint cloud of dust motes rising from him as he keeps slapping the tracts down. Greying hair in moist ringlets covers his head except for a monk’s tonsure on the back of his skull. He’s got a mustache and a beard that, with a little care, could be brought to a Van Dyke point. He sports small round-rimmed glasses in front of thin blue eyes. His eyes, although they never waver from his prey, carry within them a permanent 1,000-yard stare — as if he’s always looking outside of the present moment at something in the distance that never gets nearer. Overall the face reminds one, as these faces so often do, of a watered-down Leon Trotsky, the Christ of Communism, crucified with an ice axe but still twitching in his tomb.
Trotsky is resurrect this evening on Capitol Hill though, and I linger at the table next to them writing down a few notes about their conversation. Except it is not exactly a conversation so much as a monologue as my Trotsky keeps, in smiling and soft tones, returning to the subject at hand which is the inevitable collapse of the evil American Empire (“Long past its expiry date…”), and the inevitable rise of world Socialism (“Everyone will have more than enough, but nobody will have it all.”)
Trotsky’s sporting, as all good Trotskys must, a collection of slogan buttons and a sheaf of free tracts and newspapers. The button that is the largest is pinned to his faded plaid flannel shirt and proclaims him to be a member in good standing of the ISO (International Socialist Organization, good Latter-Day Trotskyites all. )
He passes the tracts and newspapers over to his intended, “Free, all free,” and points out the more salient injustices they outline: eternal racism, eternal slavery of women, eternal repression of the working man by capitalists, eternal imperialism by the United States — the whole catastrophe. He underscores that the only escape is through the ever-imminent but forever delayed Rapture of the Left, The Revolution.
After several minutes of his soft chants, Motorhead is nodding like the drinking bird over the glass. He’s looking a bit dazed. I wonder if Trotsky has slipped a roofy into Motorhead’s macchiato and is just waiting for it to kick in.
Trotsky’s tales are the sad sotto voce sagas that underscore all the old nightmares of the Gulag, the Killing Fields, and every other massacre done in the name of the Marxist Utopia. It’s a litany proving, once again, that some lies lodge so deep in man’s hopes they will not die, no matter the murders they require to live.
Today’s fresh lie is that if only Motorhead will attend the “event” tomorrow, Trotsky will be pleased to take him to the exclusive “Cadre” meeting that follows so he can meet the “Comrade of Honor,” one Ahmed Shawki.
In soft tones salted with a quick twinkling smile that comes and goes like the red queen in three-card monte, Trotsky continues his spiel, his seduction. Motorhead is “obviously a man of no little intelligence” — even if his five facial piercings (ears, left eyebrow, lip stud, and nose-ring) might make one wonder.
Motorhead “needs to live in a system where social justice is the rule for all, not just the rich.” Given Motorhead’s ripped black jeans, worn black boots, and a general air of someone not likely to be hired by any business whose work involves meeting the public, this is probably more true than either of them realize. Motorhead nods again to this last proposition and observes that he yearns for a social order that is more just to his lifestyle than can easily be found outside the subcultural hamlets of Seattle.
Much has been made of Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “The banality of evil,” and I suppose I’m witnessing a small satori of that kind here on the sidewalks of Seattle. But it seems to me to be a more insidious event than that.
After all, there’s nothing evil in speech that argues for ideas that have proven, without exception, to be evil. It is, after all, only speech and the strength of the American system is to protect all forms of speech, especially the idle blather of a coffee house revolutionary. There’s nothing, really nothing, in this overheard conversation that threatens the existence of the United States. The mere fact that it can be had, five years into the First Terrorist War, underscores just how strong this nation’s adherence to its founding principles remains. Here on Capitol Hill dissent of even the most egregious sort, is not only tolerated but celebrated.
The conversation bothers me at the same time it fascinates me. It strikes me that what I am auditing is not so much “the banality of evil,” but “the banality of sedition;” a banality we see acted out daily on our television screens and on the op-ed pages of our newspapers.
The banality of sedition is now so well established that it is, well, banal and goes forward without a great deal of remarks or trouble. In the last few years, the phrase that has arisen to describe this phenomenon is “The Culture of Treason.” I’m not sure who originated the phrase, but its use is proliferating across the Internet for the reason that all such phrases proliferate when the time is ripe; it somehow rings true.
Of late, it seems that large sections of the better educated and the most privileged among us have decided that the Constitution is, after all, a suicide pact and have determined to preach this death gospel to us all:
“This way to the gas, ladies and gentlemen. Step right up into the van carrying you all away into the perfect freedom of the perfect world. Don’t worry about those canisters of gas dropping in through the top. It’s just to delouse you of your old, traditional ideas of what being an American is all about.
“In just a few painless minutes you’ll all be, as we are now, citizens of the world. And in that world to which we are all going you’ll forget the old dream of America. You’ll forget, at the last, everything that was good about America. You’ll also forget the true and the beautiful. In the end, you’ll forget about God himself.
“All those old dreams and visions will fade into a gray sameness. And then you’ll all be, at the last, perfect citizens of our brave new world. We’ve breathed deeply of this gas before you and find it is the perfect blend of platitudes, freshly roasted, for the killing of your soul. After all, you weren’t using it much. So step right up. First ride’s free.”
The long evening light was fading down into warm dusk outside the coffee shop on Capitol Hill. Motorhead, in a moment of awakening, said, “Well, I should probably get grocery shopping.”
Having gotten Motorhead’s assent to attend the “event,” Trotsky the Comrade becomes Trotsky the Closer and skins twenty bucks out of Motorhead’s wallet for Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks” ($14.95 at Amazon). The tracts and, of course, the newspaper is free. Such a deal.
The threadbare backpack is repacked with Trotsky’s portable library. He and Motorhead set off up the hill and, turning the corner, move out of sight.
I fold up the scrap of paper on the back of which I’ve made my notes of their meeting. The front side invites all and sundry to a “Solidarity Gathering” at the 45th Street Overpass: “We Support the Rape Survivor at Duke… and the Countless Others Everywhere. Come and join us in solidarity to bear witness to this terrorism against women.” I make a mental note to, somehow, manage to be elsewhere.
Walking back to the Century Ballroom, I notice a large flyer that announces the “event” that Motorhead has agreed to attend. Ahmed Shawki, editor of the International Socialist Review, will speak, it seems, on “Black Liberation and Socialism.”
Shaki’s image dominates the flyer and looks, for all the world, like a Malcolm X returned to life. The look is, of course, a carefully studied one since black socialist saints are hard to come by these days.** The Clenched Fist logo is in the lower left-hand corner of the flyer. There are other details but I have a hard time making them out. It is, I discover, hard to read a flyer that is lying in the gutter. Especially when the light has failed.
In “Celebration” of May Day, 2008. HT: Cynr who created the art.
**Written in April 2006
“I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;”